Friday, December 19, 2014

Hedging Expectations

There are a lot of awesome looking games scheduled for release next year and quite a few of them are sequels.  Take these numerically ascending titles for example; Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Resident Evil: Revelations 2, Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, Uncharted 4, Halo 5,  The Order: 1886, Gran Turismo 7, Dynasty Warriors 8 Empires, Mighty No. 9, and Mario Party 10.  Each is noteworthy in its own way, as are quite a few other titles I'm not going to bother mentioning right now.  Instead, I really want to focus on a half-dozen new IPs that have caught my fancy.  Mostly because they are gloomy in tone and as such will dampen my enthusiasm just enough to make the wait tolerable.

From Software's spiritual sequel of sorts to Demon's Souls, this game seems to be about a Victorian era city blighted with an illness that slowly turns men into monsters.  True to the Souls series tradition this action RPG looks really challenging.  More intimidating still, players won't get a shield to hide behind either since there are none in the game.  Maybe the tagline for this outing should be "Prepare to Die...even more than before!"

As if physical harm weren't bad enough, how about some mental trauma?  In this Kickstarted indie project by Red Hook Studios players have to manage a stable of heroes as they attempt to expunge an ancient evil from the land...possibly at the the cost of their sanity or very lives.  Worse still, one of the archetypal adventurers is a leper; meaning that even if he somehow endures the horrors of the dark he's still screwed in the long run.

Another kickstarted indie title, and beautiful pixel art game, set in a distant future long after they fall of human civilization as we know it.  Aside from poking around the ruins of humanity's former glories, the titular Drifter must find a cure for a disease that is slowly killing him.  Adding to this melancholic theme is the name of the studio, Heart Machine, which in turn is a reference to the game director's lifelong struggle with congenital heart disease.  

Brought to you by the makers of Just Cause, everyone's favorite post-apocalyptic road warrior is back!...except it sounds like his iconic V8 Interceptor has been stolen...and he's stuck in the middle of a barren wasteland, devoid of even basic necessities such as drinking water.  Don't worry though, there's plenty of psychotic marauders out to do all sorts of bad things to the player purely for entertainment value.

Trapped in the cold, dark, crushing depths of an ocean, players must explore an underwater research base infested with robots which have begun to display human characteristics.  Expect to deal with existential horror concerning the nature of conciseness and existence.  Particularly if this title, like Frictional Games' last five outings, has players controlling a character that can interact with objects in the environment without every using any visible limbs.  I guess it all kind of makes sense when one considers that "soma" means "body" in Greek.

As if being isolated under water wasn't bad enough how about being stuck in a seemingly abandoned research base on the moon?  In this case players will have to contend with the hardships of rogue-like gameplay complete with unpredictable layouts and enemies, as well as 1980's aesthetically driven technology.  So, basically Alien: Isolation with permadeath.  Sounds like a potentially nightmare inducing scenario although it's hard to say for sure since developer Lunar Software is keeping most details top secret.

Is your excitement subdued at all?  Hopefully so.  If not though you have my sympathies.  2014 was a downer in a lot of ways, and not just in terms of video game releases.  Hence, after all that dissatisfaction it's pretty hard not to get pumped for the better days that lie ahead.  Just remember to manage those expectations though otherwise it's pretty much guaranteed you'll feel let down once again.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Witcher, Hexer, Spellmaker, Pole

Polish video game developer CD Projekt RED is slowly but steadily approaching the release of the third and final entry in it's trilogy of Witcher themed action RPGs.   Long before Geralt of Rivia ever appeared in a game though, he was having all kinds of adventures in prose form.  His first appearance was in a short story written way back in 1986 by, now well regarded author, Andrzej Sapkowski.  This businessman turned novelist's writings were heavily influenced by the Slavic folklore of his homeland of Poland, along with movers and shakers like J.R.R. Tolkien.  Unlike the father of modern fantasy literature though, Andrzej Sapkowski's works are very much a deconstruction of the genre.  His short stories, in particular, represent post-modern interpretations of fairy tale classics such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, and Little Mermaid.

