Thursday, March 31, 2016

Cities: Skylines - 10/20 hours

This time it was garbage.

That's an improvement, though. The garbage backlog is intermittent and hasn't brought my new city to a screeching halt. I've managed to work my way up to about 30,000 citizens and while my streets are a mess, essential services are getting through eventually. I expect I'll peak sooner or later, and then it will become time to do a postmortem on the city, but until that happens, it's nice seeing things grow.

I couldn't have done it without the advice of Victim from the forums. The suggestion about roundabouts in particular was a life-saver, although it's hard to know where to put them and I'm reluctant to experiment, given their rather large footprint.

However, I think I need to take things to the next level. Here is my traffic map as of now:

Every street that comes off the highway is slammed with cars. It's not the wall-to-wall gridlock I got with my previous town, but it is a serious problem. I think I'm going to have to bulldoze some of my commercial zones to make room for wider roads, and maybe add another roundabout or two, but my city is growing so well right now that I'm afraid the cure might be worse than the disease.

I think the lesson I'm learning from my time with Cities: Skylines is to be content with small victories. On one level, it really is better to govern a small town well than to have a large city and barely be able to control it.

On the other hand, it's kind of thrilling to reach the various milestones and watch your city get bigger and bigger. I'm just finding that the complexity of the game is exploding faster than I can get a grip on it.

Of course, this is always the way it goes down when you try to learn a new, complex strategy game. I must have played a dozen games of Civilization V before I felt confident taking on Prince difficulty and then I played Prince for literally hundreds of hours before moving on to King (and then I tried going after Emperor right away and it was a disaster). So it's likely that if I kept at it and played Cities: Skylines on a bunch of different maps over the course of a year or two,  I would com to view traffic management as a minor annoyance to be cleared away with a few clever exploits of the simulation logic.

But who has that sort of time?

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Cities: Skylines - 6/20 hours

Well, I did it again. Luckily, there were no deaths this time, but once more my ineptitude with traffic planning led to disaster in my small town. Massive power outages struck without warning thanks to a lack of fuel for my power plants. The trucks that were supposed to deliver the oil and coal managed to get stuck in gridlock for days (the game is very abstract about the passage of time).

I thought for sure this time I had it figured out. When traffic got bad, I bulldozed my two-lane road (and, unfortunately, a large chunk of my commercial district, and replaced it with a four-lane road. But that proved to be only a temporary stopgap. It turned out that most of the gridlock was due to cars going south and that the north lanes were barely being used. So I tore up the road again and replaced it with a one-way street and a two-lane road. But that just shifted the congestion down to the south as various cars got stuck having to divert around my one-way street and subsequently clogged up residential roads that were not meant to handle the congestion.

I think, on balance, things were getting better - the blackouts even stopped temporarily - but as my city grew, the problems came back with a vengeance and I wound up with power outages over about a third of the town.

From where I'm standing, the problem of controlling traffic is starting to look like it may be beyond my capabilities. It's difficult to see the connections between cause and effect, and nothing in my experience has helped me develop an intuition for the sort of solutions the game is expecting of me.

The only thing I can do is commit to a painful series of experiments where I learn through trial and error what works and what doesn't. It looks like a third new city is in the works. Here's hoping this one teaches me something useful.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Cities: Skylines - 3/20 hours

I am a terrible mayor. In my first city, people started dying left and right and nothing I did seemed to stem the tide. Bodies were piling up in residential houses as both my budget and my population suddenly crashed.

As near as I can figure, the problem appears to be that my medical clinic and/or cemetery was in an inconvenient location and the resulting traffic kept people from using them effectively.

Fucking traffic.

That was the part of SimCity 4 I couldn't quite figure out. And now it's returned to make my life miserable once again. I've managed to stay ahead of a healthcare collapse by proactively building a lot of medical clinics and multiple cemeteries, but looking at my traffic grid, I haven't actually solved the problem.

I really should figure this out. It's the sort of engaging, technical problem that thoroughly intrigues me in real life. The issue I have in games is that I don't like tearing things down to make room for wider roads or transit buildings. It's silly, I know. Logically, selective destruction has always been a necessary part of creation, but I guess I feel guilty for knocking down these virtual neighborhoods. Maybe it's because I've seen too many movies where the villain was an evil land developer.

It's probably vain puffery at this point, but I've decided that my mission for the next 17 hours is to finally figure out simulated video game traffic and build a city with a functional transportation infrastructure. It will be my greatest challenge yet!

(I mean, granted, it's not as sexy a pitch as "repelling the alien menace" or "surviving the post-apocalyptic wasteland," but it's the sort of thing that both excites and intimidates me).

Monday, March 28, 2016

Cities: Skylines - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Cities: Skylines is a modern take on the classic city simulation. The game introduces new game play elements to realize the thrill and hardships of creating and maintaining a real city whilst expanding on some well-established tropes of the city building experience.
From the makers of the Cities in Motion franchise, the game boasts a fully realized transport system. It also includes the ability to mod the game to suit your play style as a fine counter balance to the layered and challenging simulation. You’re only limited by your imagination, so take control and reach for the sky! 

Previous Playtime

18 minutes

Expectations and Prior Experience

My friend Daniel got this game for me around the time I was playing SimCity 4 and so I fired it up to check out the differences between the games. I didn't actually get that much of a read on it, just playing for a few minutes, but it looked to me as if Cities: Skylines owed a lot to the SimCity franchise, but decided to go in a more hardcore detail-oriented direction. I remember most of those 18 minutes involved fiddling with sewer pipes.

Which means that Cities: Skylines is probably exactly my sort of thing. My only worry is that it might have too steep a learning curve and subsequently I'll have a lot of failed cities and no functional ones to show for my 20 hours.

It's probably not worth stressing out about, though. This is a city sim, which means that success and failure are long-term and subjective. If nothing else, I can simply take what I have at the end of all this and declare it a success.

One Finger Death Punch - 20/20 hours

I powered through my last three hours, and it wasn't so bad . . . except that my brain is now mush. I keep wanting to react to things, but the quiet of the hotel at night is not the sort of environment where fast reflexes offer any sort of advantage.

What's left to say about One Finger Death Punch at this point? I was often surprised at myself while playing this game. I thought for sure that I couldn't beat a particular level and with all but three exceptions, I was wrong (and it's debatable whether I'm wrong permanently, even with those).

That's a good feeling, though I must have a serious pessimistic streak because I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I was afraid that I'd hit a wall and be forced to just grind on to pad my time, but luckily that never happened.

I think I will remember this game fondly, but I don't think I'll play it again. It's well put together and it manages to strike the perfect balance between the simplicity of its basic idea and the depth of skill and knowledge necessary to play it well. However, it requires entering a state of consciousness that simply isn't very comfortable. Maybe there will be times when I want to narrow my focus and until time is sliced thin and there's no separation between my thought and my actions, but if so I already have Tetris for that.

In the end, I really liked One Finger Death Punch. The goofy martial-arts nerdery of its presentation combined with the relentless, but fair, pace of its action made it an experience unlike any other. I really couldn't ask for anything more from a casual indie game.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

One Finger Death Punch - 16/20 hours

It is the paradox of One Finger Death Punch that the more difficult it gets the better the game it becomes and the less time I can stand to play at a stretch. When enemies are flying at your left and right as fast as you can see and you get into the zone where your fingers dance and your clicks fall into a perfect rhythm, it's an intense experience, one that leaves me breathless. I need time to cool down between attempts.

But it's astonishing to learn that you are capable of things you once thought impossible. It took me the better part of an hour to get past the final light sword round in Student mode, and for much of that hour, I was convinced that I would never reach the Master levels.

What wound up happening is that I burned out on the last few Student levels so I decided I would  cool off by replaying some early levels to try for platinum medals. Unfortunately, One Finger Death Punch has an annoying mechanic where the more you win, the higher the game's speed, so after just a few medals, I was back where I started from.

Since the only way to reduce your speed multiplier is to fail levels, I decided that it would be just as well if I failed the last few levels which were giving me trouble. Anyway, it turned out that during one of these doomed attempts, I didn't actually fail (probably due to all that practice I got playing the level at 150% speed), and that's how I managed to beat Student-level difficulty.

After that, I was kind of lost for awhile. I decided to give Survival mode a try, and that's a nice way to kill 15 minutes, but I wouldn't want to sit and do it for hours at a time. In the course of playing Survival mode, I unlocked Blind Survival mode, which is just like regular Survival mode, except you don't have the handy little UI elements that tell you when it's safe to strike.

