Friday, December 30, 2016

Kerbal Space Program - 15/20 hours

The good thing about playing dozens of games for 20 hours each is that I am in no danger of succumbing to my own hubris. Which is to say, going to the moon in Kerbal Space Program is kicking my ass. I've almost got it, but the trick is that both my ship and my piloting needs to be completely on point. And obviously it's not there yet. I've gotten into an orbit around Mun and I was set to return to Kerbal, but I ran out of fuel in my final burn. I just have to figure out a few tweaks to squeeze out the last few million kilometers.

It's interesting. I don't think I've ever played a game that's been quite so pure an intellectual challenge. I feel like I should be paying close attention to the numbers and working out the equations. I used to be able to do that sort of thing, many years ago, and I always tell myself that I could do it again, given a good enough reason.

However, I'm not sure Kerbal Space Program is that reason. A decade's worth of post-collegiate brain-rot is a tough thing to overcome, and it is just a game, after all. Eyeballing it is really good enough. Besides, I don't think I could manage the split-second timing or precision turns involved, and I've only got another five hours to practice.

The advantage to it being such a brainy game, though, is that I can feel really smug when I succeed. I'm not quite there yet, but with any luck, I will be soon.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Kerbal Space Program - 10/20 hours

I have a confession. I don't entirely understand Kerbal Space Program's career mode. You're supposed to perform various experiments to earn money, prestige, and scientific knowledge, but it's not always clear what you're supposed to do. I've been trying to test a parachute for two hours now, but I can't quite get in the altitude window.

On the other hand, iterating rocket designs, tweaking them by adding or removing a part at a time, is a pretty satisfying activity. It's fun to see the subtle differences in power, stability, and maneuverability between slightly different rockets.  I could get lost for hours in these tiny details. I know because I almost did.

I'm going to give career mode a little more time to win me over. I like the progression in available parts - it gives me a clear hierarchy of goals to pursue, but I don't like killing my Kerbals on untested spacecraft or running out of money while testing new rocket designs. The missions I could take or leave. They bring structure, but I'm more than capable of setting my own agenda. Science mode might be more my speed (it's like career mode, but without the budgets or reputation mechanics), as it will still allow the technology ramp. Yet, I like having all the doo-dads enabled. There's something about sim games that gives me an insatiable appetite for more detail (it's the same reason I own most of the major DLCs for The Sims 2, 3, and 4). I think it's the fantasy of disappearing into a virtual world.

And Kerbal Space Program has one of the more distinct and fascinating virtual worlds I've ever played. There's not a lot of variety in it - I'm sure the planets of the Kerbal system all have their own unique environments, but I've yet to see much variation at anything less than the continental scale - and yet, there's nothing else like it. It's precisely because things like the continental scale matter. You're controlling a single-occupancy vehicle, but you travel hundreds of thousands of miles at incredible speeds. And that's just a tiny fraction of what's possible.

Most games give up when confronted by the enormity of space. In Space Engineers, the moon was only 140km from the Earth. In any number of space strategy games, planetary systems are more like classroom charts than realistically proportioned. And I'm sure that Kerbal Space Program probably underselling the size of the real solar system (so I googled it and yes, the Kerbal star system is about 1/10th the size of our own), but it at least makes an attempt to come close. It also includes other basic laws of physics that are conspicuously absent from other space games (inertia, being able to accelerate as long as you have fuel, the long range of gravity, etc).

It is this unflinching depiction of the universe as a vast, mostly empty place governed by scarcely-comprehensible energies that sets Kerbal Space Program apart from just about ever other game out there. It may be a lot more barren than something like No Man's Sky, but its emptiness has grandeur all its own.

I don't know how deep into the universe I'm going to get in the next ten hours, but I suspect that there is still a lot out in space with the capacity to surprise me.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Kerbal Space Program - 5/20 hours

I don't think I've ever been quite so satisfied to finish a tutorial. There's a lot of stuff going on in this game and the physics that govern your spacecraft aren't always intuitive. And even the stuff that made sense was incredibly fiddly. I don't remember the last time I died in a tutorial, but landing on Mun was a parade of carnage.

I'm not sure I'd want it any other way, though. The difficulty and the weirdness make the game feel real. I think that's because space travel is the one, great romantic adventure still out there. Even after being around for sixty years, it still feels vaguely "science-fictiony." So to add fantastic elements on top of that would actually make it less magical. I'm not saying that Kerbal Space Program has ruined Space Engineers for me, but it does make me acutely aware of the latter game's limitations (what a fool I was, to think I could fly to the moon by pointing my spaceship towards the moon . . . and don't get me started on the scale).

Having finished all but three of the tutorial missions, I think I'm ready to give Career Mode a try. I'm a bit more confident about the space navigation than I was before, given all the new automation and planning tools that were added since the last time I played, but I'm on much shakier ground when it comes to landing and retrieving my spacecraft. I understand now, why NASA has been sticking to robotic exploration lately - space is fucking dangerous! I'll probably follow their example, given how crummy repeatedly blowing up Valentina Kerman made me feel.

Still, it's an exciting prospect, building an entire space program from scratch. And while I don't think the tutorial has made me immune to making the occasional disastrous misstep, it has given me an idea about what those missteps will look like when they inevitably happen.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Kerbal Space Program - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

In KSP you must build a space-worthy craft, capable of flying its crew out into space without killing them. At your disposal is a collection of parts, which must be assembled to create a functional ship. Each part has its own function and will affect the way a ship flies (or doesn't). So strap yourself in, and get ready to try some Rocket Science!

The game offers three gameplay modes: Sandbox, in which you are free to build anything you can think of; Science Mode, which lets you perform Scientific experiments to advance the knowledge of Kerbalkind and further the available technology; and Career Mode, in which you must manage every aspect of your Space Program, including administration strategies, Crew Management, Reputation, as well as taking up Contracts to earn Funds and upgrade your Space Center Facilities (or repair them).

Add to this the ability to capture asteroids (a feature done in collaboration with NASA), Mining for resources out across the furthest reaches of the Solar System, Constructing Bases and Space Stations in and around other worlds; plus literally thousands of mods from a huge active modding community, all add up into the award-winning game that has taken the space sim genre by storm.

Previous Playtime

6 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Actually, this game was a birthday present. Thank you again, Danny. However, it wasn't a random one. It came from my Steam wish list. I just thought it looked neat. A game where you built simulated rockets and fired them off into simulated space. I'd never played anything like it.

Expectations and Prior Experience

The last time I played this game,  it was still in alpha. I remember a few comical mishaps on the launch pad, where I assembled the parts wrong and exploded before I got off the ground, and later I had difficulty correctly estimating the amount of fuel or thrust needed to get out of the atmosphere. And don't get me started on parachutes. However, I really enjoyed the process of learning through trial and error. It's rare that a game feels so educational.

I'll admit to being a little intimidated by the game, now that it is out of alpha. My plan is to try career mode and stick to it, but given all of my previous failed experiments, I worry that I might bankrupt the Kerbal Space Program.

However, I'm sure that the worst case scenario is me embarrassing myself with successive disasters. Oh well, if that happens, at least I'll have something interesting to write about.

Ascension - 20/20 hours

Over the course of the blog I've discovered a lot about my tastes and preferences. It turns out I really like card games. Obviously, I knew about this before, given all the physical card games I own, but didn't think my affinity would carry over so well into the digital realm. You lose something in the translation, to be sure. I like to touch cards, to feel the riffle and hear the sound as I shuffle them, to fan them out and keep them secret. That physical and social aspect isn't replicated in video game form.

However, the essence of the card game still remains. The game is broken up into little squares of meaning, and you have to navigate their interactions. It's about sorting through options and seeing connections. It's thoughtful and measured in its pace. You take turns and plan ahead. I like the way it sucks up my attention and breaks up time into manageable chunks.

Ascension, in particular, is a typical enough member of this species that it would have to have some seriously major faults to turn me off. As it is, my biggest complaint is that there wasn't enough of it. Each match of Ascension ends when you earn a predetermined amount of "honor," and while you could adjust the honor required to end the match, you could only reach up to double the default score. That meant I spent proportionally more time in the less fun early stages of the game and less time in the crazy combo and cascading interactions phase of the game.

Still, each match was a solid half-hour of entertainment, and I got to preview some of the sets that I had not yet been able to purchase in physical form. And if it's not quite as great an adaptation as some other card games I could mention, it did manage to implement the basic rules in a satisfactory way. It's not really worth it if your aim is to challenge yourself strategically, but making a great deck out of the tools available is an interesting puzzle.

Overall, I'd say it's five dollars well-spent.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Ascension - 10/20 hours

Well, that escalated quickly. I was planning on doing a post at 3 hours, then 5, then 7, then 9, but each time I was just a little bit off my target time, so I though, "well, maybe I'll play for just a little bit more," and then, what do you know, ten hours have passed. I think that means I like the game . . .

Except I have indeed run into some of those porting issues the negative reviews have been going on about. I'm pretty sure there's a certain card that consistently crashes the game, and the whole thing looks stretched-out and weird in fullscreen mode, but the text is too small in windowed mode. You can't change resolution and the AI is moronic.

Although, if I'm being perfectly honest, the last one doesn't bother me so much. My favorite part of the game is assembling long, intricate combos, and it's just as well that I don't have an aggravating AI spoiler to get in my way. I suppose, in theory, that it might better if I was facing a worthy foe, but since Ascension obfuscates half your score until then end of the match (you earn "honor" points by accomplishing various tasks in the game, but each card you buy for your deck also has an honor value, and your deck's honor isn't summed until the very end), I never really got the feeling of being in direct competition with the computer. My desire to rack up as many points as possible before the end of the game is already as strong as it's ever going to be.