Starting in the mid 90s Witcher novellas gave way to full length books.  Sadly, only about half of the short stories and three out of the five novels staring Geralt have been officially translated to English.  The first non-fan effort, ironically titled "The Last Wish," wasn't published until 2009, a decade after the final novel in the series was released in the original Polish.  Thematically, the books and video games match each other fairly closely; Geralt is wiry, white-haired, cat-eyed, professional monster hunter.  He works for money, but has principles and doesn't lie.  He fools around with women, but has one in particular he's especially fond of (she, on the other hand, is kind of hot and cold toward him).  The setting has a strong eastern European vibe although stock fantasy races such elves, dwarfs and gnomes are present, along with humans organized into late medieval era kingdoms.  A foreign warmongering empire launches an invasion and everything pretty much goes into Game of Thrones direction from there.  At times oddly placed instances of maternity occur.  Discussions about metallurgy, biochemistry, genetics, racism, terrorism come up from time to time.  There's also a university in the world of the Witcher that feels like a closely hewn copy of Oxford.  For me the real distinction of the Witcher though is its tendency to subvert expectations.

Sure, Geralt is a badass, but he doesn't have much luck saving the princess, nor does he do a very good job of rescuing other damsels in distress.  He loses spectacularly in a one-on-one fight against the big bad of the novels.  When asked to deal with a highly poisonous monster that threatens his traveling companions he simply runs it off by banging a pot and ladle together.  The first full length story "Blood of Elves" begins with the bard Dandelion, singing about love and war only to have his audience try to dissect the details of the song in order to separate fact from embellishment.  Thus far though, my personal favorite is a scene involving a faun.  Traditionally, stories like these involve a lot of nonsensical riddles and tricks.  Instead, Geralt simply tackles the little goat-legged twerp.  What follows is a hilarious amount of grappling, kicking, and rolling in the dirt that doesn't end well for anyone.  All these quirks of the series are what makes it standout from the boggy morass that is modern fantasy literature.

Other than the Witcher saga, Andrzej Sapkowski has written a spy novel set during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, a trilogy of (mostly) historical novels that take place during the Hussite Wars, a table-top RPG book, and a fantasy encyclopedia.  His style is what makes the Witcher interesting, and I find myself wishing that even more of what's in his books were in the games.  That's not to say the games are bad.  On the contrary, there extremely well made.  Having said that though, I am looking forward to reading future translations of Andrzej Sapkowski books even more than playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Yearly Video Game Awards

Despite the huge number of games delayed until 2015, I managed to scrape together a list of award winning titles for this year.  As always the category descriptions can be found here.  Now, let the show begin!

Avant-garde Award:
Major tonal shifts and unique art style aside, this side scroller's biggest innovation is the fact that it's a video game about war in which you don't actually shoot anyone.  Sure, you drive a tank, direct some artillery and incapacitate a few guards by clonking them on the noggin, but you never pick up a gun.  Even the evil baron (who you defeat in a fistfight) is simply shamed and made irrelevant rather than outright killed.  

Backlash Award:
As the first big new open world IP of the next console generation expectations were running high for this one...and boy did it disappoint.  Not only were the graphics downgraded from what was shown at preview events, but the story was shallow and suffered form a severe case of ludonarrative dissonance.  The protagonist also turned out to be thoroughly unlikable jerk with no fashion sense.  Batman with a smart phone?  More like The Joker with a gun.  Couple that with bland bug-ridden gameplay and this Ubisoft product rightfully drew a lot of people's ire.  Perhaps the worst aspect was the sloppy PC port which suffered from poor optimization to such a degree that real life hackers were able to make noticeable improvements to the visuals just by altering a little bit of code.

Brutality Award:
There's something to be said for an already difficult game that's willing to wipe out half-an-hour's worth of progress simply because of bad luck.  The winner here is just such a game.  No matter what you do there's a scene midway through the second chapter wherein everything comes down a Russian Roulette style pull of the trigger.  Because the revolver has a single round in it's seven chambers this means there's always at least a 14.3% chance you'll have to start over at the beginning of the chapter...ouch!

