Sunday, December 31, 2017

Endless Space - 20/20 hours

After playing six hours on the slowest speed, I can say with confidence that it's better. You have more time to think, more time to come to appreciate the nuances of your planets, and more time to position your fleets. But now I'm curious as to whether one of the speed settings in-between would have been better.

"Normal" speed is probably the best. That's probably what everything is optimized towards. In all likelihood, had I just played Normal speed from the beginning, I would just now be finishing up my first game and would be making some general observations about the game as a whole. But I was worried that it wouldn't be enough, that I'd miss something if I didn't try and rush through.

It was a pointless worry, because even with my fast-speed victory and more in-depth Endless-speed game, I still feel like I'm only beginning to learn the ins and outs of Endless Space 2. This is definitely a game I could play for 100 hours, in a world where I still had that option.

That being said, I think it is probably the second-best of the three Endless games. It's a definite improvement on the original Endless Space, but the things it borrowed from Endless Legend worked better in Endless Legend. The faux fantasy setting just felt like a more appropriate home for heroes and quests, and the asymmetrical factions were more distinct and risk-taking.

Still, after 20 hours Endless Space 2 feels solid. I can't speak to long-term flaws like faction balance or the relative fun of the different win conditions, but the moment-to-moment fundamentals of building, economy, and politics are satisfyingly complex without be too terribly overwhelming. It does have the same problem of the other Endless games where build order is important, but you more or less want to build everything in every system, but I've yet to see a 4X game that solves that problem elegantly (except, perhaps, Pandora: First Contact, but that game had other problems).

The list of games I want to revisit after the blog is over is growing longer and longer, but from my brief glimpse, I think Endless Space 2 might deserve a spot somewhere near the bottom.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Endless Space - 14/20 hours

When I first get a new 4X game, my first act is always to play it on the easiest difficulty at the quickest speed. Just so I can get a lay of the land, and try to understand what the tech tree is capable of. But more and more, I'm finding "quick" to be something of a misnomer. I actually started a whole new game after my last post, and now, 9 hours later, I've just won. It's probably because I insist on taking the long way through the game - pursuing late-game victories like Technology or Economic, instead of going for a fast conquest. Still, the thought that 9 hours counts as quick is kind of silly.

And yet, I'm starting to feel like it's almost too fast, like I don't get enough time with each technology and building. Like they're already obsolete before I can even register their impact, and thus my plan to learn the ins and outs of the game is self-defeating. It's likely that 4X games, by their very nature, take dozens of hours to learn and hundreds of hours to master and there's no easy shortcut to getting there. I won't know until I've played Endless Space 2 for at least that long and look back at my early, fumbling days with a new perspective.

If I had to guess how it will be, though, I'd say that this game appears to have the same basic structure as the original, and thus may be susceptible to some of the same flaws. I didn't find myself terraforming every planet in the galaxy, but I can't say whether that's because the lower tier planets are better or because I just didn't get around to it. Also, it's tough to judge the AI by how it reacts in sandbox mode - most of the factions were willing to get into peace deals/alliances with me and then stay true to their agreements, but then the remaining ones may have declared some truly suicidal wars (it's hard to say - your alliance makes war and peace as a unit, so it's possible that one of my allies started these wars, and quite sensibly so).

Also, and this might just be quick speed talking, but a lot of the fiddly decisions you have to make, about the assignment of your population (different races have different production bonuses), or about the makeup of your senate, don't really seem to have a noticeable short-term effect. I never got to the point where I thought shuffling my people around would help me achieve a concrete goal.

That being said, I enjoyed the game as a whole, and I'm energized by the thought of playing it some more. I think I'll go the other way and play it on the slowest speed, to see if micromanaging becomes more worth my time.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Endless Space 2 - 5/20 hours

I've played a lot of 4X games, and Endless Space 2 may have the best presentation and storytelling of any game since Alpha Centauri. It's nothing major, but there are a few incidental touches which help bring the world to life. Like, whenever you settle a planet, there's a short movie, only a few seconds long, that shows the planet's terrain and some of its native fauna (sadly not procedurally generated, though drawn beautifully enough that the lack of diversity is not a huge problem). Or the distinctive hero and quest portraits. Or the way that the game flips through a slideshow of the system's planets the first time you zoom in on it. It's inefficient, but it makes exploration and discovery feel more real.

The best part, though, is the faction design (or, at least, the best part I can see after having played the game for such a short time). Endless Space 2 has mildly asymmetrical factions that nonetheless feel very different in play. And each one is accompanied by a well-produced introductory video that really does a fantastic job of selling the faction's overall feel. My favorite was the one for the United Empire, which resembled nothing so much as an in-universe propaganda video.

I've not yet got a handle on the game as a whole, though. Endless Space 2 has a host of fiddly mechanics - a senate with various factions that can pass laws to benefit your empire, a marketplace where you can trade resources or hire heroes, a complex exploration system with dozens of different anomalies to discover, a quest system with powerful rewards for completion, and a luxury resource system that allows you to upgrade your planets with strong permanent bonuses that you have to customize and build. And that's without getting into the unique mechanics associated with each individual faction. It's hard to see how it all fits together, though I guess that's something that will get better in time.

This is a problem I like to have, though. I'm always saying to myself, "I wish this game had more moving parts," especially if it's a turn-based strategy. Normally, it's because I'm completely missing the point, though I have a feeling that in this regard, me and Endless Space 2 are on the same page.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Endless Space 2 - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Endless Space 2 is a Strategic Space Opera set in a mysterious universe.
Your story unfolds in a galaxy that was first colonized by God-like beings known as the “Endless”, who rose and fell eons ago. All that remains of them are mystical ruins, powerful artifacts, and a strange, near-magical substance known as Dust.

One More Turn
Endless Space 2 takes the classic “one more turn” formula to new heights. You will explore mysterious star systems, discover the secrets of ancient races, build colonies on distant planets, exploit trade routes, develop advanced technologies of unthinkable power; and, of course encounter new life forms to understand, to court or to conquer.

As a leader, you have to manage your populations like never before as they react dynamically to your decisions and to their environment, expressing their will through political parties, dictating the laws that your Senate can pass. Will you be a beloved natural leader or will you manipulate your populations to your benefit?

Epic Space Battles
Watch your fighters fly past huge cruisers while lasers rip their hulls apart in epic real-time space battles. Detailed after action reports will help you adapt your strategy for the next confrontations.

Design your ships, assemble your fleets and carefully adapt your battle plans to overcome your enemies. Once you think you’ve done it all, take it online against seven other players.

Strategic Space Opera
Immerse yourself in the Endless Universe. The galaxy belongs to the civilization that controls Dust and uncovers its secrets… but were the Endless alone in the galaxy? What is the true origin of Dust?

Lead one of eight civilizations, each with a unique playstyle affinity and story quest, and build great stellar empires capable of imposing your vision on the Galaxy!

Find out more about the Academy and its powerful cast of Heroes, that you can recruit and train to become fleet admirals, system governors or influential senators.

Amplified Reality
Press ‘Space’ anytime to activate the Amplified Reality view and reveal in-depth contextual information about your systems, trade routes, diplomatic stances and even your ship stats during battle!

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

 You know how, when you're dieting and you celebrate losing five pounds by eating a giant slice of chocolate cake? That's basically me and this game.

Of more pertinent moment is why I think this game is a reward. I guess it's because I used to really like the original Endless Space, but then I played some better games and became disillusioned with it, but one of those better games was Endless Legend, and so I'm kind of hoping that Endless Space 2 takes what I liked about the original, but applies the mechanical lessons the company's learned over the years to make an even better game.

Expectations and Prior Experience

Just the original Endless Space. I figure, worst case scenario, it's just like the first one and I enjoy myself, but I'm left wanting more. Best case scenario, it's everything I wanted from the first game in a slick new package. I literally cannot see how this could possibly go wrong (he said, being fully aware that those are some famous last words).

Apotheon - 20/20 hours

Apotheon manages a pretty neat trick - it's even better the second time you play it. Or, at least, it was better the second time I played it. I think it's because I was more comfortable with the controls, so I could focus more on the strategy and nuance of its surprisingly deep combat system. Another factor might have been that I was focusing on getting a 100% completion, so I was spending more time peeking into nooks and crannies and I got to see more of its remarkably designed world and Greek-mythology in-jokes. It also didn't hurt that I was much better equipped, thanks to all the treasure I found.

It is a foregone conclusion that I'm going to play this game again. Not necessarily because it's good, though it is, but because I fell just short of my 100% completion. I got every achievement except one - beat the game on "Olympian" difficulty. I don't really have an excuse. I beat the game twice on normal, got every treasure chest, and completed all of the optional side missions. I guess I was just intimidated by the though of skipping up to the highest difficulty after only playing it once.

I'm not sure I need to have worried, though. I played about a half-hour on Olympian (my two completions came to 19 and a half hours, because the world hates me, apparently) and it wasn't too bad. Enemies are a bit tougher, and you don't auto-heal, but considering how I finished my last normal playthrough with a maxed-out stock of health potions, maybe I have room to be less conservative.

Overall, I'd say Apotheon is a hidden gem. Good gameplay, fantastic graphics, entertaining story (that only made me want to scream in rage because of my own personal hang-ups) - the only real complaint I have about it is all the times it crashed to desktop. Buying this game, for me, was totally a case of judging a book by its cover, but after 20 hours, I can definitely say that it worked out for the best. Maybe old proverbs don't know everything after all.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Apotheon - 5/20 hours

The earliest theological thought I can remember was about Noah's ark. It's a story that really disturbed me as a child. Even at a very young age, I didn't believe that all the antediluvian people were irredeemably evil (though, obviously, I did not put it in so many words), and the thought of all those babies, puppies, and kittens drowning to death make me really upset. But more than that, I felt a kind of naive outrage at the hypocrisy of it all - how could God have flooded the Earth when one of his major commandments was "thou shalt not kill" (and oh, how an older, more cynical me laughed and laughed when I learned the more accurate translation was "thou shalt not murder" - a glib loophole big enough to drive a whole herd of camels through).

