Friday, December 28, 2018

Long Time No Box Art

So let me get this straight...
Boglins from outer space are attacking a tank
and the tank is on the surface of Rhea...?  

I wonder if the makers of Mortal Kombat had a
hand in the title of this game...

Wow...and here I thought Sunday drives
were supposed to be relaxing...

Gosh darn snappers keep get'n in my wheat fields!

Hmmm...something about this cover looks strangely familiar...

Is there a caption that could possibly top
what's already printed on the box?...I think not.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Below Expectations

Do you have ADHD?
Capy Games first garnered public attention with the release of their critical darling (the oddly titled) Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP.  It had a nice pixel-art style and interesting presentation, but despite these good points it never really got its hooks into me.  Instead, another Capy production, Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes was what put the company on my radar.  Since then Capy and I haven't crossed paths (so to speak), although I have been waiting eagerly (for five years!) to play their roguelike dungeon-crawler - Below.

Unfortunately for this piece of entertainment software (and many others) there's an inherent problem with video games that have abnormally drawn out development cycles.  With each delay would-be-player expectations tend to increase.  Consciously or not, I think there is an attitude among players that the longer it takes the more refined it will be.  In theory that's true.  However, in reality poor planning, bad design decisions, or simply shoddy coding can force a project back (in some cases all the way back to square one).  At times this leads to truly impressive games (such as the original Half-Life or Resident Evil 2).  In other cases just average (The Last Guardian) or sometimes terrible (Duke Nukem Forever).  In terms of this spectrum, Below falls somewhere in the middle.  Because the specifics of game development are almost universally shrouded in mystery, it's typically very hard to figure out what happened from an outsider's perspective.  Capy Games has gone on record saying basically everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong.  Based on the various clips and trailers it's clear that the game underwent a number of changes.  Personally, I kind of prefered the pixel artwork over the crude polygonal models...and become a bit discouraged as the latter become more prominent over the course of development. 

The real Below starts here...
As far as gameplay goes, I actually like the idea of having multiple player character corpses (rather than the default of only the most recent one).  That said, having to recover certain basic items (namely the lantern) can be a real pain toward the bottom levels.  My guess is the developers thought it would be punishing in the same way as hollow form is in Dark Souls.  The thing is players of that game tend stay in hollow form so much it becomes the default while being fully restored is more of a bonus.  Another important difference is the random layout which changes each time the player has to go on a corpse run.  So, unlike Soulsborne games there is no memorizing enemy and trap locations.  Shortcuts do exist, but their usefulness is somewhat hampered by the need to keep a close eye on hunger and thirst meters.  These ticking timers of doom aren't necessarily a bad bit of game design, but the way in which they are dealt with essentially boils down to farming for resources.  This, along with grinding, are the twin banes of gaming since the 8-bit era.  It turned me off to most JRPGs back in the day and for some reason it still persists even now, tainting otherwise interesting recent titles like Darkest Dungeon and Bad North with their dull and repetitive mechanics.

I suspect that when it comes to Below, the five years between announcement and release lead to some mechanics becoming dated (or at least out of fashion).  It's also possible for game makers to get blind spots because certain mechanics have been in various builds of the game for so long the team stops viewing them with a critical eye. Hopefully, the development team over at Capy Games will come around to the idea of having a flexible approach and patch the game as needed.  Rain World is an excellent example of another game that started off too demanding for most people to enjoy.  The creator was (understandably) reluctant to make sacrifices to his artistic vision, but eventually relented and added a mode that made things less brutal (as well as an unlockable one the made it even more so).  SOMA did something similar with the addition of a "safe mode" which I personally didn't need, but can understand why some folks would prefer it that way.  There's no harm in giving the player more options after all...That's why it's always in the main menu when a game boots up.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

3 in Q1

The year two-thousand and eighteen is almost at its end.  I've posted my (dubious) award winner for the year, as have most video game outlets.  The "Keighleys," or if you're not familiar with the colloquialism - The Video Game Advertisement Extravaganza! - has also concluded.  Now with 2019 just around the corner, I think it's an appropriate time to take a look at next year and all the interesting games that are on their way.