Canvas Award:
While there have been more flamboyant looking games to come out in 2014, this Norse themed tale of hardship and survival stands out to me because of its more restrained visual style.  Oftentimes a scene is framed in black and white with subtle shades of blue or green, but dominating it all is a splash of vibrance somewhere onscreen.  The titular banner itself is a slash of red symbolizing a scrap of vitality and hope in a gloomy dying world.  Character portraits too have little touches like a small ornate ring on the finger of a gnarled hand, or a bright pair of eyes set deeply in a weathered solemn looking face.  It's one of those rare cases where the use of color works perfectly with the music, gameplay, story and overall themes.

Ecology Award:
Rail shooters are a hard sell in this day and age partly because the main appeal of one, i.e. holding a light gun, is not supported by most platforms.  Despite that Polish developer Teyon was determined to copy the staples of the genre.  The voice acting is ripped straight from DVD copies of the movies.  Cutscenes and gameplay feel like they're recycled low resolution 3-D renderings of exactly what took place in the films (except for Sylvester Stallone's hair which seems to have a life of its own).  Because there's only so much you can get out a couple of two hour action flicks, be prepared to see the same enemy models, hear the same lines of dialogue, and play the same sort of shooting (along with QTE) sequences over and over AND OVER again.

"Engrish" Award:
Normally this award goes to some poorly translated game from overseas.  This year though I have decided to give it to a game developed by industry veteran Bungie Studios, a company which (I might add) consists mostly of native English speakers.  While the grammar here is technically correct, the serious yet completely deadpan delivery of such an astronomically outrageous statement, mixed with the fact that the line is spoken by a famous and talented actor, is what really makes it hands down the winner in this category.

Esoteric Award:
Two playable factions, seventeen individual nations and 1,450 different units make this one of the most complex RTS games ever made.  Land, sea and air combat are all in full effect here.  The fog of war also plays a major role and can be affected by everything from simple smoke screens to the latest in electronics warfare.  Because of all these factors, knowing the subtle differences between the multitude of units on the battlefield can make the difference between victory and defeat.

Lemon Award:
It's one thing to label a game "early access" and release it in a buggy incomplete state.  It's another thing entirely to charge $20 for a unpolished full release title that has glitchy enemies, poor collision detection, unskippable plot info dumps, whacked-out crosshairs, shoddy AI, and text that scrolls the wrong direction.  Even simply jumping causes the view to clip through walls.  Lack of VR support at launch aside, this game needed a lot more quality assurance testing before it went to market.

Testosterone Award:
When a passenger airplane goes down in a remote forested coastline, the players of this game find themselves forced into a survival situation.  As if natural environmental hazards weren't bad enough, players also have to fend off groups of naked sallow-skinned cannibals with improvised traps and weapons (like a hatchet or flare gun).  Alternatively, the player can try to ward away danger by dismembering the bodies of slain foes and make them into gruesome effigies...which can then be lit on fire!

Underdog Award:
An episodic title and spiritual successor of sorts to Deadly Premonition, this quirky detective story features a unique sense of humor and geniunly meaningful Kinect support.  Sadly, it's also an Xbox One exclusive.  Hence, many fans of the game director's previous work are unable to enjoy his latest creation (having gone with PS4 instead).  It doesn't help that Microsoft has done absolutely nothing to promote the game.  Hopefully it will at least be ported over to the PC, if not other consoles, at some point.

So ends another year in the history of video games.  What will next year bring?  A lot actually, but I'm going to save topic for next time.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Trees don't Grow on Money

I haven't talked much about crowd funded video games on this blog, mostly because the process is ongoing.  So far we've got a few noteworthy titles such as the Banner Saga, FTL, and that Double Fine adventure game that's only half released.  Then there's a bunch of interesting games that were successfully funded and look promising, but are not quite ready for launch yet; Darkest Dungeons, Massive Chalice and Hyper Light Drifter.  For now though, I want to focus on some of the failures of Kickstarter.

