Saturday, January 30, 2016

Distant Star: Revenant Fleet - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From The Steam Store Page)

In Distant Star: Revenant Fleet, you take control of the last remaining ships of a near-destroyed A’kari fleet, and must rebuild your forces as you battle through ancient, galactic battlefields towards a final showdown with the Orthani.

Build your fleet of up to 5 ships (from a choice of any combination of 8 classes) and upgrade their weapons and attachments which give you new and improved skills to use in combat. With hundreds of attachments to choose from, each class has many different possible loadouts.

Traverse the galaxy one system at a time - each step of the way you will face unique story events, each of which has multiple outcomes that can change with each playthrough. Choose whether or not you enter combat, flee or try to talk your way out of difficult situations - but don't think the same choice next time round will have the same outcome!

Combat takes place in small tactical RTS missions that last between 5 and 30 minutes. Enemy fleets scale to always provide a challenge for your fleet and as you progress through the game, things will get tougher still! But don't worry, you can use Tactical Pause to issue orders to your fleet and ensure you have the upper hand in battle.

All set within a beautifully designed universe with an eerily atmospheric soundtrack - Distant Star: Revenant Fleet is a game you'll be playing again and again...

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations And Prior Experience

None, really. The pitch on the Steam Store says it's a combination RTS and Rogue-like, both of which are genres that I always fool myself into thinking I'm going to enjoy and then turn out to really get under my skin and annoy me. This game has mixed reviews, so this is either a game that lacks certain qualities RTS/Rogue-like fans look for (and thus might appeal to me, someone who has had a mixed relationship with the genre), or it's just a poorly-implemented version of the RTS/Rogue-like hybrid, in which case the worst aspects of both genres will hit me straight in the face.

In other words: I have no idea what to expect. The screenshots have spaceships and strategic maps, and thus are very appealing to me on a visceral level. But aside from this knee-jerk approval, I have nothing real to go on. My guess is that as long as the game is not punishingly difficult, I'll probably like it, though.

Borderlands 2 - Tiny Tina's Assault On Dragon Keep

This DLC. Seriously, you guys, this is the shit. I may be biased because tabletop roleplaying games are my other big hobby, but I loved almost every part of Tiny Tina's Assault On Dragon Keep (except the damned Dukes of Orc). More than just a series of Dungeons and Dragons references, it's as pure a celebration of gaming and nerd culture as you're ever likely to see.

The whole thing is jammed full of clever little jokes about both the absurdity and the joy of gaming, and the ultimate resolution to story was surprisingly affecting. My favorite part was how Tina's narration and the nitpicking of the original Borderlands vault hunters would suddenly shift the reality of the virtual world, turning sunny skies cloudy, changing the name of the forest, and just generally take advantage of the malleable reality of games to make jokes and keep me on my toes. Also, Mr Torgue was there.

As a way of saying goodbye to Borderlands 2, this DLC works pretty well. It was a blast seeing the fantasy versions of the various residents of Pandora (and to finally see Butt Stallion in the flesh), although I wish that Hammerlock, Tannis, and Scooter had been able to join the party. After playing this and Torgue's DLC back-to-back, I kind of wish for a notional Borderlands 3 to be all-DLC, but, of course, without a baseline reality, would something as experimental as Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep even make any sense?

Now that I've gotten through all the major plot stuff, I think it's time to say goodbye to Borderlands 2. There's still plenty I could do - pursue sidequests, grind levels, farm legendary treasures, challenge raid bosses, attempt Ultimate Vault Hunter mode, and then do it all again with the five other characters - but I've already played the game for 47 hours, and all the other optional activities could easily take hundreds more.

It's for the above reasons that Borderlands 2 is on the short list for my "desert island" game. Granted, it gets repetitive after awhile, but it's the sort of repetitive where it doesn't really need to be different because the core activity is so solid that excessive variation would be a distraction. There's just something so compelling about blasting monsters and gathering loot that I'm not sure novelty is really all that necessary. Certainly, I've gotten so into Borderlands 2 that I've been known to skip meals in my distraction, most recently earlier today (whether this property would be a boon or a danger on a desert island is difficult to say). So, it's likely that I'd only really get bored with Borderlands 2 at around the same time as I started to tire of food.

That makes walking away from the game kind of a strange experience. It doesn't really occupy the sort of mental space that can classify it as being "done." That feels like a category error to me, like asking if it is "fragrant." If anything, it makes more sense to categorize my life in terms of Borderlands 2. It can generally be divided into two periods: "playing Borderlands 2" and "not currently playing Borderlands 2."

I wonder how long this feeling will last. When I first got Borderlands 2, for the Xbox 360, it dominated my life for months. I wound up with level 50 Salvador and Gaige, and then I played the DLCs when they came out, and beat normal mode with Maia and Axton, and got about halfway through with Zer0.  And I never finished. There was never a point where I sat down and said "you know what, I don't think I want to play this game any more." I just got distracted by the new, shiny thing and moved on.

Yet there was a time before I got Borderlands 2. It didn't even exist, and I had no particular awareness of its absence. It didn't feel like I was missing anything back then. For it to come out of nowhere and weigh so heavily on my worldview is actually quite extraordinary. It's exactly the way I feel about Super Mario World or Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. Even when there is a long period where I don't play those games at all (and my SMW gap is almost entirely due to the annoyance of setting up my old SNES), they're still part of me. They inform my life, not on any deep philosophical level, granted, but in my aesthetic preferences, how I approach and come to grips with new artistic experience. At least subconsciously, every single game I play (and possibly other, similar media, like movies) are going to be judged against the standard set by Borderlands 2.

Maybe the real question is "what's next?" What incredible thing lies in my future that I don't even suspect is waiting for me, that I can't even suspect, because it will so thoroughly challenge my sense of what's possible that it will open up whole new vistas of thought. Of course, all three of the keystone games I mentioned earlier were sequels (of which, I'd played the originals), so none of them really came out of nowhere, but there's something about seeing an interesting idea get transformed from something good (maybe even great) into something sublime that makes it stick in my head.

Hell, it's entirely possible that I've already played the prototype for my next great obsession . . . or that it's one of my remaining 95 games. I guess I'll have to keep going to find out.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Borderlands 2 - Mr Torgue's Campain of Carnage

So, on one level, all of Borderlands 2 is basically the same, right. You go to a place, you kill the things that are there, and then you pick up a bunch of guns. No matter what anyone says to you on the ECHO recorder, it's all going to boil down to that.

That being said, sometimes the messages you receive to give you a thin excuse to blast the hell out of random enemies are freaking hilarious, and that is the case the with Mr Torgue's Campaign of Carnage. Mad Moxxi and Tiny Tina are used perfectly, egging you on with their own unique brands of insanity, and the titular Mr Torgue is a delight.

I have a theory (expounded several times before) that the Borderlands 2 writing is at its best when it gives you permission to act as if you were playing a video game, and Mr Torgue is a further example of that particular virtue. He is CONSTANTLY SCREAMING IN EXCITEMENT, and is clearly enamored with the spectacle of the game's violence. He is a pure concentration of everything "macho" (he once wrestled a shark wearing a bolo tie) while retaining a childlike innocence that makes it more a celebration of excess than  "Dr Pepper Ten"-style overcompensation.