Unlike previous occasions, I really only have three titles I want to mention.  That's not to say there are very few games I'm looking forward to...far from it.  The problem, rather, is I've already talked about most of my eagerly anticipated releases in previously posted lists.  Why do games I'm interested in get delayed so much?  Anyone remember a game called Routine?  How about Ghost Song?  Anyway...here's what I got; a trio of titles firmly set to debut in the first quarter of next year.

For me, the Resident Evil 2 remake announcement trailer was the most exciting thing to come out of E3 2018.  As I've already gone on record saying in a previous blogpost (link), I played the original RE2 quite a bit - unlocking everything and completing all but the tofu speedrun challenge.  The remake looks to have what made the original so great, plus a bunch of improvements - most notably in the graphics department.  Other than that, tweaks and changes to the layout and story have sparked my curiosity.  I remember the events of my PSX version playthrough of the game pretty well so anything that might catch me off-guard or defy expectations would be a welcome surprise.

As a fan of the awkwardly labeled Soulsborne collection of third-person action RPGs, it's probably no surprise that I'm really excited to play Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.  I really liked the changes/improvements made to the formula in Bloodborne, and had a hard time going back to the seemingly dated mechanics of Dark Souls 3.  Since Sekiro is leaning toward innovation rather than nostalgia, it's easy to see why I'm especially looking forward to the role of a shinobi in quasi-mythical Feudal Japan.  Sure Nioh and Ghosts of Tsushima are similarly themed, but I have no doubt that Miyazaki Hidetaka and his team at From Software will pit their own distinct spin on the concept.

Last on the list is Wargroove.  I was a fan of the Advanced Wars series on the GBA and DS.  I'm also a little sad that the franchise died out after the fittingly named (in hindsight) Days of RuinTiny Metal appeared to be a spiritual successor of sorts, but ultimately fell short of the mark.  Thankfully, all is not lost because there is a fantasy spin-off in the works with the odd-sounding name Wargroove.  Originally slated for a 2018 release, this turn-based strategy game has been delayed until January for what I hope is some fine tuning and polish.  Oh...and it's for the Nintendo Switch.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

2018 Winners

Avantgarde Award: 
Lucas Pope, maker of Papers Please, strikes again with his time-traveling murder mystery involving the unlucky crew of an 18th century sailing ship.  While the concept is fairly original, it's the visual presentation that feels uniquely reminiscent of a game for the Apple Macintosh.  I won't go into the details (because you can read about them here), but suffice it to say even though this game draws inspiration from the past it ultimately looks like nothing that has come before.

Backlash Award: 
When people are pissed about a game they tend to be very vocal about it online via forums, twitter, user reviews (and even threatening Emails sent directly to the developers).  I'm sure the makers of Kingdom Come: Deliverance got some of the above, but they also got quite a bit of the silent treatment.  Waypoint, Giantbomb and a lot of other gaming websites pretty much ignored it despite there being little else worth covering at the time.

Canvas Award: 
To quote the RPS description of this game, "a ragtag group of animes, their doctor dog, and their pet tank are out to save semi-magical notEurope from the notNazis during notWW2 through the powers of friendship and turn-based tactical squad combat." It also looks pretty as ever thanks to the canvas rendering engine in addition to skillful application of various color schemes that are more varied than the original game.

Ecology Award: 
When it comes to gameplay, the Metal Gear series has always had a fairly linear progression in terms of mechanics from one game to the next.  Some ideas get scrapped while others are improved on.  Unless you skip a couple games in a row though the "DNA" is pretty similar.  That said, Survive feels completely stripped of any original ideas.  Everything is copied directly from MGSV or else take from the deluge of survival themed games that have come out in recent year...and that includes the zombies.  I guess no Kojima means no innovation for this franchise.