The reasons projects fail are numerous and often discussed around the internet.  Perhaps the most common is an unexciting pitch, either because it's yet another entry in an oversaturated area of gaming.  Case in point; Impact Winter, a failed project that had a cool (pun!) isometric prospective and art style, but was awfully similar to a number of other wilderness survival games that had come out not long before.  Alternatively, sequels/remakes of a title that wasn't particularly well received the first time around also typically flop.  Case in point Night Trap Remastered, Nexus 2 and Shadow of the Eternals.  On rare occasions there are (now finished) projects that were, in a manner of speaking, too successful.  Dive Kick got all the money it wanted on Kickstarter and then some, but before the halfway point in its campaign the project was cancelled and all the money refunded to backers because the developer secured an alternate source of funding.  On the other hand, Alpha Colonies' second attempt at a 30 day fund raising campaign ended a demoralizing $28 short of the $50,000 goal.  Due to Kickstarter's all-or-nothing system this meant no money, which in turn led to the abandonment of the project entirely.  In my opinion though the most intriguing Kickstarter failures are the ones that have a cool idea, but are hamstrung by poor planning.

Human Resources, aside from sounding like a department in some vast corporate office, had a lot going for it.  A real-time strategy game wherein players take the role of an apocalyptic force battling with other such entities while simultaneously trying to harvest helpless humans in order to keep the doomsday war machines well supplied.  The pitch had some nice videos and screenshots, but lacked a single player mode and, when you get down to it, simply had bad timing (Tip: Never kickstart a video game project during the fall crunch of new releases because people will be too busy playing games that are already out to care about something a year or two from now).

Blackmore was the dream project of Jeremy Baustein, an industry veteran who has overseen the localization efforts of various Japanese games, most notably Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill.  His pitch was to essentially make a steampunk version of the Snatcher, an adventure game he worked on ages ago that was basically "Blade Runner" meets "Terminator."  Not terribly original, but it did have support from the multi-talented David Hayter.  Sadly, there wasn't a whole lot to show aside from a few pieces of uninspiring concept art and a couple of crude pre-alpha screenshots.  Even the plot specifics were a bit thin.  Still, the concept hasn't been ditched entirely.  In fact, it might even make a return under the slightly different title Blackmore's Bane.

Another steampunk genre failure is Golem.  Brainchild of the developers over at Moonbot Studios, players were supposed to take the role of a giant automaton tasked with the defense of its homeland from an invading army.  There were some interesting concepts regarding upgrades to the golem's abilities over the course of the game, in addition to a second act revolving around the golem acquiring a soul.  However, the team behind the project was first and foremost an animation studio rather than a game developer (a problem which support from the well known movie director Guillermo del Toro failed to alleviate).  Couple that with the pre-visualizations in the pitch video, which failed to convey any sense of scale or mass, and you got another serious hangup for potential backers.  A shame really, since Golem was looking to be the next Giant Citizen least in terms of getting to directly control a colossal monster.

Anyway, those are just a few Kickstarter failures I thought were worth mentioning.  I should also say that I've never actually backed a Kickstarter project (although I have bought some crowd funded games after they were completed).  My reasoning being pretty much any Kickstarter video game project that looks interesting to me has no trouble securing the necessary cash, and all the most exciting stretch goals, long before the end of its fund raiser.  A bit selfish of me, I know, but I trust the prudence of more experienced Kickstarter backers when it comes to these matters.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Friday, November 21, 2014

Hit and Miss

Fall 2014 has seen it's share of releases that are decidedly of mixed quality.  In some cases the titles nail what they trying to achieve, but in other ways they fumble badly.  Let's take a look at a select list of five such games, shall we?

Hit: The nemesis system works extremely well as a form of emergent storytelling.  Excellent traversal and combat mechanics make interactivity with the system an enjoyable moment-to-moment experience.  Player character death as a narrative device, rather than a failure state, also adds a lot to the overall experience.

Miss: The main plot and back story come across as severely tone deaf with regards to the source material.  Shamus Young over on The Escapist does a good job of summarizing the problem, but suffices to say this game really shouldn't have been set in Middle-earth during the Third Age.

Hit: The look of the environments are a perfect homage to the 1979 classic.  Even new material like the Seegson androids make excellent additions to the setting.  The cat-and-mouse relationship between the player and alien also captures the feeling of the original film really well.

