Saturday, December 23, 2017

Paris + Milan: Mario Strategy

I've been chipping away at my small library of Nintendo Switch games over the last couple months.  Legend of Zelda and Mario Kart are won and done, but I've only just completed MARIO+RabbiDs: Kingdom Battle (rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?).  It's an interesting game that just missed out on winning the "Avant-Garde" category for my 2017 list of awards.  The writing is pretty clever in places and the basic small-squad, turn-based firefights are great.  Players might be reminded of XCOM.  What's on offer here though is both a distillation and refinement of the mechanics found in that game.  Sadly, it's not all sunshine and stars in the Mushroom Kingdom.

One of the less stellar aspects of MARIO+RabbiDs (it's not a typo!) is the difficulty curve.  Of the four worlds found in the game, the first and second are extremely easy.  Meanwhile, the fourth and final world gets brutally hard toward the end.  I'm not even talking about the last boss so much as the four back-to-back battles featuring cameos by RabbiD Wario and RabbiD Waluigi.  The healing abilities of Princess Peach (or her RabbiD counterpart) are pretty much required to endure the waves of enemy units.  It's not a dealbreaker, but the viable team selection does feel awfully limited in the late game areas.  Outside of combat there's a decided lack of compelling things to do.  Exploration is fun, but requires a lot of backtracking and the rewards for solving puzzles and claiming a prizes are more often than not lackluster collectables like concept art.

So, there you have it, Mario+RabbiDs has a strong core gameplay element surrounded by some weak peripheral components.  That said, getting to battle a ghost/rabbit/gramophone hybrid world boss, who delivers operatically sung  hints as to how he can be defeated, is one for the books.  I also think the anti-discriminatory rule built into the team selection system is amusing.  Requiring players to choose at least one RabbiD team member might piss some Nintendo purists off, but for me it's schadenfreude.  As far as third-party treatment of iconic Nintendo characters go, it could have been better...but then again, it could have been a lot worse.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

2017 Winners

Well...this year started out strong and continued to build in quality to the point that it was looking to be one of the best years in video gaming history.  Unfortunately, a string of holiday-window releases killed the momentum somewhat with loot crates out the wazoo.  Still, there were plenty of candidates for my custom award categories.  Here are the winners for 2017.

Avantgarde Award:
The term used in this category is a French phrase that means "leading edge" and is typically applied to art (whether it be movies, photography or paintings).  So what could be a more appropriate fit here than Passpartout: The Starving Artist?  It is a game where you are a parisian painter trying to make a living by selling to a variety of connoisseurs (whose tastes can get pretty bizarre).  I never thought doodling in MS paint could be such a lucrative enterprise.

Backlash Award:
Twice voted worst company in the world, EA is determined to maintain it's reputation by burying one of the most beloved franchises in media history in fee-to-pay garbage.  The AMA hosted by the dev team, an attempt to justify the mechanics, was a disaster.  The real clincher for this award category though comes from a reddit post by the PR team which has since gone on to achieve the most downvoted post in reddit history.

Canvas Award:
There have been quite a few colorful games this year; Pyre and Drifting Lands being to excellent examples.  That said, I have to give this award to Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild simply because it nails the sweet spot between bland and garish.  Each of the major locations have their own distinct pallet, but the shades used are carefully balanced mixture of bright and subdued.  The lighting engine is also great.

Ecology Award:
I really enjoyed Horizon: Zero Dawn.  In particular, the story and presentation were topnotch.  That said, the gameplay felt a little bit like an amalgamation of open-world games that have came before; bits of Tomb Raider, Enslaved, Far Cry, Assassin's Creed, Mad Max, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, Red Dead Redemption, MGV, The Witcher, Skyrim, and Watch Dogs are in the DNA here.

"Engrish" Award: 
MINOSMAZE...where to begin?  How about this quote from the narrator while transitioning from one gameplay segment to another:
"However Theseus knows that has no combat skills enough to duel with veteran warrior Minos."  
Lack of punctuation aside, "Minos" is not even the name of a person, but a place.

Esoteric Award:
In Rainworld, playing a slugcat is the least bizarre thing you'll do.  After all this weirdly adorable creature's goals are to eat, sleep and survive.  Other life forms you'll encounter in the game are less easily understood.  Odd symbols mark the UI, but unless you hunt around on a wiki no explanation will be forthcoming.  The environments are equally incomprehensible.  Where is this?  What's with all the abandoned industrial centers everywhere? Why does it rain so hard it can kill?  Don't expect the ending the make much sense either...    

Lemon Award:
Stubby limbs, sliding T-Poses, weird facial expressions, lifeless eyes, lipsyncing issues, mission and inventory management problems, poor checkpoint placement, environmental geometry traps, loading and pop-in textures...these are just some of the things that plagued Mass Effect: Andromeda at launch.  Supposedly, the majority of the game's five year development time was spent tossing around ideas without deciding on anything concrete (like what facial animation software they were going to use or the actual story script) while the last 18 months were basically a mad dash to get the game out.    

Testosterone Award:
Arena: an Age of Barbarian story is (depending on who you ask) a spin-off, sequel or stand-alone-expansion to the original.  In truth though I think calling it a remake of the 1987 game Death Sword (Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior outside the USA) would be the most accurate way of going about it.  Regardless, there's no shortage of nudity and gore (including one rather graphic death scene involving a spear to the crotch).

