Thursday, January 26, 2017

Saturday, January 21, 2017

16 Indie Hopefuls

2017 looks to be a promising year in terms of video games.  I have so many titles that I'm looking forward to this year I can't possibly go over them all in detail, but at the very least I'd like to make a tentative list of lesser-known titles with brief descriptions to share here on this blog.  Think of it as of a preview of sorts although I can't guarantee that I will make dedicated posts about all these games in the future.

Shrouded Island
Secret conspiracies, an evil cult and human sacrifices might sound like a good backdrop for a point-and-click adventure game, but here the player isn't some foolhardy investigator.  In this game you play as the cultists in a resource management game that has an art style straight out of Darkest Dungeon.

Ghost Song
I'm not a rabid consumer of 2-D Metriovania games, but the idea of crash landing on an alien world filled with all sorts of strange flora and fauna has a certain appeal.  The art style and overall mood are also top notch, which for me is a must have in games that reach back to old-school video game design.

I've played my share of submarine sims over the years, but I have yet to sink my teeth into one that really floats the best aspect the setting a genre have to offer.  This particular take on WW2 naval warfare might do the trick though the very least the 3-D cutaways of submarine internals is a nice touch.

A.K.A. "Gladiator Stable Simulator 2017" surprisingly isn't as original a concept as one might think (several other games have tried the idea before in recent years).  However this particular take on ancient Roman blood sports standout from the rest by way of a distinctive pixel art style.

Rain World
There are a lot of games out there where players can take the role of an animal.  This game promises a similar idea, but with a twist; the animal is an alien creature somewhere between marsupial and primate.  Equally fascinating is its (un)natural habitat which is also swarming with exotic lifeforms.

This long delayed civil unrest strategy game might have a timely release considering the recent political climate in the United States.  Allowing players to take the side of the protesters or the police might lead to this game being more educational than entertainment for some would-be activists.

This isometric dark fantasy game has players filling the shoes of a lone shield maiden.  In the most reductive terms possible, it's a Soulsborne clone.  However, I think calling it that would be a disservice due to the distinctly Norse themed enemies and environments (plus the art is top-notch).

A first person horror title that shares DNA with SOMA but swaps the sci-fi trappings for hell, Hades, the underworld, or whatever word best communicates a fantastically awful land of absolute misery and suffering.  Unsurprisingly, the central goal of the game is to escape from that place and the terrifying creatures that infest it.

At first glance one might be tempted to call this game a Soulsborne clone trying to differentiate itself by drawing on Asian, rather than European, imagery and myths.  However, I more inclined to see this as a rebirth of the Onimusha series except with more Action RPG elements.

Tiny Metal
Turn-based strategy games are few and far between these days.  As a fan of the subgenre it's a bit saddening.  That said, this little indie project appears to be a love letter to people who have played and enjoyed the Advanced Wars series.  Everything from the slightly cartoonish look to the rock-scissor-paper tactics rekindles feelings of an era where war games weren't grey/brown and gritty.

This could almost be a companion piece to Agony, in that it's another first person game filled to the brim with haunting imagery.  In this case the environments are bio-mechanical landscapes that feel like they were ripped straight out of a H.R. Giger art exhibit.  I'm not sure if the game will support VR, but even if it doesn't it's still going to make more than a few people nauseous.

A top-down rogue-like with an emphasis on scale (as in you are tiny and the world is huge).  Multiplayer also seems to be in the cards, although perma-death is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the layout doesn't change unless the player opts to start over from scratch.

Death's Gambit
Here we have a side-scrolling hack'n'slash fantasy game that, visually speaking, has a lot in common with 16-bit era titles like Ghouls'n Ghosts.  While one only needs to look as far as last year's Slain! to see a similar title, here's hoping this particular entry in the genre has a smoother launch.

I tend to refrain from team-based competitive online multiplayer shooters because of their repetitive nature.  On the other hand I have a deep and (at times) irrational love for space navies, especially when it features huge capital ships hammering away at each other.  Put simply, this is World of Warships in spaaaaaace!

This is one of those weird retro-future games that has a visual aesthetic based on what people living in the 1970s and 80s thought the future would look like.  Details are scarce, but it's supposed to be a first-person rogue-like set on the moon with perma-death and a strong horror vibe.