Blind Survival mode is probably the best way to play the game. In the normal course of events, it's usually much more efficient to pay attention to the colored bars and ignore everything but the general position and movement of your enemies. Which is a shame because One Finger Death Punch has some really fun animation (stick figure Drunken Fist is adorable). With the bars gone, you're not only allowed, but forced to watch the martial arts action directly, and it just feels like a purer and more entertaining form of the game.

If you succeed at Blind Survival Mode well enough to get 500 kills, you unlock the game's final play mode - No, Luca, No Survival mode. This is just like regular survival except at random intervals a picture of a black cat appears on the screen and you have to swipe it away with a movement of your mouse. It's utterly ridiculous and I can't imagine I'll ever play it again, as the novelty wore off almost immediately.

It's still  a realistic depiction of a cat, though.

The plan for the last four hours is to just take it easy and do whatever comes to mind at any given moment. It's funny, if I were playing this game for a half-hour a day for forty days, it would be the easiest thing in the world, but marathoning it in the space of a week is going to take everything I've got.

Friday, March 25, 2016

One Finger Death Punch - 12/20 hours

When I first learned that people could get too old to compete in e-sports, I was surprised. I figured the activity wasn't too strenuous and relied more on the mind than the body and thus young people would not have any significant advantage.

One Finger Death Punch is teaching me the error of my ways. It feels like these most recent levels have been pushing me to my physical limit. I actually had to stop my last session because my fingers were too weak to push the buttons quickly enough.

It was a real thrill to overcome the game's second-to-last lightsaber level. I literally shouted in triumph when I managed to squeak through with one hit point remaining. However, the experience of getting to that point was torture. At one point, the enemies were coming so fast I barely had time to register them before I had to click. My 34-year-old reaction time is simply not spry enough to keep up with the upper levels of this game (I mean, I did beat the level, but luck had a lot to do with it).

I'm still going to try and unlock master mode, but I don't anticipate that being a fruitful way to spend my remaining eight hours with the game. It might be better for me to go back and replay some of the easier levels in the hopes of getting some more platinum medals. Alternately, I can try survival mode. The advantage to that would be the lack of a definite failure state. My only benchmark for success will be my previous performance.

Either way, I think I'll have no trouble getting to the end of this game . . . as soon as my hand has some time to rest.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

One Finger Death Punch - 8/20 hours

There was one thing I didn't factor into my expectations for this game - mental fatigue. Now that the levels are starting to become more intense, it's a real problem. The enemies have started coming really fast and there are so many of them that my mistakes are really adding up. This means that I have to devote the entirety of my attention to the game lest I miss a click and take an unnecessary hit.

It feels really good when you slide into the right level of focus - your furious mouse-clicks send your little stick figure flying across the screen and then suddenly you find yourself pressed between two oncoming enemies, but a quick double-tap of the mouse buttons takes them both out, and it feels like your whole mind is being channeled through your fingers.

But if your focus is stuck at one level below the threshold, then the whole thing is a disaster. You miss clicks and get pummeled and the game gently chastises you for not paying close enough attention.

I feel like the best way to play One Finger Death Punch is in one-hour bursts, no more and no less. You need some time to get warmed up and find the proper mental state and then you need to quit before you burn out.

Yet within the framework of one-hour bursts, I think you could probably play this game indefinitely. The skill ceiling is super-high, the animation is hilarious, and actually beating a difficult level is a total rush. My biggest fear for my personal playthrough is that I'm certain I will rapidly hit the physical limit of my reaction time far before I actually complete all the levels. I'm fairly optimistic that I'll get to at least Master level before then, but I have a feeling that the game is going to make me sweat for it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

One Finger Death Punch - 3/20 hours

Wow, this game is addictive. I can't remember the last time a game has gotten its hooks into me quite so quickly. I think the credit for that has to go to the game's simple, yet elegant design.

One Finger Death Punch is one of those games that literally takes 10 seconds to learn. You're a kung-fu stick figure, being attacked from both sides by a horde of aggressive stick figures. Press the left mouse button to strike left and the right mouse button to strike right. Don't click unless the enemies are relatively close, otherwise you'll leave yourself open to attack.

Yet, if that were all there were to the game, it would probably get old pretty fast. On top of the basic framework are all sorts of wrinkles that add depth to the game's strategy. Certain enemies require more than one hit to take down and can dodge from side to side, forcing you to switch up your attacks, others put you into a sudden QTE, where you have to follow the instructions or get hit, there are weapons you can pick up to increase your attack range, occasionally, a ball will appear that kills enemies in one hit if you can manage to kick it into them. It's not just mindlessly clicking, or even mere clicking to a rhythm - you have to make actual choices.

For a game that only uses two buttons, it's really quite impressive.

From my vantage point here at the beginning, it's hard to see how the next 17 hours will go. I like that the levels are short and there's no penalty for repeating them. I can easily imagine myself just happily completing the whole game, then repeating it on master and grandmaster difficulties, focusing on one level at a time in order to get the jolt of pleasure that comes from finishing one.

On the other hand, three hours in and I'm starting to feel like One Finger Death Punch has lost the ability to surprise me. I'm greatly digging its martial-arts-movie-inspired backgrounds and shockingly gratuitous (if abstractly rendered) violence, but I'm certain the novelty will wear off.

The question then is "which impulse is stronger?" The clock is ticking on a race between a hedonic addiction to arbitrary awards and the tendency to become jaded by repetition. The way I see it, either I'm going to be so wrapped up in the game that I forget about the passage of time, or once I crest the hump of the game's difficulty, I'll rapidly lose interest and start counting the hours until my ordeal comes to an end.

I don't foresee any outcome in between.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

One Finger Death Punch - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Experience cinematic kung-fu battles in the fastest, most intense brawler the indie world has ever seen! With the unique 1:1 response system of One Finger Death Punch, players will feel the immediate feedback of every bone-crunching hit.

Pay tribute to the masters using five classic kung-fu styles mixed with additional weapons. Combine face-to-face combat with throwing weapons to recreate complex fight choreographies or just send bad guys flying through glass windows. Explore a world map with over 250 stages, 13 modes, and 3 difficulty levels. Unlock 21 different skills that can be combined in thousands of ways to assist you in your journey. Put your kung-fu to the ultimate test in the survival mode.

One Finger Death Punch is a game you can “feel”. The direct connection between your mouse and your character on the screen will be a new experience for many players. When you string together a long, complex string of kills, it feels like something “you” did rather than something the game let you do. When you play it you feel like you’re actually playing a Xiao Xiao stick animation video. We took inspiration from every kung-fu film we’ve seen. Every bit of effort was poured into delivering an easy to play game that was as addictive to play as Tetris.

Every Press Matters! DO NOT BUTTON MASH!

One of the biggest challenges we had while making the game is stopping the player from button mashing. When our friends play tested our game they’d instinctively button mash, they couldn’t help themselves. It must have been the many years of playing other brawlers that engraved it in their minds the notion of rapidly pressing buttons to kill your foes. The game’s designed in such a way that if you button mash, you die. Every press matters. Although playing the game should still be simple, you see a bad guy in front of you, you attack him, he dies. If you punch even once when there’s no enemy in front of you, you’re going to miss. If you miss, chances are you’re going to get hit. It’s a simple system but it’s ruthless to button mashers. We spent much time setting up visual and audio queues as well as many warnings trying to steer players away from their natural button mashing tendencies.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

This game made it onto my Steam wishlist when I saw a video that very enthusiastically proclaimed its virtues. It didn't really look like my usual style of game, but it was unique enough to be intriguing, so I figured I'd keep an eye on it and maybe pick it up if it went on sale at a deep discount. Then I promptly forgot about it.

Some time later, one of my friends gave it to me as a gift (thanks Blake) and I put it on my list.

The interesting thing about this game, from an expectations perspective, is that I've been repeatedly warned that there's not really 20 hours worth of gameplay here. That's usually not a problem for me (there's no way it's possibly going to be worse than Sakura Spirit), but I do wonder how soon I'll hit the wall. Looking at the playtimes of various Steam reviewers, it looks like many fans of the game have, indeed, gotten past 20 hours (and one reviewer I saw had 159!), but 9-10 was much more common.

I'm guessing this is one of those games that's easy to "finish," but has a high ceiling for mastery. I've not had the best of luck with games like that thus far, but I'm also not averse to them in principle. Ultimately, it will come down to whether or not it's fun to be bad at the game. If there's enough to do as a novice, aiming to become a master isn't that bad.

