Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mixed Bags

This blog post might seem like a continuation of last week's entry, but instead of focusing on one thing a particular game got right I want to open it up a bit and talk about the strong and weak points regarding a trio of kickstarted projects I've been playing recently.

Banner Saga 2...where to start?  The music and artwork in this game are spectacular.  The setting and characters are fantastic.  What little voice acting there is in the game is also top-notch.  The false dichotomy choices drive me nuts though.  Several times throughout the game saying "yes" or "no" nets the exact same results.  Why offer a choice at all if it doesn't matter?  Worse still some of the multiple choice events feel an awful lot like a standardized test in that the options only come in the good/bad variety.  So, rather than roleplaying you're just trying to pick what the developers thought was the optimal decisions.  Despite various enhancements, some of the novelty of the combat system has also worn away since the first game.  I've seen forum posts around the net suggesting that the Banner Saga would be better off as a novel given the actual gameplay isn't especially compelling.  It also doesn't help that Banner Saga 2 isn't a proper sequel so much as the middle episode of a three part story.  I get that it had to be broken into a trilogy for financial reasons, but until all three parts get stitched into a single seamless product this indie title will (in my eyes) remain a odd hybrid of early access and episodic content.

Another game I want to talk about is Hyper Light Drifter - again, beautiful art style and music.  The combat is also enjoyable once you get into the mindset that drifters are glass cannons.  I even liked the purely visual storytelling, but herein lies the game's biggest weakness.  If you're going to convey a storyline without text or dialogue, then it has to be done elegantly.  Plot points need to be distilled into their most comprehensible form.  Unfortunately, Hyper Light Drifter is overly obtuse even by Dark Souls standards.  For example, the opening sequence should have established what a drifter is and a bit about the world they live in.  Instead, we're treated to a bizarre dream sequence that is pretty much guaranteed to have players scratching their heads.  If I can play armchair developer for a moment, here's how I would have set things up:
In search of a cure for his/her illness, the drifter journeys to a remote land.  There, the drifter encounters the Anubis (black jackal) entity that offers a cure in exchange for some help.  
Boom!  It's a simple setup that can be communicated easily enough through images.  From there events can become vaguer and more open to interpenetration because regardless of further story developments the player will still have a solid foundation to fall back on.  As it stands though Hyper Light Drifter doesn't give the player much in the way of motivation.  I guess the dudes you're fighting are bad, but weren't drifters supposed to be "seekers of knowledge," not "dispensers of justice"?  Indecently, it doesn't help that what little in-game backstory there is has to be derived from the tedious task of decoding messages on monoliths hidden throughout the environment.  Overall, it comes off as a beautiful mess of a video game...that should really run at 60fps rather than 30.

Last up is Darkest Dungeon.  Unlike the previous two titles I just mentioned, I've really soured on this one.  Whereas Hyper Light Drifter and Banner Saga 2 grew on me the more I played, the constant grind of Darkest Dungeon has turned me off to the game entirely.  I can deal with the late-game brutal difficulty and unforgiving randomness, but at some point having to spend huge amounts of time grooming characters for one long-shot at the final area became too tedious for me to bear.  A failed expedition yields nothing and even a successful one still requires further grinding.  It's a real shame considering I totally dig the narration, evocative graphics and crisp sound effects.  I almost feel like this game needs a story mode that has a linear set of missions.  Of course the adventurer roster and dungeon layouts could still be randomized, but players would only have to do a fix series of things in each of the four zones before tackling the last area.  Basically, I'm asking for a tighter, more focused version of Darkest Dungeon that finishes in under 20 hours.  That might be too short for some, but to me it's about as long as the charm lasts.

I'm sure some will read this and think I'm being way too harsh.  These are indie games made by tiny dev teams working with an extremely limited budget.  That said, the issues I mentioned in all three cases really did hamper my enjoyment of the strengths.  It's especially frustrating because I can see the potential here.  Each of these three titles could be proof that a small, dedicated group of artists and programmers can make one for the ages (with just a little help from the fans).  As is though Kickstarter is looking more and more like an interesting experiment that ultimately isn't going to pan out.

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