So, despite the AI competition, I've been treating Ascension as a kind of fantasy-themed Solitaire. It's been working pretty well for me, although I think it probably loses more in translation than Sentinels of the Multiverse or Magic: the Gathering. A big part of what makes the tabletop game so great is the knowledge that you are screwing over your friends and the heartbreak that comes from them snagging a crucial card before you can get to it. Without that social element, Ascension really just becomes and exercise in baroque combo-building.

Luckily, baroque combo-building is exactly the thing I love most in a card game. It rapidly became difficult to keep track of time. I bought this game on a whim, but I expect it will be one of my faster finishes. If I'm not done with it tomorrow, I'd be very surprised.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Ascension - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, was the first officially licensed deck building card game for iOS, and is now available for your PC as Ascension: Deckbuilding Game, complete with 5 full expansion decks! Play alone or with friends to battle against the Fallen One for honor and victory. Conceived and designed by three Magic: the Gathering tournament champions, Ascension will provide hours of engaging and strategic game play for enthusiast and experienced gamers alike.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

This may be a record for shortest time between buying a game and writing its "what was I thinking when I bought this" post in the history of the blog (generally, games I play on the release date are preordered at least a week in advance). I literally just bought this five minutes ago.

My road to buying the Ascension video game version is a short, but winding one. There is a local game store that I frequent that had it on the shelf. It always looked interesting to me, but I was leery of taking a risk on something I knew nothing about. Then, I saw an episode of Wil Wheaton's Tabletop where they played the Marvel Deckbuilding Game and I thought it looked really cool. So I went into the game shop to check it out, but it was 60 bucks and I couldn't really justify it to myself. But as I'm talking to the owner, she mentions that Ascension has a similar concept. I'm intrigued. However, having backed off a slightly bigger purchase, I wasn't ready to take the 40 dollar plunge that day either (honestly, I don't even know why I went in that day). But the owner offered to demo the game for me sometime. A few weeks later, I got my summer bonus from work and I had some spare cash to spend, so I went into the shop, played the demo, and had so much fun that I wound up getting a ticket for an expired parking meter (damned downtown parking, I hate it). So the game wound up costing me an extra 15 bucks, but it was worth it because every time I've played it, I've had a blast.

Fast forward to now, and I bought the video game version because it's rare that my friends actually want to play card games, and I'm a sad enough person that I like to buy AI simulations to take the place of friends when the need arises.

Also, it was only five bucks and I've done so well keeping my New Year's Resolution this year that I thought I deserved an award.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've yet to buy a digital version of a card game I enjoy in real life and wind up regretting it. I don't expect Ascension to break my streak. My biggest worry is that a lot of the reviews for this version of the game cite it as a sub-par port of the cell-phone version. I'm not sure what that entails, exactly, but I'm willing to endure the occasional crash if the game at least proves even a fraction as engaging as the tabletop game.

Surprise Bonus Game - Magic Duels

Did you know that, despite taking eleven days to finish Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World, I actually gamed as much in the last two weeks as I did for any comparable period in the history of the blog? It's true, and the reason for that is Magic Duels.

I hadn't planned on doing this as one big post with no forewarning, but then, I hadn't really planned on playing the Free-to-Play Magic: the Gathering game for twenty hours outside my normal schedule. It's just a thing that happened. I saw that there was free game that let you build your own decks and I figured, hey, I'll just download it and try out a couple of hands, and then play it for the blog when I'm feeling a little burned out . . . and then BAM, less than two weeks later, I'd passed my usual deadline without even meaning to.

So I figure, what the hell, let's just toss up a post about this.

Not since Path of Exile have I been so impressed with a Free-to-Play game (though, to be fair, that was my most recent FtP). It is everything I might want in a basic Magic: the Gathering video game. It gives you a whole bunch of cards to play around with, you can build your own decks, and then play those decks against a competent, but not too competent AI (though I do wonder if it uses some kind of special shuffling algorithm because I've yet to see it get mana-screwed).

In fact, the biggest problem I have with Magic Duels is that I'd much rather play a full-price version that did not use the Free-to-Play business model. If I could just pay fifty bucks and have all the cards unlocked, I'd rather do that. As it happens, you can theoretically get all of the cards for free by playing hundreds of matches against the AI, but the cost of that is that buying all of the cards with real-world money would take something like 400 dollars. I like Magic, but not that much (I say, having spent way more than 400 dollars in real life, but that was spread out over the course of 20 years).

That being said, it's still a ridiculously generous game that costs nothing to play, but which also has the advantage of being really good. After buying that hat in Path of Exile,  I think it would be both measured and just to drop a few bucks just to show my support, but then, getting so keyed up about Magic: the Gathering again, I wound up buying a few packs of the physical cards. I figure that Wizards of the Coast probably got their money's worth out of me.

I think, on balance, that I prefer the old Duel of the Planeswalker games, if only because I could play around with unreasonably expensive pre-constructed decks. Maybe after I unlock dozens of booster packs so I can put some rare cards in my custom decks, it will feel as wild and experimental as I know Magic: the Gathering can be.

Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World - 20 hours

I didn't quite finish "Cthulhu's Angels" mode. I got pretty close, but those long dungeons are a real pain. I'm tempted to go back and finish the whole thing, but for some reason, my Windows 10 laptop doesn't want to run the game, and I had to go back to my Windows 7 desktop to get the last few hours. So, you know, it would involve a slightly larger amount of work . . .

Anyway, in terms of ratio of enjoyment-to-cost, these two games may be the best single dollar I've ever spent.  What else can a dollar get you? A candy bar? A single rare Magic: the Gathering card, provided it's not too rare?  Only video games offer this kind of value at such a low price point. Sometimes I feel guilty about it. The utility I get from these discount games is a lot more than the price I pay for them and yet I still insist on hunting for the best bargains.

On the other hand, this utility only manifests itself when I actually get around to playing them. And while one dollar is a complete steal for twenty-plus hours of light-hearted, well-constructed rpg gameplay, it is probably too much to pay for a couple of digital files that do nothing but take up space on my hard drive. And let's not even get into the opportunity cost of playing these games.  I'd have probably had more fun playing another twenty hours of Fallout 4 or Civilization V, regardless of the relatively smaller dollars-per-hour ratio.

It's a tension I've become more and more aware of as I work my way through the blog. Games have gotten ridiculously cheap, but more often than not, I've been paying for the idea of the game, its potential. Until it's been played, the game doesn't really exist to me. I've handed over money for something in limbo, the inchoate idealistic halo around a game, and it is only in playing it that it becomes reified.

So what does it even mean to "buy" a game that I won't play for years, and then only under the onus of an ill-conceived gaming blog? I think it breaks down into two different strains of thought.

First of all, the shopping experience in-and-of-itself has value (hyphenated because I mean it like a German philosopher would mean it). That is to say, that parting with money is, in addition to all of its economic implications, a sensual act. It's something I've discussed before, but in the context of comparative shopping and hoarding. However, I think there's another element to it. I think the fact that the money has been spent also has an intrinsic value.

Basically, it boils down to this - money is work. You peel away bits of your life and sell them and get cash in exchange. And a lot of this money is earmarked towards things you need - pay the rent, buy groceries, gas and insurance for the car, quarters for the laundromat, etc. And often times, it can feel as if your life is a mere cycle of money. Thus spending money on frivolous things (and there can be nothing more frivolous than a digital copy of a game that you won't play until years later, if at all) bears a symbolic weight. It is allowing money to escape from the cycle. And since money is work and work is a fraction of your life, in a way it is allowing you to escape the cycle, at least a little bit.

And that's a value that you can't get from free activities, not even the really spiritually uplifting ones. Hiking through a park at sunset and shedding a single tear at nature's incomparable beauty may not be part of capitalism's plan for your life, but it is nonetheless economically responsible. Recreational consumption, as thoroughly un-subversive as it may be, allows you assert some authorship over your economic life. This bit of money, I earned for myself.

Or maybe I'm just saying that because my living expenses have increased dramatically over the last few months and I'm feeling kind of stressed about it.

The other possible value that might come from buying games that you're never realistically going to play is that the purchase may be construed as a kind of wager. On the obvious level, you're betting whether a game will be good or bad, but you're also betting on whether you'll play the game at all. And the best part about making that sort of bet is that you don't definitively lose until you actually play the game itself.

And I've definitely lost a couple of times. I absolutely should not have bought Age of Wonders and Antechamber was interesting, but tortured me intermittently. However, I think one of the great things about doing the blog is discovering that most of my bets turned out to be pretty good ones.

Which brings me back (finally!) to Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World. They were both games that I am content to play through once and then never touch again, so they weren't, technically speaking, as wise a purchase as, say, The Elder Scrolls Anthology, but then, that Anthology wasn't really much of a wager. I knew beforehand that three of its five games were ones I wanted to play soon and play often. And because they only cost me a dollar, they weren't as satisfying a wager as something like Starbound. However, it was a real pleasure to discover, at last, that the dollar I spent three and a half years ago was, in fact, a dollar well spent.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Cthulhu Saves the World - 9 hours (14 total)

There's a lot to like about Cthulhu Saves the World. The battles are tactically interesting, the writing is funny, there are a ton of nerdy references to the life and work of HP Lovecraft. In fact, I have only one real complaint - the dungeons are way too long and winding.

After awhile, you get used to the essential pattern of gameplay, and it becomes obvious that every location, be it a sacred temple of healing water, an abandoned factory, or the risen city of R'yleh, is built on the same template - a simple maze that is several screens wide and broken up into multiple sections. And when you start to see the pattern, it also becomes clear that it exists only to pad the game's length. Now, it turns out that with my current situation, that's exactly what I need, but I can see how it might annoy someone who's not trying to reach a goal time.

