Friday, July 28, 2017

Fractured Space - 2/20 hours

There are times when I feel like cursing whoever invented the MOBA. I mean, I don't hate the genre or anything, but I must admit, my opinion on a game has never been improved upon discovering it's a MOBA. It's irrational, I know, but I feel like no one ever deliberately sets out to design a new MOBA. Instead, one just sort of emerges when video game designers find themselves with a diverse cast of colorful characters (or in this case space ships) and no ideas about what to do with them.

Which is unfair, of course. MOBAs are, in fact, the closest video games can get to a team sport. They are territory-control games that reward both tactics and strategy and have a very high skill ceiling. If you're interested in games as an abstract experience, a perpetual test of cunning and skill where your only benchmark for skill is the quality of your opponents. There have been times when I've been tempted by this idea, but honestly, it's a lot of work, and I'd rather spend my energies on other things.

The practical upshot of this is that there is not much "game" to Fractured Space. MOBAs are already a genre that's short on interesting level design, and when you set a MOBA in the vacuum of space, that problem is exacerbated. As near as I can tell, there's only one map - an asteroid field in which you have two opposing starbases and three mines that you can ineffectually try and claim for brief periods of time before they are inevitably taken back by the opposing team.

And since the bot AI is pretty bad, even for a MOBA, I feel like I've already exhausted the possibilities for single player. There aren't even any difficulty settings on the bot matches. You just sort of get thrown into a brawl that you will almost certainly win, because the enemy has no sense of strategy, and win inelegantly, because your allies have no sense of strategy.

I suppose I should try and play online multiplayer. Just really throw myself into the competitive scene. But that is a surefire path to heartbreak.

Then again, just because something has never worked in the past, that doesn't mean it won't work in the future!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Fractured Space - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Fractured Space is an award winning free-to-play space combat game. Fight solo in PvE, in co-op Quick Play or 5-v-5 PvP. Brought to life in the stunning Unreal Engine 4, giants of interstellar conflict fight in spectacular close quarter battles for dominance.

Pick a manufacturer, choose a class and customize your weapon loadouts. Through experience you gain the right to command more ships while earning credits to add them to your fleet. Tailor your craft to your combat preferences with crew and weapon loadout options then take on your specialized role when your interstellar juggernaut warps into battle.

You captain a vessel of unmatched combat authority choosing from an ever increasing number of specialised galactic warships. Understand your own capabilities and that of your team before taking the fight to the enemy. Experience will expand your ability to choose which victories to chase and how to then leverage them. Mastery of a single ship is your first step, dominance in the war for space coming as your knowledge increases.

The composition of your team's fleet is vital to your success. Battles may be fought with firepower but they are won with wits. Your team of five will face an equally prepared, equally skilled, equally ambitious opponent in a ceaselessly transforming fight for control. Your plans will evolve, tactics will shift but as a team you will emerge triumphant. Your individual prowess may be significant but it insignificant next to well organised communication, support and teamwork.

Join us as we throw open our doors on development of a groundbreaking space combat experience. The discussion on strategy is endless; share your war stories, learn from others and become a part of the Fractured Space universe.

Previous Playtime

9 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Fractured Space is now a free-to-play game, but it wasn't when I first acquired it. Strangely enough, though, I got it for free. They were doing one of those "our game is free for the next 48 hours" that people sometimes do.

It's kind of funny. I didn't pay anything for this game, but I still feel a little miffed that it went from paid to free. It's like, I used to have something of measurable value that I didn't pay for, and now I have something of no measurable value that I didn't pay for. I mean, I didn't technically lose anything, but it kind of feels like I did. . .

Anyway, I snatched this game up solely because it was free, because back then I thought getting something for free was a benefit.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I played this game for about nine minutes back when it was in beta. I didn't think very much of it. There weren't very many ships and the only thing you could do with them was online multiplayer battles.

Which, okay, I like spaceships, and I like flying them, but fighting space battles has always felt like a massive chore. The three-dimensional dodging and targeting can be dizzying at its worst, and even at its best, space combat tends to devolve into a long-range slugfest. It's like they made an entire game out of my least favorite part of X3 and Eve: Online.

Then again, I just received a very powerful lesson on going into a game with a bunch of negative assumptions. Maybe I'll wind up really like it. There's always hope.

Hero Siege - 20/20 hours

Once I got my little equipment issue out of the way, Hero Siege proved to be a fun, but mindless twin-stick shooter. I wound up beating the game after a couple more hours, and then spent the rest of my time grinding my character up to maximum level.

I enjoyed it, but I wouldn't necessarily call it "good." The game has basically no plot (there are monsters attacking people, I guess) and while the randomly generated levels have a decent variety to them, none were particularly memorable. But compounding the game's basic blandness is the fact that once you play through on normal difficulty, you need only repeat the pre-boss levels on the higher difficulties.

But you know what, it's all right. Throwing hundreds of fireballs at massive hordes of enemies is oddly relaxing, once you get to the point where you don't have to worry about dying. Even if I didn't understand the late-game mechanics (like, what the intended level range for "hell" versus "inferno" is supposed to be, or why every damned piece of Legendary or Mythic equipment had a level 150 minimum, or literally anything about how the wormholes work), I still got the satisfaction of seeing numbers going up, and that's all that I really care about.

Overall, I'd say that Hero Siege is a game I would gladly play again, and mostly that is thanks to the strengths of its genre -  a loot-driven action-rpg with complex character customization is the sort of game I've played many times before and will doubtlessly play many times again. It has its unique quirks, namely a fast-paced twin-stick shooter style and a class list with a couple of eccentric additions like "pirate" and "redneck," but I'm not sure those quirks are a specific draw. It is the variable schedule of rewards combined with a steady sense of forward progress that really makes games like this appealing.