Another space sci-fi game, another crashed starship, although this one subjects multiple marooned crew members to a survival situation on a cold, desolate, seemly abandoned planet.  The graphic style is deliberately minimalistic and the developers have hinted at difficult moral choices as well as deeper underlying mystery to unravel.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Older than it Seems

Procedurally, generated content seems to be a catch phrase that the gaming audience at large has become wary of in recent months.  It's rise to popularity in recent years was fueled by the success of Minecraft, and now it's falling into disdain due to No Man's Sky.  The thing is, procedurally generated content in video games had been around since the inception of the hobby and has popped up in various forms throughout the history of the medium.  I'm not just talking about rogue-like games either...let me show a few examples.

Hunt the Wumpus is a 1980 puzzle/exploration game in which the player enters a semi-randomized network of caves in search of the titular Wumpus.  Aside from slaying this deadly beast, players must also navigate the cavern layout while trying to avoid lethal pitfalls and disorienting bats.  I never actually played the proper version of this game, complete with crude graphics and interface.  Instead the version I experienced was a text-only knock-off with the highly original name Wumpus Hunt.  For all intents and purposes both versions of the game played the same, relying on an algorithm to create the underground topography in order to keep things fresh through multiple playthroughts.  Funny aside, many years ago my father and I started making our own variant of the game called "Mantis Hunt" in Turbo Pascal, but for various reasons we abandoned the project before it reached a playable state.

Computer games weren't the only place to find procedural generation in action.  Early home consoles also had a few notable examples of this design methodology.  Specifically, the Atari 2600 had a little know strategy game ported to it call Stellar Track.  Actually a slight variant on the first ever Star Trek video game made way back in 1971, it generated a patch of outer space and provided the region with stars, supply bases and Klingon enemy warships.  Even the victory conditions were somewhat randomized in the form of varying time limits and required kill counts.  Resource management is the central game mechanic as players take command of the Enterprise a lone spacecraft; powerful, but limited by its finite supply of energy and ordinance.  The graphics are very crude, even by Atari standards, with text menus and simple ASCII readouts being the only things to appear on-screen.  One nice touch though is the shifting background color which changes from green to red when enemies are nearby, or grey in the case of a friendly supply depot being the only thing present.

Iron Helix is much newer than the previous two examples having come out in 1993, during the early days of CD-ROM gaming.  It has a neat little instillation program featuring a man slowly being devoured by a Tyrannosaurs Rex, the instillation process is finished once the dinosaur is done eating.  It's not as cool the one for Command and Conquer but still...anyway, getting to the actual game, during a routing military exercise a malfunctioning starship A.I. targets a harmless planet full of innocent civilians for destruction.  The personnel on-board the ship have already been killed by an interior defense robot intended to repulse boarders.  The player is captain of a one-man science/exploration vessel that is (surprise!) the only ship than can intercept in time to save the threatened planet.  From here on out things turn into a game of cat-and-mouse with the player using one of three available drones (essentially three lives) at their disposal in order to board the rogue ship and gather usable DNA samples from the dead crew members while simultaneously trying to avoid the patrolling defense robot.  If the player succeeds in finding DNA of importance they can use it fool the security system into giving the player-controlled drone access to critical areas and subsystems of the ship.  There are multiple ways to destroy/cripple the ship, as well as several methods of eliminating the defense robot, although doing so only grants a brief respite since a replacement will power up after a few minutes.  The strategy used each playthrough depends largely on the semi-random placement of DNA samples across the ship.  In that sense Iron Helix is kind of unusual from a design point since it mixes procedural generation with branching paths to victory.

Overall, I think the reason to use procedurally generated content is to increase replayability.  The caveat being the gameplay loop needs to be long enough and interesting enough to entice players back through again and again.  The issue I have is, when the design feels shallow, it gets boring fast.  Take Diablo, for example, the first level is basically the same as all subsequent levels.  Sure, the monster sprites and set dressing change every four floors down, and the numbers get bigger, but the moment-to-moment gameplay is largely static throughout.  Unless a variety of a handcrafted experience can be worked into those equations and algorithms, the kind that lead to emergent gameplay, then it's really no better now than it was back in the beginning.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

At Long Last

So after nine years of quasi-development The Last Guardian is finally out.  The Fumito Ueda trilogy is complete.  That said, I don't think this final entry in the series is best of the three.  Common  criticisms tend to focus on the clunky controls and low frame rate.  Par for the course when it comes Ico and Shadow of the Colossus...still, it would have been nice if the primary developer (the blandly named "Japan Studio") had ironed out some of these issues.  Regardless, I wasn't as bothered by the controls as much as some people were.  Sure, there were times when I felt like I was fighting the camera (even after the 1.03 patch), but most of my attention was on other aspects of the game.  In particular, I kept finding myself wondering if I had missed an important part of the story along the way.