The plot of the game is pretty straightforward, the better to serve as a platform for jokes, rpg-cliches, and Mythos allusions. Cthulhu is trying to become a hero, so he goes to a series of locations to solve their local problems, coincidentally these problems all involve some shady shit going on in a dungeon, monsters are thrashed for awhile, and then it's on to the next place. Eventually, he becomes a "True Hero" and rather than resume his monstrous form and consume the world, he decides he's come to like his human-scale companions and thus spares the Earth, but then his "father", Azazthoth, the dark god from beyond linear space, shows up to say he's very disappointed in Cthulhu, there's another dungeon and boss battle, and then a victorious Cthulhu boards a spaceship with a cybernetic alien cat and his "groupie," the mage with the fish fetish.

You know, boilerplate stuff.

Despite the occasional frustratingly long dungeon (and here, Breath of Death VII's limited dungeon encounter mechanic really proves its worth - navigating some of those mazes with constant random encounters would have been a nightmare), I greatly enjoyed Cthulhu Saves the World. More than any other game I've played thus far (with the possible exception of Skyborn), it feels like a "garage band" game. Which is to say, it feels like something made by a small number of people, on a shoestring budget, for the love of the craft. Of course, there's every possibility that this is a feeling that was intentionally cultivated. Because it lacks the overweening ambition of a lot of the failed and/or stalled crowdfunded games I've seen and it's not as slapdash and experimental as some of the Silver Dollar Games (creators of One Finger Death Punch) stuff. It is actually well-made and well-conceived.

I couldn't break it down and identify any individual part that felt amateurish. Yet it definitely has a wild edge about it. I think it's because the game fully commits to its absurd, almost laughable premise. This is a game about Cthulhu, the Great Old One, changing his mind and becoming a hero, and it plays that idea completely straight. There's something wonderful about that, but it's completely ridiculous. And it is that willingness to embrace the absurd that makes Cthulhu Saves the World's great as an indie game and unthinkable as a "professional" one.

Or maybe I'm just being a big, ol' fuddy-duddy.

Next up for me is the alternate game mode, "Cthulhu's Angels." On the one hand, this sounds like a lot of fun because it introduces whole new characters and dialogue. On the other hand, geez, could the name sound any more like the product of a drunken dare?

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Cthulu Saves the World - 2 hours (7 total)

Cthulu Saves the World finds its feet much faster than its predecessor. It's immediately clear who Cthulu is and what his motivations are. And a dread monster who wants to become a "true hero" in order to unlock his sealed powers is a much stronger comic conceit than whatever was going on in Breath of Death VII. Your party is weirder and the incidental NPC dialogue is more entertaining and diverse.

In terms of gameplay, though, the games are essentially the same. Cthulu Saves the World is a little more ambitious in terms of things like specialized equipment (I recently found a sword that had a lower base attack power, but did greater damage to undead, for example), but the fundamentals have not changed. You still have to build up a combo by landing attacks and then deal massive damage by using your combo-finisher move. You can still camp at a save point and exhaust all of a dungeon's encounters. However, the Breath of Death VII formula works pretty well, so I see no great need to change it.

Overall, I'd say I'm much more entertained by Cthulu Saves the World. It feels more . . . confident, somehow. It's only natural, of course. As a follow-up game, it benefited from increased experience, and probably an increased budget. That it's based on a stronger fundamental idea is probably a coincidence, though.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Breath of Death VII - 5 hours

Having finished the game, I feel justified in combining it with Cthulu Saves the World - At the entrance to the final dungeon, your characters break the fourth wall and complain that the game is too short, suggesting that I play the other game right afterwards. So, you know, I have the developers' sanction to treat the games as a group.

Which is good, because Breath of Death VII's story is basically non-existent. The characters are only lightly connected to the plot and there's no build-up to or foreshadowing about its final resolution. There are also no memorable NPCs, enemies, or locations. It's got the basic shape of an rpg, and it makes a lot of clever jokes about the genre, but it's completely shallow. It's definitely worth the fifty cents I paid for it, but there's nothing in it that tempts me to play it a second time.

The game mechanics were admirably well-thought out, though. They manage to evoke the feel of old-shcool rpgs while making a few subtle innovations that generally improve the experience. Each time you level up, you get a choice between two different bonuses and the strategy for how you want to develop your character is a long-term concern that meshes nicely with the tactics of battle. The escalating combo system makes your choices in battle more engaging and encourages you to use a wide variety of attacks.

The only innovation that I'm on the fence about is the "limited number of random encounters per dungeon." On the one hand, this neatly solves the problem of unpredictable xp curves and it makes getting lost in a maze less of a grueling ordeal. On the other hand, what I wound up doing is hanging out near a save point and just grinding through an entire dungeon's worth of encounters before advancing through the game. It just seemed easier that way, even if it was needlessly tedious. I suppose that's my personal hang-up, though it doesn't seem wise to me to have the optimal way to play the game be the least fun.

I'm looking forward to playing the spiritual sequel. As near as I can tell, it retains all of the mechanical innovations of Breath of Death VII, but hopefully there are further refinements for an even smoother experience. I'm also hoping that the plot and characters have a bit more depth this time around, or at the very least that the game lasts long enough I don't have to waste too much of my life replaying it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Breath of Death VII - 2 hours

Breath of Death VII is interesting because it's completely conventional, yet also deeply weird. The setting is a post-apocalyptic world where all the humans have died and a society of undead has risen to take their place. So far, my party consists of a skeleton warrior, some kind of chipper demon lady, and a nerdy vampire. It's pretty silly, and yet . . .

The plot relies utterly on the language of rpgs to make any sense. Your main character, Dem, is a "silent protagonist." You advance through the world map, going from town to town, not for any great in-character reason (I think you are looking to uncover "the secrets of the past"), but because that's just how the game is structured - the next thing to do is always in the one direction you have not yet explored. Your adventuring party just sort of falls together when you happen to run into each other.  It would be sloppy if it weren't so knowing about its evocation of genre cliches.

I'm starting to think that Breath of Death VII is going to be one of those games where I just sort of drift through it. The turn based combat is fun enough, and the dialogue is witty enough that I am charmed by the game, even if I'm not impressed by it. I expect that, barring any unforeseen difficulty spike, that I will stay entertained and engaged until the very end, but also, unless the plot gets a lot more complex and nuanced, that it will remain nothing more than a trifle to while away the hours . . . provided I don't get distracted and keep playing Magic: the Gathering (and I can't promise that I won't).

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Breath of Death VII and Cthulu Saves the World - Initial Thoughts

Once more, I am going to count two games as one for the purposes of the blog. It's not (purely) a cynical move on my part. I've played both of these games before and they are practically identical in gameplay. And since I bought both as part of the same 99 cent bundle (and, in fact, there's no option to buy them separately) I don't regard it as particularly illegitimate.

Both of these games are "old-school" rpgs. That means that they're heavily story-driven. Combat is turned-based and involves selecting items from menus. And the structure is broken down into a town-overmap-dungeon pattern, where you collect a party of characters to face random encounters and earn experience points to level up in a more or less linear fashion (though, if I recall, these games have an interesting twist on the leveling process that I can't quite remember at the moment).

I think, if I wanted to, I could get 20 hours out of each of these games separately. It would only involve playing through them 2-3 times each, and they do have multiple difficulty levels and alternate game modes. However, I am not doing that because I only paid one dollar for these games, and even for my frugal nature, attempting to get 40 hours of entertainment out of a one-dollar investment feels a little cheap.

My expectation for the coming 20 hours is that the games will be funny and easy to play, but that they won't fit neatly into my allotted time, and thus, at some point, I'm going to have a decision to make. If I come up short, which game will I replay? If I'm over the line, do I bother finishing? It's probably not worth worrying about now, but it's something that will definitely come up.

Other than that, I don't anticipate any specific problems. Maybe the late game will be on the hard side, as sometimes happens in old-school rpgs, but since it should be possible to grind past any difficulty humps, I'm not too concerned.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Galactic Civilizations II: Ultimate Edition - 20/20 hours

Well, it took me a day longer to complete this game than I thought it would, but that's mostly because I was crazy tired yesterday thanks to missing out on my usual bedtime. But that was a completely unrelated thing. Once I got some sleep and caught up on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (seriously, you should be watching that show), I was able to slip back into it no problem.

I didn't actually win a game in the last eight hours. I kept restarting my maps. I guess there was a point where I got tired of the expansion treadmill. Usually, I'd get so large that I had no security. NPC civilizations started building starbases and settling planets inside my cultural borders, and I would be all "what the fuck?! You're stealing my resources, you bastards!"

Obviously, the solution in these situations is to declare war, but . . . meh. That involves building a fleet, taking resources away from social development, and then having each of my turns take forever as I systematically hunt down enemy fleets (and don't get me started on GalCivII's planetary invasion mechanics - basically you have to dump hundreds of millions of your citizens onto single-use spaceships and hope the RNG goes your way). I've won military victories in the past, but I was not at all in the mood this time.