As you know, we are all about celebrating excess here at the decadent gamer blog, so Mr Torgue quickly became one of my favorite video game characters. I mean, everything about him is incredibly goofy, sometimes cringe-inducingly so, but that is the essence of his charm. As much as we sometimes dress it up with serious examinations of theme, the hobby of playing video games is silly more often than not, and it's nice to have a character who embraces that silliness without making fun of it.  I kind of wish there was an optional "Mr Torgue commentary track" for every video game in existence.

My only complaint about this DLC is the final boss. So, after fighting your way up to the top of Pandora's Ultimate Baddass Tournament bracket, your rival for the championship substitutes a giant robot dinosaur, Badassasuarus Rex, in his place in the championship fight. Now, on the face of this, it's great. My first thought was "I approve of every part of this plan." Yes, it's cheating, but as I mentioned before, Mr Torgue's Campaign of Carnage is a celebration of spectacle, so fighting a giant robot dinosaur is more or less the perfect way to round it out.

Except the damned thing reflects bullets. I hate this mechanic with a fiery passion that can scarcely be described. For literally dozens of hours at a stretch, I can make it through the game with a philosophy of "deal so much damage it doesn't matter if half my shots miss and I have no effective defense," and then these stupid bullet-reflecting bosses come along and make me aim and take cover instead of standing out in the open like a moron. It's a jarring and unfortunate reminder that I'm not actually good at the game.

So, this DLC was mostly incredibly fun, with a great new character and some hilarious performances by a couple of the main game's MVPs, but then it fell apart in the last ten minutes and unnecessarily whiffed what should have been an easy climax.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Borderlands 2 - Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt

I was all set to start with some serious social commentary about this DLC. I was rehearsing it in my head, thinking about how I wanted to word my observations as I mowed down enemies and moved through he level. Then I got to Jackenstein.

That fucking guy. I'd beaten him before, but I don't remember how I did it. This time, I died dozens of times and had to exploit a glitch in the arena terrain to snipe at him (sniping, me). The problem was that Jackenstein only had a few weakpoints and if you miss those points, your bullets bounce off and may strike you. Thus my usual "strategy" of throwing a huge number number of powerful, but inaccurate attacks at anything that moves was completely counterproductive.

It was very frustrating. I wound up growling with rage and shouting out profanities more than once. I may have gotten through it thanks to some shady tactics on my part, but that anger is going to be my dominant memory of this DLC for some time to come.

Anyways, Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt is kind of racist. Not hugely racist. You don't need to buy yourself a white sheet while playing it or anything. It's just it does that thing that science fiction sometimes does where it takes nakedly racist fiction from days gone by and tries to rehabilitate it, but does a really half-assed job about it.

Like, it's not fooling anyone if you take some offensively portrayed Africans, but call them Glorps. And no matter what strange, alien sun hangs in the sky "savage" is not a noun.

Where it gets tricky is that the thing that makes Sir Hammerlock appealing is his intellectual descent from old-school adventure fiction. It's fun to think of him facing down danger by being unflappably posh at it. It's a neat variation on the gleeful psychopathy that characterizes the inhabitants of Pandora.

I think I'd have really enjoyed the DLC's initial pitch. Hanging out with Hammerlock in the wilderness, enjoying some manly bonding while hunting strange monsters sounds like an incredible time.  It would have been nice to have seen the bizarre creatures that would have emerged from the designer's imaginations. And, of course, killing for killing's sake is entirely all right with me (in the game, in the game).

The main downside of this is that I'd miss out on Nakayama, who is one of the more entertaining video game villains. He's a real wannabe villain who's barely in control of his evil scheme and is creepily fascinated with Handsome Jack. It's funny the way his composure disintegrates over the course of the story. It's also a nice change of pace to have an enemy who acknowledges your power as an unstoppable force of destruction. His anticlimactic death was the highlight of the DLC.

So, on the balance, I'd say Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt is a swing and a miss. I want to hang out with Hammerlock, and I loved fighting Nakayama, but the presentation of the common enemies was just the slightest bit icky. I'm finding that the main thing the DLCs are inspiring in me is a wish for another Borderlands sequel.

Borderlands 2 - Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate's Booty

The Captain Scarlett DLC has the most elemental video game plot imaginable - there is a treasure, and between you and the treasure are a whole bunch of things that need to die. Kill the things, find the treasure. Which is great, because ostensibly that's what the whole Borderlands series is about, but upon further reflection is kind of weird, because I have to ask myself - why did it take so long to get to this.

Like, for the first Borderlands game, it makes a certain sense. They thought the bait-and-switch plot would be more compelling than it turned out to be ("you're looking for a legendary treasure, but then it turned out the ancient Vault actually housed a deadly monster - GASP!"), and when they discovered it wasn't, they made the General Knox and Claptrap Revolution DLCs as a sort of apology to the fans.

But they must have gone into Borderlands 2 having learned from that experience. And, while the game doesn't make the mistake of promising you treasure and then not delivering, it also does not have a really great "ZOMG, look at all those treasure chests" moment (maybe when Lilith teleports you into Marcus' back room, but I'd argue that it doesn't count because there's no buildup to it, and it happens so soon after a tragic loss for the "good guys" that you don't really get the proper sense of triumph).

So it's weird that once again the "amoral quest for obscene wealth" portion of the game is relegated to a DLC. You'd think that once it became obvious that there was significant pleasure in the mere physical act of opening a horde of treasure chests that it would be something you'd want to include in the main game.

Which is to say Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate's Booty is a fine DLC when taken as a whole. It just gets tricky when you try to break it down to its constituent parts. Captain Scarlett herself is a fun character who might be a good addition to the Borderlands universe (her constant telegraphing of her inevitable betrayal is such a "Borderlands" thing to do), if only we had more time to get to know her. Unlike, say, Mad Moxxi, she doesn't get any great and memorable moments that ensure she'll come back again and again. Which is a shame, because the potential is definitely there.

If only the same could be said for Shade. It's really the presence of this obnoxious character that drags down the whole DLC. I get what they were going for. The sole survivor of a failed colony, delirious from dehydration and so deep in denial about the deaths of all of his friends that he pretends they're alive in some kind of macabre puppet show and then latches onto you with stalker-like intensity due to the sheer desperation of his loneliness sounds like it ought to be a fun comic conceit, but the execution . . .

I think it falls flat in two places. One, if you're going to have a character whose whole shtick is "he's annoying because his backstory is horrifying" then you really need to lay on the pathos, like, super thick. Have the facade break from time to time, and each time it seems like his story is as bleak as it can get, reveal something else that makes things worse. You're playing a tragedy for laughs, so you need to make the audience gape at the scope of your audacity. Really earn those necrophilia jokes.

The other problem with Shade is that he's not a sand pirate. By showing up as the first person you meet, he front-loads the pirate-themed DLC with a non-pirate-themed introduction. He'd have worked much better as a character if you'd already been working with Captain Scarlett for awhile, and she made you walk the sand-plank off her sand-ship and you wind up stranded on a sand-desert island where you're only hope of getting off and getting revenge on the sand-pirate who betrayed you is working with this delusional weirdo.