The various terrible answers I got to my questions about this story are what set me on my path to eventually becoming an atheist, and though I am now 35 years old, this story still makes me irrationally angry. I bring it up now because the story of Apotheon really reminds me of Noah's ark, enough so that it's kind of riling me up. (Which is desirable in an action game, of course, though maybe I don't need quite so much aggravation in my life).

What's going on is this - Zeus has decided he's fed up with humanity, so he's ordered the gods of Olympus to withdraw their blessings from the Earth. The crops won't grow, the seas and forests will not yield fish or game, and the sun shines only dimly. This leads to massive suffering and death down below, and thus a hero called Nikandreos decides he's going to do something about it. With the help of Hera, who appears to be a double agent of questionable loyalties, he is transported to Mount Olympus to storm the home of the gods and steal their gifts for the good of humanity.

After your first few victories, Hera betrays Nikandreos and Zeus casts him back to Earth, only this time instead of passively letting humanity die of starvation, the gods decide to assault the survivors, sending earthquakes, floods, and monsters to wipe out the survivors. But it turns out Hera's betrayal was just a stratagem (or was it?!) and she sends you back up to Olympus to finish the job. . .

So I've been experiencing a kind of low-level fury whenever I have to listen to a major antagonist. Like, Zeus was hoping the human race would die with "quiet dignity," which, I don't know, has he even met a human before? It was smug and arrogant and I wanted to scream at the screen, "hey, you're the one killing us, and you won'y even allow us the dignity you'd give a rat, to acknowledge that it is the nature of every living thing to fight for its own survival, fuck you, man!" But, of course, that wouldn't have helped anything.

If I'm being snarky, I'd say that the definition of a god is "an entity that expects you to thank them while they're hurting you." But if I'm being honest, that's just the nature of power, generally. I don't think people like to think of themselves as wielding power over others. I think, instead, that anyone who's not a psychopath is reluctant to use force except in response to an injury. But if you, personally, have a lot of power, especially of the kind that can hurt people, but isn't much use for anything else, then there is a temptation to become the sort of person who is easily injured.

And that can occlude the ways you control people with fear. Your victims may look at your relationship as placating you with praise and tribute, under the threat of violence, but if you've become used to the benefits of the relationship, and you blind yourself to the feelings of your victims, then maybe withholding praise begins to look like disrespect, and withholding tribute begins to look like failing an obligation. And how can you answer these insults? Only with power. Power is all you know, and you have a strong incentive to actively avoid learning anything different. Because people would speak to you honestly and deal with you fairly, if you were an ordinary person and not feared for the strength of your fists.

(This, incidentally, is why I hate the phrase "an armed society is a polite society." Because the whole point of enforcing politeness with a gun is that the fearless can engage in reckless brinksmanship and coerce elaborate performances of politeness from anyone sensible enough not to want to risk getting shot.)

Gods don't have a significantly different psychology from humans in this regard. They're really just an extension of this tendency to the ultimate. Because they have limitless and unanswerable power, the offenses that trigger their wrath become impossibly rarefied. Gods are, in fact, the only thing in the universe brittle enough to be wounded by lack of worship.

I guess that's part of the fantasy of Apotheon, though. We are born into the world destined to die. The violence of nature against our bodies is the one thing we cannot redress. Bu if you personify these processes as gods, then suddenly famine and pestilence and darkness have a face, and for all their power to hurt, and claim victimhood in the process, the gods are not strong enough to stop Nikandreos (mankind victorious?).

Apotheon - 2/20 hours

Apotheon is probably the most gorgeous game I've played since Braid. Every frame looks like one of those ancient Greek pots, with the stark black against a muted earth-tone and very stylized, almost abstract representations of people and animals. Of course, as a modern interpretation of an ancient art form, it's not restricted to just what the Greeks had access to, and the levels that add blue or green to the color palette are just as eye-catching.

It's a style that very effectively captures a mood and genre. I don't feel like I'm playing a story set in the real world. I just immediately buy into the idea that this is an epic myth, of the sort that a blind troubadour might tell around a camp fire.

This sort of stylized art is, in fact, so universally effective that it makes me wonder sometimes why games ever use anything else. Which isn't to knock realism. It's just that when I think about games with memorable graphics, I think of things like Windwaker and Broken Age and for a realistic game, it really takes something with distinct world design, like Bioshock to even make it on the list. I suspect realism is simply less risky, and that the reason arty games like Apotheon seem to have such a high success rate is just because the weak ones get weeded out earlier in the process.

I haven't gotten too far into the game yet, so I'm unwilling to commit 100% to an opinion about Apotheon's gameplay or story, but so far they seem pretty solid. The combat is a simple two-button affair, but each of the weapons handles differently, and so the nuances of timing and weapon-arcs make it deceptively strategic. The weapon breakage is not my favorite mechanic in the world. I tolerated it in Breath of the Wild and I'm tolerating it here. I will concede that it has forced me to use different types of weapons and learn their subtleties, and thus is working as intended, but it's still a pain in the ass.

Where the story is concerned, the only comment I'm willing to make right now is that it seems a lot like God of War, except the protagonist isn't an asshole. I'm not entirely sure I trust Hera, who appears to be acting as my patron, and I'm wary of a late-game twist that totally changes the meaning and context of everything I've been doing. But for now, it's pretty enjoyable to storm Olympus and hold the gods accountable for their neglect of the Earth.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Apotheon - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

The Gods of Olympus have abandoned humanity, leaving you to perish without their benevolence. Take up arms against the Gods, climb Mount Olympus, and take their divine powers for yourself to ensure mankind’s survival!

Apotheon is a fast and brutal 2D action game with a striking art style and heroic narrative based on Ancient Greek Mythology.

-Brutal and bloody bronze-aged combat! Slay your enemies with swords, spears, arrows, and other ancient weapons of war.
-Explore the massive open world of Mount Olympus! Battle mythical beings and search for divine treasure across the Forests of Artemis, the Palaces of Apollo, and other sanctuaries of the Gods.
-Guide the rise of Nikandreos, humanity’s last hero. Interact with a colourful cast of fully voiced legendary characters throughout a rich single-player experience.
-Challenge your friends to single combat! In one versus one local multiplayer, pit your skills against other would-be heroes of Greece.
-Learn a little about Greek Mythology! Apotheon tries to stay true to its source material. Read an excerpt from the Iliad about Diomedes before you stick a Xiphos through his Aspis.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

The Steam store description says it best - the art style is striking. That's pretty much all the thought that went into it for me.

Expectations and Prior Experience

Action games are tricky. A lot of my favorites are action games. But then again, they've also been behind many of my most miserable gaming experiences. The genre is all about testing your wits and your reflexes. Sometimes, I really appreciate the chance to hone my focus and get lost in the challenge, and other times I feel petulant and moody, and resent the game for making me prove myself.

I'm not entirely sure how much to lay at the feet of individual games here. It may just be that my interest in action depends entirely on my mood. Luckily, I'm definitely in the mood to be distracted right now. So long as Apotheon isn't the sort of game that punishes you for daring to play it, I'll probably be all right.

Smugglers 5 - 20/20 hours

Smugglers 5 is a small game that wants to be a big game. So much of it feels like its staking out territory for a world of epic scope and grandeur, but then when you get into the various subsystems, you find that they have no depth. You can bribe a planetary governor, but as far as I can tell, there's nothing you can do with a friendly governor except marry his daughter and possibly incite him to rebel. You get your own planet, but it's only effect is on your score at the end. It's not even cosmetic, you can visit the planet and nothing happens. Nobody even acknowledges your sovereignty. It's the same all over - fleet tactics, the trading system, marriage and family - all of them are skin deep.

Nonetheless, I can't bring myself to condemn such ambition. One of the great dreams of gaming is the "virtual world," a simulated space where you can direct your avatar hither and yon, but never run into a situation where there's something you, the player, think your character should be able to do, only to have it be impossible to attempt. If there's a door, you should be able to open it. If there's a fence, you should be able to climb over it. There are limits, of course, but the closer those limits are to the limitations of the real world, the better.

Smugglers 5 is clearly reaching for the dream. If I chafe a bit under its limitations, I at least admire what it's trying to do. And the shallowness isn't all bad. It was an easy game to learn, and once I got used to the randomness of the combat system, I never really had to fear any serious setback or frustration. Maybe not the most sterling recommendation for a strategy game, but it was a pleasant enough way to waste 20 hours.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Smugglers 5 - 11/20 hours

Starting over a military officer, I was able to work my way up from a lowly ensign, commanding a corvette to an admiral, at the helm of a mighty battleship, governing a planet and with more than 100 million credits in the bank. I've not yet retired, but I expect when I do it will be with a new high score.

The journey was mostly repetitive. The combat system in this game is about 20% player skill, 40% ship build, and 40% luck. What you do is line up face to face with the enemy ship and at the bottom of the screen are a bunch of ability cards. These cards give special bonuses to your ship's attack or defense, or offer special actions like an EMP attack, boarding action, or shield recharge. The cards appear randomly and the selection of available cards can mean the difference between life and death,

It's a system that could be fun, but it has its flaws. Gaining more character skills tends to dilute your card pool. Yes, it's great to potentially have a powerful new attack, but when you expand horizontally on the skills tree, you find that your bread-and-butter abilities are often crowded out by highly situational skills. What's worse is drawing the boarding action or escape cards early in the battle and then not having them available when you might actually need them.  There's also a tendency for fights (even easy ones) to drag on unnecessarily when you get a run of bad draws. Though perhaps that's a drawback to having a powerful ship that can survive quite a long time before facing defeat.