"Engrish" Award: 
In actuality there's no spoken dialogue or even text in this game.  My understanding is the developers are based in the Netherlands which might mean English is not their strongest suit, especially since they were able to win this award based solely on the title.  What's "FAR" and why is it written in all caps?  It is an acronym for something?  How can it be "Lone Sails" if "sails" is plural?  Yes, the landship in the game has multiple sails, but they can't be alone if there's more than one of them, right? 

Esoteric Award: 
At the bottom of the options menu there is the choice to set the game to "bird" or "worm."  Nowhere does it explain what this does, or even if it does anything...that's Cultist Simulator in a nutshell.  It's not a real simulator for cults or the occult, but rather vaguely Lovecraftian.  Even players familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos will be at a loss though because there's no familiar terminology.  What's a "percussigant"?  I don't know, but according to the text description it likes to dance...

Lemon Award: 
What can I say?  Well...for starters it's a Bethesda game which, come to think of it, is all I really need to say.  All the usual suspects are here in terms of glitches and bugs.  The always online component loves to boot players causing a long pause, not to mention autosaves being messed up resulting in a loss of progress.  The targeting system is also busted, but don't worry they've patch it...and in the process introduce a whole slew of new bugs.  Better hope mod makers come to the rescue.

Testosterone Award: 
Based on the long running manga and anime series, Fist Of The North Star: Lost Paradise is a game adaptation that sets out to capture the post-apocalyptic franchise's most distinct iconography (namely, the leather-bound beefcake protagonist, Kenjiro, who has  a neck so muscular it's wider than his head!).  The game mainly consists of him punching other meaty dudes in pressure points (sensitive parts of the body) so hard that they swell up and explode in a shower of bodily fluids.  Oh, and the death screams of the enemies appear as on-screen text...which your character can pick up and use as an improvised weapon to beat up other enemies with.

Underdog Award: 
When describing Frostpunk, Noah Caldwell-Gervais (of Youtube fame) described it as a member of a very small subgenre of games he dubbed "survival strategy."  Other entries he cited include Outpost 1 and 2 along with Surviving Mars.  Like those games Frostpunk has the player perpetually waring with a hostile environment, but unlike those games the story is front and center.  In other words, the player is charge with both the micro and macro decision-making.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

In the Cards

Apparently a big-hat dress code is in effect
Invented sometime in the late 1800s, poker is one of the most popular gambling-based card games today.  Unlike blackjack or baccarat, it hold the distinction of being played against individuals rather than the "house" - a casino employed dealer who must follow rigidly defined moves.  It's also the most commonly found card game in media today, whether it be tournaments on TV, short appearances in movies or, yes, even video games.  Unsurprisingly, poker has a lot of variants so let's look at three of the most well-known ones before moving on to how all this relates to electronic entertainment.

First off, there's "straight" poker (not to be conflated with the suit of cards).  Five cards are dealt to each player.  Then, betting happens clockwise starting from the left of the dealer with the standard options of "check," "open," "raise," and "call."  It's one of the oldest forms of the game and probably the simplest, but also the least interesting for reasons I'll get to in a bit.

Next is "five-card-draw" which, as the name implies, allows the player to discard unwanted cards (after an initial round of betting) in an attempt to strengthen their hand.  Once a second round of betting is complete, players who didn't fold (i.e. give up) reveal their cards.  This is the version of poker I'm most familiar with having played it a lot with friends and family using fake casino chips or small snack items (like pretzels) in lieu of actual money.

Hand that bad, Riker?
By far the most famous version of poker today is the community card variation, often taking the form of "Texas Hold'em."  In this style of poker each player is dealt two cards face down called the "hole."  After an initial round of betting three cards are placed face up in the middle of the table, the "flop."  These cards are shared by everyone when it comes time to determine the strength of each player's hand.  After the "flop" there is another round of betting, followed by the confusingly named "turn," which consists of adding one additional face-up card to the center.  Yet more betting is succeeded by a fifth and final card added face up in the communal center known as "river."  Only after one final round of betting do the remaining players show their "hole" cards in order to determine the winner.  Obviously, this more complex version of poker provides more opportunities to bet; four times to be exact as opposed to twice in five-card-draw, or just once in straight poker.  Generally speaking, more rounds of betting means more chances to bluff, semi-bluff or value bet.  As folks like to say in poker play the player, not the cards.