Miss: The directorial focus is off a lot of the time.  It's difficult to summarize in a few sentences, so I'll just offer up a link to the Errant Signal analysis of the game.  It's a good video that articulates the thematic issues that plague what would otherwise be a masterfully crafted experience.

Hit: True to Firaxis tradition, this next entry in the Civ franchise has the just-one-more-turn addiction driven gameplay that makes it such great strategy game series.  Customizable factions are a great feature added to the game, as is the change in local.  The tech web is also fantastic and should be implemented in more 4X games moving forward.

Miss: In some ways the strengths of this total conversion of Civ V are also its weaknesses.  Gone are the distinct real world cultures that gave the game personality, making diplomacy feel hollow.  It's a problem further exaserbated by a weak AI, and, at least until some expansions come out, an overall less robost experience than the previous outing.

Hit: This third person action RPG takes a lot of the mechanics in the Souls series and innovates on them in clever little ways.  It's also an extremely good looking game on the PC.  The story is also less obtuse which (some may dislike, but) I think is a nice change of pace.

Miss: The art direction, while consistent, looks a bit silly given the way the game plays.  What's with all those huge pauldrons?  Is this some kind of "grim-derp" Warhammer Fantasy knockoff or what?  The overall lack of depth reinforces the notion that it's really a Souls clone rather than a distinctly different IP.

Hit: Say what you will about Shinji Mikami, the guy knows how to put together a tension filled experience.  Shortages of health restoratives, ammunition and brain fluid, mixed with constant feelings of lurking dread (even in supposed safe zones) really emphasizes the "survival" and the "horror" of the genre.  The relentlessness of the pacing is also great.

Miss: It goes without saying that survival horror games usually have lame storytelling attached to them, and this is no exception.  A far worse problem though is the lack of optimization.  Granted patches have been released, and still are coming out to address some of the issues, but it's still disappointing to see next gen gaming struggle to meet last gen standards.

If there's one takeaway from the big autumn releases this year, I think it's a good idea to hold off buying the newest titles.  All of the above games are worth playing, just not at full price.  Plus, in some cases the developers might iron out the kinks later on down the road.  Patience fellow video game enthusiasts!  You will be rewarded for you forbearance.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Speed of Akira

"You wanna ride it, Tetsuo?"
The great frame rate debate has been going on for well over a year now, so I figured I might as well take a moment to address it.  Do video games really look and play better in 60fps?  I think so, but some claim that they don't notice much of a difference between 30 and twice that amount.  Plus, certain compromises to detail have to be made in order to free up the necessary computing resources to achieve such a high (yet steady) number of frames per second.  My response to both the former and latter criticisms of 60fps is to point to another kind of media that has suffered from similar issues, namely cartoon animation.  The answer to it all is, in a word, Akira.

"Computer controlled
anti-lock brakes..."
Just in case that means nothing to you, Akira is a landmark feature length animated film and an epic manga, spanning six volumes and over 2000 pages of illustrated panels.  Much like NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind, the movie is a distilled version of what transpires in the comic.  Certain characters, plot arcs and events are redacted, changed or removed entirely to adhere to a manageable screen time of about two hours.  Even so Akira, the film, was a massive undertaking.  It cost an unprecedented (for the time) 1.1 billion yen and required 160,000 individually hand drawn cells of animation.  Story-wise it's about a secret government funded psionics program, teenage biker gangs and a dystopian future in the Tokyo bay area circa the year 2020.  I could say more (and will later), but suffices to say anyone with an interest in cyberpunk or post apocalyptic settings should give the manga a try.  Why not save time and just watch the less time consuming movie?  Well, to tell the truth the film is really meant for fans of the comic book series.  Not only for the much needed background information, but also to truly appreciate all the subtle and not-so-subtle tweaks made to the original story in order to adapt it to the big screen.  On a side note, I'm not a purist when it comes to watching anime, but if subtitles aren't an option then go with the 2001 English remastering/redub since it's vastly superior to the original 1988 localization attempt.