Just a thought anyway. Even with these flaws, I still enjoyed playing the DLC, and if it wasn't perfect, then at least I got to open a shit-load of treasure chests. That was cool.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Borderlands 2 - 20/20 hours

I'm actually at 21 hours, but since I was so close to beating the game at 20 hours, I decided to hold off on writing a post.

So, Borderlands 2's story is just a thin wisp of nothing. That's not a criticism, just an observation. You want to kill Handsome Jack and stop him from reviving an ancient monster. You do this mostly by going to places and killing things, gathering macguffins, and listening to Handsome Jack insult you. There's a twist about 15 hours in where a couple of major characters die, but it's one of those twists that's so structurally obvious that it does not come at a surprise.

If the plot isn't anything to write home about, the texture of the game, the details of the world and the characters are more than enough to hold my interest. From Lilith's brash psychopathy to Sir Hammerlock's genteel loquaciousness, to Handsome Jack's unfathomable dickishness. Around every corner is something fun to see, some joke to enjoy.

It's a good background for the relentless shooting and looting gameplay. On the one hand you have this mindless, almost compulsive activity, and on the other you have this clever and amusing commentary. It's a perfect blend of rhythms to hold my interest for hours at a time.

How best to describe what I'm like when I play Borderlands 2? You know how there are these movies and tv shows where the writers are clearly ignorant about video games, so they portray the "gamer" character as zoned out in front of a flickering television, seemingly oblivious to both the world around him (and it's almost always a "him") and the horrifying noises coming from the television, clearly in a semi-comatose state caused by sensory overload from the orgy of violence in front of him?

Yeah . . .

There's just something about the combination of short-term mayhem, long-term character-planning, and constant accumulation of new weapons that sends me into a blasting, grinding, hoarding fugue.

My favorite character is Salvador, the Gunzerker. He gets the ability to wield two weapons at once, and his playstyle encourages holding down the trigger buttons and just unloading with everything you have all the time (once you've snagged the abilities that make that possible, that is), and it's just such an amazing experience. I'm constantly at the brink of catastrophe, cackling with homicidal glee (metaphorically . . . mostly) and much like Pandora is a perfect video game world, Salvador is a perfect video game character because his prescripted screaming tracks perfectly with my spontaneous reactions to the game itself.  It may not be sophisticated or deep, but it is clever, and when he goes berserk and screams "BERSERK SCREAMING!" he is speaking the language of my heart.

It's a strange paradox of my nature. Most of the time, many would describe me as staid, methodical, and risk-averse, but in certain games that give me the opportunity to attack, I'm the sort of player who lets the red mist descend over his sight and just goes all-out on offense. That makes Salvador my favorite character, but honestly, I take the same approach with all the other characters.

Which is kind of the great and terrible thing about Borderlands 2. It makes me want to delve deep into it, to play new game+ and new game++, to try different characters and different builds with those characters, to collect a whole menagerie of exotic guns and to beat all the optional bosses. It's a set of goals that will potentially take hundreds of hours (I know, because I spent hundreds of hours on the console version and didn't get even halfway there). It's a black hole of time that is incredibly pleasurable and very addictive.

The thing is, if it weren't for the blog, I'd want to get addicted. I have been before, and it was great. I was lost in the glorious chaos of the game's frantic battles. This time, it will have to be different. I'll have to modulate my expectations and make a plan for eventually coming down.

As far as I can foresee, the way it's going down is this - I'll start up True Vault Hunter mode and fight my way to Sanctuary, then start up the DLC, going in chronological order from Captain Scarlet to Hammerlock's Hunt, then Mr. Torgue's Campaign of Carnage, and Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep. My hope is that by waiting to play the DLC until True Vault Hunter mode, I'll be able to evade the level cap on the normal game and allow the level-scaling to keep up with my character's advancement. It might be possible that I'll gain enough levels to blow past 50, in which case Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode could  be more difficult than necessary (though that's academic, because I don't intend to try it).

After I do all that stuff, my plan is to just walk away (after writing a neat blog post, of course). That's easier said than done, because even after the numerous hours and four DLCs worth of events, I'll have just started the real game. But it will be an interesting test of willpower to see if I can do it.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Borderlands 2 - 11/20 hours

What makes Borderlands 2 so great is that it is a "gamer's video game." Now, I don't mean this in any sort of elitist "only true gamers can appreciate the magnificence of Borderlands 2" sense. Rather, Borderlands 2, taken as a cultural artifact, only makes sense coming from a background of "gamer" culture (I use the quotes because this culture is not just one of video games, but includes a penumbra of other works like science fiction and action movies, comic books, and literature that are related only in the sense that they are all things that "gamers" like, however you might be inclined to identify such people). This may not sound like much of a strength, but I believe that Borderlands 2 manages to thread the needle of using its cultural context to enrich and inform the game without seeming to exclude or alienate players who don't share the culture (although, admittedly, this comes from someone who is on the "inside").

 It's not just the game's numerous pop-culture references. The world of Borderlands 2, Pandora, is a video game world. Beyond simply being "a world in a video game," Pandora operates on video game logic. Its inhabitants act like video game characters. Everyone you meet is ludicrously bloodthirsty. Violence is treated like an amusement. Killing is a hobby. And that's just the "heroes."  Outside the walls of Sanctuary, everything (with the exception of certain quest-giving NPCs) is constantly trying to kill you.

And maybe, in an idle moment, you might think that perhaps Pandora is a savage dystopia, and that, far from being a struggle between shades of grey (the notion that it is a black and white conflict is too absurd to even entertain), it is really just black vs slightly smudged black, and in the end the only difference between Handsome Jack (the villain) and Lilith (your ally) is that Lilith is not a sadist - to the degree she takes childish delight in her gruesome murders, she does not specifically find pleasure in the suffering of the people she kills.

And when you think those thoughts, Borderlands 2 can seem like a really grim story in a bright, candy-coated wrapping, but then, the thought creeps in . . . killing things is the fun part of the game. Having a ridiculously high kill-count, complete with exploding heads and human enemies flailing around as they're consumed by fire and acid, is kind of the whole point. So what's really going on is that the characters' agendas align with yours as a player.

Can you really condemn that? Would it not be hypocritical to do so?

That's the brilliance of Borderlands 2's writing. It doesn't matter. Thought about logically, the characterization is monstrous and worldbuildng untenable, but when you're actually playing it, it somehow tracks right along with your thoughts. "I want to go to that place and kill everything I see. Why? Because I love explosions, and they might have valuable loot. Oh, I get to do that? GREAT!"  The result is that the game feels comfortable in a way few games can manage. It's rare to have a game that uses its medium to such a profound advantage (off the top of my head, I can think of Brothers, Bioshock, and Saints Row IV.)

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go murder some people.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Borderlands 2 - 6/20 hours

Not much to say today, I just want to note that the last four hours passed in a blur. Borderlands 2 has that strange time-compressing quality that a lot of great games have. You're playing it, doing one little activity at a time, and then BOOM, an hour has passed.