Underdog Award:
A very sad, but heartfelt story about life and loss, RiME is gameplay-wise a puzzle platformer that places the focus on feelings.  It's hard to talk about the game without giving all the best parts I'll simply say that if you've ever played Ico, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, or seen the movie "Pan's Labyrinth" then you'll have a pretty good idea of what you're getting into here.  It's not the best game from a mechanics point of view; the controls are a bit awkward at times and the graphics engine seems to be poorly optimised, but in terms of art direction, music and environmental design RiME is a tour de force.  I highly recommend anyone who is interested in the game give it a try...just make sure you have a tissue box handy.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Detectives of Tomorrow

Like most folks, I enjoy the process of solving a good mystery.  In literature and television I'm talking about characters like Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe and (my personal favorite) Lieutenant Columbo.  In video games there's also some noteworthies such as Professor Layton, Phoenix Wright, Laura Bow, Gillian Seed and Cole Phelps.  For me though, the backdrop in which these police procedurals (and what have you) unfold is just as important to good storytelling as the unraveling of the mystery itself.

As fun as shows like Dexter and CSI are to watch, having everything take place in modern day USA has always felt like a missed opportunity to me.  I'm sure it saves them a small fortune on their production budget, but there's something to be said for taking the classic detective formula and changing it simply by transporting the setting to an unusual time and place.  One great example is the long running Sano Ichiro series set in Edo-period Japan.  Eighteen books in total, I must confess that I've only read the first fourteen.  Another example is "In the Name of the Rose."  Set in a 14th-century european abbey, the novel/film were adapted into an unofficial 8-bit computer game entitled La abadía del crimen.  There's also a whole slew of authors who have written crime fiction set during classical antiquity, but I have yet to hear of any such stories that take place during the Viking Age.

That might sound like a strange era to consider, but believe it or not norse culture has more than a few law-speakers.  In fact one of the longest and, consequently, most famous sagas prominently features a character called Njáll the Beardless.  Essentially a 10th century Icelandic lawyer, I think it would be fun to play a Phoenix Wright-style video game with him as the protagonist.  Of course going the opposite direction could also be quite interesting.  Instead of looking to the past for inspiration how about the future?

Subsurface Circular is neat little indie game that was released on Steam August 18th, 2017 (with deliberate lack of preceding hype or fanfare).  It has players take on the role of a detective robot assigned the subway system beneath a major city.  From this rather confined place the player has to solve a mysterious disappearance by interviewing other robots that happen to be riding the train at various times over the course of the game.  Part of what makes it a compelling experience is learning about the world above and what it's like having AI controlled machines doing all of humanity's dirty work.  It's all very minimalist by necessity, but I kind of wish a larger developer would try tackling a similarly themed game concept.

While I like LA Noire, I can't help thinking it would have been so much more awesome had the game been set in the Blade Runner universe.  Rather than using the clumsy "good cop," "bad cop," and "accuse" options during interviews, I think it would have been a lot more well suited to the medium of video games to perform Voight-Kampff tests on suspects.  Something that the 1997 video game adaptation of Blade Runner did rather well was at the start of a new game a random algorithm would secretly decide which characters are replicants and which weren't.  That, combined with multiple endings gave the game replayability as well as a degree of personal investment in the story.  A recreation of 1950s Los Angeles is cool and all...just not as cool as it would have been in the far flung future of 2019...errr...maybe the sequel's 2049 would be a better timeframe...

Saturday, December 2, 2017

2018 Hopefuls

There's still a little ways to go before 2017 is over.  That said, I already find myself looking forward to the coming year and what it will bring.  A bunch of  interesting games have been announced so I thought I'd share a list of a half-dozen titles that have my attention.  Here they are in no particular order...

Frostpunk, as the name suggest, is set in Victorian England during the sudden onset of a global ice age.  The player is tasked with trying to keep a starting group of about a hundred men, women, and children, alive by settling them around the base of a towering coal-fired furnace.  Securing supplies of of wood, metal, and food are obviously important to survival, but not as critically as coal which is need to ward off the -40 degree daytime temperatures.  Sounds like a good game to play in winter.  Hopefully it will make its first quarter release window.

Not much is known about FAR: Lone Sails aside from a short video clip that has been making the rounds.  From what I can gather it's a side-scrolling adventure game that puts the player in the role of a lone post-apocalyptic explorer who travels a dried seabed in a massive wind-powered scrap wagon.  Salvaging and discovery are probably two of the key gameplay mechanics.  The developers also boast that their game is zombie-free.

Ashen is a cooperative adventure RPG in the vein of the Soulsborne series.  Visually, it distinguishes itself with a somewhat simplified presentation that gives it an impressionistic look akin to RiME or Absolver.  The setting appears to be a generic fantasy world, although some screenshots imply that things might be less conventional than they first appear.  Regardless, the teamwork aspects is what makes this game a potentially unique experience.

Tank Mechanic Simulator is a curious variation on the multi-iteration Car Mechanic Simulator franchise.  Obviously, the novelty of restoring World War 2 era armored fighting vehicles instead of automobiles is the main draw, but I hope that's not all there is to it.  Whether it be managing museum exhibits, coordinating with private collectors, or planning tricky salvage operations, there really needs to be more things to do with these steel relics than simply replacing the rusty old bits with shiny new bits.

Overland has been in quasi early access for a long time now.  In a nutshell it feels like an answer to the question, "what would you get if you turned Jalopy into a post-apocalyptic turn-based strategy game with burrowing monsters?"  A bit reductive, I know, especially since the game has a distinct vibe to it; reminiscent of Kentucky Route Zero or even Oregon Trail.  Much like those two games, the simplistic graphics convey a surprising amount.

I mentioned this last one before in another blogpost, but I'll bring it up here again since UBOOT represents the most recent attempt to simulate the history of underwater warfare.  Like many other entries in the subgenre, it chooses to focus on the North Atlantic area during the second World War.  Given the nature of the conflict in that region at that time, players will have to take the role of the Kriegsmarine.  Playing as the unambiguous bad guys in a historical context is always a tricky business.  Most games get around it by focusing on the simulation aspect, but I'm curious to see if this game will bring anything new to the table narratively speaking.