Psychological aspects aside, the visible community cards in Texas Hold'em allow for a great deal of strategization by considering probabilities and making educated guesses.  Capturing all these layers to the game in a piece of entertainment software can be pretty tricky.  The basic mechanics of poker are clear-cut enough to be easily coded, and if you only allow the game to be played by real people then one can simply circumvent the tricker part of player interaction.  However, what do you do when it comes to a human player against AI opponents?

While I'm sure there are earlier examples, the first time I can remember coming across a product that had distinct poker playing AIs was Celebrity Poker.  Released in 1995 and staring three B-list actors (including Jonathan Frakes a.k.a. First Officer William Riker in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation), the game allowed the player to choose from several different versions of poker, but I don't know if there was any real difference between the three AI opponents.

The game is set in 1899, but Texas Hold'em
wasn't actually invented until
the early 1900s...
A better and more recent example is the Governor of Poker series which began in 2008.  Basically a Texas Hold'em simulator (with some side activities that can be done away from the table), Governor of Poker has noticeable variety in terms of how each AI opponent plays the game.  It's even possible to enrage an AI opponent by revealing that they were bluffed into folding.  Once an AI opponent is enraged it's easier to exploit them further by luring them into making overly aggressive mistakes.

Two years later Red Dead Redemption came out, taking what was a stand-alone piece of entertainment and reducing it to a mini-game.  Unlike Governor of Poker, I don't think it is possible to aggravate AI opponents into make bad bets.  That said, they do seem to change their strategy a bit depending on whether or not they won the last hand.  Both Red Dead Redemption 1 and 2 have a bug/feature wherein the AI will usually "call" all-in bets by the player.  Personally, I believe this purposely exists so players can clean house if they happen to get dealt a really good hand.

Well, that about wraps it up...what's that?...what about video poker?  Here's the thing, even though video poker does have some superficial similarities to five-card-draw, that game is really more of a re-skinned slot machine (complete with the one-armed banditry those insidious devices are known for).  On the other hand, I'd advise against wagering real money regardless if it's craps, roulette or any other form of gambling.  Trust me when I say there are better things to spend your cash on.  That said, as long as no real currency is involved what's the harm in playing a few hands of cards?   

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Devil You Know...

You okay there, doggy?
It sounds like Bethesda Softworks is reluctant to move on to a new toolset when it comes to making games.  To some degree, I can understand where they're coming from.  If it ain't broke don't fix it...except, in this case, the engine Bethesda uses (and has used for ages) is kind of broken.

When it comes to Bethesda products, there tends to be so many glitches and bugs that a non-trivial number of them never get fixed.  Considering that it's perfectly possible to iron out these issues via downloadable updates, this sort of approach to post-launch support feels inexcusable.  Instead, the task has been handed over to unpaid mod makers.  I've heard claim that problems like these are unavoidable given the scale and scope of Bethesda's games, but I don't think that argument really holds water.  There are plenty of open-world games that do not suffer from endemic jank; Horizon: Zero Dawn and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild being the two most recent examples that come to mind.  For the sake of argument though, let's say that it's a precondition of the Elder Scrolls and Fallout games that they are never going to be bug-free.  Why does Bethesda continue to use such a flawed system of game development?

Switching to a new, or seriously overhauled, engine is pretty much guaranteed to have some snags, but it hardly seems to be sacrificial when the current method is so unsound.  I guess the lead developers over at Bethesda would rather deal with the devil they know than something they don't...speaking of devils and demons...

No bugs?  When mammoths fly!
Bethesda's parent company is ZeniMax, who also shepards ID Software, makers of the DOOM series and a company famous for game engines.  One can't help wondering why some of the disciples of John Carmack don't help Bethesda forge a new framework for their future projects.  Combining the tech-savvy of ID with the world-building of Bethesda sounds like a perfect match, but then again the devil is in the details.