Still, I got through it in just three days, which is amazing for a game that I was convinced I was going to hate. So let that be a lesson to anyone reading this - don't let your misconceptions hold you back, especially if those misconceptions are based on you being a huge idiot and missing, like, one-third of whatever it is you're judging. Maybe it's narrow advice, and maybe it's only useful in retrospect, but that's what I'm taking away from this experience.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Hero Siege - 9/20 hours

I think I owe Hero Siege an apology. I profoundly misjudged it.

Now, you might be looking at the title of this post, seeing that it is my first post on the game, only one day after I started it, and be thinking "ah, he played the game a little bit more and discovered that he really liked it after all." But no, that's not it. When I say "profound," I mean profound.

See, I decided to try a little experiment. I would play each of the eight classes to the end of the first act, just to see if maybe the problems I had before were due to a poor choice of class. And at first, the results of this experiment seemed to confirm my earlier observations - enemies were unusually tank-y and my damage output was low enough that I had to spend a lot of time backpedaling while I kited a whole line of targets.

But then I gained a few levels and started equipping "superior" and "rare" quality weapons and I discovered something remarkable - I was actually able to advance on enemy hordes. Especially with the melee classes, I could cut through these monsters with only a token resistance.

After seeing this pattern repeat a half dozen times, I revised my theory about the game. I suspect that the trouble I was having with my first character was an unfortunate combination of multiplayer level scaling and simple bad luck in finding powerful equipment. And so, out of curiosity, I created a multiplayer game to check out my previous character's load out . . .

I had absolutely nothing equipped, in any of my equipment slots. Which is odd, because I clearly remembered finding equipment, examining and comparing its statistics, and selling off my spares to the merchant guy. But apparently, I did all of this without ever equipping any of it!

So here I am, a complete jackass, thinking this game has some kind of incredibly brutal difficulty, where monsters take forever to kill, but they only need one or two lucky shots to wipe out the player, and all the while I was trying to beat level 35 content with level 0 equipment.

And I have no idea how this could possibly have happened. I didn't have any particular difficulty in figuring out the menus on my local game. Yet I went 7 hours without even noticing on multiplayer. It's true, I had my friend carrying me that whole time. I actually just thought that he was amazingly good at the game. We'd each be fighting separate hordes and I'd kite mine away from him and subsequently die after only taking out three or four enemies and then I'd call for a revive and he'd tell me to wait a minute and I thought "oh yes, these monsters are really tough, especially with the multiplayer scaling, considering he has to fight my enemies as well." And then, when he did finally come riding to my rescue, I thought, "wow, he handled those monsters like a pro, I sure do wish I was good enough at this game to be more help."

Which isn't to take anything away from my friend or downplay his skill. He got to act 4 of the game with a completely dead-weight teammate. It's just, I played my multiplayer character by myself for all of 10 minutes before I found a level appropriate "mythic" weapon, and once I had it, I started chewing through enemies like they weren't even there. I'd barely have time to register their presence before my ranged attacks reduced them to a fine mist. If I'd been playing at full capacity, we probably would have beaten the game by now.

So there you have it - I goofed up this game as much as it is humanly possible to goof up anything. Keep this anecdote in mind when evaluating my opinions about other games that gave me difficulty.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Hero Siege - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Hero Siege is a Hack 'n' Slash game with roguelike- & RPG elements. Annihilate hordes of enemies, grow your talent tree, grind better loot and explore up to 6 Acts enhanced with beautiful Pixel Art graphics! This game offers countless hours of gameplay and up to 4 player online multiplayer!

We developers are interested in your feedback. So if you choose to get the game see you on the forums! - Vexorian

In the depths of Tarethiel a group of monks united the four pieces of the brimstone talisman, waking up the slendering demons below... The Act was fortold in the Ancient Book of Revelations and that Satan would raise from Hell to rule the earth... Someone needs to stop him or else the mankind will soon face extinction!

Previous Playtime

7 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This Game

I saw one of my friends playing it and from the brief glimpse I got from his screen, I decided that it looked kind of fun. When I saw it on sale for a buck and change, I figured "why not."

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've played Hero Siege online with my friends a couple of times, and it was mostly fun, but it had one flaw that absolutely drove me up the wall - the enemy hp was way too high compared to the amount of damage your (or at least my) characters could do. And since the game also throws huge hordes of enemies at you, it wound up being a long, drawn-out brawl, where I had to lead whole trains of enemies around the levels, picking them off one by one. I ordinarily like facing hordes of enemies, but call me old fashioned, if I'm fighting a horde, I want the individual members to be ridiculously fragile. Make up for the lost difficulty in numbers, if you must, but if you're bring 100 of your buddies, I don't want to see your face long enough to get bored by it.

Anyway, since that discovery, I've been kind of dreading playing this game. I'm hoping that the enemy hp seemed inflated because they were scaled for multiplayer, or I simply had a weak character build, or it's something that you can simply out level (or some combination of the three). If I have to lead my enemies on a conga-line of death for 20 hours, this will be an unbearable slog, but if it turns out not to be that, then Hero Siege looks a lot like the sort of game I enjoy. And while I kind of feel like 7 hours should be enough to get an accurate feel for a game, I am prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Republic Heroes - 20/20 hours

I wound up getting 100% completion on "Padawan" mode at around 18 hours, so I decided to try "Master" mode. It was a complete waste of time. Yes, it was technically more difficult due to increased enemy damage, but it still had the same extremely forgiving respawn system, so there was never any danger of failing a mission. There was some skill involved in getting the platinum medals, but it was the sort of skill that was, at least 25% luck, given the game's imprecise controls.