Landstalker Wrap-up

Having finished Landstalker, my conclusion is that it is a game from another era. I mean, obviously, right, but other games from that same period, like Super Mario World still feel surprisingly contemporary. It comes down to things like the turn-around time from failing a challenge to retrying a challenge, the frequency and ease of saving the game, the opacity of the mechanics - small quality of life stuff that you don't even notice until it's gone.

I think there's a tendency in modern games (with the exception of a few deliberate throwbacks) to assume forward progress, to take steps to ensure that you're not unnecessarily repeating content. Landstalker doesn't do that. Even with save states, there were certain jumps and puzzles I had to repeat a half dozen times or more. And had I been playing the last half of the game "straight", working my way back up through the dungeon levels when I missed a jump, resetting puzzles by exiting and reentering rooms, backtracking through the entire dungeon when I needed to stop playing and go to sleep, then I almost certainly would have given up entirely at hour 20 and probably still have been wandering through Destel caves besides.

Which leaves me in an awkward position. I found Landstalker amusing enough once I started abusing save states (and before I needed to use save states at all). However, I really did abuse them. If I'd been merely aiming to simulate a more modern game experience, I'd have used them sparingly, at the beginning of each room, so that I'd still have to do the entire series of jumps and puzzles in one go, but I really did use them as a ratchet. Whenever it was safe to take my fingers away from the controller long enough to press F5, I'd do so, in the oft-successful hope of only having to repeat part of a sequence of challenges. I think, of all the platformers I've played in my life, only Braid has been so forgiving - and that used your ability to rewind mistakes as a both a theme to the story and a major gameplay mechanic.

So I don't know whether, if I'd played the game "honestly," I would have enjoyed it or not. What it is is a big, confusing maze of a game, where it's not always clear what you're supposed to be doing, and sometimes, even when it is clear, the thing you're supposed to be doing is so difficult that you can't believe that is really the intended solution. For example, there was this one jump you needed to do to get an extra Life Stock. It involved jumping on a switch, then immediately jumping, in the space of just a couple of frames, onto a platform that lasted less than a quarter of a second, and then jumping from that platform up to a treasure chest.  The window of opportunity there was so narrow that I felt certain I was missing a crate to hold the switch down, so I looked it up in a guide and, nope. All you had to do to get that thing was make a completely perfect jump with machine-like timing.

And you kind of have to respect that level of dedication to a premise. Someone, somewhere made a decision that the later levels of Landstalker would force you to be an expert at the game's mechanics, and they never swayed from that. It's got the sort of vaguely insular quality of a game that was made for its makers.

Which is exactly what one would expect from a game made before the internet, before the explosion in gaming as an artform, where it became required of all prospective game designers to have at least passing familiarity with the hundred other games most like their own lest they appear to be culturally illiterate.

But I don't think Landstalker could be made today, not even by the most nostalgic of indie designers. On the surface, it is a cute and colorful story about elves and sprites and sarcastic villains and ditzy princesses, but in it's heart, it is a game that needs to be attacked. You don't really play this game (at least, not after around the half way point), you go to war with it. And while there are plenty of modern games that proudly flaunt their unforgiving difficulty, these games don't present themselves as charming little Zelda-style adventures. The designers of today know better than that.

And the makers of Landstalker clearly didn't. Which makes it very interesting as a historical artifact, even if I would never dare to recommend it without caveat. When I started playing it, I was worried that I was motivated by nostalgia, but now that I'm done, I can say nostalgia is the best reason to play this game. It has a lot to offer on its own merits, particularly if you use save states wisely, but it's not going to illuminate or inspire unless you come to it looking for a window into the past. Landstalker offers a glimpse into a world where the essential gaming social contract has not yet been written. It's the sort of game you chip away at. The sort of game where you make notes about the puzzles, map the dungeons on graph paper, and play the same levels so many times they become like reflex.

Before I chickened-out, I was beginning to stretch gaming muscles that haven't been used in years . It was enough to convince me that I never want to go back, but still, occasionally, it's nice to be reminded where you came from.

Landstalker - 20/20 hours

I thought for sure that with all the save-scumming I've been doing that I'd finish the game before my 20-hour deadline. It seemed reasonable, considering that as of hour 17, I'd gotten all the way to the last dungeon, but boy has this one been a doozy.

However, I think the real culprit here is the healing shoes. After every few steps, they will heal a hit point, meaning that if you're the sort of person who can patiently walk in circles for five minutes, they greatly reduce your need for healing items, and the only thing it costs you is a bunch of tedious grinding.

From here, I'm going to keep going until the end of the game. I'm sure that I'm pretty close to finding the treasure of King Nole. Hopefully, it doesn't take more than a couple of hours.

Landstalker - 17/20 hours

There was a moment in Landstalker that legitimately cracked me up. You're in a dungeon, trying to race the villain to a legendary treasure, and you spot each other over an impassable chasm. The villain then does the standard villain thing where he brags about how he's always one step ahead of you, and mockingly offers to go slower so you catch up . . . and then he and his henchmen exit the screen really slowly. It was hilarious.

Which makes me wonder about this game's writing. You can see flashes of inspiration here and there, where's it's clear that Landstalker is trying to be a light-hearted and irreverent take on the fantasy genre. Your fairy companion, Friday, gets irrationally jealous when you talk to certain female characters. The princess who gets kidnapped tells you about how it was always her fantasy to be rescued by a hero. At one point, a knight bribes you to keep the secret of his ballet training.

Yet so much of the time in between is relatively bland. Did something get lost in the translation? Did the old Genesis cartridges not have enough memory to hold an entire script? Was video game writing, as an art form, simply not mature enough in 1992 to allow for the nuance and the humor they were clearly going for. Or maybe the game is funnier than I'm giving it credit for, and it's just the weight of all the hours of frustrating platforming that's distorting my memory.

Whatever the reason, Landstalker never really develops its own unique voice. My initial impression of the game as a Legend of Zelda knockoff wasn't quite accurate, but I'm not sure how I'd sell it in the absence of such a comparison. "It's an adventure game with a lot of platforming-based exploration, but the platforming doesn't always work" doesn't seem like much of a glowing recommendation.

I think the main thing Landstalker is lacking is a sense of worldbuilding. There's a vague reference to "the continent" and the Princess is from somewhere called the "Kingdom of Maple," but it's hard to see how all of this hangs together. Also, the dungeons could stand to be more integrated thematically with the game's story, and a cast of subvillains to act as minibosses would not go amiss (you get Zak, the Dragonian bounty hunter as a kind of honorable rival, but he's the only one of his kind that shows up and you fight him at a more or less random point int the game).

Maybe that's why Landstalker never developed into a franchise. It has a lot going for it, and its flaws are forgivable, considering its age, but I never really felt a pressing need to learn more about its world or characters.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Landstalker - 13/20 hours

Confession time - for the last few hours, I've been shamelessly cheating at Landstalker.

It all started innocently enough. I was in the middle of a long dungeon, but I got called away before I could finish (and with not nearly enough time to get back to a save point) so I decided to use the Genesis emulator's save state function to suspend my game to a more convenient time. All perfectly legitimate.

Later, I started up the game again, fully intending to use the normal in-game save system, as the designers intended. Which was an easy enough promise to make . . . until I died. And then I was faced with a choice. Reload with my last "real" save, back at the town or reload my save state, in the middle of the dungeon. And, well, the dungeon was really long and a lot of the rooms were tricky puzzles and jumps that required precision timing and a lot of trial and error. And the save already existed . . .

So I strayed from the path of purity. But only a little. I didn't create any new save states to ratchet my progress through the dungeon. I stuck with just that one, and then for the next couple of hours used the regular save points exclusively.

And then I got to Destel cave. The bottom level of Destel cave is a pit. And out of the walls of the put come a swarm of ghost-like creatures, easily dispatched individually. but much faster than your character, and when they get a hit in on him, they stun him briefly. And they keep respawing. Also, the door out is really narrow and easily missed with Landstalker's half-assed controls. It's both deadly and annoying.

The reason it's relevant is that the upper levels of Destel cave are a series of platforming challenges, and if you miss any of the jumps, you fall into the pit to start the whole thing over again. In order to get through, you have to flawlessly pass three levels of jumps without making a single mistake.

