Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble - 2/20 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble - Initial Thoughts

About The Game (From the Steam Store Page)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Playtime

2 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

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

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

That's really all there is to it.

Expectations and Prior Experience

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

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

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

Space Engineers - 20/20 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it was all worth it for the view

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 28, 2016

Space Engineers - 16/20 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Space Engineers - 10/20 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Space Engineers - 6/20 hours

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

I may suck at this game.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Space Engineers - 5/20 hours

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

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

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

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

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

Not in denial here at all, nosiree. . . 

Space Engineers - 2/20 hours

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Space Engineers - Initial Thoughts

About The Game (From the Steam Store Page)

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Playtime

11 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

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

Expectations and Prior Experience

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

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

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

Rome: Total War - 20/20 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Rome: Total War - 15/20 hours

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

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

Let's just call it a wash.

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

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Rome: Total War - 10/20 hours

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 18, 2016

Rome: Total War - 6/20 hours

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Rome: Total War - 3/20 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Rome: Total War - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

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

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

51 minutes 

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

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

Expectations and Prior Experience

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Kingdoms of Amalur - 20/20 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 14, 2016

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning - 9/20 hours

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning - 2/20 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

The minds of New York Times bestselling author R.A. Salvatore, Spawn creator Todd McFarlane, and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion lead designer Ken Rolston have combined to create Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, a new role-playing game set in a world worth saving. Build the character you've always wanted and continuously evolve it to your style of play with the revolutionary Destiny system. Choose your path and battle through a master-crafted universe featuring some of the most intense, responsive, and customizable RPG combat ever.

Previous Playtime

5 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

There was a period, near when I started the blog, when I thought I could buy PC versions of all my Xbox 360 games and it would be like carrying my Xbox 360 with me wherever I went. And while the last two years have been a little bit like that, the reality hasn't been nearly as satisfying as the fantasy.

The reason Kingdoms of Amalur, specifically, made it through before I came to my senses is that the discounted price for the complete edition was less than the price of the individual DLCs on Xbox.  That's just the dark temptation of Steam, I guess.

Expectations and Prior Experience

This is another one of those games I've played extensively on console, so it should hold no surprises for me.  Then again, despite getting to the end, I couldn't tell you a thing about the game's plot. There's like some fairies who come back to life and you're the only one who can kill them permanently because you were brought back from the dead and have mysterious fate-shaping powers. However, all that is established in the first half-hour or so and the game lasts for more than 50. You eventually have to go to a place and kill a guy, but, you know, that's always the case.

Big plot-shaped hole in my memory aside, I remember this as being a fun and fast-paced action game with a lot of loot and deep character customization.  That's all I really want - to bounce around the screen slaying monsters and becoming more powerful. And luckily, I already know that Kingdoms of Amalur can deliver.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Banished - 20/20 hours

In my last ten hours with Banished, I managed to get by with only one untimely death. My secret? I played the rest of the game on 1x speed. I do not recommend it.

I can't even say why I did it. I just got an idea in my head. And then I tried it for awhile. And then I was like, "this experiment is a miserable slog, but I'm halfway through, so maybe I should just tough it out." The longer it went, the more it tested my patience, but the more it became a sunk cost. But since apparently "stubbornly clinging to sunk costs" is my thing now, I stuck with it all night.

There are certain advantages to playing at 1x speed. You have a lot of down time between making decisions. Once the basics of my town were set up, I could get away with glancing at the village once every few minutes. In the meantime, I could watch a movie or read a book. I think, if you're okay with playing the same game for weeks at a time, it might be worth it to keep Banished running in the background while you're doing other things. It really emphasizes the "self-contained digital garden" aspect of these sorts of games. I definitely got a feeling of peace and joy from looking at my patchwork of fields and neatly arranged cottages, with their tiny people moving about between them.

Another advantage to 1x speed is that it gave me plenty of time to plan. I wasn't reacting to things nearly as much as in my other villages. Normally, when a real-time game gives me the option to speed up time (and this is true of Banished, Crusader Kings II, Stellaris, Cities: Skylines, and probably a half-dozen more games that slip my mind at the moment) I just crank it to the highest possible speed and then pause it whenever events get ahead of me. Pausing allows me to peruse various informational menus to my heart's content, and running at maximum speed insures I'm always either making a decision or researching a decision.

I used to consider this the ideal way to play a game. After all, why should I wait around for things to happen? Is not reacting to a simulated scenario the very essence of what makes a video game? Perhaps, and perhaps not, but I did notice playing Banished at 1x speed that my decisions appeared to be better than playing it mostly at 10x speed. I was able to see the trends that preceded a collapse, and head them off before they became too severe. I was able to shuffle my construction priorities to better serve my community's needs (technically, I could still do this before, but since the wait to get anything built wasn't very long, it had always been easier to just let the construction finish).