The most annoying part of Smugglers 5's military life has to be the strategy, though. Basically, the plot of the game is that there's a space civil war going on, and each of the four factions is trying to conquer the whole of settled human space. Your character can help shift the tides of this war by flying to disputed systems and doing missions for your faction. Do enough missions and the system changes sides. Fair enough, except that the systems seem to be disputed at random, with no consideration for strategic usefulness, the ability of the player to reinforce the NPC armies, or the larger political situation. Often times, you will get done conquering a system, and then find that your next two potential conflicts are on opposite sides of the map and if they're both defensive missions, it can be a frustrating game of whack-a-mole as you try and compensate for the AIs fickleness in picking fights that only sporadically advance its ostensible agenda.

It would be nice if I could influence when and where the invasions took place (you know, seeing as how I'm an admiral and all), but it is what it is. I've just got to follow the action and hope for the best. Now, if I could only remember which planet is mine . . .

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Smugglers 5 - 3/20 hours

Smugglers 5 is structured much like Sid Meier's Pirates - there are various ports of call, and as you travel from one to another, you can acquire goods to sell, chat with the governor or listen to rumors in the bar. The goal is to acquire wealth and status through some combination of trading, piracy, and legitimate military work. When you get too old to continue, you can retire and receive a score that evaluates the overall success of your virtual life.

I liked it when I first played it back in the 90s and I like it now. The economic system is either too simple to be interesting or too complex to be a satisfying game, but I seem to have the hang of it in a general sort of way. As far as I can tell, you buy materials in a system at peace and you sell it in a system at war, focusing on trading exclusively the most expensive resources and never shipping with less than a full hold. That's gotten me up to 10 million+ credits and the maximum ship size in less than 3 hours, and now I'm just trying to run up my score by experimenting with things like factory ownership and war bonds. The knowledge that my trading empire will be limited by the length of my life-span is kind of harshing my style, but I guess that just means that in a couple of hours I'll have the chance to do it all again.

I don't think the trader archetype is sustainable long-term, though. The game acknowledges it. It gives you options. But it doesn't really embrace it. All of the missions require me to join a faction. Most of the character skills are combat-related. And frankly, my trading has become a bit rote. I'm not looking forward to branching out - the short time I spent with combat in the tutorial was mostly a chore - but it looks to be my inevitable next move, just as soon as I retire my current character.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Smugglers 5 - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Smugglers 5 is the fifth installment in the turn-based single-player space trading game series. Will you be a greedy trader, an ambitious fleet pilot or a ruthless pirate? Board enemy ships, manage factories, conquer star systems and forge your own galactic empire - ultimately, your actions will have an impact on a galactic scale.

'It’s basically Elite… but turn-based. [...]' - blog (Smugglers 4)

'Smugglers 5 is an impressive and exceedingly addictive game.[...]' -

'I’ve been playing Smugglers' games since I was a kid[...]' - Christian T. (a happy customer)

The galaxy is at war - the Federation, the Coalition, the Outer Rim systems and the criminal Syndicate battle for control. It's a dangerous life for a pilot on the front lines, but it can also be a lucrative one - are you an honest trader, or does smuggling illegal goods sound more profitable? Will you join the war effort for your faction, set up your own empire or simply explore the galaxy?
Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

2015 was a very active time for increasing my video game collection, but this game, specifically, caught my eye because it was 90% off. Ninety-fucking-percent! Since the game itself looked like a fairly unobjectionable turn-based strategy game, I couldn't resist. How could I go wrong for 99 cents?

Expectations and Prior Experience

It's turn-based, there's trading, it should be fine. The poor Steam reviews might be a concern, but the series has four sequels, so how bad could it be. The worst case scenario here is that it has a steep learning curve and I'm stuck in newbiedom for longer than necessary. I don't relish the idea of spending several hours as the galaxy's whipping boy.

That said, it's a pretty speculative fear at this point. As long as I can do honest trading in relative peace, I'll be happy to grind away indefinitely.

One Way Heroics - 20/20 hours

Thanks to a heads-up from FrivYeti on the forums, I was made aware of some alternate victory conditions - getting to the end of the world-map and attacking the Darkness itself. The first I didn't pursue, on account of it taking so long, but with the help of a guide, I was able to achieve the second (after recruiting the Demon Lord to my party and getting up to level 99).

It also helps that I found a character build that was both powerful and suited to my play style. I'm almost too embarrassed to tell you about it, though. There was a character class that got a large, permanent damage boost, and all you have to do is strip naked and shun clothing forever. And this is not merely an equipment thing. Normally, your equipped armor doesn't change your appearance, but using zenura weave gives you a naked sprite, just running around the map like a tiny, pixelated pervert.

I guess it's just part of the game's weird side, like the fact that there is a mercenary named "Panty Shot." That was pretty mortifying. Although, I guess if I hadn't mentioned it, nobody would know but me . . . and whoever bothered to read my achievements.

It grew on me in the end, though. It probably wasn't the right game to pick if I wanted a quick complete for my 2017 goal, but as I grew more skilled, the frustration inherent to the roguelike genre subsided and I was able to concentrate on grinding achievements. I'm definitely inclined to mark the game down for making the most powerful character the one who prances around naked, both for the sake of what little dignity this hobby still holds and the fact that it obsoletes one third of your equipment and a good game should not encourage the players to ignore its mechanics. However, that aside, One Way Heroics was a cute little ARPG.

I don't really feel like I have any unfinished business with this game, but I could definitely be persuaded to play it again. The psuedo-turn-based movement and combat took some getting used to, but proved to be interesting challenges in their own right. The story and setting could have used some more detail, but they were charming enough (stupid shit like Panty Shot aside). Overall, it was a fairly decent way to waste 20 minutes, even if the middle five hours sagged a bit.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

One Way Heroics - 10/20 hours

Repetition does funny things to your mind. It goes through cycles. Sometimes, wandering around the countryside, trying to outpace the darkness, it feels like I'm really in this world and it really matters that I'm killing monsters and finding treasure. Other times, it feels completely abstract, like I'm just trying to solve a geometrical and timing puzzle with a cursor shaped like a cute-little sprite-art adventurer.

I'm not sure which way is better, honestly. It's not a very compelling or deep adventure. The demon lord doesn't have much characterization and the mysterious darkness that chases you across the world is ill-defined. The people you meet along the way don't have much dialogue, but they're all friendly and helpful, which means it kind of sucks when they are inevitably killed by the shadow. Overall, the world-building and storytelling are thoroughly compromised by concessions to the gameplay.

Viewing it as a puzzle game makes a bit more sense, though. You've got a very limited supply of moves, and everything you do has a strict opportunity cost. Gauging your movement rate and available resources against the constraints of the surrounding area and the enemies you might face therein is often a real challenge.

Ultimately, the real problem I've been having with One Way Heroics is that I've basically been done with the game for five hours now. Once you slay the demon lord, the only thing you have left to do is try and do it again, with other character classes, on a higher difficulty. It's all right, but there's not a lot left to discover (unless, of course, there is and I just happen to be so far from discovering it that I don't even suspect it exists).

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

One Way Heroics - 2/20 hours

Roguelikes are the bane of my gaming existence. I want to like them so badly. They're just such a sophisticated idea. They feel like the sort of games a mature and responsible person should enjoy. You're given a starting point, a set of rules, and a procedurally generated world, and the point is to find out how far you can get based on nothing but your own skill. That's cool.

But then I try to play one and I suddenly remember that I'm a whiny baby who doesn't like to lose. Or, more flatteringly, I like continuity and growth and so having to start over from scratch every 20 minutes is just about the opposite of what I enjoy in a game.

One Way Heroics does toss me a bone or two in this direction, though. At the end of each playthrough, you earn points based on your performance, and these points can unlock various things like new classes, special abilities (though each class only has a certain number of ability slots that doesn't change from playthrough to playthrough), or extra slots in your dimensional vault. The vault allows you to keep your best items from playthrough to playthrough, and that's helpful, though items degrade over time and, well, a level one character with a powerful sword is still a level one character.

I was also wrong about this being a jrpg. It is turn-based, but a weird kind of hybrid turn-based where a turn passes for each "space" that you move and each time you press the attack button, but except in certain specialized situations, you're doing both things so often that it seems more like a real-time action-rpg. If we want to get really philosophical about this, it's a choice that highlights the arbitrary nature of video game time, because isn't a computer situation itself just a stringing together of discrete individual world-states in order to create the illusion of continuity? How rapidly does this have to occur for it to seem like "real time" to the player?

Judging just from my experience with this game, I'd have to say the answer is "somewhat more rapidly than One Way Heroics, but probably not by a lot." It all comes down to the fact that nothing else moves when you're standing still. It's not always something that registers, because the game encourages you to move constantly, but sometimes, it really matters - and about half of those times, I forget and panic by rapidly hitting buttons when I would be better served by slowing down, assessing my situation, and pushing one button at a time.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

One Way Heroics - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

In One Way Heroics, you take on the role of an intrepid adventurer who must travel across the land and face the Demon Lord before a mysterious shadow engulfs everything.

Darkness always approaches from the left, and with each movement or action you take, the void creeps ever closer. Forced to run right, you'll encounter any number of monsters, allies, thieves and shops on your desperate journey to stop the end of everything.