Which would be a pain in the ass, but not outside the bounds of reason, if it weren't for the fact that many Landstalker jumps look like this:

Those wooden platforms in the middle of the circle will fall about a second after you stand on them. Knowing that, it seems pretty obvious what the challenge here is - run across the platforms in a straight line and drop onto the ledge with the treasure chest. Everyone who's ever played a Mario game before has done something similar about a hundred times.  Except that's not it at all. The chest platform is actually offset from the wooden platforms. To clear the gap, you actually have to turn while on the second square and jump towards the bottom-right corner of the screen.

Stare at the picture long enough, and you can just about force your eye to see the way the jump is supposed to be done. However, it's not so easy a feat when your heart is pounding with frustration because you just had to repeat the previous two levels of the dungeon a half-dozen times because the last three time you got this far, you managed to jump into empty air.

So I started using the quicksave function right before every jump that gave me trouble. Then, instead of laboriously making my way back through the entire dungeon every time I whiffed it, I'd just quickload as I was falling down the pit. I'm positive that I managed to shave at least three hours of playtime off Landstalker by doing this.

That may prove inconvenient in the long-term, but it will be absolutely worth it if I never have to see the bottom of that fucking pit again.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Landstalker - 6/20 hours

I don't know how I put up with this game at 13. Maybe my younger self was more mature and patient that I'm giving him credit for. Maybe the slim pickings of my early game collection made me less discerning. Or maybe I just naively assumed that they wouldn't put stuff in a game if it wasn't "fair."

It may well not have occurred to my younger self that it is impossible to platform properly without depth perception, and thus when I came up to a jump that looked diagonal, but was really two parallel platforms at different heights, so that I had to jump down, towards the bottom of the screen instead of towards the corner, but the only way I could figure it out was trial and error because there was no way my eyes were cooperating with what the game wanted me to do, that maybe the game was at fault, and I was repeating the jump a dozen time or more because it was a poorly thought-out jump, and not because I suck at jumping.

I guess it has the advantage of padding out the game's playtime, though. I certainly spent a lot more time trying to get past certain cliffs and chasms than the size of the dungeons might justify.

I think Landstalker is one of those games that gets grandfathered into acceptability. In 1992, it was trying something new and pushing the limits of what home console technology would accomplish. If it made the occasional misstep, that may simply be the price of its audacity. I haven't heard of many other isometric platformers, so maybe the genre never really caught on, though if it did, I'm sure that many of the later examples learned from Landstalker's mistakes.

As long as I remember that I'm playing something primitive, I'm enjoying Landstalker. It's bright, and colorful. It has collecting. The puzzles and jumps are pretty clever (so long as they aren't screwing you over with perspective tricks). When I'm done, it will probably be retired to the permanent "nostalgia wing" of my personal gaming archives, but nothing I've experienced so far has tarnished my memories of the game, and I don't think anything will.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Landstalker - 2/20 hours

This is a decent, but flawed game. I didn't want to compare it too much to the Legend of Zelda series, but Landstalker is like an LoZ game without Nintendo's off-the-wall inventiveness or meticulous attention to detail. Certain things feel off. Not just in comparison to another series, but period.

Like the sword-fighting. Swinging your sword stops your movement. So you can't dodge out of the way of an unexpected attack or charge an opponent that's coming your way. Your fighting tactics boil down to "move yourself into the path of the enemy's movement, stand stock still, and swing your sword wildly in the hopes of knocking them back before they can close the distance." If you get the position even slightly wrong, you'll hit nothing but air.

Now, to be fair to Landstalker, I started up my old copy of Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Link does the exact same thing, which is something that I hadn't noticed before and I can only assume is a limitation of that generation of hardware. But the difference between the two games is that Link is about twice as fast as Nigel, and thus feels more nimble overall.

Likewise, the jumping doesn't quite work. It's not always easy to see exactly where you are in relationship to your intended destination, thanks to an isometric view that simulates 3-D without actually providing depth.

That being said, if you can get over the awkwardness of the controls, Landstalker has a lot to offer. It's your basic, go into dungeons, smash monsters, move blocks to solve puzzles setup that you'd come to expect as part of this genre, and if it doesn't do this perfectly, it at least does it competently.

The story is as simple as simple can be. You're Nigel, a treasure hunter, and while you're in the middle of looking for some treasure, you stumble upon Friday, a sprite, who is being chased by a group of villains. You help to hide her, and in return, she tells you how to find the legendary treasure of King Nole. But on your way to get the treasure, you fall down a hole, wind up miles away, and have to work your way back. Along the way, you go through various dungeons in order to win the favor of the locals and get the information and support you need to make another run at the big score.

I'm not entirely sold on the characters, yet. They're quite thinly drawn and rely a lot on common types for their characterization. Plus the translation is not doing them any favors (my favorite is the unit of currency "golds.") I'm sure they'll grow on me with time, but for now the real draw is the dungeon-crawling.

Oh, and the mushroom monsters you sometimes fight look a lot like penises with human lips where the testicles normally go. It's kind of gross.

Landstalker - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

You are Nigel, an elf and treasure hunter extraordinaire.

Assisted by his new partner Friday, Nigel will travel to a distant island in a search of a legendary treasure.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I honestly didn't remember, so I looked back at my transaction history, and it turns out that I bought this game for full price. It took me a while to remember why I would do such a thing . . .

As I recall, it was early 2015 and I'd just gotten my new computer. I ordered it off of Amazon, and because it was the most expensive and sensitive online purchase of my life, I decided to spring for 2-day shipping (so I could guarantee that it arrived on my day off). And then it took more than a week to arrive. This was due to a snowstorm in the northeast, which I thought really sucked, but was something no one could have predicted. Then I found a post on twitter, by UPS, telling people to expect delays, dated the day before I made my order.

Which meant that UPS accepted my 2-day shipping money while fully aware of the fact that this was an impossible promise. I complained on twitter (so far my only post on that site), and much to my surprise, a CSR got back to me, telling me to email their refund department. Not thinking anything would come of it, but having nothing to lose, I did. And for my efforts I got a refund on the shipping price . . . in the form of a virtual giftcard.

Anyway, I used most of the card to buy a couple games from GOG (which won't accept my normal debit card) and then found myself with about 3.00$ left over. So I searched for something that cost as close as possible to my remaining balance, and of the things I found, Landstalker looked like the best choice.

The Steam Store description doesn't really try to sell it all that much, but back in the mid-90s I had a Sega Genesis, and this game was one of my favorites. Sadly, the genesis died and all of its cartridges got sold at a yard sale, but I've had fond memories of Landstalker ever since.

Expectations And Prior Experience

This is a tricky one, because it's entirely possible that all of my memories of this game are filtered through a haze of nostalgia. I remember it being a fun little zelda-style action rpg with a lot of puzzles and quirky characters, and I remember enjoying it enough to get all the way through, but I am completely blanking on all of the other details.

Which is good. Because that means I'll be able to enjoy a zelda-style game for the PC (and why the hell don't I have more of those, exactly) and it will be almost like a completely new experience. Landstalker would have to completely screw up the formula and my memory of the game would have to be completely treacherous for this to possibly go wrong.

However, I can't be entirely clear of doubt, because both of those are possible. My biggest worry is that the game will have poor controls that make the action a crap shoot and opaque old-school puzzles that will bring my progress to a halt. There has to be a reason Landstalker didn't blow up and become one of the 16-bit era's classic franchises.

StarForge - 20/20 hours

StarForge is not a finished game. It relies too much on procedural generation, and the challenges of navigating the environment and fighting random monsters simply aren't engaging enough to sustain an entire game. There's not enough variety, not enough reward for exploration, and not enough crafting recipes.

But none of that is StarForge's fatal flaw. No, the real dealbreaker for me was that when the time came for me to start building my fortress, I discovered that when the various blocks are stacked, they look terrible. It was a combination of the colors and textures. Most of the more expensive and durable blocks were some variety of metallic-grey, which wound up looking too dark when part of a tall stack. The steel blocks had a rivet pattern that might have been home in a steampunk construction, but weren't what I was going for, at all. And the monolithium blocks have this in-built circuitry which could possibly look cool and science-fictiony, but gave an ugly asymmetry when tiled in a large square.

As a result, I wasn't able to come up with a building plan that met my aesthetic standards and subsequently lost interest in the building portion of the game (I might have been able to salvage something by using corner pieces to give my constructions interesting shapes, but they were such a pain in the ass to orient that I more or less noped out of that idea before it could take root).

What I wound up doing with the last three hours or so was starting up a new file on an "infinite" world and seeing how far I could walk away from the spawn point without dying. Pretty far, it turned out. By the time I was finished, the map's central tower was nothing more than a dim light in the distance.