It's a little weird to suddenly notice a whole chunk of lost time, but it's generally a pleasant experience, like waking from a good dream. It only gets awkward when I realize that I'm up hours past my bed-time or when I have to scramble to do my nightly paperwork at the last possible minute.

Is the pleasure worth it? Should I borrow against my future in order to have fun in the present? Probably not, but I'm having such a good time I'm willing to take the risk.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Borderlands 2 - 2/20 hours

I'm coming to realize that I don't really understand anything. I started playing Borderlands 2 confident in the knowledge that my new computer was more than powerful enough to handle it - and then I ran into the same crippling framerate problems as I had with my last computer. So I reduced the settings to minimum, and that did nothing.

Then I got frustrated for awhile, but I sucked it up and did some internet research. By the numbers, my computer should have been able to get the job done, and there was no real explanation for why it wasn't. However, someone in a forum, with the exact same video card as me, was able to get it to work by downloading a "game booster."

I decided to try and replicate the process . . . and it worked perfectly. After I downloaded and installed Razer Cortex, I was able to play Borderlands 2 on maximum settings with 60-100 fps (why I actually need that many, I can't say).

Why did that work?  Why was it necessary for Borderlands 2 and not the technically more advanced Fallout 4? I couldn't even begin to say. I wish I knew about things. Sometimes it feels like I'm just walking around in a fog, baffled by most of what I see around me and achieving clarity only in the oblivion of not giving a damn.

Sooo . . . Borderlands 2 is kind of a great game. I mean, it's still early in the game. I just got to Sanctuary, so I've only played the worst section of the game so far, but even given the comparatively weak opening, you can still see shadows of the great stuff it has to offer. Handsome Jack is an immediately and hilariously hateable villain from the second of his introduction. The writing is snappy, and thankfully as funny as I remember it. And the action (when not slowed down by an unreasonable framerate) is frantic without being overwhelming.

What makes the opening such a pain is that most of the game's mechanics are locked away for the sake of not overwhelming new players. You don't even get your main action skill until level 5, about an hour after you start. Also, the loot at the beginning is fairly underwhelming. Occasionally, you'll find a blue (rare) weapon to get excited about, but far more often you're stuck with greens and whites that, while fine as far as they go, don't really have the individual distinctiveness to become part of your character's identity.

Yet the opening is only really weak by comparison with what I know the game will become. It's a big, dumb shoot-fest with ridiculous weapon variety and a deep character customization system. It's the sort of game I could play over and over again (and, indeed, I have). I can't wait to get to the point where the brakes are off and I'm gunzerking my way through hordes of enemies in a permanent frenzy of unrestrained violence (I know I've been inconsistent on this point in the past, and I don't know if I can explain it, but Claptrap's "those were human beings, with families" fakeout cracked me up).

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Borderlands 2 - Initial Thoughts

About The Game (From The Steam Store Page)

 A new era of shoot and loot is about to begin. Play as one of four new vault hunters facing off against a massive new world of creatures, psychos and the evil mastermind, Handsome Jack. Make new friends, arm them with a bazillion weapons and fight alongside them in 4 player co-op on a relentless quest for revenge and redemption across the undiscovered and unpredictable living planet.

Previous Playtime

9 hours 

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I already owned Borderlands 2 and the DLC season pass, and I really loved it. Unfortunately, I could not play multiplayer, because while all my friends owned the game, they all owned it on the PC. So, eventually, when it went on sale, I went for it . . . only to discover that my PC wasn't quite up to the task. Oh, it would run, but with a really inconstant framerate that made me motion-sick. Now, I finally have a powerful enough computer to play it, but, of course, everyone has moved on from the game by now.

In retrospect, perhaps not my wisest decision.

On the other hand, I can now play Borderlands 2 without being chained to a console. Let's call it a wash.

Expectations and Prior Experience

There is no part of this game that I haven't already played a half-dozen times (with the possible exception of some of the DLCs, and even then, I probably have). I don't expect to be at all surprised or taken aback by anything in the game.

It has been several years since I last played it all the way through (much of my time on the PC version has been spent entering SHIFT codes for golden keys, but that hardly counts as "playing the game." It might be that my changing perspective on life and humor and the nature of my hobbies will result on me having a very different reaction to the game (see: Tropico 4), but I'm optimistic. It was only a year or so ago that I played Borderlands (although how weird is it that I'm saying things like "only a year" now) and I remember enjoying it quite a bit.

I'm pretty sure that this is going to be one of those games I blow past the time limit for. Most of my memories of this game are fond ones . . .except for starting Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode. I remember that sucking big time, but even that only happens after beating the whole game twice.  Aside from the frustrations that came with the game's level-scaling, the Borderlands 2 of my memory is one of a relentless barrage of jokes, frantic gunplay, and ever-escalating loot rewards.

It was a heady mix the first time I played it. I can only hope the formula is just as powerful now as it was back then.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Tropico 4 - 20/20 hours

I probably shouldn't have bothered with Tropico 4's campaign mode. It gives structure to the gameplay by telling a story and presenting you with challenges, but the story is pretty stupid and the challenges are mostly along the lines of "build impractical thing here" or "pay an arbitrary amount of money to an NPC." To a certain degree, they are interesting constraints on your island-building, as they all more or less required you to build an island with a big enough surplus to support the frivolous, plot-advancing expenditures. However, the only real value I got out of the campaign was in the early levels that acted like an extended tutorial by presenting you with challenges that explained the functions of various buildings and game mechanics (like the island where you had to import everything, or the island where you had to build up tourism).

The plot itself is simple enough. You lead your various island nations to prosperity, building up a reputation as a skilled dictator and then one day you're framed for the assassination of an American president. You lose everything and have to rebuild your fortune with an assumed identity all the while plotting Count of Monte Cristo-style revenge on the NPCs who contributed to your downfall.

It's perfectly serviceable, provided all you want is to have an excuse to build up islands. Your actions have a marginal amount of context and meaning, and for a silly little strategy game like Tropico 4, that's probably enough. It only starts to fall apart if you try to extrapolate some broader worldbuilding from the game's plot. Then you're left wondering why there are so many small islands with local sovereignty left in the world. Or why your resources don't carry over from one mission to another (especially since the plot itself has you growing in power constantly).

I likely would have been happier just playing a couple of random maps and seeing how prosperous my island nation could have become. No regrets though. Leaving aside the game's dubious attempts at humor, it was quite a lot of fun managing supply chains, navigating the island's politics, and attempting to raise my country's quality of life. Almost fun enough, in fact, to make up for the fact that natural disasters (especially tornadoes) are the  worst strategy game mechanic since Civilization III's pollution, and for much the same reason. They come out of nowhere to undo your hard work and they are keyed to punish success (when a tornado hits a built up island, that's what's known as a "target rich environment.")