My greater thought and consideration was starting to show results. As of quitting time, my slow village had only one death - of a mysterious sickness - compared to my fast villages' dozens from starvation and exposure (though, ironically, none from illness). Now, it could be that I only got to year 8 and 35 adult residents with slow-town, as compared to year 41 and 110 adult residents with  fast-town. It could also be that, since slow-town was my most recent village, it benefited from all the accumulated knowledge that I'd gained in the previous 10 hours. Even so, not rushing around like an impatient idiot probably helped at least a little.

I wonder what the "correct" way to play Banished is. The slowest speed being labelled "1x" seems to imply that it's somehow the default, but then the length of time where nothing at all happens on that speed suggests the others were meant to be used quite frequently. Playing with 10x on all the time is almost certainly "wrong," though.

Which isn't to say I'm going to stop doing the equivalent in future real-time games . . . so long as they don't hit me with a deeply personal and gruesome tragedy as punishment.

My takeaway from Banished is that it's a fun game on several levels, and the basic structure of resource and time management is among my favorites, but it's bare-bones presentation and unflinching look at the grimness of medieval life has made me realize something - I want games to coddle me, at least a little. I can pretend that the neglected citizens of SimCity are just moving away, or that the residents of unproductive houses in Anno 2070 are just grumpy. Nowhere do I have to confront the terrible consequences of my political ineptitude. But in Banished you can't look away. My cities were always so close to the edge of survival that even a single loss was keenly felt (when it didn't set off a chain reaction that wiped out the whole town, that is). That's too much responsibility. I wouldn't say that I play games to escape, exactly, but I always get a little worked up when they get too intense.

Banished is a fine game, but I definitely prefer its low-pressure relatives.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Banished - 10/20 hours

It's been a long time since a game has so thoroughly tested my emotional fortitude. My little guys live in such squalor. The blacksmiths can't keep up with maintaining their tools. The woodcutters can't chop enough fuel to keep the houses warm. The farmers manage to keep one step ahead of starvation, but one bad year will see 3 or 4 people head into the graveyard. And it's all my fault.

I really regret my arrogance when I first started the game. Balancing the needs of a small town is relatively easy, probably because a single craftsman can supply an entire town and a single gatherer or hunter can supply all the necessary dietary diversity. Yet as the population grows, its need for resources grows rapidly and each new specialist needs at least one new farmer. The result is chronic shortages.

I'm certain this can be overcome with skill, but the necessary failure that comes with learning is taking a serious toll on me. I feel guilty when my simulated people die. I know, it doesn't make any sense, because they're just data. It's just, the game doesn't just blink off a little light. It tells me that the animated dot is a person who froze or starved to death. Those are horrible ways to die. To the degree that I buy into the game's premise, to the degree that I believe these farms and blacksmiths and tailors matter, then I have to believe that I am responsible for this unimaginable suffering.

I mean, let's not get carried away. I'm not curled up on the couch weeping my eyes out in grief. I do still have a sense of proportion. It just bums me out, you know. I want my simulated people to have simulated prosperity and when I fail, I feel simulated sorrow. It's not as potent as the real thing, granted, but it's not an ideal way to spend an evening.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Banished - 5/20 hours

Thanks to the election, I've been too stressed out (and lately) depressed to do much games blogging, but I decided to push past that and start up Banished anyway. And at first, things went well. My town of about 35 people reached an equilibrium, harvesting resources as quickly as they were used and being able to support a church and a graveyard, with the villagers having a diverse diet and good health. I was feeling good.

Then the tornado hit.

It completely wiped out my village center and killed half my citizens. And I couldn't rebuild their houses fast enough while harvesting enough food. That winter most of the rest of them died of starvation and exposure. Eventually, there were only three men left, doomed by their gender to be the last generation, and who slowly died off one by one.

I feel like this might be a metaphor for something.

Since then, I haven't been able to duplicate my initial success. It always seems easy enough at first, but on one attempt, I completely ran out of stone. In another, my population grew faster than my ability to feed them. I guess I just got lucky my first time through (at least until everyone died) and I didn't understand the mechanics as well as I thought.

That's becoming a distressingly familiar feeling lately. I've got nothing to do but keep trying. It's the only way to learn.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Banished - 2/20 hours

I know now why virtually every other small-scale city-building game tries to leaven itself with humor. I've never felt such a keen sense of responsibility for my video game pawns. There's just something about seeing them scurrying around, unadorned by commentary, snark, or even any sort of distinctive UI elements, that tricks my brain into granting the villagers a sort of independent life. The thought of them starving or freezing to death troubles me greatly.