It was a decent enough experience as far as virtual nature-walks go, and some of the terrain did look pretty awe-inspiring, though it quickly became apparent that the five basic biomes you get on a more typical, area-limited game, are the extent of StarForge's bag of tricks.

I have no regrets playing this game, but I can say with confidence that I have no intent of every playing it again. It's not as dire a game as the Steam store page reviews would make it out to be, but what strengths it has are due almost entirely to the survival-crafting genre. Once I got my framerate issue sorted out, it was a well-implemented virtual park - and nothing else. And that's the biggest thing going against StarForge. There's nothing this game does that other games in the genre don't do as well or better (even the tree-chopping - I recently learned that Medieval Engineers is similarly modeled), and it never quite reaches a point where its elements work together to make it more than the sum of its parts.

I think if StarForge were the only game of its genre, I would be quite happy with what it has to offer. I like the core gameplay elements of exploring a virtual park, hoarding raw materials, and building stuff out of bricks. It's just the game's bad luck that I have so many other options at my disposal.

Monday, March 14, 2016

StarForge - 11/20 hours

I may have been to harsh on this game before. In the last few hours, I've really gotten into it. The turn-around point came when I suddenly remembered that I downloaded a game booster a couple months ago, to help me play Borderlands 2. And when I used it, it worked. My fps went from about 25 average, with dips to the single digits in busy areas, to about 40 average, with dips to about 25 in busy areas.

It was a change that breathed new life into the game. Places that were a chore to visit previously now suddenly opened up and became accessible. I could actually approach the crashed star ship, fight the monsters with my guns, and scavenge new blueprints from the wreckage.

StarForge is still not a great game. There's not enough diversity in you building blocks (it doesn't even have glass), and there needs to be more done to make the biomes feel more distinct (though there is some striking visual design in the various alien foliage), and exploring the crashed spaceship was a lot of fun . . . the first time.

If there were some system to put the kibosh on the proliferation of useless blueprints. If you could customize your vehicles. If monster-hunting was both riskier and more rewarding. Then StarForge could be a genuinely good game. As it is, it's mainly a way to waste some time. I really enjoyed scouting for the wide array of minerals necessary to build my first hoverbike. And riding that thing around has given me a welcome sensation of personal power. But now I'm stuck with what to do next. My most reasonable option is to design and build a structure without any windows, which doesn't really appeal to me all that much.

Still, losing myself in the game has been pretty easy. Which I guess goes to show that I'm a soft touch for survival crafting games. As long as it's even slightly functional, I'll find some way to amuse myself.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

StarForge - 5/20 hours

There's one thing StarForge does better than any other game I've played. Chopping down trees is amazing. You swing your tool at the base of the tree and eventually a break appears in the trunk. Then gravity takes over and the whole trunk falls down, the top tipping over first and then bringing the bottom with it. It's an animation that reaches into some deep, dark part of your brain and makes it want to yell "TIMBER!"

Going through a forest with a chainsaw, hacking down everything you see, is oddly satisfying. It's unfortunate, then, that it took me so long to actually get a chainsaw.

The problem I had was that my original world was very stingy with iron ore. I spent hours wandering around looking for it. Eventually, I got lost in an area with some tall cliffs and then somehow died when I went to get a pillow for a customer. Apparently StarForge does not have a pause function, which is always something that annoys me in a single-player game.

This turn of events frustrated me so much that I deleted the entire world and started a new one from scratch. And in the new world there were two huge iron deposits right near my spawn. I guess that's just how these things go.

Having access to iron has changed the way I view the game. I hadn't realized before that enemies could drop blueprints for new crafting items when you killed them (without a gun, I'd always run away). And with my discovery of new building materials like cement blocks, it actually seems plausible to craft some significant structures. The only problem I've faced so far is that placing ramps has been a pain in the ass. Getting them in exactly the right configuration to smooth out the corners of your structure is incredibly fiddly. StarMade had an interface for this that worked pretty well (even if it was sometimes hard to judge the exact orientation), but as far as I can tell, StarForge does not, and since the developers have apparently given up on the game, it probably never will.

Which is a shame, because the terrain, when it's not randomly disappearing or slowing down to less than 10fps, is nice and organic-looking, so the Minecraft-style stepped buildings are not really in keeping with the game's aesthetic. I suppose I could get around this by building only in rectilinear blocks, but I quickly chafe at the limitations of those kinds of designs.

Ah well, I'm not going to win any architectural design awards with StarForge's crafting system, but chances are I wasn't going to do that anyway.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

StarForge - 2/20 hours

I really wish I was playing Space Engineers. That's pretty much all you need to know about this game. You would rather be playing Space Engineers.

And just to test my theory, in case I was misremembering that other game out of a desperate desire to escape from StarForge into a world of fantasy, I fired up Space Engineers for a side-by-side comparison. It is indeed better than StarForge in almost every conceivable way (the exception is tree removal).

That said, I don't especially hate StarForge. If it weren't for the blog, I'd have no reason to ever play it, but given my current situation, I'm not cursing the heavens or anything like that. Okay, maybe I did a little when I tried tweaking the graphical settings and the game crashed again and again. And maybe I'm a little dismayed at all the clipping and textural pop-ins there are on "fast" graphics (seriously, whole trees would appear to shift position by about a quarter inch - it was very disorienting).

Yet the core of the game - wandering around, reducing random geological features to ground level in order to get the valuable minerals within, avoiding monsters, and (presumably) building stuff up - that all appears to be in order. I don't need a lot more than that to be entertained.

The real question becomes - exactly how tolerable is a diet version of a superior game? Probably not very, considering StarForge's ugly graphics, barren worlds, and sparse crafting options (apparently - it's hard to say, because the wiki and the in-game menus don't agree).

My plan, however, is not to think about it. I'll just roam over the wide-open spaces, search for mineral deposits, harvest mushrooms for meal-replacement shots, and try and stay alive as long as possible. Maybe I'll even build myself a fort or two.

And when it's all over, I'll happily uninstall this game and never think of it again.

Friday, March 11, 2016

StarForge - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

StarForge is a sci fi survival sandbox. Hunt to eat, dig for resources, craft many items, build a fort, and fight enemies in order to survive! Do this alone, or with other players, in a fully infinite procedural world.

Key Features in StarForge:
Procedural Infinite Voxel Terrain - There are no set boundaries in StarForge; the planet will procedurally generate each time you start a new game. The terrain supports plains, mountains, deserts, mountains, caves, overhangs, rocks, and much more. The world is infinite, meaning you will be able to run in a single direction for as long as your computer can support it.

Underground/Surface/Space Gameplay - Build a tower that ascends into the clouds, through the atmosphere, then into space, and do this in real-time with no loading screens.

Dynamic World - Enjoy dynamic weather patterns, a 24 day and night cycle, and a real time atmosphere. Creatures drop loot and attack the player and sometimes other creatures. Players can also swim and find water or lava in the game.

Loot and Survive - Before the humans landed countless weapons and armor were sent to Atlas. You will find loot chests littered throughout the land, you will need their contents to survive.

Vehicle Gameplay - Hop on board a 4 wheeled all terrain vehicle with a friend and traverse the world. Or jump into a hovercraft for speedy terrain movement. You may also take flight in the space helicopter.

Procedural 3D Tileset - Build anything you want with our unique 3D Tilesets. You can create towns, villages, bridges, forts, and much more. It is also fully destructible! Ramps and stairs are also included.

Physics Sandbox - We are designing the world to be fully dynamic. This currently includes chopping down trees, turrets, and enemies.

Physics Movement - Our movement model is designed closely around the real bio mechanics of biped locomotion; The result is a more human look and feel, and a character that is equipped to intelligently react to dangers far beyond what conventional movement code was designed to handle. It also features a full body IK system.

Resources and Economy - There will be many different resources in StarForge. However, the player can only hold so much at a time. When the player can no longer hold what he mined, he will have to build containers to store them into. This makes resources tangible and gives you the ability to steal other players resources.

Multiplayer & SinglePlayer - We have both modes playable in the game.

Survival - In this mode you are tasked with surviving on the planet. You will encounter enemies, find new blueprints, gather weapons, build a base, and so much more.

Creative - In this mode you have unlimited resources and can build at great speeds. You may also place creatures anywhere you want.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

It was on deep discount and its screenshots looked intriguing. I love building and exploration, and to do that sort of thing in a realistic-looking science-fiction world seemed like a can't miss prospect. It was still in early access at that time, but I figured, what's the worst that could happen . . .