Overall, I'd say that Galactic Civilizations II is exactly the sort of game that I enjoy, but that over the years, I have acquired so many great games of this sort that I don't really have much need for it anymore. I'd much rather be playing Civilization V, or, if I'm more in the mood for space-opera, then Space Empires V, the Star Ruler games, or even Endless Space all take precedence. It's nothing about the game, per se. It's just that its particular mixture of elements is not quite balanced optimally towards my interests. You have to be too aggressive, micromanaging planets is nicely detailed, but the interface fights you, ship designing is cool, but your military hardware becomes obsolete so quickly that it's better to put it off until you're high up in the tech tree. I enjoyed myself playing the game, and I would have enjoyed it more once I got back into the habit of managing its economy, but I don't regret putting it back on the shelf and moving on.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Galactic Civilizations II: Ultimate Edition - 12/20 hours

As expected, I lost track of time and wound up playing Galactic Civilizations II all night. There's just something about sorting through menus and trying to figure out my optimal build order that I find very relaxing. It took me awhile to get back into the swing of things, but this isn't actually the most complex strategy game I've played. It's got some subtleties that can make it a little tricky (for example, it's a good idea to run your economy in the red whenever possible in order to maximize your population growth, and thus get more tax revenue in the long run), but it's more or less a paradigmatic 4X. You've got the production/research/currency triad, tile-based settlement improvements, progressive tech trees, and a straightforward diplomacy system that mostly just exists so you can exploit the AI with technology trades and manage the order in which you fight your rival empires.

The most distinctive aspect of the game is that there is literally no downside to expanding your empire. More planets is always better. And while that's generally, de facto, the case in virtually every 4X game, it's actually rare for there to be no expansion penalty whatsoever. This can make larger maps a real chore to play. You've got to keep grabbing territory, lest your opponents get an insurmountable lead in planets, and thus wealth, technology, and military power. It also means that you've got a lot of micro-managing to do, even in the mid-to-late game.

On the one hand, I like this, because deciding on which tile improvements to build is, like, my favorite part of the genre. On the other hand, this sort of endless expansion treadmill is kind of stressful. My instinct is to look inward once my borders are secured, but if "secure" isn't good enough, that means I always have to be looking outward.

The upside is that it's really simple (if not always easy) to start snowballing in power. Because territory is so intimately tied up with power, once you've got a plurality of the map, there's no force that can stop you (unless the AIs band together, but that's pretty rare).

I've only got eight hours left, which should be enough for two or three more games on a small map. My plan is to reacquaint myself with the expansion packs asymmetrical tech trees. I don't remember them having a huge effect on gameplay, but I do seem to recall that they added a few interesting wrinkles to the standard game progression. I expect that I'll reach 20 hours by this time tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Galactic Civilizations II: Ultimate Edition - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Get the complete Galactic Civilizations II saga including the acclaimed PC strategy game of the year Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords, the award winning expansion pack Dark Avatar, and the newest expansion pack Twilight of the Arnor!

Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords: Galactic Civilizations II is the sequel to 2003's hit turn-based strategy game of the same name. The player takes on the role of the leader of a space-faring civilization and must guide its expansion in a hostile galaxy. Gamers must balance their economic, technological, diplomatic, cultural, and military power to forge alliances, fight wars, and ultimately dominate the galaxy. The game is single-player and allows the player to play randomly generated galactic maps or play through a multi-mission campaign that tells the story of an ancient enemy called the Dread Lords.

Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar: The expansion pack for Stardock's award-winning hit strategy game, Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords. This expansion pack not only adds the usual content that expansion packs tend to do such as new opponents, new units and a new campaign. It also greatly expands the game play of Galactic Civilizations II. New features include asteroid belts on the map that can be mined for resources, unique planets that require special technologies to colonize, spies to conduct sabotage and destabilization (or used to protect your worlds from the same), new types of diplomatic treaties, an enhanced artificial intelligence engine, and much more!

Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor: The year is 2227 and the fire of war is consuming the galaxy thanks to the manipulations of the evil Dread Lords. But the remaining factions, led by the humans, have a plan to rid the galaxy of the Dread Lords once and for all.

Expand the Galactic Civilizations II universe with Terror Stars, unique technology trees per civilization, Map editors, Custom Scenario makers, campaign editors, new types of ships, new planetary improvements, and much more!
Previous Playtime

61 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Galactic Civilizations II: Ultimate Edition is a historical game for me - it's the first time I bought the digital version of a game I already owned on disc just to get the DLC. The only real difference between this and my later, more nakedly impulsive acquisitions is that I paid full price for it. At the ime, I regarded this as a pretty safe purchase, because I'd already played the base game off and on for years and I always enjoyed myself.

Expectations and Prior Experience

Honestly, I'm expecting this to be quick to play and dull to blog about. It's been years since I last played Galactic Civilizations II, but I remember it being a competently-executed, but middle-of-the-road space 4X. I would be very surprised if it took me more than 3-4 days to get through.

That being said, I can't really remember anything particularly distinctive about the game, in either the positive or negative sense of the word. The ship-builder was one of the best in the genre when it came to cosmetic customization. And . . .

Well, I guess it will be a good opportunity to rediscover a game I used to love, but haven't thought about in years.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble! - 20/20 hours

There wasn't much of a benefit to replaying the game, at least not yet. I only got about 75% of the way through for my second time, so I didn't get a crack at the alternate endings, but I knew that was a strong possibility going in. There was some foreshadowing that I didn't notice the first time through, but that mostly made me feel like kind of a shitty person for not picking up on it earlier (you help a couple of your classmates get married, and they subsequently shun you afterwards - I previously thought it was because of all my delinquent antics, but it turns out that they were not happy about Brigton's tradition of state-sanctioned wedding-night rape).

In trying to sum up my feelings for Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble! as a whole, I can't get past a sense of being deeply divided about this game. On the one hand, the story and characters are pretty great, but then the final act's use of rape as entertainment, while thematically appropriate, is kind of troubling. The minigames are mostly awful, but I wound up getting used to them after awhile. Exploring the game's world was interesting, but there were a few too many times when it wasn't clear what I was supposed to do next.

Overall, I'd say that it makes you work just a little too hard to get to the good stuff. If you stick it out, it has a lot to recommend to it, but the early game, especially, is a drag, and if you quit an hour or two in, that is both completely understandable and cheating yourself out of the best part of the game (which is, of course, the Donkey Mayor storyline).

I don't think Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble! is going on my replay list any time soon. I love its attitude and sense of style, but it benefits not one bit from being a game. I think the story would work better as a comic or a heavily stylized movie or a radio play. The interactive elements are mostly just a way to kill time.

So, I don't know. It's good to have these quirky little corner-case games that maybe don't fit the traditional mold of what makes a "good" game, but nonetheless manage to do something different. And while there were times I wasn't eager to play it, I enjoyed myself more often than not. I guess "moderate enjoyment" + "novelty" is actually a pretty strong combination.

It's worth playing at least once, but don't make the same mistake I did - create a separate save when you go to confront Jimmy Finn. That way you don't have to replay the whole game to get all the endings.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble! - 12/20 hours

Fair warning - there are spoilers for the end of Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble! coming up. 

I'm still divided on whether I think the plot of this game is a brilliant bit of subversive absurdity or just generally sloppy with a few brilliant moments. See, the arc of the game is that your girls are these wise-cracking juvenile delinquents who don't play by the stultifying rules of their society, but nonetheless try to save the people of Brighton from themselves, and there are all sorts of twists and turns through the goofy - fighting a pogo-stick ban that is clearly a thinly-veiled sexual metaphor, campaigning to replace the town's corrupt mayor with a literal jackass - to genre staples - saving an innocent man from the gallows, rooting out the bootleggers that are responsible for so much of the city's crime.

And then, at the end, it gets really rapey.

Which, okay, it fits in with the game's time period and themes, and there's no ambiguity in DHGiT!'s stance. It is firmly anti-rape. But it's such a sudden swerve towards darkness that it's more than a little uncomfortable. You spend ten hours saving these narrow-minded idiots from one crisis after another and then BAM! you learn that they've actually been monstrously narrow-minded idiots the entire time.  It's an especial gut-punch to learn about the "compromises" your suffragette social-studies teacher made to win Brighton women the vote.


Narratively, it makes sense. The climax is about disillusionment. The girls realize that there's no such thing as "safe" misogyny. The cute boy you flirted with a couple of months ago may suddenly turn on you because he's part of a culture that teaches him that he's entitled to female deference, even to the exclusion of their own bodily autonomy. And the protection of a donkey mayoral candidate (however far ahead he may be in the popular vote) is going to do fuck-all against a powerful man who exploits structural inequality for his own sexual gratification.

So it's no wonder that the girls, at the end, wash their hands of Brighton and go their own way. But then, why shouldn't I, as a player, wash my hands of the game, for much the same reason?

Obviously, I have a certain critical distance that the girls lack, so I can view the game's story as art, but even as art, it's kind of a bummer, you know.

Maybe this feeling would be mitigated if I unlocked some of the alternate endings. I'm not sure if they'll necessarily be better, but they surely can't all be so bleak. However, as near as I can tell, I missed some critical conversations before my earliest save, so I'll have to go back to the very beginning to unlock them.

So, of course, that's what I'll have to do. I'm not sure if I'll make it in the next eight hours, though. Likely as not I'll just wind up playing through the earlier, sillier parts of the game again. I wonder if my enjoyment will be colored by my knowledge of what is to come?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble - 2/20 hours

Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble is not very fun. Aspects of the game are fun. The way the dialogue mimics the sort of clipped and trashy, yet unexpectedly formal 20s mid-Atlantic dialect is fun. Jazz music is fun. Directing a gang of tough-talking, flirty old-timey mean-girls as they barge their way into a serious criminal investigation is fun. In fact, almost everything about the game's presentation and story is fun - except for the game itself.

At the heart of the game is a mystery. You attempt to gather information about your school's mysterious rash of "accidents" by going to various locations on the map and talking to people there. This usually initiates one of four mini-games, all of which are terrible. If you win, you get a new clue to move you on your way and if you lose, one of the girls in your gang is removed from play for a little while (unless you lose with your "queen," in which case the girl is removed permanently).