Banished is essentially a resource-gathering game, but there aren't many ways to combine resources and your villagers will just use many of them raw. My main constraint to growth so far has been a lack of labor, leaving many of my buildings understaffed, but since none of your buildings require maintenance or upkeep, there's not been any downside to expanding my village purely on a speculative basis. There's a possibility that my population will outgrow my food, but growth so far has been pretty slow, so I'm not worried about it.

Which is to say, things have been pretty simple thus far and I'm not sure how more complicated it's going to get. Maybe my villagers will get more complex needs as they pass certain population thresholds, but the tutorial didn't explain anything about traffic or pollution or any of the other mechanics a typical city-builder uses to punish over-rapid growth.

It's tempting fate, I know, but I think I have this game more or less figured out.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Banished - Initial Thoughts

About The Game (From The Steam Store Page)

 In this city-building strategy game, you control a group of exiled travelers who decide to restart their lives in a new land. They have only the clothes on their backs and a cart filled with supplies from their homeland.

The townspeople of Banished are your primary resource. They are born, grow older, work, have children of their own, and eventually die. Keeping them healthy, happy, and well-fed are essential to making your town grow. Building new homes is not enough—there must be enough people to move in and have families of their own.

Banished has no skill trees. Any structure can be built at any time, provided that your people have collected the resources to do so. There is no money. Instead, your hard-earned resources can be bartered away with the arrival of trade vessels. These merchants are the key to adding livestock and annual crops to the townspeople’s diet; however, their lengthy trade route comes with the risk of bringing illnesses from abroad.

There are twenty different occupations that the people in the city can perform from farming, hunting, and blacksmithing, to mining, teaching, and healing. No single strategy will succeed for every town. Some resources may be more scarce from one map to the next. The player can choose to replant forests, mine for iron, and quarry for rock, but all these choices require setting aside space into which you cannot expand.

The success or failure of a town depends on the appropriate management of risks and resources.

Previous Playtime

1 minute

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I don't remember my specific reasoning for getting it when I did, but looking back at my transaction history, it looks like I bought it at 60% off over Thanksgiving weekend, 2014, so this was surely in my more games = better phase. I do remember putting it on my wishlist because I felt like I didn't have enough city-builders and this one looked to be intriguingly unique.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I guess I must have started it up at least once, but if I got anything from the experience, I've completely forgotten about it.

The city-builder genre is a tricky one for me because I love these games on a bone-deep level, but that just gives them the power to break my heart. If my virtual citizens are happy and thriving, then I'm on top of the world. If my mismanagement leads to famine and plague, then that's really going to bum me out. So much of my enjoyment is going to depend on the specific learning curve and the fiddliness of the mechanics.

I'm looking forward to Banished, though. Its barter and resource-dependent gameplay strike me as exactly the sort of infrastructure challenge that tends to capture my imagination.

Massive Chalice - 20/20 hours

I played a new game in Ironman and was reminded why I should never play Ironman. Thanks to a few bad rolls of the RNG, I wound up accidentally killing half my party with wayward Area of Effect attacks.  I was still clinging to life as hour 20 rolled around, but I was forced to send out a group with only two heroes who were, predictably, slaughtered. If I hadn't been playing Ironman, I'd have just reloaded before the disaster and hoped for a better result.

Oh well, let's just say it requires me to stretch some unfamiliar intellectual muscles and leave it at that.

My final impression of Massive Chalice is that it's a good attempt and not something I regret playing, but I can't help wishing it was a fundamentally different game. It turned out to be a series of decent grid-based tactical battles within a greater strategic superstructure that was mostly just window-dressing. I really wanted to live the day-to-day life of the kingdom's people, becoming more involved in their loves and rivalries and just generally being a voyeuristic busybody. Then again, there's a part of me that wishes every game was The Sims.

Still, playing it one and a half times was pretty painless. It was no Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, or XCOM, but it's great to have more games of that type. Even if it's not the best, I enjoy the genre enough that it's been completely worth it.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Massive Chalice - 14/20 hours

I made it. I got to year 300 on my first try. I was a little worried for awhile because there was a space of about 60 years where alchemists were completely extinct in my nation, but I just fielded a few archer-heavy teams until I could recruit a new hero to take over the stronghold. Massive Chalice proved not to be as difficult as I initially feared.

As far as the story is concerned, I'm about to spoil the ending, so if you really want to experience Massive Chalice "pure" then you should stop reading now . . .