Maybe it's a bit perverse for me to judge the game on these terms, though. It was clearly meant for kids, so maybe its simplicity and low difficulty are justified. . .

Except when I was a kid, I was playing Super Mario Brothers (though, to be fair, this was in, like, 1992, and I was very behind the times). Which isn't to say that I'm saying kids today are too coddled and should be playing more difficult video games (the other game we had for that NES was Ninja Gaiden, and you won't hear me wishing that on anybody), but rather, that I enjoyed the sensation that the game was pushing back against me, that my mastery was growing to overcome obstacles. So I don't think you have to treat kid gamers as if they were made of glass. I think they are resilient enough to face setbacks from time to time.

Unless I'm overestimating the intended audience for this game. Maybe it was meant for really young children, like 4 or 5 years old, who may not have the emotional maturity to cope with being thwarted by a game, but that's unlikely. The show it's based on has too much violence and mature themes for younger kids, and even though the game's plot is gentler, it's still a little too abstract for the sort of kids who would need its hand-holding gameplay.

All told, this was the least essential of the games in my Star Wars bundle (so far). The best thing about it is that it nails the look of the show and gets all the voice actors to reprise their roles. If it were a better game, it would be like playing a cartoon, but since it is so relentlessly on rails, it comes off more like you're simply watching an extra dull episode. I won't lose any sleep about removing it from my hard drive, and I will probably never be tempted to play it again, but I will always be grateful to it for introducing me to what turned out to be a pretty badass show.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Republic Heroes - 15/20 hours

For the last few hours, I've been trying to collect all the platinum medals and artifacts from the levels I've already beaten. I may owe an apology to Republic Heroes' story. As bland and forgettable as it is, playing these levels with no story at all has been an exercise in endurance.

It's not even as if the game is notably bad, it's just an action-platformer that one can play on mental autopilot. Sometimes, as I button mash my way through hordes of enemies or make perfunctory button presses to leap from sticky platform to sticky platform, I feel as if the game is playing me.

I've almost come to love the times when the game's controls fail. It never leads to anything particularly disastrous, just the occasional swinging at air or leaping into a pit and then immediately respawning, but it does remind me that human input is still, technically, required (I'd say that it gives me a feeling of control, but the imprecise controls rarely mirror my intent).

I think the trick for finishing this game in a timely fashion is to just enter a trance-like state, where my mind is disconnected from hands and I can, I don't, contemplate the nature of the universe or some shit, while the game basically plays itself. It sounds easy, I just have to find the motivation to sit down and actually do it.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Republic Heroes - 10/20 hours

The best thing about this game is that it turned me on to the tv show. I'm really enjoying it. It doesn't exactly redeem the absurdity of the setting's premise, and it's rarely self-aware enough to give that absurdity a satisfying satirical bite, but it has its moments, and since I was a pre-existing Star Wars nerd, I'm willing to cut it a lot of slack.

As far as the game itself, though . . . I don't know. I don't really have a strong emotional reaction to it one way or the other. It's not painful to play, like some other games I could name. But it also doesn't particularly have anything that draws me in. If the controls were better, it would be a functional workhorse of a game, and if they were worse, it might be comically frustrating. As it is, most of the time, your characters do mostly what you want them to do, and when they don't, your nearest checkpoint is close enough that it's only a few seconds worth of setback. It's a game that's on slightly-wobbly rails.

Which is to say, it's not a game where I learn or face challenges, or have any particularly memorable experiences whatsoever. Even the story is just . . . there. Basically, there's this new super-weapon and both sides of the war want it, but then it's stolen by a bounty hunter, and then the bounty hunter loses it to the Separatists, and then the Jedi blow it up at the last minute before it destroys Naboo. Theoretically, there might be some excitement there, but it's really just Star Wars by the numbers. It also doesn't help that the later missions don't really build on the earlier missions. The gameplay and difficulty levels are exactly the same, and there's no real action set pieces to stick in your memory.

I did, however, figure out a workaround to the problem of Games For Windows Live logging me out when I start up the game - I just used the other account on my Xbox 360 hard drive. Since I can both watch the show and play the game at the same time, I expect the hours will fly by tomorrow. I'm just afraid I won't get 100% completion because one of the missions crashes the game whenever I try to replay it. Hopefully, starting a new campaign will allow me to keep my records and artifacts from my previous playthrough, so I can get the stuff by going the long way round.

Although, even if it doesn't, I'll probably be fine. This is not one of those games I'm going to feel bad about falling short in. There's simply not enough skill involved for my ego to be on the line.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Republic Heroes - 5/20 hours

My last post, I neglected to mention the indignity of having to sign up for Games for Windows Live. It was a significant annoyance, but I since it only took about 10 minutes to get installed, it was something I was willing to overlook. . .  until I tried to watch Netflix while playing the game and I discovered that GFWL will log you out of your Xbox live account while you're playing. It was irritating and completely unnecessary. So, Games for Windows Live, I'm glad you're dead. That your zombie is still causing problems four years later is an embarrassment, and if it weren't for the blog, your presence as part of a game wold cause me to seek an immediate refund.

Of course, why was I even trying to watch Netflix in the first place? It's because this game is based on a TV show and I was feeling a little lost when it came to the new characters and their relationships. I'd known about Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi from the movies, but I had no idea who Ahsoka or Plo Koon were.

I found watching the first few episodes of the show enlightening, but it wasn't really to the game's benefit. On the one hand, I have a new appreciation for how well the game managed to capture the look of the cartoon (and if I were a kid who enjoyed the show, I might well be delighted to see it come alive in this way), on the other hand, the show is a lot more interesting than the game. I feel like the game tries to capture some of the show's characteristic banter, but falls flat as it exaggerates and simplifies the show's relationships and themes.