"200 horses at 12,000 rpm..." 
Anyway, what does this got to do with frame rates in video games?  Glad you asked!  I was on one heck of a tangent there...but bear with me a bit longer.  In animated films there's a common resource saving process called limited animation.  Basically, it involves a number of tricks to not have to draw a new image for each of the 24 frames of animation shown each second.  Why 24?  That's something the film industry discovered a long time ago.  Any more than that is considered wasteful, but any less than 24 and the human eye becomes increasingly intolerant toward what it is seeing.  The most obvious trick is using fewer frames when there's little or no movement on-screen.  A lot of low budget anime will go down to 12 or even 6 frames a second during dialogue scenes wherein the characters remain relatively static except for their mouths which oftentimes enunciate with the accuracy of a sock puppet.  Akira doesn't do any of this, and boy does it show.  Action is incredibly fluid and every spoken line is carefully lip-synced with pre-recorded dialogue (a process, I should note, that is rarely done in Japan).  Of course this also makes accurate dubbing very difficult to pull off successfully.

" motor coils were just
getting warmed up..."
So, what with all that painstaking drawing, they must have skimped on visual details, right?  Well, yes and no.  Part of what makes Akira special is its judicious selection of themes.  Sure, it's an seminal entry in the cyberpunk genre...except there really isn't much "cyber" stuff when you get down to it.  Computer screen readouts probably occupy less than one entire minute of the film's screen time.  As for the "punk" part...actually, there's not a whole lot of that either.  For the most part everyone (both male and female) wear fairly unremarkable clothing with skin that is free of tattoos or other adornments.  It's a time saver which allows the animators to concentrate their efforts on the things like the nighttime cityscape, intricate machinery, and the kinetics of destruction.  This choice of focus helps emphasize the political overtones of the tale with regards to civil unrest, chaotic uprisings and grey-on-grey morality.

"That's Mr. Kaneda to you punk!"
There have been numerous attempts to adapt Akira to a video game format.  Most notable of the failures is the canceled Sega Genesis title that was going to be a chase view motorcycle racing game, FPS, side scroller, isometric shooter, and one-on-one fighting game all rolled into one.  Personally, I think any game about Akira should take the Godfather: Part II approach and expand on events that occur before and after the original.  It might be interesting to play an open world game as Kaneda, forming the "Capsule" biker gang or putting together that highly customized iconic red motorcycle of his.

Regardless, when it comes to what you see on-screen whether it be Akira the film, or a video game you can have your cake and eat it too.  You just got to ask yourself what matters most when it comes to the frosting.  The right combination of ingredients is key to making something in a visual medium that will stand the test of time.

Friday, November 7, 2014


Educational video games have been around since the early days of home computing.  Some of the most well known titles are the history focused Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego series.  However, I think it's important to stress that a game doesn't need to be labeled "educational" to facilitate learning.  Minecraft is now part of the Swedish elementary school system curriculum as an introduction to architectural design.  Similarly, I've always felt that Lemonade Stand is a good way to teach children the basics of economics.  Early entries in the Simcity series were also a great way to illustrate the importance of city planning.  For me educational games go back even further.  On the Atari 2600 Artillery Duel was my first real exposure to applied physics.  Sid Meyer's Pirates! taught me a lot about the geopolitical situation of that time and place.  More recently NASA has endorsed Kerbal Space Program as a tool for understanding the rudimentary ideas behind aerospace engineering.  All of this is wonderful stuff, in my opinion, but what about the fundamentals?

In the USA the foundation for all higher education centers on what is referred to as "The Three Rs".  More specifically; Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic.  Yes, I know only one of those actually starts with an "R".  It's supposed to be a joke about how even educators can't know what...never mind.  Regarding reading, it's pretty much a given that any game featuring text will advance that particular skill.  Pure arithmetic, on the other hand, is so abstracted from any tangible aspect of reality it's difficult to have math in a video game without shifting the area of study to one of the other sciences.  So having addressed both of those "R"s all we're left with is writing.