The good news is that you don't just have access to one world. You have access to all of them. 

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

There was a time I was just buying things left and right without much consideration, but the reason this, specifically made the cut was twofold. First, it was recommended as similar to Half-Minute Hero 2, which I bought at the same time, so I was in a mood to be favorably disposed towards gimmicky rpgs. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it was 87 cents. I figured it was basically no risk to me.

Expectations and Prior Experience

It's a jrpg, which I like. But it's a roguelike, which gives me pause. My hope is that regardless of whether I like it or not, its structure is such that I can play it without needing too many breaks. Turn-based games in general are easier for me because of the way they break down time into manageable chunks. The only real hurdle I foresee is that the game might be too difficult and frustration could drive me away. But I've got the eye of the tiger right now. I'm only three games away from reaching my 2017 goal and I'm not going to let a petty thing like being completely miserable thwart me.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Brutal Legend - 20/20 hours

I thought I was going to write a post all about Brutal Legend's RTS mechanics, but it turns out there's not a lot to say - they're not very good, but they also have the virtue of not being very difficult. You build "merch booths" and attract "fans," which act as your currency for building units. The goal is to control the fan geysers to produced more units and overwhelm your enemy.

The units themselves have some pretty fun designs. My favorite is the Drowning Doom faction. All of their units have this creepy goth look that really adds a lot of character to your battles against them. Unfortunately, the RTS controls aren't very precise, at least for someone as unskilled as me, it all boils down to pointing your units at the enemy and hoping for the best.

But in the end, those hopes were completely justified, and I managed to beat the game. That covers a lot of sins. Sadly, what it doesn't cover is the weak writing in the second half of the game.

Or, rather, I should say that the second half of the game suffers for being the second half and not for being the middle third. Eddie Riggs has a falling out with his love interest and she runs away and becomes this sexy goth sorceress who uses what she learned from Eddie against him, summoning a massive undead horde with the power of a slightly different subgenre of metal. This proves to be a huge distraction from fighting their true enemy, the demon Emperor Doviculus.

The way the story should have gone is that Eddie and Ophelia should have reconciled and joined forces, either right before or right after Doviculus raises the stakes. This would have set up a series of missions where you fought the Tainted Coil, giving each of the game's three multiplayer faction a turn in the spotlight.

What actually happens is that Doviculus kind of just crashes the climax to Ophelia's story, barging in after the big final battle with the Drowning Doom and immediately pushing you into a lamer, less difficult battle with a small fraction of the Tainted Coil's units. And that is the one and only time you face that faction in the single-player game. Ordinarily, it would be nitpicking to claim that a game doesn't have an entire plot, but in this case, the Tainted Coil missions are so conspicuous in their absence that it has to be a sign of problems during the production.

Overall, though, I'm happy with the game we got. Its heady blend of humor, semi-ironic adolescent machismo, and cyclopean scale is not something that I've ever seen duplicated. Still, one of these days, I'd love to play a Double Fine game that is as good at the end as it was as the beginning.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Brutal Legend - 10/20 hours

Collectibles in games are kind of a tricky proposition. I like the feeling of finiteness that comes from tracking them down. There are only so many and you can grab them one after another. There's something satisfying about having a list of things to do and then gradually seeing that list get smaller and smaller . . . The parallel to my blog was unintentional when I started writing the sentence, but it seems apt. These sorts of systematic tasks are right in my wheelhouse. I like having a goal and making steady progress towards that goal.

On the other hand, collecting doodads in a game is also kind of frustrating and pointless. It's better in Brutal Legend than most because the best thing about this game is the scenery and driving around looking for hidden statues gives you plenty of excuse to look at everything. Plus, the soundtrack is growing on me. I'll probably never be a true heavy metal fan, but I'm coming to appreciate the nuance a bit more. And yet, this sort of exploration always comes with its own set of worries. How many collectibles are in this particular area? How do I keep track of where I've already searched? How can I be sure that, when I've failed to find a collectible, it's because there was no collectible there and not because it's just especially well-hidden.

Questions like that are why I usually only do the collectibles thing when the game includes some sort of collectible finder. As much as I enjoy the order and rigor of crossing things off a list, I hate the uncertainty that comes with not actually having a list. But in this case, I made an exception because I know Brutal Legend is a short game and I didn't want to run out of things to do before I reached 20 hours.

So that's mostly what I've been doing. I found an online guide and I've been very carefully tracking down the various collectibles, gathering them all whenever a new area opens up, so as to not miss a single one and thus have no ambiguity whether or not the collectibles have been found. Like I said earlier, it's more fun in Brutal Legend than in most other games, but it's not, you know, great.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Brutal Legend - 4/20 hours

I've been doing this blog for about three and a half years now. And before that, I wrote a novel and about a half-dozen roleplaying books. So I think it's fair to call myself "a writer," or, at least, a serious hobbyist. And I say this because as a writer, I am stunned by Brutal Legend. I don't know how Tim Shafer did it. It's like a damned magic trick the way this game just instantly sells its world and its characters.

From his first scene, you know who Eddie Riggs is and you become immediately invested in his predicament. Hell, I could have played a whole game worth of him being a roadie for Kabbage Boy, based purely on the strength of the first three minutes of the game.

Then he gets transported to "The Age of Metal" and it's like a master class in sketching out a compelling fantasy world. And I'm not even talking about the art design here. Eddie's early monologues, where he correctly predicts that the battle nun will be a horrifying mutant, or where he prays to the gods of evil to move a captured enemy vehicle, tell you everything you need to know about what sort of world you're in and what sort of story you're going to experience.

And then the art design reinforces that. I'm not any sort of connoisseur of heavy metal, but it doesn't matter because it is nearly impossible to find a camera angle in this game that does not capture something awesome. Like, sure, there's this layer of irony that comes from knowing that the cross-shaped megalith or giant chrome engine embedded in the sides of a canyon are inspired by a particular musical genre, and thus it's funny that this celebration of macho excess has been realized in a digital world. And yet, it is also a distinct fantasy world of epic scope and grandeur.

There's this thing fantasy stories commonly do, where they're set in what amounts to a post-apocalyptic world. The protagonist is part of a civilization that has been built on top of the ruins of some prior civilization that was both immensely accomplished and tantalizingly mysterious. And in fantasy games, interacting with these ancient ones is often the most memorable part. There's this great optional area in Final Fantasy VI where you see a drama play out between summoned gods and the wizards and royalty that bound them. And of course, the titular Remnants were the best part of The Last Remnant, and so on and so forth, going all the way back to the dungeons of Dungeons & Dragons.

But I'm going to make a bold statement here - no one has ever done it better than Brutal Legend. The backstory is that the world was once ruled by this enlightened race of titans, who tutored both humanity and demons before mysteriously vanishing. And you can see the mark they made on the world almost everywhere you go. There's this 20-story-tall stone guitar just sitting in the middle of a field - is it relevant to a quest? Do you have to fight some kind of guitar-monster there, or perhaps navigate through a musically-themed dungeon? Nope. It's just a giant artifact, left over from when giants ruled the world. You can stare at it, be awed by it, and know deep down in your bones that everything you do is in the shadow of what the ancients left behind.

Sure, this ancient race only exists because the game-creators wanted to build a semi-coherent world around an implied Heavy Metal mythos, but then their inspiration, the fantasy-flavored lyrics of certain heavy metal songs, was itself inspired by the foundational classics of fantasy literature. Brutal Legend is a quotation of a quotation and the net effect is like double-distilled moonshine. Maybe you don't get the same subtlety and nuance as you would in a straightforward fantasy game, but the essence of the genre is right there in your face, in all of its eye-watering glory.

There's this sense that as you play along with Brutal Legend's story, you can predict what's going to happen long before it actually happens. Lars, the leader of the resistance, is a fairly typical fantasy hero and his journey, as seen through the eyes of Eddie Riggs, is one that follows a fairly standard trajectory. And I would argue that that is a strength instead of a weakness. First of all, the game doesn't need to waste a lot of time establishing who these people are or why you should care about them. You know: heroes = good, villains = bad. But secondly, Brutal Legend actually manages to do something really clever here. By making the main viewpoint character someone who plays more of a supporting role, it explores a rather conventional story from an unusual perspective - a heroic fantasy narrative seen through the lens of logistics and diplomacy, rather than personal valor.

Making the game an RTS is therefor a thematic necessity (and as I understand it, Brutal Legend was supposed to be an RTS from the start, the adventure and open-world elements were later additions), but I'm getting ahead of myself. Mostly I've been focusing on gathering collectibles and exploring the world. I haven't actually gotten to the RTS sections yet. I've been putting it off because I remember them being half-baked and tedious, but I should probably just bite the bullet and move on, because the game's story and characters are great and I won't see very much of them wandering around the (admittedly badass and evocative) wilderness.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Brutal Legend - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Brütal Legend is an action-adventure that marries visceral action combat with open-world freedom. Set in a universe somewhere between Lord of the Rings and Spinal Tap, it’s a fresh take on the action/driving genre, which in this case is full of imitation cover bands, demons intent on enslaving humanity and Heavy metal tunes. Featuring the talents of comedian, actor and musician, Jack Black as super roadie Eddie Riggs, as well as cameos by some of the biggest names in metal music it's a wild ride in the belly of the beast that is not to be missed by gamers and Metalheads alike.

Included as a free bonus in the PC version of Brütal Legend are both the Hammer of Infinite Fate and Tears of the Hextadon multiplayer map packs.