Overall, though, I'd say my time with Tropico 4 was a pleasant one. It's a solid and engaging strategy game, wrapped inside a beautifully realized Caribbean setting, wrapped in some pretty dumb and borderline offensive political humor.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Tropico 4 - 9/20 hours

I'm not sure about this game's sense of humor. It's the sort of shotgun politically incorrect sort of satire where audacity and cynicism take the place of any kind of coherent critique. I.e. the "let's be offensive to everyone" idea that sounds like it ought to be really even-handed, but turns out to recapitulate the prejudices of the culture at large while taking mild jabs at safe targets.

Which is to say, everything in Tropico 4 is a caricature. The leaders of the various factions are stereotypes of their political ideologies (the environmentalist is a hippy, the capitalist wears a top hat and has a "snooty" accent, etc), which is fine, as far as it goes, but then you get the representatives from places like China and the Middle East and it gets just the teeniest bit racist.

I don't really want to get into it, you know. At its heart, Tropico 4 is just a charming little city-building game, but, at least in campaign mode, it tries to build a world and tell an overarching story, and . . .

The world of Tropico 4 is one in which every powerful person is a corrupt buffoon. Everyone's working an angle. And, in the rare event that someone is a true believer, they are a tunnel-visioned fanatic. What this means is that Tropico 4 is one of those rare games that really sticks it to colonialism - the Americans are thoughtless clods whose high-flown rhetoric doesn't at all track with their arbitrary demands and casual threats of violence. The Europeans affect a dignified demeanor, but they always have their hands out . . .

What it also means is that Tropico 4 is one of the most shockingly pro-colonial games I've ever seen. The Tropicans are lazy, ignorant, and venal. To rule over them as a dictator is merely to give them the firm hand of leadership that they secretly need.

You could see these two ideas as the different sides of the game's "everyone is awful" ethos, but realistically, they are not equivalent. You can't really be racist against everyone equally. Some forms of racism are more harmful than others.

So, I guess the callous cynicism of Tropico 4's "humor" kind of gets me down. I didn't really notice it last time I played the game, but I've undergone a lot of political evolution in the past two and a half years. I think the quotes from various dictators and murders that you see on the loading screens are in poor taste, even if they are so over-the-top in vanity and world-weary nihilism that they border on self-parody even in their original contexts.

I get what they're going for, but I'm no longer buying what they're selling. Still, it's mostly harmless and I enjoy managing the cities, so I'll stick with it for the remaining 11 hours, but it's nice to discover that I no longer have to worry about keeping up with the series.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Tropico 4 - 2/20 hours

I haven't gotten too far into the game just yet. I replayed the tutorial missions, in order to reacquaint myself with the basic controls, but that turned out to be unnecessary. The actual physical mechanics came right back to me. I guess game controls are getting more and more standardized as time goes on.

The thing that I'm having trouble getting back into is the strategy. The sort of reflexive knowledge of what to build and when, and the nuance of how to set wages and policies. It's tricky because income in Tropico 4 is intermittent. You engage in various manufacturing and primary resource gathering activities, but while the expenses of running these enterprises is constant, you only get paid when the stuff actually leaves on the freighter. That means that it's nearly impossible to track profit and loss without a spreadsheet and you have to rely extensively on personal experience to make everything balance out.

In theory, I have that experience, but as I replayed the first campaign mission, I definitely felt myself flailing a bit. I wound up chasing objectives instead of having any sort of plan. I'm left to wonder whether this is a pattern or whether I was just feeling a bit off when I was playing it. I do tend to be impulsive about these sorts of things, building whatever feels right not out of any grand plan or rational analysis, but in answer to the needs of the moment.

It's not a good approach, per se, but with enough practice you start to develop instincts and can steer the direction of your islands with a minimum of problems.

For now, I'm out of practice. Since the early levels are easy, it hasn't been a problem so far. Hopefully, by the time I get to the later levels it will all come back to me.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Tropico 4 - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

The world is changing and Tropico is moving with the times - geographical powers rise and fall and the world market is dominated by new players with new demands and offers - and you, as El Presidente, face a whole new set of challenges. If you are to triumph over your naysayers you will need to gain as much support from your people as possible. Your decisions will shape the future of your nation, and more importantly, the size of your off-shore bank account.

Tropico 4 expands on the gameplay of the previous game with new political additions ∼ including more superpowers to negotiate with, along with the ability to elect ministers into power to help get your more controversial policies passed. But remember to keep your friends close and your enemies closer as everyone has an agenda! Your political mettle will be thoroughly tested, as new natural disasters will have the populace clamoring for you and your cabinet to help them recover from some of the worst Mother Nature can dish out.

Tropico 4 also brings a new level of social interaction with the addition of Facebook and Twitter integration. Post comments on Twitter direct from the game and have updates go out when you complete missions or unlock new achievements. You can even take screenshots of your burgeoning island and post your dream creation on your Tropico 4 Facebook page and compare your interactive Dictator Ranking on the online leaderboards.

Previous Playtime

13 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Well, I played the original Tropico way back when (I want to say 2003 or 2004) and thought it was a charming little city-builder. Later, I rented the console version of Tropico 3 and enjoyed it immensely. It therefor seemed natural that in 2013, when the complete DLC bundle for the latest iteration of the series was reduced to a mere ten dollars, I would jump at the chance to purchase it.

Honestly, I can't remember the exact circumstances surrounding this purchase. According to my account history, it was the 10th game I ever bought on Steam. I think, by that point, I was starting to get used to the idea of purchasing downloadable games, but I still hadn't entirely bought into the concept.

It's actually really fascinating looking at my early account history. My first purchase was in July 2012, when I bought Terraria. The next one after that was Jan 2013, nearly 6 months later. Then, the gap between that and my next purchase narrowed to 3 months, in March 2013. After that, I had at least one purchase a month every month until Jan 2015.

The other interesting thing is that 2015 was apparently much more disciplined than 2104, where I had three total months with no purchases whatsoever, and it is likely that my falling behind on the blog is down almost entirely to that excessively large Star Wars bundle (and perhaps my decision to treat Civilization IV as four separate games).

Bringing this back to Tropico 4, it is obvious to me, looking at my account history, that this purchase was part of my initial flirtation with Steam. It must have happened when I still didn't entirely trust it (and I'll say that I don't trust it now, but my behavior seems to indicate otherwise), but after I was starting to get used to the idea that I could get some significant discounts.

That's probably why I have such a significant amount of time already invested in the game. This must have been from back when I still had few enough of them that I could afford to spend time on a whimsical purchase.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've already played through a significant portion of the campaign. I remember getting stuck on a mission where my economy collapsed because I had too many educated workers and not enough demand for their particular professions. I remember this frustrating me, because it felt like a huge tragedy that just as the nation of Tropico was on the cusp of modernization, an economic collapse caused all of the citizens' gains to evaporate overnight.

Which is, of course, a good reaction for a strategy game to provoke. I like the fact that success in the game is measured by the prosperity of your citizens (oh, okay, you can also brutally exploit them to pad your Swiss bank account, but that's suboptimal, in my experience). If the cost of that is that poor play can result in disaster for your citizens, then that seems a fair tradeoff to me.