The minigames themselves are only notionally skill-based. "Fib" is basically Liar's Dice, but without the human element that makes calling a bluff a compelling test of nerve in the real world. "Taunt" is occasionally funny, in that you have to match an insult with a witty retort, but is coldly deterministic - the correct answers are obvious, but you only learn correct answers by having faced them in previous bouts. "Gambit" is the most complex, so I won't explain the rules just yet, but it mainly boils down to predicting what the AI will do. "Expose" is probably the most skill-based of the games, where you are given an obscured message, usually 3-4 sentences in length, and a number of opportunities to reveal individual words. Once you run out of reveals, you must guess the remaining words by choosing from a list of six and based on the context of message at a whole.

"Expose" is tedious, but it's the sort of tedium in which I thrive, and I wind up going for it far more than any of the others (which sounds fine, except you want to spread out your minigame victories in the hopes of leveling up all your gang, and whenever you encounter a minigame opportunity, each of your four girls can give you a different option). My main problem with "expose" is that the game's story is its biggest appeal, but for the minigame to work, essential pieces of plot-relevant information are held back behind a not-very-good guessing game.

I definitely want to stick with the adventures of my rebellious clique of teen avengers, but I have an uneasy feeling about the hours to come. What will win out? My interest in the complex web of intrigue that embroils the local high school is very strong. But my disinterest in playing shitty word games for another eight hours is also very strong.

Which impulse is stronger in the long run?  I guess I'm about to find out.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble - Initial Thoughts

About The Game (From the Steam Store Page)

"Well behaved women seldom make history." - Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

This is the game where good girls get better by being bad!

In the 1920s, young women had a chance to change society--by misbehaving. Gather a gang of girls. Explore. Battle petty townsfolk with quick, naughty games: Fib, Flirt, Taunt... Win boyfriends and other useful prizes. Expose the town's depraved secret before it entraps your girls.

Explore four beautiful game boards, dozens of character cards, and thousands of dialog cards (worn and aged from decades of neglect) which comprise the zany world of an American small town in the 1920s.

Encounter nearly a hundred individual personalities. These denizens form the core culture of intolerance and repression your girls can overcome with wit, charm, and brazenness.

Conflict using a variety of naughty mini-games: Taunt, Flirt, Fib and others to stand up against bullies, cozy up to boyfriends, and evade oppressive expectations.

Conquer increasingly more powerful faculty and townsfolk as the story develops from the curious, to the weird, to the absurd, finally to collapse down a frozen crevasse of all too real inhumanity. Only the victorious will emerge, smirks on their faces, heels on the throats of the wicked, and their futures assured of freedom.

Acquire dozens of prizes to swing games in your favor and help others along your journey. Gain experience and level up the talents of your gang members. Win boyfriends willing to sacrifice themselves for affection.

Wind your way through an epic of literary satire in an fantastical world where nothing is real but all is true, during a mythic time of social upheaval. Help the young women trapped in this world transform it for the betterment of all -- by misbehaving.

Previous Playtime

2 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

This is the second game I bought on Steam and there's actually a really stupid story behind it. I was a latecomer to the world of e-commerce and modern finance. For the longest time, I did all my business in cash and had basically no presence in "the system." It wasn't until December 2012 that I even got my own checking account.

Now, hitherto, all of my online purchase had been made by buying those prepaid credit cards from the supermarket, but one of the perks of my new account was that it came with a debit card. At the time, this seemed very exotic and mysterious to me, so as soon as I got it, I resolved to give it a "test drive" by buying something online. Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble was on sale for about three dollars at the time, and the title made me chuckle, so I went ahead and did it.

That's really all there is to it.

Expectations and Prior Experience

Because of its unique provenance, I wound up playing this game right away. It was interesting, but honestly, I'm not sure I needed much more than two hours. It's a quirky, story-driven boardgame/rpg with a distinctive and charming voice, but I didn't actually find it very fun. If I recall, there are a lot of opaque and chance-driven mechanics that made playing through its (admittedly intriguing) story difficult to do in any sort of systematic way.

I expect this is going to be one of those games that is good for the first few hours before it starts to drag in the midgame and then will be a chore to replay after I finish before my deadline (most of the reviewers on its store page had fewer than 15 hours in it).

On the other hand, it does have a lot of attitude, and swagger is something I admire in an indie game, so I may find myself pleasantly surprised.

Space Engineers - 20/20 hours

I did it! I made it into space. And not just into space, but to the moon! And not just to the moon, but back again! It was an incredible journey, and I only died twice!

The first time was right after I finished my rocket. I was so pumped at being able to get a vehicle off the ground that I took off before the fuel tank was completely charged, got up to an altitude of about 3000 meters and then plummeted back to earth. I reloaded my save rather than rebuild, so it wasn't that big a deal, and frankly, the crater it made at the impact site was plenty impressive.

The second time I died was from crashing into the moon. That was just stupidity on my part. I had my engines turned off to conserve fuel on the flight (which was something like 25 minutes each way) and I overestimated how much time I would have to react once I entered its gravitational field. Again, I reloaded, because I was going to be damned if I was going to go through all that again.

But once I learned to actually fly my ship, it was pretty smooth sailing. It was a little touch and go for awhile because I brought just barely enough ice on my way out. I landed with a stack of about 1k (out of 27k), which was enough to supply me with oxygen for a long time, and could quite possibly gotten me out of the moon's gravity well, but would have been far too little for me to ever land the ship again.

I was worried for awhile. I thought I was stranded on the moon. I had to boost myself into lunar orbit with my jetpack to find the ice deposits that allowed me to get home. However my second trip in my interplanetary rocket was a piece of cake. The hard lessons I learned from all my crashing and near-marooning were enough to ensure that I would pilot more cautiously and bring larger material stockpiles.

Anyway, for those curious about what my triumphant conquest of space looks like in practice, here's a screenshot:

Yes. it's literally the most minimalist design I could think of. Stack all the essential components onto a 3x3 armor platform. The good news is that those two large rockets on the bottom offer excellent braking out of freefall . . . when I remembered to turn them on.

But it was all worth it for the view

And, of course, the feeling of relief when I got back to solid ground

That final screenshot was taken with just ten minutes to spare.

Looking back at my 20 hours of Space Engineers, I accomplished everything I set out to do, but in terms of what the game is capable of, I didn't set out to do nearly enough. I know this because certain of the custom starts will give you a full-sized spaceship and damn, if Space Engineers large ships don't look amazing. I love the idea of having a mobile home in space. That almost all of the machinery aboard is not only functional, but cares about placement and orientation, is enough to inflame my imagination and get me thinking about all sorts of ambitious possibilities.

Despite the occasional frustration along the way, there's no part of Space Engineers I didn't love (okay, maybe wheeled vehicles had too many fiddly settings, considering their role in the game). It's the sort of simulated world that I can easily get lost in, and, if anything, wasn't "hardcore" enough. What I really want is a game like this where everything is functional, and you have to worry about food and sleep and waste elimination and the regulation of temperature. I want large ships to require large crews, which themselves need food and air and sleeping quarters and all that simulated stuff.

Which isn't to fault Space Engineers. It comes closer to my mad dream than most, and to the degree it falls short, it is probably due mainly to the voxel-crafting-survival genre still being in its infancy. Nonetheless, it amazes me that games let you build now. That a simulated world could be, in some sense, malleable simply blows my mind. Such a thing was unimaginable when I started gaming, and the most sophisticated game was one that allowed you to save on the cartridge.

I will definitely be playing Space Engineers again. There's still so much left undone. Despite getting to the moon and back, I have not set up the necessary infrastructure to make such trips routine. I don't just want to visit space, I want to have a station there. I want to be able to assemble massive ships in orbit and have them travel from planet to planet. I want my shuttles to actually look half-decent. I want it all, basically.

But that will all have to wait until I'm done with my blog. I've played games past my deadline before, and Space Engineers is definitely the sort of game that merits it, but the long round trip between celestial bodies has convinced me that even one more project would be a massive time sink. It's a thought I relish, but not when I've just completed my New Year's resolution. I'm much too energized about the prospect of finishing my blog to take a break from it now.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Space Engineers - 16/20 hours

My dreams of space are crushed once more. I tried building a large spaceship, but I seriously underestimated the size it would need to be to hold all the reactors, storage tanks, and rockets necessary to get it off the ground. I wound up requiring huge amounts of materials just to get a janky-looking hulk of a half-built ship.

Then I had the bright idea of breaking down my wasted first effort and using the massive stockpile of materials to build a small ship, just to, you know, look around and stuff. So I built myself what I thought was a bare-bones ship. It had its own oxygen supply and a hydrogen fuel tank and a big-ass rocket on the back and four smaller rockets on the bottom and solar panel wings . . . and I couldn't get it off the ground. I could push it over the frozen lake where I built it, but I couldn't get the nose up. Then I accidentally got my landing gear caught in a mine shaft and I had to disassemble the whole thing.

I'm coming to the realization that Space Engineers is not a "friendly" game. I came into it with expectations shaped by another "Minecraft in space" game, StarMade, which made traveling from space to planets and back really easy. You could do it with a two-block ship. It was mostly about building fantastic ships and flying them around.  

Space Engineers has a different set of priorities. You have to make sure the different moving parts are working together, and that you have a strong enough power-to-weight ratio, and that your rockets are pointed in the right way to steer your ship, but not damage it. It's a game of details and rigor.

I think what this means is that I'm going to find it incredibly satisfying to fly around the solar system in a fully functional space cruiser. . . in about 2 years after I'm done with blog. Because I'm absolutely certain that I'm not going to get anything more than the crudest possible spacecraft in the next four hours. They're just too complex.