The vivid and wildly creative world of Brütal Legend is brought to life through a spate of chrome, leather, rocker babes, epic music, fire-breathing/stud-wearing beasts, mountains made of guitar amps, and more. Follow Eddie as he embarks on a tour of epic destruction with an axe, a guitar, and his minions as he commands the power of rock in epic band battles. It’s lighter-flicking awesomeness that will melt your face clean off.

Brütal Legend’s combat is a combination of classic action slasher and real time strategy mechanics. Melee and ranged combat come from your double-sided broadaxe and demon-slaying, pyrotechnic-creating guitar. Add that 1-2 punch to a guitar solo mechanic that can summon objects, buff your teammates, or cripple your opponents, and you have a deep, gratifying core gameplay combat loop that is fun for the hardcore and accessible for the casual. On top of that, players will journey from Roadie to Rock God by commanding legions of metalheads into Brütal Victory and sending troops charging into battle.

A Streaming Open World
Brütal Legend gives you the freedom to walk, drive, or fly anywhere in a fully streaming open world whose art style is inspired by some of the most iconic and hilariously rad metal album covers ever created. Every vista in the beautiful universe of Brütal Legend looks like it was pulled from a Frank Frazetta painting.

Packed With Cameos and Voice Talent
Brütal Legend is full of cameos from gods of metal like Lemmy Kilmister, Rob Halford, Lita Ford, and many, many others. It has a MASSIVE metal soundtrack from every era of metal music: 1970’s classic metal to 1980’s hair metal to the scarier cousins of 1990’s metal. And of course, Jack Black pays the ultimate homage to metal as Eddie the Roadie, continuing the theme from the work of his band, Tenacious D and his previous films like School of Rock and High Fidelity.

Multiplayer Mayhem
4v4 "skirmish" multiplayer marries action combat with a strategic unit-control mechanic. As the leader of one of the factions in the game, the player will direct his armies in a Battle of the Bands where the trophy is survival. Brütal Legend’s multiplayer is online-enabled, so you can conquer your friends online (broadband connection required for online play).

The music in Brütal Legend is truly massive. Made up of 108 of the most rocking tracks from 75 different bands representing every sub-genre of metal, it is something to experience in and of itself. 

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

It was completely free! I didn't need another game. I didn't even want another game. But I'm only human. Tell me something is free, and I'm immediately drawn to it. That wasn't enough on its own, though. I've been getting more selective about the games I've been buying this year, and I've turned down other free games because I wasn't exactly interested in them. But Brutal Legend is definitely something special. I've played it before and loved it, so I was willing to risk falling behind on my annual goal to pick it up.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've played the console version before and I loved it. It may not have had the most polished gameplay out there (like, why is it an RTS, seriously), but the world design may well be my favorite ever, and the characters are hilarious and the first half of the plot is both funny and engaging (like many Double Fine games, I found it had a weak ending, but maybe my memory is playing tricks on me).

The funny thing is that I was not (and largely am still not) a particular fan of metal music. I always found its over-the-top machismo and embrace of dissonance to be offputting, but put in to the context of a colorful fantasy world, I found it charming. I loved driving around in the hot rod, looking at the album-cover inspired scenery, and blasting Manowar. It's not something I'd do in real life, but Brutal Legend managed to take me out of myself enough, and there's something magical about that.

Which is why I expect the game to go easy, and hopefully fast. I've got 24 days to play 4 games and I chose this one specifically because I know that it can transport me to another world and make me obsessed. I hope to channel that power for a quick completion, though I worry that maybe I've changed enough in the past few years that I won't find it nearly as enrapturing as I once did.

Pandora: First Contact - 20/20 hours

Good news! I made it! I got through an entire game without having to go to war with another faction. It turned out the secret was playing on a very large map, upping the game speed to "marathon" and raising the alien aggression. My superior human foresight allowed me to grab enough territory in the early game, while the AIs were dealing with alien attacks, that I was able to keep a dramatic lead throughout the entire late game (apparently the AI will not gang up on you if you're able to take them all on simultaneously).

The strange thing I noticed about the late game is that once you've built all the available city improvements, it's more or less a matter of time before your faction starts to spiral out of control. Your population continues to grow, so long as there is food, but once you exceed your residence limit, you keep accruing more and more unhappiness, which tanks your build times, research rate, and tax income. It's lucky that I was able to win the game not too long after that started happening, because total collapse from overpopulation was basically inevitable.

I'm not sure how I feel about that. Yes it gives the late-game a sense of urgency, but for fucks' sake people, use some damned birth control. Malthusian population growth is a discredited idea in the real world for a reason.

That being said, it only really starts happening once the technological victory is imminent, so I have to shrug. It would be nice if there were repeatable techs that could help you cope with excess population, but that's mostly because I like things nice and neat. You don't actually need a precisely ordered and well-managed populace to win the game, which makes sense when you think about its focus on military conquest, but which, obviously, I find pretty unsatisfying.

Overall, I'd say that Pandora: First Contact has potential. It wasn't too bad, once I got over the learning curve, but if a game is going to try and be a spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri, then it needs to bring more philosophical exploration and sci-fi weirdness. Also, its focus on being a challenging game left it little room to carve out distinctive identities for its factions. Yang or Miriam may not have attacked at strategically optimal times, but man-oh-man they were insufferable when they did.

I probably won't play this game again, because I have a lot of better options, but it had some unique ideas and I admire the fact that a small company could produce a game as polished as this one. It's not what I want out of a 4X game, but more aggressive players might find it a worthy and engaging strategic challenge that requires a careful balance of economy and expansion.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Pandora: First Contact - 9/20 hours

As Pandora: First Contact's aggressive AI pushed me to my breaking point, I looked to the Internet for answers. Apparently, it's all on purpose. The AI "plays to win," which means that if you get too weak, they will opportunistically take you out in order to grab your resources, and if you get too strong, they will gang up on you and take you out in order to eliminate a threat. Sigh.

I mean, I get it. You've got yourself a strategy game, and so you want the people who play it to use strategy. Specifically, you want to capture the feeling and the experience of a big, multi-sided free-for-all game where the player and five of their closest friends scramble after the same prize - victory. And victory is, by it's nature, exclusive. Only one person can win, and so to pursue victory is the same thing as pursuing the other players' defeat.

And in games where military action is an option, the one surefire way to ensure another player's defeat - eliminate them from the game entirely. If they can't play the game, there's no possibility of them winning. It's a direct and straightforward solution to the problem of your opponent's existence.

The only problem is that it's kind of a misguided way to design a game. It's one thing if there are only two players. Then, when one player loses, the other one wins, and the game is over. But if there are three or more players, then one of them being eliminated means the game simply goes on without them. The penalty for losing is that you no longer get to play the game. Which kind of defeats the purpose of getting your friends together to play a game in the first place.

Of course, the AIs are not my friends, but that just raises the question of why one would want to program them to "play to win" in the first place? They don't get any satisfaction out of it. The most they can ever do is thwart the player from seeing late-game content and force them to start over from scratch. Which they could just as easily do by being too easy to beat (say, for example, in a special "easy mode.")

And look, I know every true strategy-game aficionado is fuming at me right now, because I'm missing the obvious answer of "games are meant to be challenging, because how else are you going to get good at strategy if the AI is a pushover?" But that begs the question. Why would I even want to be good at military strategy in the first place?

The obvious answer is because I'm playing a military strategy game in the first place (in much the same way as if, were I playing Ship Simulator Extremes, I'd want to get good at piloting a simulated ship), but with the 4X genre, there's more room for ambiguity. A lot of games in the genre, you can win the game without ever firing a shot. You can focus on building, diplomacy, or discovery and win that way.

And the cynic would point out that this doesn't contradict their point about the weak AI because all of those things are easier if you combine them with military conquest - why build for yourself when you can invest in an army and take stuff that other people have built, and diplomacy is, of course, a lot easier when you can kill the holdouts and leave your supporters alive, and since discovery is a race, you are much more likely to win with fewer players in the running.

All of that is undoubtedly true, and yet I still prefer to win as a pacifist, and for one simple reason: Winning through wars of conquest, even if they are only meant to supplement an economic or technological victory, is a total dick move. Instead of improving yourself, you tear someone else down, and yes, you get material advancement out of the deal, but what of the cost to your soul?

Which isn't to say that you're a dick just because you play military strategy games. I play military strategy games. I enjoy (some) military strategy games. And I like to think I'm only kind of a dick. It's just that if you give me the option to avoid conquest, I will almost always take it. I generally only move my military when things start to feel personal.

And maybe that's foolish. Maybe I should take "allowable within the game's rules" to mean "perfectly acceptable to use when advantageous." Just treat it as an electronic board game, where I'm moving my pieces around with a particular goal in mind, and in which there is no moral dimension whatsoever. Except that I have to confess - I like the moral dimension. I get a thrill out of seeing militarism fail.

And as long as I'm in a confessional mood, I even enjoy being hypocritical about this. Sure, I prefer to avoid war altogether, but there is something super satisfying about a punitive late-game war where I'm steamrolling an aggressive enemy with the power of my superior economy, especially if they're the ones who started it. Mwah, hah, hah! You thought I was weak, but now I'm beating you at your own game. Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

Not my proudest impulse, but I am who I am.

I guess Pandora: First Contact is just driving home how much I yearn for a game where amity and cooperation are the unambiguous winning path. Where backstabbing and aggressive conquest are net disadvantages in any situation except one of gross asymmetry in skill. Where every player participating all the way to the end of the game is both expected and desirable.

What would "victory" even look like in such a game? I can't really say. Maybe victory itself is an artifact of the militarist mindset. To look at a new world and see only scarcity, instead of the possibility for plenty. Or maybe competition is too fundamental to what people want to get out of strategy games, and such a dreamily idealistic hippy game is appealing only to myself.