Having played this game fairly extensively before (I only have 13 hours in it, but the Tropico series is not one to shake up gameplay between installments, and thus a lot of my experience from Tropico and Tropico 3 carried over), I don't think there are many surprises in store. I'll likely enjoy myself most of the time and have to endure the occasional heartbreak from my inevitable mistakes. If it ever gets too overwhelming, I can just play on a random easy map and tinker with my little simulated society for however long I have left.

In other words, this is going to be a real gimme.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Windborne - 20/20 hours

Most of my last six hours has been spent exploring caves and gathering rare materials. I haven't actually had time to build anything out of those materials, but assuming I still wanted to continue playing the game, I'd at least have enough bricks to build something tall and imposing out of onyx.

The other thing I've been doing is visiting the community islands that people have put online. The advantage of doing so, aside from voyeuristically peeking at other people's creations, is that there is a certain character called Malik the Cursed. He's like an adorable goth version of the Jin creatures you trade scrolls from. If you give him a gold ingot, he'll give you an item from the special nightshade set. Malik emerges from a special item you have to build, but each character has only one member of the set. So you have to visit other players' worlds and feed gold ingots to their versions of Malik to collect the whole set.

Thus the necessity for the rare materials. Unfortunately, the Windborne online community is pretty dead, so I was only able to get about a half-dozen of the Nightshade items. Looking at the other players' constructions was cool though. I really admire the creativity and industry that went into building those islands.

In theory, I could attempt to match those creations (though, admittedly, my base level of architectural and interior design skill is clearly less) and it would be an amusing use of my time. Even in its incomplete state, Windborne is not that bad, and it's undeniable that the sorts of things you can create with a full palette of tools are breathtaking. It's got a unique and appealing visual style that helps it stand out from all the other voxel crafting games.

However the problem is that it does feel truncated. Even with the wide variety of cosmetic options (wider, in fact, than any game I've ever played), you can still see the seams where new features were going to be added. I really want to do more with the Jin, and collect a whole menagerie of cute little pets, and find equipment and artifacts that improve my character's abilities. There are places in the user interface that hint at these systems, but they just dangle there uselessly, never to be finished.

Ironically, I think Windborne would feel more complete if these vestigial features were removed. Then it would just be a slight little block-stacking game whose main draw is that you can build substantially more attractive buildings than in more sim- and survival-focused crafting games. As it is, you can see how it was chopped in half, and thus you can never quite forget about what it might have been.

My final assessment is that playing Windborne was . . . nice. It didn't hook me like Starmade and it didn't challenge me like Minecraft, but it was pretty and there was plenty to do, and I'd like to go back and one day build something really incredible, but honestly the basic gameplay lacked a certain . . . "fire." In the end, it was merely pleasant. And while pleasant isn't a bad thing to be, Windborne simply has too much competition for that to be enough.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Windborne - 14/20 hours

I've delayed longer than usual between posts because I was working on a project and I wanted to have a screenshot of it before I wrote about the process of building it.

There you go. Building that tower, along with gathering the materials for it and exploring the world enough to determine that this is where a tower would do me the most good, took me the majority of the last nine hours.

The initial staircase actually went up pretty fast. Built out of unshaped granite blocks, it was basically just five pillars and some stairs. The central pillar kept me from falling into the hole in the middle of my spiral staircase and one pillar on each side of the building gave me a place to attach the stairs.

It was actually kind of a neat looking structure. The side pillars were not on the corners, but offset by one block, so it had a kind of twisted, asymmetrical look to it. Unfortunately, when I decide I wanted to encase the rest of the building in glass, I discovered that Windborne's glass panel blocks do not have a corner piece, so I wound up with unacceptable gaps in my walls. Thus, I had to tear down my four pillars and build up four more pillars on the corners, to give me surfaces to hang my glass upon.

It was a painstaking process of slowly going up the stairs and adding a few new layers to the wall on each quarter turn. Sometimes, when I made an error on the outside of the building, I would have to climb to the top and then drop down on the stray block in order to be able to remove it.

In other words, I had the time of my life. This sort of thing is what I love about creative games. The ability to approach a problem systematically and to make a tangible impact on the game world. Seeing my creations take shape over time, with each intermediary stage presenting its own challenges, is also a delight. I think I enjoy the half-finished superstructure of my projects more than I like the finished objects.

Where Windborne falls down for me is in the fact that I prefer my created objects to have some function in the game world. I built a tower not out of some Freudian desire to inflict a giant phallic symbol on the landscape, but because I wanted a quick and convenient way to get to the top of that cliff (my previous means of access was via a set of two crude staircases cut into some other, more distant cliffs). 

And that is pretty much the limit of what utility a building may possess. There aren't any tools and only a few workbenches, so you don't need any sort of sophisticated manufacturing chain. The more sophisticated blocks to require an abundance of resources, but there's no real way to automatically process them, so you don't need any sort of specialized rooms to increase your efficiency. Even if I wanted to make a dedicated refining room to process multiple gathered materials in parallel, the most valuable blocks can only be made in your personal crafting menu, creating a huge bottleneck for production.

I think this must obviously be a consequence of Windborne being unfinished. While I was building the tower, I also continued to do the various quests (because the quest to gather 1000 blocks dovetailed nicely with my need for prodigious amounts of glass) and I discovered a few mechanics that definitely feel like half-baked version of things that might have been cool in the finished game.

Like, you can get pets to increase your various crafting abilities (the sheep-like creature that extended my block placement range was a life-saver when it came to placing glass on the tower), but there are only three varieties available.

And there are these cute little elf-like creatures called Jin who can trade formulas for your various crafted items, and it's implied that you might be able to help them in other ways, but literally nothing else about them is explained.

I can't help but wonder what sort of game Windborne would have been. I think I would have liked the finished version, and even the incomplete version has a lot to recommend to it, but my vague sense of its unrealized potential is starting to nag at me. Now that I have my ridiculous staircase and have finished all the quests, there's very little left to distract me from the realization that half the game had never even gotten made.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Windborne - 5/20 hours

I'm really enjoying this game so far. It's like a prettier version of Minecraft, but with less sophisticated gameplay. There don't appear to be any monsters or tools and only three biomes. That means you don't have to worry so much about resource management and personal safety, so all of your activities are purely for the sake of aesthetics. You can wander around looking at the pretty scenery. And you can build lovely buildings (seriously, my dashed-together starter house looks nicer than half the stuff I ever built in Minecraft). And that's pretty much it.

One neat thing about Windborne, though is that there is an item called a Dragon Shrine which, in addition to being your respawn point, will assign you "quests." So far, every quest (with one exception) has been to either build a specific thing or learn some specific aspect of the interface, which has been handy as a tutorial, though I'm not sure I'm thrilled about the fact that your reward for doing this is additional crafting recipes.

I mean, I like getting new recipes, but if you shift your perspective a bit, what that really means is that the vast majority of the game's recipes are gated behind quests. So there's a lot of stuff I could theoretically build, but can't because I don't know how.

On the one hand, it's annoying because maybe some of those decorative items would make my constructions look a lot cooler. On the other hand, maybe I'd be overwhelmed with too many choices if they were presented so soon in the game.