Engineers and storytellers rarely think along the same lines.  What sounds great for one group might very well be a huge pain in the neck for the other.  Look no further than the Destiny franchise to see an example of an engine that produces incredible visuals while simultaneously manages to be utterly tedious when it comes to scenario creation.

I can't say for certain where Bethesda truly resides in all this.  However, I am absolutely sure about one thing.  The next game that studio releases will have a laundry list of bugs.  Eventually, they will get fixed.  To what degree and by whom though is anyone's guess.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Uneven Polish

I already talked about Red Dead Redemption 2 in the last blogpost so I'd rather not focus on it entirely again here.  Having said that, playing more of the game has made me think long and hard about realism in video games.  When you have something like two-thousand employees and five years to work on a game, it's impressive what you can do in terms of realism.  Still, resources are always finite and developers must ultimately make hard choices regarding what to emphasise and what not to.

Having a truly realistic simulation is a pie-in-the-sky goal; something that developers might strive for, but never actually achieve.  Instead, it comes down to choosing what to focus on.  One aspect of Japanese game design that I find endlessly amusing is their willingness to circumvent difficult bits of design work if it doesn't add much in terms of gameplay.  Take, for example, pouring a drink, eating some food, or even changing one's shoes.  Trying to model these interactions requires complex fluid dynamics, object collision meshes or texture deformation.  In other words, it's a programing nightmare.  So why bother when it can be faked via a clever mix of camera angles and blocking scenes?  The hassle of making pick-up/put-down, open/close, and eat/drink animations was bypassed in the first couple of Resident Evil games by cutting to menu or loading screens.  Is it great visually?  No.  Does it save the developers a mountain of work.  Yes...and by doing so allows resources to be put toward other more paramount features.

So, what are these paramount features then?  It varies from game to game.  It also depends on the genre.  Tight controls matter a lot more in a fighting game than they do in a walking simulator.  Seamless transitions don't matter much in a turn-based strategy game, but they are pretty important in open-world action/adventure games.  Those are some of the more clear cut examples, but there are times when the decisions on what to dedicate development resources toward is a lot less obvious.

Animation priority is one of those areas where the designers have to make a hard choice between precise controls or realistic movement.  I tend to lean in the direction of the former more than the latter in terms of personal preferences, but some of my all-time favorite games (Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and the Souls series) place their priorities firmly in the animation-over-input camp.  Meanwhile, games such as Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Ninja Gaiden, and Vanquished (all known for having snappy, responsive controls) failed to hold my interest.  Hmmm...maybe this is a case of me saying I want one thing even though I actually prefer the other?  I can certainly see why some players would find it frustrating to play games that give priority to animation though.  Seeing something bad about to happen and being powerless to do anything about it is rarely a fun experience.  Then again, sometimes bad controls aren't necessarily a problem if the game accounts for the limitations they impose.

Tank controls are a great example of this.  If the kind of enemies you're up against are slow moving, then the lack of player character agility isn't such a huge problem.  If the enemies are fast and nimble thought...well, you've just introduced a receipt for aggravation.  Another example is aiming assists.  It helped make those awkward fixed camera angles more bearable up until the franchise switched to an over-the-shoulder perspective in Resident Evil 4.  Conversely,  Rockstar titles, starting with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, have used a snap-to aiming system that has made the gameplay I bit more tolerable to folks like me who have been spoiled by mouse and keyboard shooters.

These solutions circumvent the problems, but they don't really solve them.  Surely a more elegant solution must exist?  Perhaps more resources should have been directed to them?  I sometimes feel that way about Read Dead Redemption 2's menus, controls and tutorials.  As is, it's a case of some parts being polished smooth while others still feel a bit rough. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Spacetime Outlaws

Like a lot of folks, I've recently been playing Red Dead Redemption 2.  It's hard to say much about my initial impressions that wouldn't just be an echo of what others have already said, but I'll try.  I'm going to go into the story a bit and how it subverts certain stereotypes of the Western genre.  Don't fret about spoilers though...I'm barely scratching the surface in terms of plot here.