Expectations and Prior Experience

It turns out that this purchase may have been my biggest mistake yet. Looking back at the store page, I found the reviews were extremely negative. Just 18% of the purchasers gave it a good review, which is worse than everything but Ride to Hell: Retribution, and even then only by a bit.

Most of those reviews focused on the fact that the game was released in early access and then not finished. Actual details on the game itself are thin on the ground. It looks like an open-ended survival crafting game where you wander around gathering materials and building equipment, but exactly how many features are present and missing is difficult to say.

If it's just crafting, I think I can live with that. I recently played Windborne and didn't have any trouble with it. However, if the game doesn't actually work, then that could be a problem. I have a feeling that if the game was functional, people probably wouldn't be so bitter about it, but I have no way of telling whether the negative reviews are the result of anything more than dashed expectations.

Well, okay, I have one way of telling.

I'll see you in another two hours or so.

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines - Wrap-up

Well, I really did not enjoy the last 3 hours of the game. I think the problem is I chose to play a brawl-based character. As a result, it took about a dozen hits to take down the mortals in the kuei-jin headquarters, Ming Xiao's demon form was a tedious fight where I had to whittle down her hit points, I was constantly being thwarted by enemies becoming invincible in ragdoll, and the fight with the giant bat at the end was total bullshit.

But in the end, I discovered that the sarcophagus contained, not an ancient vampire, but a bomb, which I found out when I was presented with the choice of either opening it myself or dropping the key for a wounded Lacroix to scramble over. Naturally, I chose to use it myself, because as foolish as doing so was, I had no way of knowing that Lacroix wouldn't gain ultimate power.

I'm glad I played this game. I can see why it's well-loved. There's a lot of fun stuff in there, and I can't think of a better modern-day vampire rpg. However, I'm not eager to play it again. If the final fights gave me so much trouble as a Brujah (they get super-speed, super-strength, and a debuff aura), how much more difficult would they be as a fragile clan, like the Tremere or the Malkavians? I suppose I could have used more stealth, and perhaps saved myself a few fights, but I don't see how you can stealth past the bosses.

Mostly what this game did for me was make me hungry for a sequel or a remake or another game in the same genre. I'd love to be able to get lost in a huge, gothic-punk open world and just spend hours and hours being a vampire. That's not a criticism of Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines though. The thing I love about this game is that it had the vision to try and bring the World of Darkness to life. It's just that the farther I got into the game, the less I felt like I was playing my vampire and the more I felt like I was playing a particular character in the game-maker's story. And it's that feeling you get when you have a fresh character and you're emerging from your haven for the first time, and you've got this whole world to explore, filled with fresh NPCs to assault and exsanguinate that is the best part of the game.

It's a testament to the power of V:tM - Bloodlines that even after some long and frustrating final dungeons, I still want more.

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines - 20/20 hours

Chinatown turned out to be mostly filler. I had to rescue a bratty kidnapping victim, destroy a local gang, and get experimented upon by a mad scientist who somehow knew about the existence of vampires. Only after I tread water for a few hours was I rewarded with information that would put the main plot back on track - the sarcophagus was stolen by clan Giovanni, all I had to do to get it back was fight my way through their mansion . . .

. . . and the catacombs underneath.

Fucking catacombs.

However, once I got through yet another dismal underground level, the plot once again picked up. I returned the sarcophagus to the Prince and had a not at all suspicious conversation where he denied having a sinister hidden agenda in a totally plausible way. There was a brief tease as that Beckett guy showed up again, claiming that the sarcophagus was nothing more than a mundane relic. And yet . . . we couldn't get it open.

I guess sledgehammers were out of the question, because the Prince sent me to retrieve an expert on the Sarcophagus who had recently been "rescued" by the Society of Leopold (the Catholic church's secret order of vampire hunters) and was being held against his will at their seaside monastery . . .

. . . in the caves below the chapel.

Fucking caves.

I'm not entirely sure why a game with such a cool and evocative above-ground setting keeps sending me to these bland subterranean tubes, but I have to count this as a major flaw. There's just so much, thematically, that can be done with things like a church housing an elite order of fanatical militant priests or a mansion inhabited by a corrupt and incestuous family ruled by its own ancient dead, that it seems a real shame to reduce these encounter to "smack random enemies in a featureless, grey corridor."

From the sarcophagus expert, I learned that the thing probably held the body of Messerach, an ancient Assyrian king who only the credulous would believe is a vampire of legend (wink) just because he was the only recorded monarch for more than 200 years and tales told of his habit of drinking the blood of his enemies. Of course, knowing as I do the backstory of Vampire: the Masquerade, I can say with confidence that Messerach is not necessarily an ancient and insanely powerful vampire, but if I were in my character's place, I certainly wouldn't want to take any chances.

After that, I had to single-handedly slay the remaining Sabbat, just to tie up a loose end. Fighting my way through an abandoned hotel was a nice change of pace from the various tunnels I'd been through before, though I wasn't pleased to see that Tzimisce again, not after I thought I killed him (I still don't know his name or what his deal was, except that he seemed to have a very poor grasp of the dangers of pissing off a high-xp Brujah.)

I think what strikes me most about the last stretch of the game is the way that I'm helpless to go against the very obviously stupid decisions the plot forces me into. Like, once I recover the sarcophagus, why do I bother to return it to Lacroix? And once I talk to Lacroix and discover his manipulative behind-the-scenes scheming with the Kuei-jin, fueled by his unhealthy obsession to possess the secrets of the sarcophagus, regardless of the cost, why do I agree to try and help him find a way to open it? And once Ming Xao, the Kuei-jin leader, appears to me out of nowhere to reveal, unprompted, that she had the key and was canceling her alliance out of fear of Lacroix's treachery, why do I bother to volunteer this information that the Prince wasn't actively seeking and hadn't instructed me to find? And then, once Lacroix decides that he must go to war with the Kuei-jin and sends me as an emissary to negotiate a truce with the Anarchs, why on earth do I not say "this guy is clearly gearing up to backstab us all, don't trust him?"

It's all very mysterious. Perhaps the ending was, indeed, rushed.

My current status is that I've just survived Lacroix's ambush (though I lay partial blame on Nines Rodriguez for choosing to meet in werewolf country), having successfully evaded a badass werewolf with the aid of a timely glitch, and now I have to fight my way through Santa Monica as vampires from all across California pursue me in a Blood Hunt.

I expect I have around another hour or so of game left, so I think I'll stick it out. I'm curious about what's in the damned box and it would be nice to be able to punch Lacroix in his smug little face.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines - 15/20 hours

Fucking sewer levels! I should be inured to them by now. They're a long-time staple of the rpg genre. And I can understand why that is the case. A sewer is basically a realistic pretext for a dungeon. They're underground. They're gloomy. People don't really know or understand what goes on inside them. It seems almost plausible that there could be monsters lurking in this overlooked and mysterious network of tunnels.

But damn, trudging through video game sewers is almost always miserable. They are cramped, dark, and drab. The various, nearly-identical looking tunnels tend to blur together after awhile, and it's almost always a confusing maze of switches, valves, and backtracking.

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines' sewer level was no exception. By the end of it, I'd forgotten why I was even down there in the first place. Looking back at my notes, what happened was that when I broke into the museum to steal the Sarcophagus, some unknown party beat me to it. The Prince was furious, and gave me an open-ended mission to go find it. Our best lead was the information-brokers of vampire society, Clan Nosferatu. Clan Nosferatu are hideously cursed creatures who tend to live in the sewers . . .

I couldn't go directly there (of course), so first I had to stop by Hollywood and talk to the Anarch leader, Isaac, whose Nosferatu contacts recently disappeared. This turned out to be related to a supernatural snuff film, which I (of course) had to track down. The film turned out to be the product of a deviant Tzimisce vampire (an aristocratic vampire clan, allied with the Sabbat, who use blood magic to twist the flesh of their victims until they are tortured monstrosities) who I (of course) had to confront and slay.

Then, and only then, was I allowed to enter the sewers. Yay.

Anyway, a long, repetitive, and at times frustrating 3 hours later, and I've at last met with the head of the Nosferatu, who promises to tell me what I want to know . . . if I go to Chinatown and find his lost agent.

Of course.

Chinatown is interesting because apparently the main antagonists in this area are going to be the Kuei-jin. The Kuei-jin are one of those things from the old world of darkness that are, like 60% cool, 30% dorky, and 10% racist. They are mysterious, Asian vampires (the racist part), with a complex spirituality and relationship to the metaphysics of the afterlife (the cool part), with awesome martial arts- and chi-themed superpowers (the dorky part). So, right now, I don't know whether to fanboy-out or roll my eyes.