But I'm not here to talk about the show, though I will get one more shot in because this observation applies equally to both the show and the game - it is weird how, during the Clone Wars era of the Star Wars universe, the people commanding an army of brainwashed clone slaves are the good guys. I've already covered this to some extent in one of my Republic Commando posts, so I won't go into it here, but I will say that I'm not optimistic about seeing a nuanced and subtle examination of the issue in the last half of the game.

I guess there's nothing to do but keep plugging on. There's a planet that needs to be conquered (or defended from being conquered, I'm actually kind of fuzzy about that) and the forgettable Sith villain lady from the show is stirring up trouble with some sort of captured super-weapon. I'll need to control several teams of Jedi or completely interchangeable clone troopers before this whole thing is wrapped up.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Republic Heroes - 2/10 hours

Two hours in and I've not quite got an emotional handle on this game. It's clearly for kids - even leaving aside its colorful presentation and light-hearted script, its mechanics make it a game for people who don't understand video games. At times it's a platformer and your jumps will be "sticky," allowing you to make a hair-raising series of jumps while basically on autopilot. Other times it will be a shooter and the aim assist will be both dramatic and obvious. And all throughout, there is no penalty for death. If you die, you pop up at the nearest checkpoint as if nothing had happened. No limited number of lives, no resetting of the challenges, and not even a loss of score.

But the strange thing is that, despite being a kids' game, it's a not very well put together kids' game. Most of the features that make it easy for little ones to stumble their way through also have some loopholes that don't add challenge so much as they make things randomly frustrating for no reason. You can override the stickiness of the platforms by jumping in the wrong direction or double-jumping when a single jump is needed, which is fine except when the camera angle makes it hard to judge direction and distance. And the shooter controls are some kind of perverse twin-stick nonsense that barely works when it's not auto-aiming.

So, on the one hand, Republic Heroes is not a particularly interesting or challenging game for an adult, and on the other hand, it's also not very good as a mindless brawler. You might think, then, that it's nothing but a chore to play . . . and yet . . .

It's all right. I'm making forward progress. Even when the controls screw me over, it's not that big a deal because there's a checkpoint every minute or so. All told, it's just a meaningless grind where I press buttons to make lights respond. And I'm okay with that.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Republic Heroes - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Star Wars The Clone Wars: Republic Heroes lets Star Wars fans young and old live out the sweeping galactic adventures of the Clone Wars. For the first time ever, players can fight as their favorite Jedi and Clone Troopers from the preeminent animated television series – from familiar faces like Anakin Skywalker to new heroes like Clone Captain Rex. A brand-new storyline, which bridges the gap between season one and two, takes the player on a multi-faceted adventure to stop a mysterious techno assassin’s destructive plot. Built around two-player cooperative action, the accessible controls and family-friendly gameplay bring Star Wars fans across generations together like never before to fight the evil Separatists and restore peace to the galaxy.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

This was part of that mega Star Wars bundle I bought a while back. Honestly, it was a real ". . . and the rest" situation for me. If you ranked the bundle's games in order of how much they influenced my decision to purchase it, this one would probably be near the bottom of the list.

Expectations and Prior Experience 

I'd never even heard of this game prior to buying it and even then, I knew nothing about it until I started to entertain the idea to play it.  All I have to go on is the store page, and my feelings about that are . . . mixed.

On the one hand, the screenshots look pretty cool. Colorful and cartoony, with various characters from the movies doing exciting action-platforming things. It looks like the sort of game I could really enjoy.

On the other hand, the user reviews are pretty dire. It has a "recommended" rating of only 33%. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean anything. No Man's Sky, a game I personally love, has a lower rating, and Age of Wonders 2, a game I have no intention of ever playing again, is rated a lot higher. However, in situations like these, where the game is not particularly niche or controversial, I am inclined to trust the wisdom of the crowd.

Which means the next few days might be pretty rough for me. And that's fine. That's why I chose this game. Most of the rest of my games I'm excited (or at worst ambivalent) about playing, and there's only a couple that I'm actively pessimistic about. I figure if I get those out of the way now, it will be smooth sailing for the rest of the blog.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic - 20/20 hours

A long gap between posts, mostly because I didn't want to write another two posts that were variations of "I don't like this game, it's not fair that I have to play it, wah!" But once I came to the realization that I only wanted to do one more Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic post, I came up with a plan to retroactively justify it to myself - I would play my remaining 15 hours in one giant marathon session!

It didn't quite work out that way. I actually wound up playing it in two sessions, one of 11 hours and one of 4 hours, but I feel like I kept to the spirit of my initial plan. Certainly, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic has dominated nearly every waking hour of my weekend (less the time I spent reading, going to the store, and cooking, which I'll admit were activities I pursued a bit more leisurely than usual).

And I'm sad to report that I did not get the gaming equivalent of Stockholm syndrome. I was kind of hoping that by intensely focusing on a single thing, my viewpoint would narrow and I would start to judge the thing in the context of itself. But that didn't happen. I was mostly just counting the hours until it was over.

There were some things I liked about this game, though. I liked the different layers of the map. Building an underground empire as the dwarfs or an otherworldly empire as the shadow demons felt kind of cool. A game with a similar multi-world setup, but more robustly asymmetrical factions would have the potential to be amazing.

I also really liked the magic. Raising and lowering mountains, summoning dragons and angels, seizing distant power nodes to scry through. You definitely feel like a potent wizard when you start slinging around the high-level spells, even if the low-level ones are underwhelming and unreliable.