Typically when I think about the ending scene of many Westerns, it usually involves some rugged guy (or guys) riding off into the sunset.  Pretty much from the start the developer, Rockstar Games, flips the cliche; you're riding east toward the direct the sun rises, you're not alone, and many members of your group are women (heck, there's even a few old folks and a child in the mix).  What's more this is a gang of outlaws.

Of course, having the story focus of a Western on a gang is hardly unusual, but here those 100 hour workweek writers throw in another twist - you're a band of lawbreakers that preys on other lawbreakers.  This is a pretty original take for the Western genre, but as far as storytelling techniques go it's actually a heck of a lot older than you might think.

Nearly a millennium ago, the authors of Icelandic sagas had problem when it came to their (then multi-century-old) heroes.  How can you depict vikings in a positive light when their favorite past time was raiding innocent villages for slaves and valuables?  Well...one solution appears at the beginning of Njáls saga.  Herein one of the heroes leads an attack on a longship filled with booty taken on viking raids.  In essence he's robbing the robbers.

It might seems like a stretch to draw a connection between old-time cowboys and ancient norsemen, but keep in mind that Iceland was very much the Wild West of the Dark Ages.  First settled sometime in the 9th century, the island was covered in virgin forests and pastures making it (for all intents and purposes) frontier territory.  Sure, these pioneers came by longships instead of wagons; armed with spears and axes instead of six-shooters and scatter-guns, but technological innovations aside the circumstances were surprisingly similar.  A legal code, while existent and fairly thorough, lacked strong enforcement creating an environment wherein many a dastardly deed was committed.

While I'm on the topic of disparant time periods, I want to wrap things up by saying for a game set in 1899, there's a weird amount of emphasis on the Civil War.  Just to put things into perspective, that conflict had ended more than 30 years prior.  If anything, you'd think that the Spanish-American War would be the event in everyone's thoughts.  For all the talk of burgeoning industrialization one wonders why nobody mentions the recently ended World's Fair, or the fact that Chicago had already built its first skyscrapers...or the fact that the US Navy had switched over to all steel coal steamers.

I haven't finished the game yet, obviously, so perhaps someone will pay lip service to some of the things I've just mentioned.  Regardless, I feel like certain aspects of the setting wouldn't feel so anachronistic if they moved the timeframe back a few more decades.  I guess that wouldn't have dovetailed nicely with the original Red Dead Redemption though...

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Centennial

For those who know their history November 14th, 2018 marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the First World War armistice.  Perhaps because this date is fast approaching, I had a strange dream in the middle of the night about trench warfare and tall, spindly machines.  Usually, I forget dreams soon after waking up, but this one has stuck with me.  I'm not sure what to make of it so I'll just relate the contents as a period-appropriate narration.  If nothing else it might be an interesting concept for a video game.

It involved long-legged machines walking across no-man's land.  These "land-striders" (or "landschreiter" in German) were hundreds of feet tall, so towering that their tops sometimes became obscured in low-hanging clouds.  Conversely, other times they gave the impression that they walked upon them when the ground was covered in fog (or worse - gas).  The legs of those machines were slender metal latticework, akin to construction cranes, that tapered down into narrow poles toward the base.  Armor plating protected the joints and locomotion to each was provided by a ingenious network of chains, gears, cables and winches connected to petrol engines mounted in the machine's underbelly.  On the upper works there were bristling arrays of machine guns, light artillery, field mortars, and flamethrowers backed by a garrison of sharpshooting riflemen.  Huge pennants streamed from the back proudly displaying national colors.  Thin wisps of black smoke vented out of protruding pipes along the sides and the hum of motors mixed with the rhythmic thudding of of their footfalls.  Each was painted in military colors respective to their country; German field grey, British khaki, and French horizon blue.