I really don't want to talk about them too much, because I know that if I do, I probably won't be able to stop. Let's just assume that they are a third type of special vampire, no more or less exotic than the Nosferatu or the Tzimisce, and leave at that.

Judging by the walkthroughs I've seen (I make no apologies - the game lacks both minimap and objective markers), I'm in the final stretch of the game, the last hub area. And going into this final area, I feel like the game's story is starting to fall apart. I, as a White Wolf fan, am thrilled to see cameos from more obscure parts of the game's lore, but I definitely get the feeling that if I were coming into this fresh, I'd be quickly overwhelmed by the rapid introduction of new fantastic conceits. I mean, the Tzimisce basically came out of nowhere and has a face like an alien. And while you can theoretically play as a Nosferatu (and I believe you meet at least one earlier in the game), running around their secret base makes them feel strange and unfamiliar in the way that the occasional deformed NPC does not. And why do the Kuei-jin have to be different (I know, well-meaning '90s racism, but still)? They look just the same as normal vampires, and you'd have no reason to think they were anything but another clan if it weren't for the info-dump their leader gives you at your first meeting.

From what I understand, the developer ran out of time and money while making the game, and if that's the case, then the last quarter is where it's really going to show. All these long sidequests I've been doing have distracted me from the main thread of the plot, but I don't think I've yet reached the point where the game's overall pacing is hopelessly shot. I've got my fingers crossed that the mystery of the Ankaran Sarcophagus will wrap up in a satisfying manner, but the recent sloppiness in connecting my mandatory quests to the game's main plot has got me worried.

Still, if I can spend most of the last few hours of the game above ground, I'll count it as a victory.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines - 10/20 hours

I downloaded and installed the unofficial fan patch and so far it's been pretty good. The game looks a lot crisper and more detailed, which is nice, and I can actually read the nameplates on various doors, which is essential. It's still a very early open-world game at its core, but it's a lot prettier to look at.

The plot is continuing apace. Conflict between the Anarchs and the Camarilla is becoming more heated. Nines Rodriguez may have killed one of the Camarilla elders, or he may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Either way, Prince Lacroix declared a Blood Hunt on him, which is exactly as bad as it sounds.

While all this is going on, everyone on board a cargo ship carrying a mysterious sarcophagus was killed. Rumor has it that the sarcophagus contained the remains of an ancient and powerful vampire, and every supernatural faction in the city wants to get its hands on it. Some believe it could herald the end of the world. All I know is that chasing after this fucking thing has forced me into too many goddamned stealth missions. I'm a Brujah, dammit, specced for brawling. Why on earth would the Prince send me into a delicate situation that calls for the minimization of casualties?

I guess it's just one of those rpg conventions that you just have to learn to live with. You have the freedom to build your character however you want, but the challenges are fixed and sometimes you're just not going to have the tools to deal with a particular situation.

I'm not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, it's "realistic" (or at least verisimilitudinous). If you take a video game as a simulated world, then it makes sense that purely by chance you're going to be shorter than some things and taller than others.

Except that chance has nothing to do with it. The virtual world is a designed place, which means that nothing that happens to me is entirely be accident. With that in mind, it becomes harder to justify putting roadblocks in the way of the player's progress. If a game allows multiple builds, it should be difficult (if not impossible) to choose a bad build. So far in my gaming experience, Deus Ex is the only game that really gets it right.

That being said, the main consequence of me being bad at stealth is that I had to kill some people I probably shouldn't have and thus my vampire boss yelled at me, which wasn't exactly a pleasant experience (especially since I couldn't throw his poor choice of agents back in his face), but I could shrug it off pretty easily, which just reinforces the advantage of choosing a combat build - had I gone with stealth, the sneaking missions would have been easier, but some of those deadly vampires I wound up fighting would have made for a frustrating cul de sac.

When I first started playing Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, I was ambivalent about whether the game was an overlooked classic or a niche curiosity. And in the course of playing, I've assembled a wishlist of features that I think would make the game a lot better (customizable wardrobe and day/night cycle, for example). However, if I stop comparing it to the awesome open-world crime/vampire action-rpg I have floating around in my head and just take it on face value, I'd have to say that Bloodlines is pretty good. I wouldn't necessarily call it a classic (partially because I can't shake the feeling that it is only due to my preexisting familiarity with the lore that the story is as comprehensible as it is), but it's got decent gameplay, an interesting story, good voice acting, and atmosphere to spare (even in pre-patch form).

I may not be shaking my head in disbelief that I haven't played this game before, but I can understand perfectly why it has such a passionate and devoted following.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines - 6/20 hours

Astonishingly, for once in my life I can follow a crpg's plot. I think I can credit this to extra-textual knowledge derived from the tabletop game. Basically, what's going on is that there are three factions vying for control over the city of Los Angeles and they all want to use me as a pawn against each other. The Camarilla, led by Prince Lacroix, want to manipulate mortal society from the shadows. The Anarchs, led by Nines Rodriguez, fancy themselves independent and egalitarian vampires, and just want to be left alone to hunt in peace (and it hasn't been shown in Bloodlines yet, but many Anarchs are part of the movement because they think they can amass more personal power outside the Camarilla's control). Finally, the Sabbat just want to kill shit and drink its blood.

The central tension of the political situation is that both the Anarchs and the Camarilla agree that the Sabbat are an existential threat and a danger to the Masquerade (Vampire society's tradition of staying out of sight), but they hate each other so much that cooperation is difficult, if not impossible. It is yet to be seen whether the main character of Bloodlines will favor one side over the other, or if he will act as a bridge between the two factions.

Mostly, this manifests in the form of me breaking and entering in order to fetch various items or kill various NPCs. There were some memorable moments, feeding my blood to a wounded woman in the clinic, discovering Therese and Jeanette were actually the same person, getting mystery-teased by the werewolf, Beckett. All this amounted to was me being jerked around by NPC after NPC, with it never being entirely clear who I could trust or what their real agendas are.

Which, you know, is exactly like the tabletop rpg, so well done.

The biggest barriers to my enjoyment of the game thus far are simply artifacts of its age. The low resolution makes it difficult to read signs. The lack of objective markers means I'm wandering around in circles more than I should. Dialogue is unskippable, even when you've reloaded after a difficult boss fight (though to be fair to Bloodlines that's a problem that even some modern games still inexplicably have). However, these issue aren't too serious. Exploring the World of Darkness in an immersive visual form is such a blast that I'm willing to tolerate a lot of awkwardness.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines - 2/20 hours

I'm not too far into this game yet, but one thought has been dominating my first impressions - "damn, I wish this were a modern game." As I walk through the streets of the World of Darkness' Santa Monica, I can't help but see a dozen flaws that aren't really flaws so much as they are signs of the game's age. There needs to be about five times as many NPCs mulling around. Exploration needs to be more vertical. Alleys need to be narrower and have greater rewards for looking down them. There needs to be more ambient storytelling, where you overhear conversations between random strangers that reveals to you the details of the game's world. You know, stuff that wasn't invented in 2004 and probably technologically impossible besides.

I'm going to own this as a flaw on my part. It's not right of me to compare the art direction to something like Arkham City or your vampire's disciplines to the powers in more recent open-world superhero games like Crackdown or Prototype. It's just hard to pretend like the last ten years haven't happened.

Assuming I can, however, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines stands on its own as a pretty good game. It definitely captures the sexy-goth/overcompensating nerd aesthetic that I've come to associate with Vampire: the Masquerade, and haunted house level was genuinely creepy. I'm not too far into the story, but it looks interesting in that frustrating way crpg stories can get when they don't quite trust you to stay on the rails.

You are some random slob who was made into a vampire ("embraced") by someone who lacked the permission of the head vampire in town ("Prince" Lacroix). So the Prince killed your maker ("sire") and then offered you a choice - "work for me or I'll kill you." In the first two hours, at least, that has mainly involved going from vampire to vampire and not commenting on the fact that they're demanding favors in exchange for you doing something that would benefit them immensely if they simply helped you do without making you jump through hoops (attack a hidden outpost of the "Sabbat," vampires who don't care about hiding from humanity, and are also even bigger dicks than your own faction, "the Camarilla.")