I'm still not fully committed to an opinion about Windborne. When it comes to Minecraft, I prefer survival mode to creative, and Windborne appears to only have a creative mode thus far. And even in the context of creative mode, the stuff you build in Minecraft has so much more interesting functionality, as compared to Windborne's wide variety of purely cosmetic blocks.

But then again, there is something to be said for the cosmetic approach. And Windborne does blow Minecraft out of the water when it comes to builds whose only purpose is to look pretty (both in variety and aesthetic appeal). Maybe I shouldn't look at the two games as competitors. Maybe I should just accept Windborne for what it is - an opportunity to walk around a pleasant virtual park and build silly little buildings out of blocks.

Which, you know what, is fine by me. I love playing in a simulated garden, and if the things I create aren't exactly functional, that's not too big a deal, because the real joy is in designing the build, making a plan on how to carry out the design, and then executing the plan in order to bring the design to life. Even one or two moderately ambitious projects will easily keep me busy for the remaining 15 hours.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Windborne - Initial Thoughts

This is another weird game - it doesn't have a Steam store page. According to my research, it used to be an early access game, but the company who made it ran out of money and decided that it couldn't be finished. They took it out of the store and it more or less became impossible to get the game.

I have a copy thanks to the generosity of Andorxor. All of the early purchasers of the game were given five extra copies (to give away) when the project was shut down. I was lucky enough to receive one of those copies.

This is a pretty intriguing opportunity for me. Oh, in the past I've played games few people wanted to play, but this may be the first time I've ever played a game that few people are able to play. I feel so elite.

Don't worry, I'll try not to rub it in.

As far as I can tell, Windborne is like a fancier version of Minecraft. I'm pretty excited about playing it. Behind 4X games, crafting games are perhaps my favorite genre, so much so that it's a little weird that this is only the second one I've played (I have at least 4 more on the list, though). I should have little trouble finding things to amuse me for 20 hours. If nothing else, I'll just pick a mountain and hollow it out (it's strange, I love leveling things, even if there's no particular reason to do so).

My big worry is that this is a game that was cancelled mid-development, so there's no telling what sort of frustrating bugs I might encounter, or whether or not a partially-implemented feature might mock me with tantalizing glimpses of what the game could have been.

It's hard to say. Windborne's discussion page has pretty much become a wasteland where the only topic is various people's attempts to dispose of their extra copies, so I'm inclined to think that maybe it's not quite captivating enough to sustain a community (the company's official forums are completely dead), but it could just be that the necessary nucleus for community formation never appeared, and people just felt too lonely to continue supporting the game.

Certainly, a lot of the older posts were by people who were excited by Windborne's potential. I'll just have to dive into it to see how much of that potential was realized.

Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis IV, and Victoria II - 30 hours

After nearly 30 hours, I finally reached the year 1000 in Crusader Kings II. That means my noble house has been around for 231 years, and I still have 453 to go. I think I might have bitten off more than I can chew with this whole "Grand Campaign" idea.

Don't get me wrong. The game so far has been fun (except for those parts where I was on the verge of despair) and it's certainly been interesting, I guess I just didn't appreciate that it would be such a commitment.

I guess I should have known. I'd already played the game for more than 120 hours and had yet to complete a full campaign. I guess I just thought it was a result of my normal fickleness. "I want to play a republic." "Now I want to play as a Muslim." "Now I want to try out the Norsemen." And so on. Surely changing my mind about what exactly I wanted to play was sufficient to account for the disparity between my playtime and lack of completion. . .

Except, now that I've made the decision to stick with a single dynasty all the way to the end, I can't help but notice that this game is really freaking huge. I knew going into this that 20 hours wouldn't be sufficient to get through the whole time period, but I figured that by 30 hours, I'd at least be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

That has not proven to be the case. At the rate I'm going, it will likely be 90 hours just to get a save ready for Europa Universalis IV. Part of me wants to stick it out, just for curiosity's sake. What will House Strawberry be like 400 years hence, after 20 generations of politicking and treachery?

The really tricky part here is that the longer I play the game, the less I'll be able to stop. At 30 hours, I'll still have 60 left to go. If I only had 30 hours to go, it will mean I've invested 60 hours into my game. I strongly suspect that it will feel like an incredible waste to throw away such a large amount of time.

Of course, that's really just a sunk cost fallacy. In theory, it is most rational to keep playing Crusader Kings II for as long as I'm enjoying myself, and then stop once I no longer enjoy myself. Except, as you might have gathered from reading this blog, I'm not always rational about these sort of things.

So the question I have to answer is - "is this game worth playing for another 60 hours?"

I honestly don't know. When I think about the scope of the work ahead, the 20 generations as yet unborn, and all the backstabbing and betrayal that I'll have to experience (both as perpetrator and as victim), the thought exhausts me. But when I think about the very next thing I have to do (figuring out a way to get out from under the thumb of West Francia so I can forge my own destiny as King of Andalusia), I think maybe I could stand to do "just one more thing."

If I could view the game as just one thing after another, a series of situations that have to be resolved, but only one at a time, than it seems digestible.  There are lots of games like that, where I'd play individual "matches" that would be short in themselves, but then, because they required such little investment, I'd play dozens or hundreds of them, spread out over the course of years. Those little matches can quickly add up (see: my 370 hours of Civilization V)

Perhaps that's how Crusader Kings II is meant to be played. Not as one huge, 90-hour marthon, but as a series of shorter games that just all happen to take place in the same world.

I wanted to play Crusader Kings II as a lead-up to Europa Universalis because the idea of an epic story that spanned multiple games appeals to me. I really wanted to experiment with the save converter, to make my permanent mark on the game world.

What I realize now is that I divided the games wrong. I counted Crusader Kings II as one, when I really should have counted it as at least 3.  There's an epic, game-spanning storyline all right, I was just foolish to think I could (or should) do it all at once.

Since I really don't want to admit defeat on this project, I am not officially calling it quits with my Grand Campaign. I am still resolved that when I play Europa Universalis IV, it will be on a map imported from Crusader Kings II. However, I think I will take my time, playing a generation or two week instead of trying to do all 20 in a row.

This will, I think, save my sanity. I'm by no means bored of Crusader Kings II, but playing it is definitely an emotional roller-coaster. When you're up, it feels great (indeed, I just got done achieving a major victory with my most recent ruler), but such highs always come with a price (now I'm playing as his vastly less competent heir, and I have to sort through the aftermath). That, more than anything, is what turns me off a marathon session.

I figure, if I break it into chunks, I can't get too emotionally invested in any particular win or loss.

The plan, then, is to continue playing Crusader Kings II . . . one day a week. The rest of the time, I will proceed with normal on the blog. The thread about the campaign will be updated accordingly, but I'll only post about it on the blog if something really notable happens. When I finally get to 1453, I'll then play Europa Universalis IV using the save converter. Since it never had a timeline expansion, it should not take nearly so long to get through.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Review: Spinster

Note: Awhile back, I offered to review any game if the developer sent me a review copy. Surprisingly, someone took me up on that offer. If you want to support Spinster, you can go to its Steam Greenlight page and vote for it.