I think the problem I've had with all these Age of Wonders games is twofold. Firstly, I never really bought into their central premise - eternal war of all against all is not something I particularly want out of a fantasy game. Secondly, even within the confines of the wargame genre, the balance between map size, unit movement speed, and the size of your economy was such that it forced me into a form of strategy that I found deeply annoying. I never had enough units to play defense and except on small-sized maps, the enemy headquarters were always so far away that I had to plan my attacks way too far in advance.

If I'm being totally honest, I would like this game a lot more if I were better at it. If I could effectively control territory by deploying my forces in such a way as to screen out enemy scouts and the occasional neutral interlopers, advance my front gradually so I could make my strategic decisions while in sight range of enemy targets, and grow my economy so much that I had a superabundance of troops and magical resources, that would likely have solved most of my problems with the game. But I never got to that level. I was always struggling.

That's the tricky thing, though. If I were better at the game, I'd enjoy it more, but if I enjoyed it more, I'd put in the work to be better at it. I never found a way to get on the inside of that loop, so I wound up just gritting my teeth and being miserable most of the time (though, to be fair, I was only actually miserable when I was interacting with AI enemies - I enjoyed improving my cities and expanding my empire just fine).

I've still got one more game in the series. It's my hope that with an improved, more modern UI, and presumably a decade's worth of hindsight about what makes a strategy game enjoyable, Age of Wonders III will fulfill the promise of the first game and be a fantasy wargame that captures my imagination. I can, however, say that buying the older Age of Wonders games in a bundle was a big mistake.

I guess there had to be a balance, though. They can't all be the Fallout, Elder Scrolls, or Star Wars bundles.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic - 5/20 hours

I definitely have a mental block about this game. There are things I don't like about it, sure, but I've played other games with these same qualities and have not had quite the same aversion. Hell, some of them I even really enjoyed.

I'm not sure it's fruitful to try and get to the bottom of this phenomenon. There's no other way that could go than for me to make a long list of petty complaints and that would be dull as fuck to write about (let alone read).

Instead, I'm just going to try and focus on how good I'll feel when I'm finally done with this game. I've dreaded it for a long time now, perhaps unjustly, but not mistakenly. It really is as difficult to play as I imagined it would be. It would be reasonable to speculate that I created this trap for myself, and that my gloomy pessimism in fact made this critically well-received turn-based strategy game more of an emotional quagmire than its gameplay really warranted.

I'm open to the idea that I'm the one who's wrong here (although I don't know how anyone can stand the unit-movement UI, it is seriously terrible). However, even so, I have to accept the world that's presented to me as real, don't I? Within the limits of my bubble of subjective perception, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is a burden to play for 20 hours, even if 80% of the world disagrees.

That's just going to make the finish all the sweeter, though. I just have to keep reminding myself of that.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic - 2/20 hours

I'm still playing the tutorial, but I'm starting to get worried. It never showed me how to cancel an active spell, nor explained the relationship between gold income and city production. And it's still doing that thing from the previous Age of Wonders games where if you don't right click to deselect a unit, you may accidentally send it traipsing off in completely the wrong direction if you left click anywhere on the map.

It's frustrating, because I really want to like this game. It's just that it has a series of small flaws that would each be surmountable on its own, but together add up to an unpleasant play experience. I hate how most of your units' attacks miss, how there's no proper research queue and no reminders about unmoved units or empty build queues. And the thing with the accidentally clicking . . . grr, it's so annoying I had to mention it twice.

I'm going to try and calm myself and get past this, though. I know that there is an interesting game of turn-based fantasy strategy underneath it all, and that if I just tough it out, I'll be able to command a whole menagerie of interesting magical creatures.

Mostly, though, I hate being so negative. Believe it or not, I want to say only positive things about the games I play, but sometimes I'll just completely fail to "click" with a game, and it will be difficult to think of anything but complaints.

Sigh. It's probably predestined, though. This is still basically the same game as Age of Wonders 2, and by the end that had me on the ropes. I just have to hope I've learned a thing or two since then.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is the third entry in the award winning fantasy strategy series. This fan-favorite enhances the series' praised fusion of empire building, role-playing and tactical combat with the eerie Shadow World and battle with races never before seen, across new and diverse landscapes.

Combined with the option of creating a totally unique environment with the map generator and rewriting the history of this world through the enhanced campaign editor, you are ensured a constant stream of completely new game experiences.

Previous Playtime

 19 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Well, it was in a bundle with two other Age of Wonders games for 66% off, and my assessment, based on the store page, was that they were more like fantasy 4X games than they turned out to be.

Expectations and Prior Experience

Let me be real for a moment - I have been dreading this game. It is a standalone expansion for Age of Wonders 2 and that game made me miserable. I know, even now, that it is going to have a primitive, unpleasant UI and an excessive (for my tastes) focus on warfare. There's no escaping that.

My main (and perhaps only) hope is that the map design has gotten better from the base game, and I no longer have to worry about defending a huge front line from nuisance attacks by mostly-defeated enemies. If it solves the whack-a-mole problem, I can probably at least enjoy it as a strategic war game.

I'm not optimistic, though. I expect before these 20 hours are up that I'll wind up doing the same thing I did for Age of Wonders 2 and dick around with a hotseat game instead of facing AI opponents. That's not my plan, though. I really am going to give the campaign mode my best try. I'm just worried my best won't be good enough.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Evoland & Evoland 2 - Wrap-up

I bought Evoland 2 specifically because I was hoping its combined play time with Evoland would be more than 20 hours. I wound up playing it for 22 hours by itself. I should probably retroactively separate the two games and go back and play Evoland four more times. Maybe if I ever wind up having too much free time on my hands, though even then Portal is at the top of my list for such silliness.