There were further variations.  Some were bipedal, others tripedal, but the biggest were the quadrupeds.  Due to their incredible stature land-striders could step into, out of, or over trenches and shell craters with ease.  Even swollen rivers and soft mud would only slow their gait a little.  Aircraft buzzed around them like angry flies and tanks would crawl out of the way like beetles desperate to avoid being crushed.  Tangles of barbwire, more often than not, became wrapped around their feet, but this only increased a land-strider's lethality.  Any infantrymen unlucky enough to get caught in their path could be flailed in a single colossal step.  Small arms were wholly ineffective and, despite their immense size, land-striders are surprisingly hard to hit with conventional artillery owing to their narrow profiles. All to often shellfire would pass harmlessly through their legs or, in the rare instance of an extremely well aimed shot, ricochet off their armor.  Damage or mechanical failures could also be repaired in the field by a team of acrobatic engineers, who would repel along every surface with ropes tied about their waists.  In fact, the only method of truely opposing a land-strider was with another land-strider.  When these monsters clashed it was like a Salvador Dali painting bent to war.  As the machines closed toward one another small black specs could sometimes be seen falling from them like fleas off an animal's back.  To the untrained eye one might speculate that they were simply shell casings or chunks of broken metal, but mixed in among such things were the bodies of men killed by bullets and shrapnel.

When land-striders duel, it was a common for both to limp away from battle battered but not broken.  However, now and then neither would back down and draw up so close that their upper works would collide.  An audacious officer clad in armor like a knight of old would gather men of the garrison into raiding party and with a cry they would throw a shower of grenades and board.  Close combat ensued with pistol, club and bayonet.  The objective was always the same - set fire to the enemy's hooded fuel tanks while protecting your own.  Once the flames appears there was no stopping them, and the only recourse for survivors was to leap into the open air and hope that the parachute on their backs opened properly.  Even if they didn't at least it was a quick death at the hands of gravity rather than a slow one from the burning heat.  Watching a land-strider topple over was both a horrifying and fascinating sight that ended in a ground-shuttering crash.  The corpses of those once great warmachines can still be found half-buried in the soil of many battlefields:

Between the triangular forts of Liege...
Half-hidden by the mists of Ardennes...
Along the river bridges of Mons...
In the forest marshes of Tannenberg...
On the floodplains of Ypres...

...and that's only in 1914.  There were four more years to go.

                         

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Galerians

I didn't care much for the original Playstation, at least not until very late into the console's lifespan.  What finally roped me in was the rise of one of my favorite subgenres - survival horror.  Of course it didn't start there.  In fact it has deep roots stretching all the way back to Sweet Home on the NES, not to mention Alone in the Dark 1, 2 and 3 which did a lot to solidify the subgenre.  That said, Resident Evil 1, 2, Nemesis and Survivor were all PSX games; as was Dino Crisis 1 and 2...not to mention the first Silent Hill.  There were also some lesser known attempts by developers to capitalize on the popularity of survival horror - titles like Fear Effect, Parasite Eve and Martian Gothic: Unification.  One of the most bizarre and obscure entries though has to be the 1999 release, Galerians.

As far as I can tell, the makers of this game must have been big fans of films like "Blade Runner" and "Akira."  Oddly enough though the game isn't set in the near future, but rather in the much more distant date of 2522.  The player takes the role of Rion, a fourteen year old (sixteen in the overseas version) who wakes to find himself strapped down to an automated surgical table and a girl's voice calling to him in his head.  Before fully coming to, he receives a double injection in his neck (one into each carotid artery) of a bright green and red substance called PPECs (Psychic Power Enhancement Chemicals designed to draw out latent psionic abilities in certain predisposed individuals).  In Rion's case they work too well since he immediately frees himself of his restraints using telekinesis.  Even so, psionics in Galerians aren't as impressive as in other video games such as Second Sight or Psy-Ops: A Mind Gate Conspiracy.  Rion isn't capable of mind control and his psychic attacks take time to power up.  Using them also depletes the PPECs accumulated in his body, necessitating more injections.  Another complication is a "short out" mode that causes Rions life bar to deplete slowly, as well as reducing his movement speed.  Survival is only possible by taking a pill called "delmetor" which stabilizes his condition.  On the plus side, while in this degrading state the heads of lesser foes will pop like overripe tomatoes should they come face-to-face with Rion.  One other nicety is an automatic aiming system since Galerians, like most PSX survival horror games utilize the notorious tank control movement system.