My immediate goal is to try and beeline myself into space with the crudest rocket I can make. Just strap some serious horsepower on that thing and build it pointing up. I'll probably die in the attempt, but I desperately want to get out of the atmosphere, and I don't care about the cost.

I think victory will be all the sweeter for having suffered to achieve it (but let's not think about what failure will be like).

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Space Engineers - 10/20 hours

I love this game, but it does not love me. Three and a half hours into my second restart and I finally built myself a vehicle. It was, I thought, a simple one. It was basically just wheels, a cockpit, and a power source. I wanted to be able to explore faster than I could on foot without having to worry about crashing my jetpack (this led to my death on at least one occasion). However, it turns out that wheels have about eight settings that you have to tweak to get them to work with the physics simulation of your vehicle - and each wheel has to be calibrated separately.

At first, I couldn't steer my vehicle at all because my turning radius was too low. And then I wound up flipping my vehicle because my wheel friction was too high. And then I went into random skids because fuck if I know, I haven't solved that problem yet. All I wanted to do was tool around on a planet looking for minerals. And once again, the learning curve kicks me in the nuts.

And yet . . . I think maybe that's the best part of the game. There's so much that is functional, that requires care and planning. It really gives you a feeling of grappling with technology. You aren't just stacking blocks, you are inventing something. You really get the sense that your tinkering matters and the things you create are uniquely your own.

It's just a shame I'm not a better inventor. I suppose I shouldn't really be surprised, though. What is my complaint, exactly? I fiddled with the wheel settings for a half-hour and I still haven't created an off-road vehicle suitable for exploring an undeveloped planet? And from this, I conclude that there's something wrong with the game?

I think the problem might be my time limit. There's nothing wrong with tinkering for however long it takes to get something right, but the point of this vehicle was to be a tool that made building my rocket ship easier. So far, it's really just been an hour-long dead end. And the thing is, I do genuinely love getting sidetracked like that. It's part of a living world and it is a consequence of trying to come to terms with that world.

But I want to get to the moon. It's just hanging up there, tantalizing me with its moonness. I've only got ten more hours to get up there, and time is starting to feel tight. I think I'm just going to have to park my ridiculous, skid-prone, solar-powered, six-wheeled truck near my home base and just focus on whatever disaster of a spaceship emerges from my first attempt to escape the planet's gravity well.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Space Engineers - 6/20 hours

Mark it. Just a little under an hour on the "Crashed Red Ship" scenario and I get hopelessly lost. I forgot to set a GPS waypoint for my crashed ship and wound up losing sight of it while searching distant asteroids for necessary materials. It's now only a matter of time before I run out of oxygen and die.

I may suck at this game.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Space Engineers - 5/20 hours

I discovered something distressing about Space Engineers today. If you run out of energy and don't have any refined uranium ingots, you're completely screwed. There is no way to bootstrap yourself up from nothing. I wish I'd known that before I spent an hour tracking overland to find a uranium deposit and digging dozens of meters into the earth, and then schlepping the raw ore back to my ship . . . whereupon I discovered it would not power my reactor, nor could I refine any more because my reactor was out of fuel.

Oh well, it is what it is, but that's one save file that's ruined. Time to start over with greater knowledge and a better plan. However, I'm starting to feel nervous that I won't get my spaceship in time.

Maybe I'll use one of the space starts next time, but if I do, I'll probably go with the "crashed spaceship" one. I like the idea of creating a narrative out of my initial setup. I'll probably fail that scenario, too, but at least my death will have context.

Starting from scratch is frustrating, sure, but it's also liberating, in a way. I can initiate my plans earlier and seek out the necessary materials more mindfully (for example - this time, I will look for uranium before I run out of power). I can sort my storage more efficiently.  Nothing too exciting, but a lot of little things that can make the experience that much smoother.

You know what, I'm glad I found myself in an unwinnable situation, where I was merely waiting for my last few resources to run dry so I'd die a slow and painful death. Yeah! It builds character! Starting over is the best possible thing that could have happened to me!

Not in denial here at all, nosiree. . . 

Space Engineers - 2/20 hours

Once more, the Space Engineers' learning curve is kicking my ass. I forgot how complicated this game was. To make a simple block, you have to find some iron ore, refine it into iron ingots, turn those iron ingots into steel plates and then weld those steel plates into a box. To build something as complex as a ship requires a whole range of parts, each with their own complicated production chains.

For me, this is basically paradise - but the problem is getting there. I do not yet know what I'm aiming for when I gather materials. The first step in any ludicrous building project is having a vision of the outcome, and that's the part that's failing me right now. I guess I'll just have to collect lots of everything and hop for the best.

Even if I'm not anywhere close to building a gigantic spaceship, I'm enjoying the game. Walking through the wilderness, looking at trees, searching for rare minerals - there's an easy grandeur there. I can get lost in a completely pristine world and make of it whatever I desire. Yes, it's boring, but it's my kind of boring.

But I really want to get into space. I can see the moon from the surface of the planet, and I know for a fact that with the right rockets I could just go there. It's so tantalizing. There is a tantalizing desolation to being stranded that could only come from knowing there are other, better places to be.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Space Engineers - Initial Thoughts

About The Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Space Engineers is a sandbox game about engineering, construction, exploration and survival in space and on planets. Players build space ships, space stations, planetary outposts of various sizes and uses (civil and military), pilot ships and travel through space to explore planets and gather resources to survive. Featuring both creative and survival modes, there is no limit to what can be built, utilized and explored.

Space Engineers features a realistic, volumetric-based physics engine: everything in the game can be assembled, disassembled, damaged and destroyed. The game can be played either in single or multiplayer modes.

Volumetric objects are structures composed from block-like modules interlocked in a grid. Volumetric objects behave like real physical objects with mass, inertia and velocity. Individual modules have real volume and storage capacity.

Space Engineers is inspired by reality and by how things work. Think about modern-day NASA technology extrapolated 60 years into the future. Space Engineers strives to follow the laws of physics and doesn't use technologies that wouldn't be feasible in the near future.

Space Engineers concentrates on construction and exploration aspects, but can be played as a survival shooter as well. We expect players will avoid engaging in direct man-to-man combat and instead use their creativity and engineering skills to build war machines and fortifications to survive in space and on planets. Space Engineers shouldn’t be about troops; it should be about the machinery you build.

Previous Playtime

11 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I'd just started the blog and wasn't totally consumed in it just yet. I was, at this time, really into Minecraft and this game looked like a prettier Minecraft in space. The half-off prize was a smaller discount than what I've been holding out for recently, but I didn't have quite so many games back then.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I have two memories of Space Engineers. First, the learning curve was very steep. I played it before planets were added and I wound up running out of oxygen and dying. Then I played it with the planets and I could never get a ship into space.

Second, the cybernetic wolves were really annoying. In these sorts of games, monsters attacking your stuff is a stand-in for the inexorable forces of entropy that make regular maintenance of infrastructure necessary. However, when you get a wave every couple of minutes, it undermines the exploration and building portions of the game.

Since I have some basic experience with the game, and I plan on turning the cyber wolves off in my world setup, I'm expecting this game to go pretty fast. My goal is to crash-land on a planet and build my way back into space. Worst case scenario, I waste a lot of time building a base and never get off the ground. That's fine with me. I've played several voxel-crafting games at this point, and I've never been bored with just walking around, gathering materials, and producing monuments to myself. It's unlikely that this is the game that will break my streak.

Rome: Total War - 20/20 hours

The Warhammer mod for Rome: Total War is impressive in its comprehensiveness  .  .  . I assume. I actually don't know enough about Warhammer to tell if anything important was left out. All I know is that there was a lot of faction-specific lore, right down to detailed descriptions of the game's units and buildings. So, if it's not complete, then at least it's detailed enough that I'm impressed . . . for what that's worth.

The biggest downside to the mod is that the base game isn't really complex enough to do it justice. I mean, it's fun enough commanding armies of elves or orcs, and when taken as a set, their units have characteristic strengths and weaknesses, but I've been spoiled by more contemporary games that have more pronounced asymmetrical factions. It would have been nice if the orcs had their own unique mechanics to reflect the fact that they are a spore-based life form. That's a nitpick, though. Clearly a lot of work went into it, and it made my last five hours with the game more enjoyable, so I'm very grateful it exists.

Looking back at Rome: Total War, my problem with it boiled down to the inconvenient fact that I never really felt the urge to conquer. A lot of games don't give you the choice and just force you into battle after battle. Still others try and provoke you with story and characters (I find it a lot easier to seize a city when doing so will wipe the smirk off of some smug NPC's face). This game felt a lot like Age of Wonders to me in that there was no particular pressure to pursue the main victory condition, but also little else to do if you didn't engage in an endless war. There's some unsatisfying city-management, but I got the feeling that the main purpose of the cities was to be so shitty that you had to loot the frontier just to keep them afloat.

Anyway, I wouldn't say Rome: Total War is a bad game. The tactics of troop positioning and the strategy of army composition were very deep. The battles were on an epic scale scarcely seen in other RTS games. And the setting itself is rich and interesting. I just wasn't picking up what it was laying down.

It's funny how that works. I can try to classify my likes and dislikes into a rational taxonomy, but there are always exceptions and edge cases. I don't like RTS games, but I enjoyed Planetary Annihilation. I don't like strategy games that force you to fight all the time, but then I enjoyed XCOM (and more generally, I don't see how I can say I prefer nonviolent games when Borderlands 2 and Kingdoms of Amalur are among my favorites).