Certainly, it would be perverse and pointless to wish for a humanistic and enlightened version of Chess, so why impose the the same standards on Pandora: First Contact.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Pandora: First Contact - 2/20 hours

I was warned in the review section of the store page. It was a complaint repeated in the negative review that sometimes even showed up in the positive reviews. The AI in this game is absolutely cutthroat. But I thought, "surely easy mode is going to give me a break here." I found out I was wrong the hard way.

I was completely peaceful and yet every damned faction at once declared war on me. It's because the AI is programmed to act aggressively when it senses weakness. And, of course, in a war you lose units, which makes you weaker, which provokes even more of the AIs to pile on. It was kind of a shitshow.

It's a real disappointment to me that my usual pacifist play-style isn't viable, but it's not the end of the world. I see a few possibilities for how I can adapt. I can just spam military units instead of selecting the economy focus when I'm out of stuff to build. I can be more aggressive in the positioning of my units, so as to take out the enemy quickly when they declare war. I can, overall, be less trusting and more opportunistic. I don't like it, but I have options.

The real shame is that I could grow to love Pandora's infrastructure management. At first, I was deceived by its superficial similarity to the Civilization games, so I built my tile improvements out of habit, and was kind of confused about what I was getting out of it. But once I did some research and started experimenting a little, it turned out to actually be kind of a clever system.

Unlike a lot of other 4X games, your resources in Pandora are global. In, say, Civilization IV, if you have a city with a population of 10, that requires that you have farms that produce 20 units of food surrounding that particular city. It doesn't matter if you've got another city that's producing a surplus. If New Byzantium (or whatever) isn't producing enough food to feed itself, it will begin to starve.

In Pandora, by contrast, the farmers in your first city can support miners in your second city and scientists in your third, which really changes the way you look at terrain and settling and building up your cities. Or, at least, it should. I actually just dicked around far more than I should have, which is probably what led to the AI dogpile.

I'm a little diffident about the game, going forward. I don't much care for the idea of having to constantly prepare myself for war, even on easy difficulty, but I do want to experiment more with city specialization and worker micromanagement. I think what I might do is set up a custom game with only one other AI, just so I can work out my build order and learn the nuances of the tech tree. Then, armed with greater knowledge, I can make a run on surviving a true cutthroat arms race.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Pandora: First Contact - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Pandora: First Contact is a science fiction 4X turn-based strategy game on a planetary scale.

In the future, factions have risen up from opportunities and ideologies independent of governments. Private corporations and religious movements have started wars over greed, ideology and power. Many have died and many lands lay in ruin. Planet Earth has been exhausted and colonial attempts on other planetary bodies have been in vain.

Finally, after decades of exploration, an interstellar probe has brought promise of a new world many light-years away. The most powerful factions have gathered their best men and women to send on a long journey to Pandora.

Far from desolate, the earth-like planet has been found to host a plethora of indigenous life forms. While the gigantic monstrosities inland and at the oceans seem relatively calm, human-sized bugs and fungus are threatening to stop mankind's expansion.

As the various factions strive to take control, each will research and develop numerous new technologies, discovering new weapons and industry, whilst opening trade agreements and forging alliances with other factions to gain a foothold. As they spread, they will discover ancient ruins from alien civilizations that will grant them advantages over their rivals.

Previous Playtime

11 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

This game had been on my radar for awhile. Sid Meier's Alpha Centrauri is one of my all-time favorite games, and this was a game that purported to be a spiritual successor to it (although, for the life of me, I can't remember where I saw that bandied about). It was during one of my ill-advised shopping binges that I tossed it into the cart with like a half a dozen other games.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've yet to play a turn-based 4X that I didn't at least somewhat enjoy, but Pandora: First Contact has gotten some pretty harsh reviews. I'm pretty sure it will be all right and I'll blaze through it, but maybe it won't. Although, even if the worst happens, I don't anticipate taking too long to finish this. Turn-based games are simply too easy to play while watching TV or killing time at work.

Majesty 2 Collection - 20/20 hours

Confession time - I had some trouble starting the game up today, and I might have let it hang a little longer than strictly necessary before Ctrl + Alt + Deleting my way out. I didn't do it for long, but such was my state of mind that shaving a minute or two off my play time through technically allowable, but dubiously valid tactics felt like something that needed to happen.

I guess it's because I never really got what I wanted out of this game. I never felt like that guy in every rpg in existence who stands around with the exclamation point over his head. I never felt like the mysterious old man in the tavern who assembles random travelers into an adventuring party. I never felt like a manipulative schemer, sitting in the middle of a web of intrigue. I just felt like an RTS player who couldn't really direct his troops very effectively.

In other words, I really didn't care for this game at all. The art was appealing. There were some nice building and unit designs. I still like the game's pitch. I really do want to be the guy back at town who assigns the quests to wandering heroes. And that's basically it. An okay-looking game in a genre I don't enjoy, executed poorly, but with a central idea that's kind of interesting.

It's embarrassing that it took me as long to get through as it did. I may be losing my touch when it comes to powering through games I don't particularly like. Thankfully, I don't have all that many left.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Majesty 2 Collection - 15/20 hour

I am so ready to be done with this game. I thought, at first, that not directly controlling my units would be liberating, that it would allow me to focus on things that interested me more, like building up my town's economy. But there's no economy and there's no real variation in the building. You either survive long enough to build everything or you don't. There's a degree of interest in seeing your heroes slowly conquer the map through their adventures, but it's not enough to carry a whole game.

I think there's a lot of room to explore different levels of authority in games. So, potentially, a strategy game where your forces are autonomous could potentially be quite interesting (actually, I think it already exists and is called Crusader Kings II), but usually, you've got an unrealistic amount of control over some very specific things. Like, in the Tropico series, el Presidente decides where every house and business on the island is built, even if you're trying to establish a capitalist society. Very few games actually commit to the idea of limiting your control to high-level policy.

I wonder if the issue here is a technological one, or if it's a failure of imagination, or if it's just because the high-level approach would have you looking mostly at spreadsheets and reports and less at maps and characters. Certainly, issuing a generic proclamation of "we are at war with the goblins" is less exciting than moving around individual units. Hell, even Crusader Kings II gives you the godlike ability to direct units to exactly where you want them, despite the fact that your character is hundreds of miles away.

What would a game even look like if it adhered to the limitations of realistic leadership? There would be a delay between issuing your orders and having them carried out. You would only know what was happening after it happened. Everything you know about your kingdom would be highly abstract and filtered through the ideological preconceptions of your staff. It would be difficult to even tell success from failure. A sequestered king, surrounded by flattering courtiers, may not even know about civil unrest until the revolution is on his doorstep.

 It would be a frustrating gaming experience, to be sure. To not have control and to also not be entirely certain what it is you don't have control over. Video games, as a form of entertainment, have to do better. They have to present you with choices and then honestly convey the consequences of those choices, because that's what makes them games. Anything else would just be screaming into the void.

Do you hear that, Majesty 2? You are on thin ice here. Real thin ice.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Majesty 2 Collection - 10/20 hours

I don't know what it means to have skill in this game. Granted, this may be because I'm so bad at it that skillful play is beyond my ability to imagine. That's an idea I have to entertain. But right now my working theory is that success or failure in Majesty 2 largely comes down to luck.

It all comes down to a certain campaign level, called "Mortal Foibles of Kings." In this level, you start off surrounded by 5 different sewers. Usually, sewers are a nuisance, but not terribly threatening. They are indestructible, but only spawn low-level creatures. You can keep them contained by building a guard tower nearby. However, it turns out that they are a much bigger threat when they don't spawn one at a time, as a consequence of your village's growth. If you start out with five, right next to your city, then rats can spawn quickly and tear down your construction before you even get the chance to get started. I've played the level about six times already, and only once did I survive long enough to even get my first hero on the field. Every other time, my building was destroyed before it finished construction.

I looked up a walkthrough online and as near as I can tell, success requires precisely the right build order done without any sort of hesitation or delay. It's likely just a poorly-designed mission, but I'd be distressed if it became the new norm. My least favorite part of any RTS game is when the enemy overwhelms your base and you have to watch helplessly as you are out of resources and your stuff is systematically destroyed without any hope of a counter-action. To experience that less than five minutes into a mission is total bullshit.

In an effort to bypass this terrible level, I went ahead and fired up the expansion campaigns. They were all right, though I'm not sure what the Kingmaker or Battle for Ardania expansion packs added, other than extra missions. The Monster Kingdom expansion was pretty neat, though, allowing you to play the game with goblins and liches and whatnot, instead of your usual heroes.

Going forward, my plan is to use up all of the easy missions from the various expansion packs until I run into a dead end at every turn, and then, after that . . . hope that my 20 hours are up. Or possibly complain about the unfairness of it all. I haven't decided yet. Let's play it by ear.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda - Wrap-Up

With 62 hours under my belt, I am finally done with Mass Effect: Andromeda. I didn't quite get 100% completion, but I'm satisfied with what I have. Mostly it's just directionless collectibles quests and hanging out with my crew that I have left to do. It's likely, that if I ever play through this game again (and I almost certainly will), that I will go into all the corners, guide in hand, and clear everything out of my journal, but for now, 90% is fine.

It was actually pretty nice to get to play a game naively for a change. No agenda, no benchmarks, just going where I want and doing what interests me. Which isn't to say I don't enjoy playing games for the blog, it's just different. I'm not quite so mindful of the passage of time. I'm not constantly composing and refining my next bit of insightful (don't laugh) critique. I'm just enjoying the game for what it is. And that's a nice change of pace.