Okay, so there's this game called Snake, and it is, like Tetris, one of those primal, elemental games so elegant and minimalist in its mechanics that it's hard to imagine it was the work of human design. Like, with just a few blocky pixels, it still manages to perfectly communicate both its basic mechanics and the scope of what's possible with mastery to the degree that it seems less like it was invented and more like it was received from some Platonic realm of essential gameness.

The way Snake works (or at least, the way it did on the QBASIC version I played years ago) is that you start off as a square on a blank screen. At some random point on the screen, a square of a different color appears. By use of the directional buttons, you can steer your square into this other square. If you do, you gain some points, a new colored square appears at some random point on the screen, and your square gains a tail (basically, an additional square that follows your front square's path). The more squares you collect, the longer your tail becomes. If, at any point, you steer into your tail or the edge of the screen, you lose the game. At certain point thresholds, you would advance to later levels, which would have additional obstacles you had to navigate around.

The basic elevator pitch for Spinster would be "Snake, but with cats."  Instead of being a square, you are the titular Spinster, and instead of finding other squares to collect, you are rounding up your 101 stray cats. It's a cute idea, and when you are running through the world of Downton Tabby with a trail of cats behind you, it does indeed look as adorable as it sounds.

However, Spinster is more than just a Snake reskin. It also has a strong exploration element. Your missing cats are scattered around a large map that starts off in a suburban home and goes through parks, city streets, a graveyard, and a shopping mall. Scattered through this map are minigames, visual jokes, and secret unlockables.

It is at this point that I must confess that I am probably the wrong person to review Spinster. I played it for about 5 or 6 hours, and I was just terrible. My high score was 8 out 101 cats, and I completely failed to unlock any of the alternate gameplay challenges like night mode, zombies, or alien invaders. I did feel like I was improving over time, and maybe with another 10-20 hours, I might have gotten halfway decent, but my reaction time is slow, so it would have been an uphill battle the whole way.

With that caveat in mind, I have to say that Spinster's combination of classic Snake gameplay and open-world exploration has potential, but has not quite zeroed in on the exact formula that will make it its own, unique fusion of its inspirational sources. As it is, the sometimes conflicting needs of its two constituent genres can often work to the detriment of both.

Taken as a variation on Snake, Spinster undermines the earlier game's built-in difficulty curve. Because your trickiest obstacle in Snake was always your own tail, it was inherent to the game's basic mode of play that it start off relatively easy and get harder as time went on. In Spinster, you have to worry about things like household objects, trees, and moving cars, and because the placement of the cats in the map is random, you can start the game with some very tricky maneuvers to perform, regardless of the fact that you haven't had time to build up a tail.

Similarly, Spinster doesn't quite work as an exploration game because Snake is a puzzle game that requires pixel-width precision and unflagging concentration, both of which are detrimental to the experimentation and risk-taking that mark your best open-world games.

For example, in one of the corners of Spinster's map there is a graveyard that is a clear homage to Pac-Man, but in the visual language of Spinster (dogs instead of ghosts, headstones instead of walls, etc). This is as delightful as it sounds except for one small detail - imagine playing a game of Pac-Man where you die if you touch the walls.

I'll admit, part of my diffidence for Spinster comes from the fact that I'm a bit of a gaming wimp. Spinster falls into that category of games that offers fair, but unforgiving gameplay and then makes up for the fact that you are going to die frequently by letting you restart with lightning speed (it may well have the quickest game retry of any I've played for the blog, once you lose your four lives, you restart from scratch by pressing the space bar). And I've had . . . issues with games like that in the past.

Yet it's undeniable that I often felt that Spinster was too difficult for me, even on Easy mode. For much of my time playing it, I wished there was an "exploration" or "practice" mode where you couldn't die, just so I could check out the map and get used to maneuvering around the various obstacles (a suggestion if the developers decide to implement such a thing - maybe you could lose cats whenever you hit an obstacle and they could respawn randomly on the map, then put a timer on the whole thing and track how long it takes people to reach 101 cats).

The only question is whether I'm an outlier on this issue. It may well be that 9 out of 10 people find Easy mode easy and that Spinster simply isn't the right game for me. However, in my experience, while Spinster presents itself as a casual game, with a premise guaranteed to appeal to people who want something cute and silly, it is actually a seriously difficult puzzle game that requires precision reflexes.

And that's fine . . . As a puzzle game, Spinster works. The goal of the game is clear, and the set of skills necessary to achieve that goal are not at all obfuscated. Once you've played it for a few minutes, you'll know exactly what you're getting, and what you're getting is a solid, if punishing puzzle game with a cute exterior (my favorite part of the game was the punny names of the stray cats, I especially liked "Feline Deon" and "Will Feral.") It's the sort of game you can easily play for 10-30 minutes at a stretch, if you don't mind a high score of a half-dozen cats, but which will require months of practice to get anywhere near 100% completion.

My final verdict is that Spinster is the perfect game for a cat lover who also themselves has the reflexes of a cat.

Friday, January 1, 2016

End of Year Retrospective - 2015

I reached two milestones in the year 2015. In September, I played my sixtieth game for the blog. It doesn't seem like an especially significant number, but it is the number of games I owned at the beginning of this project. If I hadn't bought any more, I'd have finished it months ago.

My other milestone is that 2015 was the year when my list of unplayed games reached 100. It was thanks to things like the impossibly great Star Wars bundle, that got me fourteen games for 21 dollars. At the time, that seemed like a great deal I couldn't possibly pass up. . .

But, looking back over the year, despite having a slightly higher post-per-month average in 2015 than in 2014 (24.25 compared to 23.5), I am now 17 games farther away from my goal than I was at this time last year. At the rate I'm going, I will literally never finish all my games.

This has prompted some soul-searching on my part. Is the Decadent Gamer blog to be my life's work? What about my other interests? These are questions I grappled with over the course of the year. I still haven't come up with any definite answers, except "maybe don't buy quite so many games in 2016 and see if that helps."

My goal for the year is, by Jan 1, 2017, to have 60 or fewer unplayed games in my Steam library. I feel like if I can make back to my original starting point, I may actually have a hope of completing my goal. In theory, this should be relatively easy. All I have to do is not buy any more games.

Last year, I made a similar resolution, but I left myself wiggle-room with the qualifier "frivolous." No more frivolous purchases. Which, in retrospect, was obviously bullshit.  As a value judgement, "frivolous" can change from moment to moment. I don't think any of my 2015 purchases were quite as speculative as things like The Last Remnant or Morphopolis, but if I were really thinking, I'd have admitted I was only interested in about a third of that Star Wars bundle.

Finally, I'd like to once again thank all my readers for sticking with the blog for another year, and especial thanks goes out to those of you who sent me games to play. I've really enjoyed most of the games I got to play this way (I'd feel bad about using a qualifier in a message of thanks, but Sakura Spirit was on this list this year, and I will never forgive that. Never.), and as much as I might stress out about my own excessive spending habits, I've never felt burdened by my reader challenges (again, except fucking Sakura Spirit).

Here's to an exciting and fruitful 2016. I hope we're all productive in advancing our goals.