It's interesting to note that if we look at the Japanese title for The Last Guardian it's actually something different; "Hito Kui no Owashi Toriko," which directly translated into English means "The Man-Eating Great Eagle Trico."  It kind of feels like a spoiler since that particular plot point isn't reviled until more than halfway through the game.  Incidentally, there is a lot of word play going on here.  "Toriko" is the name of the bird-creature in Japanese, but also means "captive."  What's more it sound a lot like the Japanese word "tori no ko" which is what you call a baby bird, as well as a faint connection with the word "neko" or "cat."  The English adaptation tries to retain the spirit of the double entendre by going with "Trico" because it sounds a bit like "Ico" (the name of the first game in the series) and "Tri" (the Latin root word for "three").  It's not the same nuance in Japanese and English, but I like it in the sense that The Last Guardian does feel a lot like Ico (except with the roles reversed).

In the first game, players take the role of a boy escorting a girl out of the crumbling stone ruins of a massive citadel.  For the most part the girl is helpless but integral to progressing because she's the only person that can unlock doors.  Additionally, the smoke-and-shadow inhabitants of the ruins seek to capture her on numerous occasions by bodily carrying her through portals that occasionally open up in the floor.  In The Last Guardian, it's the player that has to open up new paths for Trico, though they must simultaneously depend on the beast to navigate much of the colossal architecture.  On top of that the animated suits of ill-omened armor, that reside in "The Nest," capture the player (in much the same way as the girl in Ico) leaving it up to Trico to come to the rescue.  Of course it isn't a one-to-one reversal, but you get the idea.  There's also some Shadow of the Colossus woven into The Last Guardian, but again, things are flipped in that the colossus (Trico) is your friend and protector through most of the game rather than a beast to be slain.  One might be inclined to say that the last guardian is Trico, but that assertion doesn't really hold water.

There are a lot of other bird-creatures in the game, and even after most perish in the climatic ending the epilogue reveals that Trico isn't the last of it's kind left in the ruins.  At least one more lives with Trico (probably the one that got it's mask smashed by the player or possibly an offspring).  So the player is the last guardian then?  He's got a mirror-shield after all...but, no.  As far as I can tell, the player isn't the last of anything nor does he really defend anything.  The only fit I can come up with is the master of the valley; that machine-like construct in the top of the weird pale-blue tower.  It seems to me that the master is protecting the cold tomb at the base of the tower that the player stumbles into at the beginning of the game.  To what end, I don't really know, but it appears to need human sacrifices to sustain itself.  Some people who have finished the game speculate that the barrels are what the sacrifices become, food for the bird-creatures, but I'm not so sure.  It's definitely possible, but then again, the barrels may just be a Pavlovian reward used to further enforce control...or the answer might be somewhere in-between.  Maybe the master of the valley harvests some of the energy from the sacrifices for it's own ends and provides the rest to sustain it's method of supply.  One thing is certain though, the glowing turquoise substance in the barrels looks very similar to the glowing cracks and runes found on the colossi in Shadow of the Colossus.  Again though, I'm not sure what the point of it all is.  In Ico, the evil sorceress-queen is trying to be reincarnated. Meanwhile, Dormin in Shadow of the Colossus wishes to break free from his imprisonment.  The master of the valley though just appears to want to maintain some kind of cryogenic freezer for undivulged reasons.  Perhaps it is meant to be taken as a metaphor, but for me that key piece missing from the story puzzle was more annoying than all the times Trico ignored my commands.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Had to Catch'em All