Now, for the part where I ruin it by overthinking. Mass Effect: Andromeda had a pretty good ending. Much as I predicted, there was a sequel hook (indeed, at least 3 or 4 dangling plot points that were left unresolved), but to its credit, it wasn't like the original Mass Effect. It didn't end on a note of "there is this big, dangerous problem happening imminently that we are only now getting prepared to face." It was more like, "you won an important and decisive victory, but the main antagonist was only a mid-ranking officer in a larger galactic empire, and thus the Helius Sector's short-term prosperity is clouded by a looming threat." The Nexus and the Angarans have successfully wrested control of the sector away from the Kett, and it may be years before they face retribution.

And you know what, that's okay. I really want to play the next phase of the conflict, where a rising multicultural galactic power takes on the cruel fascists and where Ryder learns more about the mysterious circumstances of the Remnant's fall from grace. But I didn't feel cheated out of a resolution. The story of this time and this place wrapped up nicely, and if there is more to do, then maybe that's because life itself doesn't have an ending. There will always be more stories to tell. . .

Although the fate of Ryder's mother and the identity of the mysterious Benefactor are loose ends that only make sense when you're trying to establish a series. Not everything in life needs to be neatly wrapped up, but when you're telling a story, it helps.

I think the reason the sequel hook went down as well as it did with me was because Mass Effect: Andromeda was more of an open-world game. The planets were big maps you could explore and drive around on, rather than simple hub areas connected to a couple of dungeons. The original Mass Effect had random planets that might have been similar, except that they were almost entirely deserted, and thus never really got to the point where they had individual character.

Mass Effect Andromeda's worlds did not suffer from that problem. They were all gorgeously realized sci-fi locations with their own character and identities (though I'm not sure why there were two separate desert planets). All of which adds up to me just wanting to be really ungrateful here. Why can't I have as many explorable world as the original Mass Effect, but with each one having as much personality as the worlds in Mass Effect: Andromeda? Is that really too much to ask?

Obviously, it is, but I can dream. Ultimately, when I look back at Mass Effect: Andromeda, I'm going to see a game that was a contender, but which didn't really have what it takes to be a classic. The Kett turned out to be pretty effective villains after all (I really wanted to kill the Archon by the end), but the Angarans didn't even manage to rise to the level of the original triology's secondary species. Right now, I am thinking about the game having the exact same plot, but replacing the Angarans with the Elcor, the Volus, or even the Hanar, and it's already about a hundred times better. Which makes it a real shame that it has to follow up on a series that spoiled us with all three. And while I enjoyed helping out the colonies and building up their viability (and there is a pretty neat post-game payoff for getting them all to 100%), too often that involved long and aggravating fetch quests that forced me to go through entirely to many loading screens.

The funny thing is, I think if this game had successfully spawned a new Mass Effect trilogy, it could have been retroactively redeemed by its sequels. If you move the action up to the galactic scale and liberate the clusters the other Archons were assimilating, you could have the diversity and the wonder that was missing. If you polished the mechanics just slightly in the sequels, you could make this opening chapter essential playing as a prelude to some really amazing games. With a bit more backstory, the Remnant may well be as compelling as the Protheans. The potential is there, but it's probably never going to happen. The studio was shut down and rumor has it that the sequel was entirely cancelled. Such a shame.

Oh well, at least I got to charge into a bunch of enemy's face-first, and I will always cherish Mass Effect Andromeda for that.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

More Mass Effect: Andromeda

I'm starting to worry about this game. At around 30 hours in, I finally got to the big reveal about who the Kett are and what they've been doing, and it was pretty satisfying. A good combination of horrifying and comprehensible, using a weird sci-fi technology and with some intriguing philosophical implications. And because of that, I estimate that the chances of this game ending on anything but a cliffhanger to be approximately 2%.

Call it cynicism, if you will, but the timing of the revelation was suggestive. There are six planets to explore in this game, and I'd just finished the third. So at almost exactly halfway through the game there's this dramatic reveal that completely changes the context of what you're doing while simultaneously raising the stakes. It was both welcome and proper, but . . . The story mission for the next planet revolves around finding a transponder that will allow you to track down the leader of the Kett.

In other words, they burned about 1/6th of the game's content on what is essentially a delaying tactic. Over the course of this mission, I've learned absolutely nothing new about the Kett or their sinister mission. After 30 hours, the villain finally gets a name and a face, and now the game is spinning its wheels before letting me confront him.

Let's just say, I recognize a pattern here. I'm going to fight through all these arbitrary obstacles and achieve some major victory that allows the Andromeda Initiative to get a foothold in the Helius cluster . . .  only to learn that the real threat has yet to make itself known. And don't get me wrong. It worked great in the original Mass Effect. That whole sequence starting in Virmire and going up to the end of the game was amazing. You get the coldly creepy introduction to the Reapers and then some political intrigue back at the Citadel only to follow up with learning the truth about the Protheans and appreciating the story's true epochal scope, and you end with a tense final mission set against the backdrop of a spectacular space battle with hard moral choices, and memorable visuals and music. Sure, it all added up to a huge sequel hook, but I loved it.

Which brings us back to Mass Effect: Andromeda. I can see the same pattern emerging. I'm certain that the last 20% of the game will up the intensity dramatically, and I would ordinarily be totally on board with that, except that I'm playing this game eight months after it was released, and so I already know that a sequel is unlikely. It's an entirely different thing to experience a thrilling cliffhanger when you know that the resolution is never going to come.

I guess I'll just have to try and enjoy it while I can. And who knows, maybe my worry here is unfounded. Maybe Mass Effect: Andromeda will have a perfectly satisfying story in its own right and the only thing I'll be left hungry for, come the end, is more time in the Mass Effect universe. That would be nice.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Interlude - Mass Effect: Andromeda

I have a confession to make. . . I have a secret life. In addition to my 200-odd Steam games, I also have an Origin account. It only has ten games in its library, and of those, I got six for free. And of the four games I paid for, three of those are different versions of The Sims.  But nonetheless, I've been holding out on you.

I'm telling you this because the other day, I was at the store and I saw a copy of Mass Effect: Andromeda for PC on sale for half its usual price, and that's why I haven't made another Majesty 2 post. Over the last 3 days, I've managed to play this one game for 24 hours.

There's this thing that they started doing in Mass Effect 2 where one of the class abilities was the "biotic charge." You target an enemy and fly through the air, slamming you into them at high speed, doing massive damage and putting you in ideal position to shoot them at point-blank range (or, you know, be instantly slaughtered by the enemy's friends, but nothing ventured . . .) It's just about the funnest thing in the whole world and it's only gotten more enjoyable in each Mass Effect game since it was introduced.

That's the primary reason I've played the game so much. I just love flying recklessly around these gorgeously realized alien worlds, tearing into robots and monsters and the like. Combined with plenty of the typical open-world rigamarole to give me reasons to go from place to place, and it is perfectly calibrated to keep me on the hook.

So I like the game quite a bit, but it is a contentious entry to the series and I can see why. Andromeda is simply not as compelling a setting as the Milky Way (fake Andromeda - if aliens are reading this 2 million+ years from now, I'm sure the real Andromeda is great). The original Mass Effect trilogy had a ton of work put into the background lore and it showed. Just about every one of its sci-fi creations was compelling in its own right, and taken all together, they created a world that was both diverse and engaging.

Unfortunately, Mass Effect: Andromeda doesn't seem to do the same amount of work. So far, there are only two new intelligent species compared to the dozen or so from the original trilogy. And unless there's some great lore revelation coming up, they are simply not as interesting as the Milky Way species (again, fictionally). When you compare the Angarans to the Turians or the Quarians, or the Krogans, it's not even a contest - I can't even describe to you why I find them bland, because they have no characteristics that are distinct enough to comment upon. I suppose it's a victory for sidestepping the "planet of hats" cliche by making the aliens be as varied as the humans. But if you can't reduce aliens to a stereotype, then what is space opera for?

And the Kett, as villains, forget about it. They're like the Collectors but less creepy and menacing.

The worst part, though, is that it doesn't have to be this way. They could build upon the groundwork laid by the first three games and just make the setting more diverse, but that would kind of involve not transporting the story two and a half million light years away, where none of the stuff you've established before could possibly have any effect on what's going on.

I understand why they did it. They wanted a free hand in writing a new sci-fi story without having to worry about the baggage and expectations from the original trilogy. Ultimately, though, they set themselves up to fail. In order for Andromeda to work as a game, they had to sell Andromeda as a setting, and that means creating something so utterly new that if feels exotic, spectacular, and dangerous even in the context of an established sci-fi setting. The Helius cluster had to feel like it was worth the 600-year cryosleep. The people in the arks left behind a world of bug monsters and blue psychic space babes and evangelical jellyfish and killer robots from before the dawn of history. So whatever they found needed to be even more exciting than that. And it just wasn't.

I'm still going to play the game to the end, though. What can I say. I love exploration and I love charging into gun fights like a colossal idiot.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Majesty 2 Collection - 6/20 hours

The thing about this game is that it's an RTS where you can't directly control your units. In other words, it's kind of a crummy RTS.

I mean, it's kind of fun to try and bribe your collection of heroes to go and kill specific monsters. But sometimes you've got a whole lot of heroes and no money and it's pretty much up to chance whether or not they'll rescue your village.

It's a slapdash way to approach military strategy, and honestly, I don't really mind it that much. If the alternative is me paying serious attention to the dispensation of my troops and their battlefield positioning . . .

