Friday, December 30, 2016

Kerbal Space Program - 15/20 hours

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Kerbal Space Program - 10/20 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Kerbal Space Program - 5/20 hours

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 26, 2016

Kerbal Space Program - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

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

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

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

Previous Playtime

6 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

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

Expectations and Prior Experience

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

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

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

Ascension - 20/20 hours

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Ascension - 10/20 hours

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Ascension - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

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

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

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

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

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

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

Expectations and Prior Experience

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

Surprise Bonus Game - Magic Duels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Cthulhu Saves the World - 9 hours (14 total)

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

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

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

You know, boilerplate stuff.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Cthulu Saves the World - 2 hours (7 total)

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

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

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

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Breath of Death VII - 5 hours

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Breath of Death VII - 2 hours

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

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Galactic Civilizations II: Ultimate Edition - 20/20 hours

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Galactic Civilizations II: Ultimate Edition - 12/20 hours

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Galactic Civilizations II: Ultimate Edition - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

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

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

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

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

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

61 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

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

Expectations and Prior Experience

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 4, 2016

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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