After waiting 300 years for the Chalice to charge up, it detonates, driving the Cadence out of the kingdom and breaking the enchantment that makes you immortal. Just before you fade out of existence, the voices inside the Chalice decide to tell you that your victory is only temporary, that the Cadence is fundamentally indestructible and that the last three centuries are all just part of a cosmic cycle . . . which seems like kind of a shitty thing to say to someone just before they die, even if you try to reassure them by telling them about the imminent golden age that will only fall after a few hundred years. On the other hand, this does explain why you get to replay the game from the very beginning, which is nicely in keeping with the game's insistence on making its basic gameplay mechanics part of its fictional world.

And that's it. There's no more story. A brief introduction and a brief ending, but only random events and random battles in between. That's the biggest problem with this game. It's trying to be a general activity, a repeatable fantasy strategy board game that's only loosely bound by plot. Unfortunately, the strategy isn't quite deep enough to support this and the story isn't strong enough to be a draw on its own. Overall, Massive Chalice is a decent game, but it's a shadow of the game it could be if its features were more fully developed.

From here, I think I'll go back and play iron man. I definitely won't finish the game again, but if I'm still alive six hours from now, I'll consider it a victory.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Massive Chalice - 6/20 hours

I don't know why, but I was expecting this game to have a plot. So far, I'm 150 years into the 300 year campaign and it's just been a series of random battles interspersed with the occasional building, research, and arranged marriage. I'm not sure how a story-driven version of the game would look, but I think it would have been nice if you could connect with your individual characters, or at the very least have their noble houses have some kind of persistent generational stereotype.

I think I'd have really enjoyed the alternate-universe inverted version of this game, where there are all sorts of mechanics for managing your heroes' personalities and matchmaking couples of various degrees of reluctance for the good of the kingdom, and the actually combat is perfunctory. Though maybe that game is already Crusader Kings II.

The odd thing I'm noticing about Massive Chalice is that unlike XCOM or Fire Emblem, I'm not fastidious about preserving my characters. I think the fact that they quickly die of old age is making me callous. I can't resist the mindset of "sacrificing this warrior for the sake of victory is the most expedient way to win, and it really doesn't matter because he'll just be dead in 30 or 40 years anyway." Maybe I wouldn't adapt to immortality as well as I always imagined. Maybe I'd be the sensitive tormented vampire for about one, two generations tops before I decided it wasn't worth it. Or maybe Massive Chalice simply doesn't give me a reason to care about the little guys.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Massive Chalice - 2/20 hours

Massive Chalice makes the curious choice of trying to explain the player's actions in terms of the narrative. Strategy games usually make this delicate compromise with reality, where the player is a disembodied presence, able to influence battlefields and the course of nations, but is not actually a force within the setting. Your successful strategies are the tides of serendipity or an abstraction of an elaborate command structure going on off screen. If the game acknowledges your presence, then it has to explain how one person can have a near-omniscient knowledge of the strategic situation and can endure through the ages. If you're a strategy game veteran, you're used to overlooking this genre convention, which makes it astonishingly clunky when a game tries to subvert it.

Basically, the titular massive chalice is a magical item with exactly the right properties to make you into the typical strategy game commander - your spirit is bound to it so that you don't age, but that means you can't leave the throne room and have to rely on casting your senses around the kingdom with the help of the chalice's clairvoyant waters. Also, it can completely resolve the plot, but it has to charge up for an amount of time exactly equal to the game's time limit. It's extremely silly.

I'm not that cynical about it, though. In addition to being perfectly suited to the mechanics of the game, the chalice is also a character in the game - or maybe it's two. It has a male and a female voice and the voices will converse with each other (and even occasionally disagree), so if the chalice is a single mind, it is a complex one. Regardless of its true nature, the chalice's commentary is, so far, a welcome addition to the game. It will crack the occasional joke, console you when your characters die and offer tutorial advice. I still have about 270 years of a 300 year war to go, and it remains to be seen whether the chalice will wear out its welcome in that time, but for now I'm enjoying it.

I may have to start over, however, because I've been making decisions in ignorance that are likely to lead to problems down the road. I didn't realize that Massive Chalice runs off of a weird Lamarckian evolution and that if you want your next generation of heroes to have a certain class, you have to arrange a marriage between parents of the appropriate class. If I don't turn things around quick, hunters may go extinct.  Then again, maybe I'll lose and the Cadence will overwhelm me and I'll be able to start fresh. I'll give it another couple of hours before I make a decision.

PS - I really don't like that the main weapon for the melee fighter class is the caber. I've been known to be whimsical from time to time, but this is too silly even for me. Why on earth would I want to save a kingdom whose great martial tradition is charging at people with sharpened logs?