I think I have to accept the imperfections of my nature. Some video games hook me with a particular audacity of premise or enjoyable pattern of gameplay, but while I can make predictions based on my past experiences, those predictions always have an element of uncertainty about them. I can't simply identify which aspects of my favorite games appeal to me and then judge a new game based on its similarity to the abstraction (the most notable failure of that model is when it comes to roguelike games, which I swore, before I got involved in the genre, that I would enjoy).

So, maybe I would have been a huge fan of Rome: Total War in another life, or if I'd played it ten years ago, when I wasn't quite as gun-shy as I am today, or if I'd decided to watch the TV series Rome right before starting the game. All I can say is that this time it did not have that indefinable something that captures my attention and puts me into an obsessive spiral. I can see why it's so well-loved, though, and even though I spent most of my time with it counting the hours, I could probably be persuaded to play the other games in the series (mostly, I'd want the economy updated so it didn't make me want to put my fist through the wall).

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Rome: Total War - 15/20 hours

I lost my first major battle in easy mode. Then I lost another one on the next turn. It's my own fault, I suppose. I'd gotten too complacent. I kept reusing the same frontline armies, and hadn't been paying much attention to my cities' defensive garrisons, except as a way of keeping order inside my borders. Losing a city to the Spanish, of all people, was really demoralizing.

My takeaway from all this is that I kind of hate this game. Not with a burning, fiery passion or anything. It's just orthogonal to my interests and the one time I fooled myself into thinking I'd reached a rapprochement with its strategic demands, I get slapped down for not paying close enough attention . . . heck, maybe it's myself that I hate. . .

Let's just call it a wash.

I think my next move from here is to try out this Warhammer mod I downloaded the other day. I don't actually know anything about the Warhammer, except what I've been able to glean through the Rogue Trader rpg (which is basically nothing), but it should be interesting to take a look at all these fantasy military units. My hope is that it will take my remaining five hours just to work through them all.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Rome: Total War - 10/20 hours

Halfway through and my opinion of the game hasn't changed much. Easy mode may be too easy, but that doesn't trouble me much because I don't think my heart could take it if the game were too difficult.

Rome: Total War reminds me a bit of Crusader Kings II. The strategy in each game is fundamentally different - Rome: Total War relies on standing armies to a degree that's impossible in CKII. But they're both played on maps of Europe, they both use the dynasty as the basic unit of gameplay, they both run on the idea that the player will have unlimited ambition. While they're not actually all that much alike, they are just similar enough that it aggravates me when I see the pop-up for one of my dynasty members getting promoted or married or whatnot and I realize that I can't actually get involved in the social minutiae of their lives because the game is really all about massive tactical battles.

I actually have a feeling I am going to lose this campaign in the long run. While I was sitting around improving my cities and collecting wealth, the other two major Roman families have been conquering left and right. I'm now in a position where I have to scramble to catch up, as territories in Gaul are quickly running out. Things are going to get ugly before the end, I know (I've been spoiled) and my only hope is that easy mode proves generous enough to cover for my lack of preparation.

That's a problem for the future, though. For now, I'm relatively content to slowly chip away at the barbarian lands and fight the occasional super-easy RTS battle. It's when things inevitably start to fall apart that my tolerance for this game will truly be tested.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Rome: Total War - 6/20 hours

Why do the Romans have to be such dicks? That's the part of the game that's most getting under my skin. My allies, the fellow noble houses and the Senate and people of Rome, are constantly declaring war on people. I'd like to say that I'm above it all, but the Senate keeps sending my bounties on Greek and Gallic cities and I keep fulfilling them because it's a significant chunk of change, plus I get to add the city to my territory. It's a grimy, soul-sucking business, but that's the nature of the game.

But I've already covered that. Onto more practical matters. It may just be an early game, or easy-mode quirk, but in all the battles I've fought, the AI has never had a good answer to cavalry. Which is good for me, because I ultimately view battles as something I have to grit my teeth and suffer through until I can get back to my true love of city management.

I still feel like maybe I'm missing out on some critical aspect of the game, though. It's long been my custom to play new strategy games on the easiest difficulty, as a way of getting a feel for the tech tree and a broad overview of what the course of a whole game looks like. That may be less than optimal when I only have 20 hours, though. The campaign map is a lot bigger than the prologue map.

I'm going to stick with it, though. I'm only six hours into the game, and I can already tell that it's going to task my patience. Having to go into it with a basic antipathy towards the genre, inexperience with the mechanics of the game itself, and "normal" difficulty is probably too much to bear.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Rome: Total War - 3/20 hours

What is the soul of a conqueror? I wonder, because as I grow older, it's becoming increasingly obvious to me that, whatever it is, I don't have it. I've only played the prologue tutorial campaign so far and I can already tell that Rome: Total War's central mechanic of marching an army up to the walls of a city and taking it by military force is going to be hard on me.

And I'm not talking about the actual command of troops on the battlefield (which I don't enjoy and am not especially good at, but basically have figured out). It's more the mental move involved. The seeing of something that is not yours and coming to the conclusion that it should be yours. It's an obstacle I've been able to overcome in the past, but it always takes a deliberate effort on my part.

The trick is usually to cultivate an unchecked ambition, some map-painting goal where I come to view the final outcome as my just and natural right. Then, every bit of territory I don't have is, in fact, something stolen from me, being held by those who don't know its value and can't put it to proper use.

But the paradoxical thing about this is that the entitled attitude is uncomfortable when my domain is small. It only feels natural when my goal is close to its completion. Which is weird, you know. If I am the rightful Emperor of Rome, then being forced to work as a nothing general in control of a single province is a grave injustice. Nearly everything that belongs to me lies in the hands of usurpers. And conversely, if I am sitting on a golden throne, with thousands of legion soldiers at my command and an empire that spans Europe, Asia, and Africa, then a couple of holdout border provinces should be nothing. I'm already recognized as having wealth and status proper to my true worth, so being a couple of percentage points away from perfection should be nothing more than an inconvenience.

And yet, that's not the way it works out. I never pursue war with as much zeal as when I'm on the cusp of complete domination. When I'm small and weak, it is easy to say "Imperial ambitions are overrated, let's live and let live." But when I have massive and unassailable power, then the existence of perverse little pipsqueaks who refuse to recognize my obvious right to rule is an insult. They betray me with their insolence.

Is it merely a matter of power? If I am on the margins, only a loss or two away from oblivion, then confronting even the smallest power is a real risk. Are tolerance and comity then stratagems? I forgive because I do not have the strength to punish, and I hope my enemies view this as a species of virtue? Do I fool even myself with this? Do I convince myself that I have no desire for power because I know that it is, in fact, unattainable?

And when I am strong, does my inflexible pride stem purely from a lack of fear, the knowledge that, in any battle, I stand to lose no more than what I hope to gain? But why should my pride be so brittle? Why am I not magnanimous in my strength, gladdened to see the plucky underdogs win an improbable victory and humble in my rare defeats, buoyed by the insight that one always has more to learn?

Is it that I fear regress? That I know that empires are lost at the margins and every defeat I suffer lends strength to those who would replace me? It's true that fear can curdle into anger, but if that's the case, why was I not so angry at the beginning, when every battle could be my last and fear was the rule of the day?

It could be that when you're small, you know your loss will be sudden, and it is only when you have the luxury of a buffer that you can anticipate your own disintegration. The multiple stages of loss can give you time to appreciate the gravity of your errors and the gradual absence of things you once possessed.

Except I don't think that's it. I think aggrievement is a weapon. It is a demand that others recognize your right to act. And like any other weapon, you can become accommodated to its use. But if you're powerful and aggrieved, then you must sense, on some level, that your hold on the weapon is tenuous. It exists because the human mind respects justice, but the powerful make their own justice. It is one of the chief functions of power.

And because you are own only judge, there is no empirical difference between righteous anger and unrighteous wrath. How would you even be able to tell? Either way, when the weak draw your ire, they are completely in your power. Even if you were a tyrant, they wouldn't be able to stop you.

Thus you have to believe that right makes might. That if you were wrong, they wouldn't let you get away with it. You must wield your aggrievement all the more pitilessly, because if the targets of your anger are not foul villains, scheming to take away the rightful possessions of an innocent victim, then you are nothing. Just a mass of muscle without a heart, brutishly grabbing whatever you can, because you can. So you must focus your anger, and never let it relent. You must elevate the weak to the ranks of the demons, because that is the only way you know how to fight.

Or maybe, it's just a game and I like to win.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Rome: Total War - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Once the Roman Empire is under your command, don't lay down your sword just yet - the Barbarians are coming. With two award-winning titles from the esteemed Total War series, you'll have twice as many obstacles and opportunities to control and conquer the greatest empire ever known to man.

The Collection Edition includes: 
  • Rome: Total War Guide one of three noble Roman families on a century spanning quest to seize control of the Roman Empire. 
  • Rome: Total War - Barbarian Invasion
    (official expansion pack to Rome: Total War) Witness the decline of Rome as Barbarian hordes attack, forcing a bitter internal struggle between rival factions.
Previous Playtime

51 minutes 

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I have a friend who is really into the Total War series and who would frequently praise the games. It didn't really sound like my thing, but then Rome: Total War went on sale for $1.00 - one dollar. This was about a year before I started my blog and I was still naive about the very idea of Steam sales, so the thought of getting a whole video game, from an acclaimed series, for just one dollar seemed like a no-lose scenario. The idea that it would languish on my hard-drive for years, virtually unplayed never even occurred to me.

Expectations and Prior Experience

Thus far, I've only played the tutorial, but I can't remember anything about it. I think it was a pretty standard RTS. I'm a little worried about that, actually. I have a real spotty history with them. I tend to get drawn in by the units and structures and will focus on the building and resource management aspects of the game until I'm blindsided by the fact that it's fundamentally about war.