Unlike a lot of American kids growing up in the 80s, I never actually owned a NES.  Sure, I played Super Mario Brothers, Duck Hunt, and Legend of Zelda at the houses of friends and relatives, but at home I only ever had two systems before the coming of the 16-bit era; an old Atari 2600 and an Apple IIc.  For the Apple home computer, I had two cases of 5.25 inch floppy disks.  The first was used to hold all my games, while the other was filled with education software.  I played a lot of the well known titles of that era; Lemonade Stand (a.k.a. Economics 101: Supply and Demand), Odell Lake (Fish Simulator!), and of course Oregon Trail (Dysentery Strikes Again).  Oddly enough I never had any of the Carmen Sandiego games, although I did play them a bit on a neighbor's PC.  Something that I always remember from my childhood is a little interlude I saw between afternoon cartoons.  It featured rapid-fire interviews of kids stating what they thought were the benefits of playing video games.  In nearly every case the grade-schooler answered "hand-eye coordination."  While there is a certain degree of truth to that, I feel like it's a case of losing sight of forest because of all the trees.

Take for example, this ship-and-iceberg game I played in elementary school.  Sure, quick thinking was necessary to avoid a collision, but the rub was the ship had to have its course set in radial degrees.  Want to go straight up?  Type in "90" and hit the "return" key.  Obviously I didn't quite get how it worked at first, so some thought and experimentation were necessary in order to learn how to move the ship with precision, but once I got the hang of it I had indirectly learned a fundamental part of geometry.  This might not come as a surprise considering how many typos there are in my blog posts, but I initially learned how to spell and type from Sierra adventure games.  Moving your character around on screen could be done with a joystick, but unless you entered commands into the text parser like "look," "open," and "take" you weren't going to progress very far into the game.  Modern games can be a lot more educational than you might think too.  Here are just a few recent examples off the top of my head:
  • Besieged taught me about engineering
  • Factorio taught me about manufacturing
  • Minecraft taught me about architecture
  • Kerbal Space Program taught me about astrophysics
  • Children of a Dead Earth taught me about metallurgy
Even games that don't appear to have much educational value can provide little tidbits of knowledge that might not be learned otherwise.  I had no idea what a "hastati" or "triarii" were until playing Rome: Total War.  The same goes for Sisyphus and Rock of the Ages...Anyway, I'm drifting toward tangents here, so getting back on track, let me tell you about this one little educational oddity I played back in the day...

It's called Zoyon Patrol, and takes place on a fictional island in the south pacific.  Vaguely modeled after the Galapagos isles, the premise is you (the player) are the head of a government funded animal control center located in the only metropolitan area on the island.  Sounds easy enough, right?  Well, the thing is this island is home to some bizarre wildlife.  Additionally, said wildlife has a tendency to intrude on human habitats.  Because the native life (collectively referred to as "Zoyons") is endangered, it's your job to capture the interlopers alive and return them to their natural environment.  Each time the player starts a new game he or she is asked to enter their name and choose a difficulty setting.  They are then provided with a budget and time limit in which to apprehend a rogue Zoyon.  Periodic phone calls by eye-witnesses will provide clues as to the type and whereabouts of the creature.  The player can also send out a science team or (during daylight hours) an observation team made up of volunteers to acquire further information.  The former option is more useful, but a bit more expensive than the latter for obvious reasons.  An even more pricey alternative is to release a specially domesticated and trained tracking beast called the "Lempel."  While it doesn't provide details on the type of Zoyon it's tracking, it will pinpoint which part of town the interloper is in quickly.

All this is in service of placing traps, which must be the correct size and have the right bait in order to catch the Zoyon.  Figuring out what species of Zoyon you're trying to apprehend requires the player to compare available data against the creature database.  Since there are fifty different kinds of Zoyon in the game, guessing at random is a surefire way to bankrupt the agency and, consequently, lose the game.  So, the player has to be a bit of a detective, and can even be fed bad info in the form of prank callers.  If the player overcomes these challenges and is successful in trapping the Zoyon, then he or she is rewarded with a victory screen showing the Zoyon they captured.  Incidentally, the Zoyons themselves tend to be based on two or more real-life animals, albeit a bit more grounded in reality than those Japanese pocket monsters.  Nevertheless, Zoyon Patrol could easily be remade as mobile game today.  I don't think it would be as popular as Pokemon Go, but it wouldn't be as mindless either.