The arbitrariness of the tasks (so far, taking out a gang of drug dealers and removing a locket from a haunted house) is not something I'm going to hold against it though. An rpg wouldn't be an rpg if quest-giving NPCs didn't jerk you around for no conceivable reason. What makes the game most interesting to me is the fact that I'm familiar with the setting of the table-top rpg and so far Bloodlines seems like a pretty faithful recreation of it. I can't wait to get farther into the game and see how deep into the often bizarre rabbit hole of World of Darkness canon this game dares to go.

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 Vampire®: The Masquerade-Bloodlines™ delivers a new type of RPG experience-one that blends all the core elements of a traditional RPG with the graphical richness, immediacy and brutal combat of a first-person action game. The game plunges players into the dark and gritty vampire underworld of modern-day L.A. as a creature of the night. Players will develop their character's powers, interact with other characters and embark on story-driven quests as they battle mortals and other vampires with an incredible array of vampire powers and weapons. Powered by Valve's Source Technology, the game is based on White Wolf's popular Vampire: The Masquerade pen-and-paper RPG series and its official clans.

Previous Playtime

1.7 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Over the years I've played a lot of the Vampire: The Masquerade tabletop game, and so a video game based on those rules intrigues me right of the bat (no pun intended). That Bloodlines also has something of a legendary reputation among the forums I frequent also helps matters along.

I don't remember the exact circumstances surrounding my purchase of this game, but I imagine it went something like "hey, this game everyone's been talking about is on sale for 75% off, I think I'll get it and see what all the fuss is about."

Expectations and Prior Experience

This is another one of those games where I've played through the tutorial, resolved to get back to it sooner or later, and then never did. From what I remember about the game, it seemed like a typical early 2000s 3rd person action-rpg. It felt like I had a lot of freedom in a very limited environment. Of course, I was still barely into the game at all, so I can't say whether or not it would have opened up or whether many of the apparent options were, in fact, trap choices, but my initial impression was that for its time it was an open-ended game.

What I'm expecting, going into it with more than a decade's worth of advancements in the open-world genre, is that it will be fun as an archaeological exercise, but that it won't have aged well, and I will soon run into the limitations of its outdated technology and subsequently the game's unavoidable limitations will frustrate me more than they should. I'm put in mind of another tabletop-based crpg game - Baldur's Gate, where I could admire the deftness with which the pen-and-paper game's rules were implemented, but ran into problems when it turned out that a faithful recreation of a tabletop game doesn't really work without a DM to moderate.

My biggest worry is that I'll commit to a character build and then, as I go through the game I discover that some of my chosen skills are useless because this is one of those games where you're given limitless freedom, but at the price of limitless freedom to screw up. I'm also worried that, given its age, things like in-game maps and quest logs will be inadequate. The last thing I want is to be stuck not knowing where to go with a character who specialized in computer hacking when the game expects me to be a combat monster.

Still, I can't imagine this game would have come to be known as such a classic if it were in the habit of pissing people off, so I'll probably be all right.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Awesomenauts - 20/20 hours

I practiced with Yuri the space ape for the last four hours and I got fairly decent at defeating the bots. I won four or five consecutive matches, some of them quite quickly. However, I think my theory that the AI can't handle Yuri's vertical movement was correct. When I tried one last multiplayer battle, I was completely dominated by the opposition. Six deaths and zero kills.

It's all right, though. It would be nice if I had some extraordinary talent for Awesomenauts, but I suppose such a talent would carry with it an obligation to develop it. As it is, I can simply shrug my shoulders and content myself with being in the ranks of the unremarkable. I'm vain enough that it stings a little to admit this, but the empirical evidence is overwhelming.

I guess my time with Awesomenauts was enjoyable enough. I don't think I'd describe it as "awesome," but that's probably because it's not the sort of game that's aimed towards me. It doesn't have anything cumulative or narrative about it. It's just one activity, repeated indefinitely. The draw is excellence for its own sake, and the thrill of outwitting and outfighting your fellow players. It was fun, but I think I lack the killer instinct to get really into it.

Dipping my toe into the turbid waters of e-sports has made me think, however. Games have a lot of different uses. There's games as storytelling, games as creative toy, games as puzzle, games as simulation, games as distraction, games as social venue, and games as test of skill. It's kind of weird, then, that we just have one word to cover them all.

Perhaps more importantly, we have but one word, "gamer," to describe the people that play games. So all the thrilling diversity and complexity of the medium gets boiled down to the single most trivial fact. I'm sure many people play for multiple reasons, but it's also likely that there is a huge gulf in values between gamers with different fundamental agendas. "Hardcore" and "casual" don't even begin to do the problem justice.

I wonder if so much of the acrimony that is found in the gaming community comes from a disconnect in values. If the thing you value most in games is personal excellence and honest competition, then maybe it's an insult when people don't take the game as seriously as you. To enter an arena and not attempt the long climb of self-improvement, worse to not even care about doing so, to be content with sloppiness and mediocrity, it's not even a difference of opinion, it's a sin. It's squandering the potential that's inherent in the game itself.

Of course, that type of attitude is itself kind of silly. And if you view games more as a toy or a distraction, then the entirely necessary self-seriousness of a true competitor begins to look like self-parody. To be so intense about such an apparently goofy thing is comic at its core.

Different games can encourage different agendas. I think the reason survival-crafting and 4X games appeal to me so much is because I love games that allow for creative self-expression, the exploration of virtual worlds, and the creation of order from a disordered initial state. And it's hard to service those needs in a game that's also focused on winning and losing.

I think Awesomenauts is primarily a competitive-style game, but it's clear to me that it also tries, at least a little, to be a toy (the large roster of cute little cartoon characters you get to play allows room for exploration) and might, in theory, be a social experience (though I never really communicated with my fellow human players and subsequently did not bond with them in the camaraderie of shared competition).

All of which is a nice change of pace from my usual fare, even if I never quite adjusted my attitude to fully appreciate it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Awesomenauts - 16/20 hours

It's always hard to assess one's own progress when learning a new skill. I think I'm improving, but Awesomenauts doesn't track stats for practice games, so I can't say for sure. I'm still at about 50% win ratio, but the victories feel more decisive and the losses feel more hard-fought.

The problem is that there are so many factors that go into a match that it's hard to isolate the influence of "my personal skill" on the outcome. The AI seems to have more difficulty with some characters than with others. So if I get a couple of good teammates and the AI gets a bad team, then it usually goes pretty well, despite what I do. On the other hand, if the AI opponent gets a good team draw, it can be a real struggle to stay alive.

It's also likely that the character I'm playing also influences the outcome (I'm still choosing "random" on the character select screen). When I played as Yuri, the jetpack-wearing space ape, I managed to get 11 kills with one death. When I played as Admiral Swiggins, the octopus who had apparently attained a high military rank, I managed to get two kills with eight deaths. Either I'm much better with Yuri, or the AI can't handle the character's unusual verticality.

Regardless, my success is greatly dependent on which character I draw. It seems clear to me now that if I want to advance in skill or take on multiplayer I need to narrow my focus. Pick three characters (so that I an always get one if the other players choose my favorites) and practice with them exclusively until I have the confidence to take it to the next level.

I can't help feeling, though, like I'll be missing out. This game provides me with a whole cast of colorful characters and I'm taking most of them off my list in order to pursue mastery in just a few. I wonder if the tradeoff  is worth it.

That's the thing with me -  as much as I admire mastery, I have the soul of a dilettante. I know it's foolish, but given a choice, I'll always take an expansive buffet over an exquisitely produced delicacy. I'm sure that when I go to the donut shop, I annoy the clerks unreasonably. I'll assemble a dozen donuts out of 10 individual kinds, and I can't help looking at the Awesomenauts characters in the same way. I want to try the cream-filled one, and the one with sprinkles, and the one that has bacon on the top (this is a real donut my local shop sells and it's surprisingly delicious).

Which is probably just as well. It's been suggested to me that it takes hundreds of hours to get good enough at an online game to be anything but the lowest rung on the multiplayer ladder, and that seems reasonable to me. And I can't imagine the dedication and passion that someone would have to have to gain that experience. You'd either need to pare down your games list to only a few games or play one consistently as a secondary game for months or years to get to that level.

As much as I might enjoy the easier Awesomenauts matches, the game as a whole simply doesn't call to me in that way. It's pleasant, but not compelling. I don't think I could commit to it long enough for my "pick a couple of characters to focus on" strategy to make much of a difference, and certainly not long enough to become a real specialist with any of the awesomenauts.

I think I've got to at least try, though. See how far I can take it in my remaining 4 hours. I'll almost certainly still suck at the end of that time, but maybe I won't be a complete embarrassment (hey, I think I just found my epitaph).