Although I wish that there was more to do besides trying to influence adventurers. Your village doesn't really have a civic life or complex economy. Your shops just contain items for adventurers. Everything you build revolves around them in some way. At best you can try and maximize gold return or research tactical spells. It doesn't really even matter where you place your buildings.  The trick lies mainly in picking the right build order.

So I guess I'm in this position where I just have to go along with it. I mean, there's not really anything particularly bad that's going to happen and probably nothing especially good that's going to happen either. If I half-ass the game for the next 14 hours, I doubt I'll miss out on anything important.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there's a lot of skill involved here and I'm still too much of a novice to see it. Only time will tell.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Majesty 2 Collection - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

In the world of Majesty, you are the ruler of the Kingdom. Your rule is not absolute, however, as you face subjects that are independent and stubborn. They will need a great deal of persuasion before they carry out your wishes...

Includes all Majesty 2 content:
Majesty 2
Kingmaker expansion
Battles of Ardania expansion
Monster Kingdom expansion

The Kingmaker game editor enables players to create their own missions. Also included is every item, quest, unit and building previously only available for purchase using the in-game store. This additional content includes new spells, weapons, units, heroes, buildings, quests and more.

Main Features:
Real-time strategy with indirect control – your heroes have a will of their own
Build the ultimate fantasy kingdom and experience an engaging world, but beware: monsters are waiting to lay siege to your domain
Defend your realm with noble warriors, spell-wielding wizards, or wild barbarians
Multiplayer for up to 4 players over LAN

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

This game is a funny one. I can remember exactly why I bought it - my friend Jon described the game to me and I thought it sounded intriguing - but I can't remember exactly what he said to me that I once found so persuasive. I actually bought Majesty 2 years after our original conversation, and only because I recognized the title.

Looking at the store description, I think it was the part where you control a king, but you have to direct self-willed heroes. That sounds like a pretty novel sort of game mechanic.

Expectations and Prior Experience

The thing is, this is a kingdom-building RTS. So I will definitely like the kingdom-building parts, but the RTS parts may cause me trouble. Especially if the enemy comes in and wrecks my kingdom. The indirect control mechanic gives me cause for hope, though. If I can't directly control my troops, then it seems likely that the combat portion of the game will be pretty forgiving. It would be downright perverse if the game punished me for something that was literally out of my control.

Divinity II: Developer's Cut - 20/20 hours

I never got to be a dragon. It's my own fault, really. If I hadn't started a new save file, I would surely have made it. Even as it stands, I'm pretty close to reaching the boss I need to kill to get the power. Just one more dungeon to go. But I think switching to a warrior build was probably the right move, nonetheless. Towards the end of my time with the mage build, I was having to reload 1-2 times per battle. So, who knows. Maybe it would have taken me an extra 7 hours to get to this same place. Probably not, but it's impossible to say for sure.

Divinity II is the first game in the series I've seriously contemplated playing past my deadline. I find myself enjoying its action-rpg gameplay and excellent voice acting. Ultimately, the reason I'm not is because of a thematic choice that would be annoyingly cynical if I thought it was at all deliberate - the game keeps putting me in a position where I have to kill basically innocent people.

Like, there's this one side-quest where a knight asks you to help him get food for the village he protects, only, when you get to where the food is, the regular military is there and they say they need the food for some other group of people. Whichever side you don't pick, you have to fight the other. And okay, the knight is a bit of a jerk, but not so much that he deserves to die (especially not while on a mission of mercy), and the soldiers may serve an authoritarian organization, but this is ye olde medieval times and they're actually fairly decent guys. So why, exactly, are we coming to blows here?

And that wouldn't be so bad in isolation, but stuff like that keeps happening. When you go to the temple that gives you the thing you need to unlock the island with the dungeon where you get your dragon powers, you find that all your old dragon-slayer comrades are still there. Only now they hate you because you've been corrupted by dragon power, and so rather than talking things out and demonstrating that maybe dragons aren't so bad after all, they attack you and you're forced to defend yourself, killing several named characters, including a couple that you were on pretty friendly terms with at the beginning of the game.

But even that, as frustrating as it was, is not so bad as what you have to do on Sentinel Island. When you first step out of the teleporter room you are greeted by this strange elemental creature who tells you that you must recruit some staff for your future citadel, and that there are already two candidates for each available position . . . and the ones you don't choose will be killed. That pissed me off. So much so that I searched for a guide because surely no game would be that sadistic. There had to be a heroic "third option."

Nope. If you don't make the choice yourself, the elemental decides for you, killing half the guys at random. Seriously, what the fuck Divinity II? I'm trying to be a hero here and you're just, like, "nah, somebody's gotta die."

Like I said, this would be inexcusably cynical if I thought they were doing it on purpose, to make some kind of point. However, I think these sorts of quests are just coincidentally awful. This is an action game. The only thing your character really knows how to do is fight. Thus any sort of drama or conflict, it must revolve around a battle somehow. Combined with a desire to not have any serious branching options, and you get a story where sometimes you just straight up murder people because it's easier than talking to them.

Video games, am I right?

Friday, November 10, 2017

Divinity II: Developer's Cut - 9/20 hours

There's a thing video games will do where you level up and you get new stat points to improve some aspect of your character, and it's all very exciting until you actually assign the points and discover that it only improves your abilities by 1-2%. When that happens, I start to wonder why I even bother. I am not perceptive enough to notice the difference in my performance. Fewer, larger improvements would be so much better.

But that's not a complaint specific to Divinity II. Sure, leveling up can be kind of underwhelming, but it happens often enough that it's reasonably motivating. It can get a little frustrating when the monsters seem to scale faster than your power level, but hey, I don't have to do this forever.

The game's story, so far, has been serviceable. You're a dragon-slayer, but there's only one dragon left in the world, and so you have to sit out the mission to take it down, because you're still untrained. Except something goes wrong, and you arrive at the scene of the battle to find only one survivor - a dying dragon knight who gives you the power to become a dragon yourself. And that's sure to have some fallout eventually, but in the meantime I'm running around doing insignificant chores for people, because it wouldn't be an open-world rpg if NPCs could deliver their own letters or rescue their own pigs.

I wouldn't have it any other way, though. For the longest time, I harbored the idea that all I cared about in these sorts of games is going to new places, fighting enemies, and collecting loot. But the extensive padding in the first two Divinity games disabused me of that notion. What I really like is going to new places, fighting enemies, and collecting loot with a fig-leaf of an excuse to do so.

Which is good, because I did a foolish thing and started a new character after seven hours with my first one. You see, I'd discovered a "skill book," an item that gave me a new skill point without having to gain a level, and I was so thrilled by this discovery (despite the somewhat underwhelming nature of skills in this game) that I immediately fired up a guide to see if there were any others around. It turns out there were plenty, but I'd already missed my sole opportunity to find three of them.

I mean, it's foolish to put so much stock in completionism for a game I'm just going to quit after 20 hours, but it nonetheless bugged me. So much so that I started over from scratch. However, I know a lot more this second time around than I did the first, so I'm not anticipating that it will take me quite so long to get to where I was before.

I suppose you could consider it a compliment to the game, though. Would I really be so sanguine about backtracking in a game I didn't enjoy?

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Divinity II: Developer's Cut - 3/20 hours

It's easy, sometimes, to be dismissive about the role of presentation in making a good video game. "Graphics are superficial" and "the only thing that matters is gameplay," and all that. But playing Divinity II so soon after the other Divinity games really puts those arguments into perspective. Seeing a 3-D animation of an airship floating into a dock did more to connect me to the setting and characters than any amount of text boxes. Being able to see the buildings from ground level and distinguish their unique architectural details at a glance has made navigating immensely easier. Hell, the relatively good voice acting of the NPCs has actually made me care about what they say.

Which isn't to say that Divinity II is necessarily great at presentation. It's still too early for me to say, given that I'm still in the starting town and have not seen anything but the typical faux-western-European fantasy pastiche that usually dominates rpg settings. I mean, Two Worlds did the same basic setting and looked almost as good (with the caveat that its voice acting and character design were much worse). I'd say that it looks about as good as an early Xbox 360 game. It's a little better than Oblivion, but not quite as good as Skyrim. It likely comes down to a budget thing. All of the graphics are crisp and clear, and it does some interesting things with trees and terrain, but you don't get that sense of obsessive attention to detail.

Divinity II isn't really all that much like its predecessors. The over-the-shoulder perspective is more personal than the god's eye view of the 2D games. Distant areas are obscured by terrain and obstacles, rather than fog-of-war, making it feel more open and expansive. And combat feels more like action and less like a series of abstracted dice rolls. And it's not like the Fallout series, which had a distinctive post-apocalyptic by way of the perpetual '50s aesthetic to give it identity. I actually don't have much handle at all on what makes these games part of the same series. There are a couple of familiar place names from the first game, but in the second, I never even interacted with the real world at all. Perhaps that's why this is game is the numbered sequel, despite Beyond Divinity being the second game in the series.

Nonetheless, I'm enjoying Divinity II quite a bit. The pacing of quests is much better (in that I'm only three hours in and I've already completed some!), the NPCs are more distinct and memorable, and your character's "gimmick" (being an elite mystical dragon-slayer) gives them neat abilities like being able to see ghosts and read minds. My only real complaint is that the mind-reading costs experience points to use. Every time I've read an NPCs mind, it's been fun and flavorful, but expending a permanent resource for a temporary benefit (let alone otherwise irrelevant setting color) just doesn't sit well with me. My hope is that the xp I earn from monsters will start to scale so high that the xp I lose from mind-reading will be trivial by comparison.

I guess what I'll do is keep plugging away. As long as the quests and the rewards keep coming at a satisfying pace, it doesn't really matter if I do things optimally or not.