Text parser video games are one way to learn typing and spelling skills, but what about grammar (or what is the probably the most interesting part of English literature coursework, creative writing)?  Up until just recently I would have said making an educational game about this sort of thing is impossible, but now that Elegy for a Dead World has been successfully funded on Kickstarter I'm having second thoughts.  The premise of this creative writing edu-game is to tell the story of one of three extinguished civilizations.  Each is unique in that the concept, or seed (to borrow a term from Minecraft), is derived from real life poetry penned by long-dead authors.  Players take the role of an interstellar traveler exploring ruined landscapes and committing to words the circumstances in which each world came to its ultimate end.  Evocative text prompts and inspiring on-screen visuals are provided in places to help spark the spacesuit-wearing writer's creativity.  Once the player has finished they can view the entire record like a kind of mini visual novel.  Of course this can be shared online with peers which should produce some interesting interpretations of each world's demise.  Granted, a lot of attempts will result in banal tales filled with more typos that what you find in these weekly blog posts (hard to believe, I know).  That's alright though because mistakes are how English is learned and ultimately mastered.  So while I'm not expecting any modern day Shakespeares, I think whatever players write, it will be better for them than if they write nothing at all.  

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Where in the World is Gallia?

If you've never played the PS3/PC exclusive Valkyria Chronicles I highly recommend giving it a try, especially if your a fan of strategy games.  Weak AI and a poorly implemented evaluation system aside, you're looking at one of the best video game stories to come out of Japan in a very long time; weighty without being depressing, and exciting without becoming manic.  Fans, who are also knowledgeable when it comes to World War 2 history, will undoubtedly notice that the fictional country of Gallia is a composition of various European nations; Dutch windmills, towns named after real places in the Netherlands, a government reminiscent to those found in Belgium and Luxembourger, military structures modeled after Finland, and a national conscription system very similar to that used in Switzerland.  However, something that might surprise even hardcore fans is just how much of the more outlandish elements are based on another usually unmentioned country, Poland.

Take for example the lancaar/theimer weapons which combine the role of a bazooka with a mortar.  Visually these anti-armor devices resemble medieval lances (a common weapon used by Hussars).  Contrary to legend, WW2 Polish cavalry didn't make any ridiculous attempts to charge tanks with this weapon (or sabers for that matter).  Instead they had an extremely deadly anti-tank weapon.  What you might ask?  Considering the invasion of Poland took place in 1939, there was no such thing as the bazooka, panzerschreck or panzerfaust.  Simply put they used special high powered rifles.

A secret weapon of sorts, these extremely long barreled firearms looked somewhat similar to a lance when slung over the back.  Unlike most armor piercing munitions (which use a sabot or similar projectile) the bullet for this gun had a soft lead core and hard outer casing.  Rather than punching a hole, the impacting round would transfer its kinetic energy through the armor plate causing the inner surface (about 20mm in diameter) to spall off at high speed.  As a result the Wz. 35 was capable of piercing the armor of any tank at the time.  While no exact figures have survived to the present day, no less than 832 German tanks were lost during the invasion of Poland.  Granted some of these had to do with mechanical failures, but approximately a third of these losses are marked as being irrecoverable.  I think it's safe to say that a nontrivial amount were destroyed by exceptionally powerful rifles.

Another absurdity that's featured in Valkyria Chronicles is the size of certain tanks.  While it's true that nothing as massive as the Batomys was ever designed and built, the Poles (along with other nations) did make use of armored trains, complete with turret mounted machine guns, cannons and artillery in addition to a sizable complement of infantry.

There are a number of smaller nods to the real history of Poland as well.  The persecuted Darcsens are combination of Jewish people living in Eastern Europe and Polish workers forced to labor under harsh conditions in Axis factories.  Obviously, the geographical location of Gallia on the map of Europa corresponds rather well to the location of Poland on an actual map of Europe.  Then there's the term "Valkyria" which sounds like a derivation of "Valkyrie," women who according to Germanic folklore, were imbued with superhuman abilities.

In the end though we're just talking about a game here, so I don't want to risk over analyzing any more than I already have.  That said, it's surprising just how much real history seeps it's way into places that never actually existed.  For another great example of Polish history influencing game design look no farther than the Witcher series.  Unlike Valkyria Chronicles though I'll leave the research and fact finding up to you on that one.