Also, I anticipate having some ideological problems with this game. I barely noticed it happening, but over the past few years, my personal politics have changed to such a degree that I can barely stand the idea of Rome. Instead of "classical civilization," I tend to think of them as "the guys who went where they weren't wanted and stole other peoples' shit." Obviously, the Roman legacy in western civilization is extremely complicated and both views tell part of the story, but I just get the feeling that I'm going to be forced to wield a terrible imperial power.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Kingdoms of Amalur - 20/20 hours

Kingdoms of Amalur was really easy. And I mean that both in the sense that getting 20 hours for the blog was completely painless and in the sense that the actual gameplay quickly became trivial. I think the designers erred on the side of making the game winnable even with a terrible, non-functional character build, and that's why anyone with even a half-decent character can breeze through without breaking a sweat.

It's been a long time since I've played a game that's been so aggressively unchallenging. I'm certain this is an oversight. Something must be wrong with its level scaling and/or equipment balancing. You unlock so many cool situational moves as part of the complex leveling up process, but you barely have to use those tools at all.

I don't have a problem with that, though. It's embarrassing to admit, but I get a thrill out the absolute sense of power playing an easy game gives to me. Kingdoms of Amalur is especially clever in that it somewhat disguises how stacked the deck is in your favor. Sometimes enemies will get a good hit in and briefly stunlock you. But you can use potions even while stunned, so it's only the illusion of danger. Similarly, the tougher enemies, even while posing no real threat, can still dodge and resist damage just enough that you have to focus on killing them. It's a big, mindless brawl connected by an assortment of minor rewards that is extremely relaxing in a "turn off your brain and button mash" sort of way.

Around hour 12, I suddenly realized that I was more than halfway through my play period and I hadn't even touched the DLCs that were the whole reason I bought this bundle in the first place. I went to work rectifying this immediately, and while I didn't get to finish the Legend of Dead Kel, my experience with one and a half Kingdoms of Amalur DLCs was sufficient for me to render a verdict - definitely worth the money, with the caveat that what the money is buying you is still, at the end of the day, more Kingdoms of Amalur.

The DLCs, by dint of being smaller and self-contained, manage to do a better job of storytelling than the main game, but they still share its fundamental structure, for good and for ill. By the time I'd finished the Teeth of Naros main plot, I'd managed to collect a half-dozen barely-related sidequests that I had already outleveled. A similar thing would have happened with Legend of Dead Kel, but I resolutely ignored every marked quest-giver I could, in the hopes of finishing before hour 20 came up.

On the other hand, both DLCs had villains with strong characterization and a definable relationship to the player-character, both had companion NPCs who stuck with you long enough that you might even be bothered to learn their names (not that I did), and both had plots with an easily-comprehensible set of stakes and a reasonable (if sometimes obscure, thanks to the machinations of the villains) route to solving their central problems. This is more than I can say for the main game (though, to be fair to the main game, I haven't actually been on the critical path since around hour 2).

My favorite part of the DLCs was Teeth of Naros' decision to just go all-out weird with its setting. It felt a lot like playing one of those outlandish medieval-era travellers' tales - in the land of Prester John there are cities that float in the sky and are populated by giants with skin like stone who wear togas and sun-dresses and believe that scholarly debates are best settled by one-on-one arena battles. The fact that the expedition to find this exotic land was inspired by the memoirs of an insane missionary is probably not a coincidence.

I didn't get as long a look at Legend of Dead Kel's setting, but it, too, tries to be interesting and distinct. What with mysterious gods making a generational pact with villages of stranded sailors to take one of their own and make them a living conduit for the god's power and will (while simultaneously, the god has a suspiciously cozy relationship with the undead pirate whose depredations initially stranded the villagers in the first place). It's a good setup for drama, though it does seem to suffer the main game's bias towards the baroque.

Overall, I'm glad I bought this bundle, despite having the main game on console already. I could easily play this game for another 40 hours, chasing the level cap and trying to maximize my skill gain, but ultimately, Kingdoms of Amalur is so trivial and vacuous that these extra hours would have been a pure waste of time . . .

Which is exactly why I will definitely be playing Kingdoms of Amalur again. Sometimes time needs to be wasted, and when it does, a casual loot-driven brawler with about a million pointless sidequests can be a hell of a way to do it.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning - 9/20 hours

Kingdoms of Amalur is the gaming equivalent of popcorn. It's easy as hell to consume a whole bucketful without even realizing it, but it's totally vacuous, nutritionally. That's not a complaint, by the way. I sunk seven hours into this game yesterday and I barely even noticed. I only quit because I was running out of time to do paperwork.

So what was I doing that was so compelling? Absolutely nothing of consequence. I mean, on the fiction layer, I was helping an isolated village that was under siege by giant spiders and slaying a massive, magically mutated troll that was the fated doom of an ancient, talking tree, but really it's all variations on "go to place, kill monsters, get loot and xp." Kingdoms of Amalur doesn't have any memorable characters or quotable dialogue to capture the imagination, but as a pure, dumb brawler of a game, it's the tops.

It's perhaps a little silly that in a game as story-driven as this, I could spend so much time doing so little of consequence, but I take an existential approach to these sorts of things. The whole purpose of a video game plot is to provide you with a series of excuses to do video game activities, and so long as those excuses are consistent and uncontroversial enough to not be a distraction, then even a dull story can be good enough (though I will say that a good story almost always makes for a better game, so it's not an entirely disposable thing).

I'm feeling pretty good going into the back half of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. I wouldn't be surprised if I reached 20 hours by this time tomorrow.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning - 2/20 hours

I am aggressively apathetic to Kingdoms of Amalur's main story. I have a page full of notes about it, and I just can't bring myself to care. Which is weird, because I love everything else about the game.

Once you get out of the tutorial, the opening area is this grand forest with trees that stretch to the sky and wrap around the ruins of some monumental architecture and everywhere you look there's colorful flowers and foliage. The environment feels ancient and arcane and it begs you to explore.

The combat is similarly amazing. It's very kinetic and fluid. You'll find yourself dodging around the battlefield, executing combo attacks and hurling magic like nobody's business. It's an action-rpg that puts the emphasis on action.

And character advancement is pretty great as well. There are three main paths - might, finesse, and magic - and in each path are several different abilities that you can distribute points into and once you reach certain point thresholds in a given category, you can unlock "destinies" which are a little like classes which give you powerful and broad bonuses like increased mana regeneration or greater critical hit damage. Plus, there's a parallel system of non-combat skills that can dramatically change how you interact with the world. Chasing the level-up bonuses is very satisfying.

I can't think of another game with such a dramatic disconnect between the gameplay (yes! I could do this for 100 hours) and the story (oh god, no, where is the skip button), and I wonder why this is. It's not as if the story is bad. It's just . . . overstuffed. It's like they had a list of interesting fantasy conceits and then rather than limit themselves to a few to flesh out into their most compelling form, they just said "fuck it, let's use them all."

It's like, there's this division between fae creatures and mortal races and you could build a great setting around exploring the cultural clash . . . except that some of the fae have started worshiping this dark god and have declared war on mortals, which, okay, could be a logical extension of the initial premise and would give you plenty of excuse for action-rpg combat . . . except the dark fae literally cannot die and thus the war is unwinnable for the mortals, which is fine, that gives the game a central mystery, so your path to victory is more complicated than just hack-and-slashing your way to the main guy . . . except the gnomes have invented an incredible magi-tech device, the Well of Souls, that can potentially bring back the dead and even the odds and that is something with such dramatic philosophical and storytelling implications that it surely must be the keystone of the plot which we must explore and defend over the course of the story . . . except that it gets blown up during the game's tutorial and the project's one and only success (the player character) must flee for their life, which is a strong premise for an entirely damned different game . . . except that you then subsequently find out that your character is uniquely outside the bonds of fate and has the potential to manipulate destiny to an almost godlike degree . . . and what the fuck are you doing, Kingdoms of Amalur, it's only one hour into the game?! 

It's an approach that's mirrored in the game's treatment of NPCs. You wake up with no memory on top of a pile of corpses in grand RPG tradition. After wandering about for a bit, you meet up with one of the morgue gnomes from the opening cutscene and he's obviously a tutorial guide, a temporary companion who explains how things work and then sends you on your way. So far, so good, but this gnome, Encel, tells you that your first objective should be to find Professor Hugues, the scientist responsible for your resurrection. In any decently designed game, Hugues would be your mentor and quest-giver for the first act of the game, the guy who slowly introduced you to the lore of the setting while acting as a familiar face in your first hub area. But all he does is give you an info-dump and then sacrifice himself to save your life (never mind that it doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense for the inventor of resurrection technology to die instead of the first successful subject of the technology, at least if we're talking about who should nobly sacrifice themselves for whom). Okay, so he's a red herring, a sacrificial lamb so that we know the resurrection technology is irreplicable. Surely, in any halfway-decently designed game, the next major character, Agarth, the scruffy, drunken fateweaver who tells you about your next unique lack of destiny, would be the persistent mentor, but he immediately tells you about a third guy you need to get lore from, and it is at this point that I completely lose interest. If I recall, Agarth stays with you for a couple more quests, but it doesn't matter because he eventually hands you off to a dull non-entity and then hangs around a random town as a vendor for the rest of the game.

I think it's because I get jerked around so many times so early in the game that once I check out and start chasing random side quests, I never check back in. I've actually finished the main story, but I couldn't tell you anything about it. There's just not a strong enough through-line to attach a memory to. There aren't any really great characters along the way, and the ones with a glimmer of potential don't stick around long enough to matter.

Oh well, killing hordes of monsters in meaningless side-dungeons is super-fun, an in the end, isn't that why I'm playing the game?