Massive Chalice - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

MASSIVE CHALICE is a tactical strategy game set on an epic timeline from Double Fine Productions. As the Immortal Ruler of the Nation, you'll take command of its heroes, forge marriages to strengthen your Bloodlines, and battle a mysterious enemy known as the Cadence in a war lasting hundreds of years.

Key Features
  • Bloodline Genetics - MASSIVE CHALICE features an innovative Bloodline system that allows the player to marry heroes together to produce children. The Bloodline system uses a randomized genetic code for every hero. Their children can end up with the best (or worst!) gameplay-impacting traits of their parents.
  • Permadeath - The heroes in MASSIVE CHALICE age over the course of the timeline and eventually pass away. This forces the player to engage in the beauty of permadeath and always juggle an imperfect party of heroes with which to do battle!
  • Bloodline Relics - If a hero has fought valiantly enough when they inevitably pass away, their weapon has a chance to become a Bloodline Relic. This powerful Relic can be passed down to any character of the same house in order to carry on the legacy of the fallen hero!
  • Long View Strategy - Because the war lasts 300 years, players need to take a long view of their strategy. Decisions have to be made dozens of years in advance and long-term planning is incredibly important. That 3-year-old toddler is going to grow up to be your most reliable melee fighter sooner than you think!
Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This Game

This purchase was after I played Brutal Legend, but before I played Broken Age and Double Fine had earned a lot of trust from me. The fact that it was a strategy-rpg with an intriguing new mechanic was just icing on the cake. 

Expectations and Prior Experience

Based on nothing in particular, I'm anticipating that Massive Chalice is going to be a lot like the Fire Emblem games - a turn-based, almost board-game-like strategy game with permanent character death. However, this knee-jerk comparison is really influencing my expectations to an unreasonable degree. Every Fire Emblem game I've played has been really hard and the characters have all been so precious that I wound up resetting the game rather than lose them. I have no reason to think that Massive Chalice will be the same.

Yet, absent that comparison, I have no idea how I feel about this game. I'm looking forward to the eugenics and infrastructure parts, but I'm worried I won't enjoy the battles. But those are just my baseline preferences. A lot depends on execution.

Still, there's nothing for it. I'm just going to have to jump into the game and let it become its own thing in time. I'm cautiously optimistic that I'll like it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Battleborn - 20/20 hours

I wound up playing pretty close to 21 hours, but that doesn't mean very much, because I'm sure most of that spare hour was waiting in line for the matchmaking. I don't know why it takes so long, but it by far has the longest delay between deciding to play and actually getting in a game of any online game I've ever played (admittedly, my experience is limited to Civilization 4, Starcraft 2, and the Borderlands games). Of course, it really isn't worth it, because I can't stand playing competitively. I always delude myself into thinking this time is going to be different, but it never is. I have neither the killer instinct nor the even-tempered desire for mastery necessary to enter on the bottom rung of the ladder.

So why did I even bother trying PvP? Two reasons - I was at about 19 hours and 40 minutes and needed something with a little less time commitment than a story level (hah!) and I was one victory away from unlocking Toby, the penguin in the suit of power armor. If there's one thing I'm going to take away from Battleborn it's that I love unlocking and playing with new characters. If I could have completed challenges in single-player MOBA-style matches, I could have ground out command ranks for weeks and been perfectly content (the blog notwithstanding).

Overally, I'd say that I love Battleborn. It's a guarded, conditional sort of love, but it's love nonetheless. When the game is at it's best, it is exactly the sort of character-driven casual shoot-em-up that allows me to turn off my brain and just ride a wave of adrenaline into an oblivion of bloodlust. Borderlands 2 does a better job of filling that niche, but hey, something doesn't need to be the best just to be worthwhile.

However, it is a brittle greatness. Everything about the game, even the story missions, is designed around the idea of multiplayer. The are moments, not frequent, but often enough, where it feels like you are wearing too-large shoes - it's obvious the spaces are bigger than you need and the timing of enemy attacks is just a little too loose. It's not enough to ruing the game for me, but I can't ignore the fact that my love is predicated on overlooking the imprecision of the fit.

Which is to say I will definitely be playing Battleborn again, but only when I've got a prearranged co-op game. Single-player is fine, but I don't have to settle for it. If I want a single-player shooting experience, I'll just play a game that is tuned for it. On the other hand, because you level up your characters in the missions, Battleborn does have the advantage of not requiring the same commitment and/or coordination as the Borderlands games. I can join a game with any of my fellow players at any time and only have to rely on my personal skill to keep up. . .

Let's not dwell on how terrible a thought that is.