I don't want to say too much about the end of Evoland 2. The plot kind of fell apart and the final boss had two side-scrolling shooter stages. The high point of my last six hours was the tactical-rpg section and the low point was the mandatory rhythm game boss battle. Overall, it continued to follow the pattern established by the previous sixteen hours - I wanted to give it an award for cleverness while simultaneously wringing its metaphorical neck for making do things I didn't particularly enjoy.

Taken as a whole, the Evoland games are the most idea-driven gaming experience I've had since Antechamber. And while I thought the first game didn't have enough space to let its ideas mature and develop, astoundingly, I thought the exact same thing about the second game, despite the fact that it was nearly six times longer. I mostly enjoyed myself playing these games, but it was at times a removed enjoyment - I appreciated the thought that went into them much more than the actual games themselves.

I don't think I'll ever play either one again, despite having 10-20% of the collectibles still left to find. For the first one, the story and world simply aren't distinctive enough to ever draw me back. For the second one, I'd be too worried about having to replay a stealth, shooter, or rhythm game section. Even so, I think the series was one of my better purchases. I feel like a more complete gamer for having experienced them.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Evoland 2 - 16 hours (20/20 hours)

At one point, Evoland 2 made me play Pong. I thought I understood the game's ambition before, but that was the moment it really sunk in - it really does intend to be every game. The Pong puzzle was just a simple match to five points, maybe a minute total in length, but it was eye-opening.

At first I was ambivalent about this variety-pack approach. I thought that the individual elements were too watered-down to really sustain a whole game in the long run - like, sure, there's a lot of stuff to do, but if it's all second-rate then all you're really doing is sitting through a second rate game for a couple dozen hours. However, I am now fully on-board with this project. I want it to go farther. Pull in more genres. When we found a new time portal, my demon companion, Menos, worried that it might take us to a hellish FPS world. And while I'm pretty sure it was a joke, I really do want Evoland 2 to go for it. It's triggered my hunger for excess now, and there's no way I'll be satisfied with less than everything.

Funnily enough, though, Evoland 2's best moments are when it's not imitating anything in particular. There was this forest dungeon where you had to solve puzzles by shifting between the game's three main time periods, with past, present, and future presenting different obstacles and resources (ie trees were smaller in the past, so you could get by them, but in the future certain enemies were dormant, etc). It's not something that would have felt out of place in a Legend of Zelda game, but it wasn't specifically referencing the series. Similarly, at one point, you fall into a temporal anomaly and there were puzzles where you got trapped in a time-loop and you and your duplicates had to hit switches to get out (and the solution to one of these puzzles was successively suiciding your time clones to "disarm" a series of deadly traps), and a couple of platforming sections where you had to rotate the stage 90 degrees from top-down to side-view, changing gravity in the process.

And as much as I've been enjoying Evoland 2's eclectic approach, I kind of want to play the game it might have been, if it were just a time-based, puzzle-driven adventure game. It's got these gimmicks of shifting art styles and a million and one gameplay references, but when it's not indulging them, it also has some flashes of genuine originality.

It's really confusing, to be honest. There's just so much to this game, and not all of it is "good," but even the less good parts contribute to the overall effect by being part of its over-the-top "let's throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" approach, but I also get the feeling that the game designers are talented enough that they could have made a more focused game and had it stand on its own, and do I even want a "gaming's greatest hits" anthology, and if I did, do I want it built around the skeleton of a game with its own promise, and heck, while I'm wishing for things, maybe the characters could be a little less bland, and . . . ARGH!

I don't know any more. Maybe Evoland 2 is a great game. Maybe it's a disjointed mess trying to get by on its sheer audacity (at one point, you see Mario, Link, and Bomberman waiting in line to talk to the game's oracle, which struck me as pretty cheeky). I don't, however, think the truth is somewhere in-between. Those are your two options.

Evoland 2 - 10 hours (14/20 total)

I may have to rethink my approach to Evoland 2. I'm really enjoying it, but I may have been under the misapprehension that it was game, instead of an unholy Frankenstein's monster made of stitched together pieces of games.

Don't get me wrong. This is Evoland 2's greatest strength. It is kind of delightful to go into a dungeon and not know in advance if it's going to be an homage to Legend of Zelda  or Super Mario Brothers, to face a boss and not know if it's going to be like Secret of Mana or Street Fighter. However this wild smorgasbord approach to game design does come with a downside. Sometimes, you'll have a long, unskippable section of the game based on a bullet hell shooter and your player will have little experience with the genre, making it a frustrating slog that nearly causes him to throw away his controller in despair.

I mean, I got through it eventually, but it was not a time in my life that I'm going to relish on my deathbed.

I will say this, though. That section of the game caused me to change my mind about the shallow rpg-homage that makes up the bulk of Evoland 2. It was then that I finally realized that the goal here was to quote as many of the classics as possible. Sure enough, just a little later, I ran into a dungeon inspired by Bomberman and a boss fight in the style of Mega Man.

So, of course this game is not going to be as good a time-traveling rpg as Chrono Trigger, in the same way it was not as good a fighting game as Street Fighter or as good a shooter as, hell if I know, because I mostly don't play shooters. Time spent deepening and perfecting mechanics is time that could be spent referencing another game.

With that in mind, it's impressive that Evoland 2 is as polished as it turned out to be. All of its most memorable moments may be cribbed from other games, but they work. The controls are smooth and accurate. The art looks great. And aside from a couple of hiccups, where it's unclear about where you're supposed to go next, the plot is perfectly functional.

Whether the whole can transcend the sum of its parts remains to be seen, but it's clear to me now that the "parts" aren't just an afterthought. They are, in fact, the essence of the game. That will make Evoland 2 an impressive achievement, even if it winds up falling apart in the final half.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Evoland 2 - 4 hours (8/20 total)

Evoland 2 owes a lot to Chrono Trigger. The mechanics of time travel, the overall shape of the "we must save the future" plot and the presentation of the worldmap are spot-on recreations. But you know what, it's all right. Time travel is really the best possible use of the Evoland series' characteristic multiple graphical styles. The present uses run-of-the-mill indie-rpg 2D sprites, the future is full on 3D, and the past has a greatly simplified presentation (I believe there's a fourth time period, farther in the past, that is Game-Boy-era monochrome, but I haven't reached it.)

If you've played Chrono Trigger, you already know the game's plot - the present is a peaceful time under the rule of a prosperous and benevolent kingdom, but a few generations ago the antecedents of that kingdom waged a brutal war against a race of occult creatures. The game begins when the main characters discover a particular location that has the strange property of connecting two different time periods. The party then travels to a distopian future where large numbers of people have been slaughtered by a mysterious "destroyer" and they resolve to figure out the secret of the time portals and use them to change the future.

It's probably impossible to write a time-travel-themed rpg and not at least reference Chrono Trigger, but man, there are so many callbacks - you get thrown in prison early on in the game, there's a corrupt rich guy you need to manipulate for a key item, the bridge between human and demon territory plays a prominent role in the plot, the food of the future is bland and unfulfilling. I don't know how many of these are deliberate references and how many are just coincidence, but I get a deep sense of familiarity playing this game.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The only problem is that Chrono Trigger is already the goofy, free-wheeling version of Chrono Trigger. Evoland 2 has its funny moments, but nothing as memorable and weird as "am I butterfly dreaming I'm a man or a bowling ball dreaming I'm a plate of sashimi?"

I don't mean to be a curmudgeon here. I get that the Evoland series is trying to be a casual-playing scrapbook of the history of the rpg genre. And when the idea works, it really works. I really liked the Diablo dungeon in the first game. However, at other times, the games' referrences are incredibly shallow. In the first game, you meet a guy named "Sid" who gives you an airship, during the second game's mandatory stealth sequence, you have to sneak around in a cardboard box, the main town in the second game is called "Genova." I'm certainly reminded of games I've loved in the past, but . . . then what?

Luckily, Evoland 2 is a fun game in its own right. It's a Zelda-esque adventure game with dungeon puzzles, collectible special abilities, and simple real-time combat. Games of that sort never really needed anything more than the barest skeleton of a plot. Just a series of excuses to go dungeons, solve puzzles, and fight monsters. For that purpose, a bunch of pop-culture references centered around some bland, but likable characters is good enough.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Evoland - 4/20 hours

I'm a little annoyed with this game. It wouldn't recognize my controller at first. So I searched online and found that to fix the problem, you've got to run the game in Windows 7 compatibility mode. Fair enough. However, upon doing so, I discovered that it stopped tracking my time in Steam. You'll just have to trust me when I say I've got a bit more than four hours into this game (it may even be as many as 5).

With that out of the way, I've beaten Evoland. Turns out all the trouble was the fault of this demon-looking guy named Zephyrous. Not that I found this out until the last dungeon, where he just came out of nowhere and claimed responsibility for the game' plot.

Taken on its own terms, Evoland's story was pretty weak overall. I'm not even going to summarize it. Suffice to say - bad stuff happens, you get an amulet, you take the amulet to a place, you fight a villain at the place, and then the bad stuff presumably stops (it never does say explicitly, though). However, I'm something like 95% sure that the weakness of the game's story was entirely intentional.

It doesn't quite rise to the point where game is winking at the player, saying "see, we did this shitty thing on purpose because it's funny." In fact, I'm not sure the plot is meant to be funny at all. I think that it was meant to simply give a broad-stroke impression of the genre as a whole. Much as the progression of graphics and mechanics was meant to evoke the history of rpgs, the story was meant to be the most rpg-est rpg story to ever be conceived.

Just as there was a dungeon that played like a low-fi version of Diablo and a dungeon that was a simplified version of Legend of Zelda and an overworld that was reminiscent of a scaled down Final Fantasy, so you also had story beats that felt like references to other games, stripped of their complexity and depth.

I can't say that I liked it, exactly. It was fine. A parody would have had more teeth. Plagiarism would have tried to capture more of the originals' context. Evoland tended to fall into the murky middle-ground in-between. Let's call its story a "slideshow of homages." Since I enjoyed the originals, I felt a certain degree of pleasure in the recognition, but I wish they'd done more with them.

I don't mean to be too down on the game, though. There were quite a few extraordinary moments, (mostly when the game was switching between technologies) and it's obvious that a lot of pride and care went into the making of the game. For me, it never rose above the level of a curiosity, but a well-done curiosity is something people will pay money to see. And Evoland is no exception. I'm glad I played it.

Evoland - 2/20 hours

Evoland is an easy game to play. It doesn't take up a lot of my headspace. There's not some great challenge to it. I don't have to wrack my brain to solve its puzzles or carefully hone my reflexes to survive its battles. It's just a simple slice of rpg-adventure gaming that is so thoroughly familiar I could play it on autopilot.

I will say, though, even for a genre send-up, the story is not very well constructed. It's self-aware about the fact that it is using The Basic RPG Plot - go to places, kill monsters, collect geegaws, thwart some nebulous evil - but it doesn't doesn't seem to want to do the work to establish the stakes, create memorable characters, or flesh out the world. It's as if it's relying purely on its evolving graphics gimmick to sustain the player's interest.

And to be fair, it's a pretty fun gimmick. All of your different graphics and gameplay upgrades are presented as treasure to be found in the world. You find a treasure chest, open it and BAM you go from black and white to color or from 2D to 3D. Seeing the world transform around you and returning to previous locations to see the same area rendered in different styles is damned cool. I probably would have preferred it if there was some story significance to the game's graphical evolution, but it's still pretty neat that the game gets prettier as time goes on.

I'm withholding judgement until I see the end of the story, but so far Evoland strikes me as one of the weaker comedy rpgs. I've been smiling a lot in the course of playing it, but I haven't laughed as much as I did in Half Minute Hero or Cthulhu Saves the World.

Those complaints are pretty much nitpicks, though. I'm enjoying the game, and that's enough.

Evoland & Evoland 2 - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)


Evoland is a journey through the history of action/adventure gaming, allowing you to unlock new technologies, gameplay systems and graphic upgrades as you progress through the game. Inspired by many cult series that have left their mark in the RPG video gaming culture, Evoland takes you from monochrome to full 3D graphics and from active time battles to real time boss fights, all with plenty of humor and references to many classic games.

Evoland 2

Evoland 2 graphics style is changing as you travel through time and its gameplay evolves as you move along the storyline. It is also a real RPG at heart, with a deep scenario based on time travel: explore different eras and change the history of the world. But are you sure that the consequences will not make things worse?

Full of humor and references to classic games, the aptly named Evoland 2, A Slight Case of Spacetime Continuum Disorder brings a truly epic and extraordinary adventure, unlike anything you’ve ever played before!

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

With the first Evoland, I thought the premise was pretty cute. As you advance in the game, the graphics style becomes more modern. Since I've been playing rpgs since the original Final Fantasy on the NES, it looked like a fun little romp through my childhood nostalgia.

My thought when buying Evoland 2 was, "oh shit, all these Evoland reviews have less than 6 hours, and I don't necessarily want to play the game four times in a row, oh, it has a sequel, maybe I could play the two games together and still keep a shred of my integrity . . ."

I always feel a little disingenuous when I bundle games together, as if I'm trying to skirt around the edges of my self-imposed goal. Then I remember that I played 20 hours of Sakura Spirit and give myself permission to fudge the numbers just a little bit. And seeing as how I explicitly bought Evoland 2 for no reason other than to bundle it with Evoland, it feels mostly legitimate to me.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I'm going in mostly blind, with only the store page screenshots to judge by, but it looks like I've played a lot of the sort of games Evoland is parodying and I've always enjoyed them. I don't think I'm going to have any problem getting to 20 hours on these two.

That being said, the expanded scope and ambition of Evoland 2 reminds me a bit of the Half Minute Hero series, where you had the first game with a fun original idea and then a second game that took itself way to seriously and lost track of what made the first game great. I have no reason to think Evoland 2 has fallen into that particular trap, but if I'm being pessimistic I have to acknowledge it as a possibility.

It will probably still be fun, though. It's possible to make a console-jrpg-inspired game that is a massive slog, but I feel like the flaws and pitfalls of the genre have been so thoroughly investigated over the years that you'd have to be deliberately oblivious to not design around them.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Sid Meier's Civilization VI - 20/20 hours

The civics tree in this game is, indeed, something I could write a whole meandering post about. It exemplifies the main flaw of the Civilization series, one so deeply baked into the game's design that it would be unrecognizable without - the notion that history is like an arrow pointing forward and that societies can be grouped based on how far "ahead" or "behind" they are of each other.

It's a blatant ideological assumption that is both made obvious and rendered absurd by splitting off the "social technologies" from the main tech tree. The last thing you can research on the civics tree is "Social Media." And given that the structure of the tree is such that you can't get to the end without first researching a bunch of interlocking prerequisites, it kind of implies that social media is the inevitable and culminating outcome of thousands of years of political and philosophical thought.

It's silly, really. Which is a shame because it's actually a good basic idea. A big problem with, say, Endless Space's four-directional tech tree or Fallen Enchantress's three separate tech trees is that though they allow players to potentially focus their research and become stronger in their areas of particular interest, all of the different directions compete for the same resource, and thus the most efficient path is almost always to spread out your research and only occasionally beeline for the more expensive techs when getting them early would give you a significant advantage. Civilization VI's culture system forestalls that by requiring significant separate infrastructure investments for each of your main branches of research. It would be interesting to see that sort of thing taken overboard and combined with a tech tree as complicates as Space Empires V's.

But I've said too much already. By now "Civilization presents itself as a simple board game but actually has some surprisingly sinister ideological assumptions behind its mechanics" is a quotidian observation. I'll just say that I love the series in spite of all that and have long since accepted its absurdities as the price I have to bay for all that sweet turn-based grid-filling action.

It's a little sad to move on from Civilization VI a mere three days after I started. I could easily play this game for another hundred hours at least. It's definitely starting to grow on me, despite the AI declaring wars that make no sense, the way certain tooltips inadvertently overlap to make some information virtually unreadable and a city-state system that's a step up from Civilization V, but still in need of a few tweaks to make it a truly compelling alternate avenue of power.

However, as much as I've enjoyed myself these last couple of days, I'm also aware of the fact that this is one of those games that's going to be dramatically improved five years from now. So much so that it was probably foolish of me to buy it so soon. However, I like to think that my purchase will be counted as a vote to make an expansion pack. The basic foundation of the game is really good, and I'm excited to see what the designers are going to do with it.

In the meantime, it's been good for my morale to have a game that I could clear in less than a week. My goal is to be done with the blog by June 21, 2018 and at the rate I've been going, I should just barely squeeze in under the wire. I'm hoping that I've got a few more games as addictive as Civilization VI to help me get ahead of the curve.