Story-wise, Rion has amnesia, or rather thinks he does, because he can't recall anything that happened before waking up.  As it turns out...spoilers for a nearly-two-decade-old video game...he's actually a clone and, as a consequence, has none of the original's memories.  The real Rion died before the start of the game and a copy was created to draw someone that used to be close to him out of  hiding.  The mastermind behind this scheme is a renegade A.I. labeled "Dorothy."  Ostensibly, she is creating psionicists out of a desire to create new life the way humans made her.  In actuality her motives are far more sinister in that Dorothy is attempting to modify human DNA to make an army of psychic warriors bent on subjugating humanity.  At the time in which the game takes place though she has only managed to cobble together a gang of psychic flunkies called "galerians."  The entomology behind this word isn't entirely clear, but it's most likely derived from the French word "galérien" or "galley slave" in English.  Regardless, the galerians following Dorothy serve as little more than boss encounters for Rion to overcome.

Personally, I found that the real challenge in Galerians comes from managing PPECs.  They are finite, but enemies aren't.  Rion also has the ability to read psychic imprints on various objects, which is used to tell parts of the story.  Other than that it's pretty standard survival horror gameplay; finding items, solving puzzles, unlocking doors as well as fighting various enemy types in rooms and corridors.  The game even has the biolabs, mansions, and city streets that the subgenre is known for.  Is it fun?...kind of...the sequel, Galerians: Ash, doesn't appear to be so, although I can't say for certain because I never actually bothered to play it.  I guess that says something about the original...

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Unfathomed Origins

From Software's collection of action RPGs has become very influential over the years.  So much so, a lot of people having been looking back in an attempt to discover the origins of the Souls series.  The most common reference I hear is the King's Field franchise which was also made by From Software, and directly preceded Demon's Souls.  There are definitely some similarities, particularly with regards to a dark, foreboding atmosphere and stamina-based melee combat.  However, there is a Souls-like game that came out shortly after the initial King's Field trilogy and yet predates Demon's Souls by about eight years - Severance: Blade of Darkness.

Developed by Rebel Act Studios and published by Codemasters, Blade of Darkness (as it was initially called), is a third-person action adventure game with light RPG elements.  The setting is fantasy, and offers players the initial choice of selecting one of four starting characters; a dwarf, a barbarian, a knight or a bounty hunter (who also happens to be the only female in the entire game!).  Once the intro cutscene has concluded it becomes the standard walk, run, and jump tank controls with attacks being the only thing that consumes stamina.  Blocking hits reduces the durability of shields until they eventually break (the better the shield, the more punishment it can take).  It's also possible to throw weapons.  Locking onto enemies works identical to the Souls series.  Getting hit reduces HP and leaves visible wound textures on character models.  Health can be recovered by consuming food or red potions found throughout the game.  It also clears up those unsightly wound textures.

As for environments, there are four unique starting zones (one for each of the four starting characters) after which the player has a branching collection of twelve more stages along with a final extra boss rematch area.  Generally speaking, the stages are varied though not to such exotic degrees as in Souls games.  The enemy types that inhabit these locations are recycled heavily and tend to be humanoid in shape, but do have some variations in terms of tactics.  Weapons, both melee and ranged, can be scavenged off slain foes or discovered easily with a bit of exploration.  Each type of sword, axe, club etc., has a unique attack that does a huge amount of bonus damage.  There are also some character specific attack animations that unlock as the player character levels up.  Experience is gained by defeating enemies and once a specific threshold is reached the next level is gained automatically, increasing max HP and the only other two character stats in the game (DEF and POW).  Any previously lost health is also brought back up to full.

Graphically, the game looks pretty dated by modern standards.  In all fairness though the lighting engine and gruesome death animations were quite impressive for the time.  The big problem Blade of Darkness has is its unresponsive controls.  Inputs register a bit sluggishly and some of the movement animations feel really stiff.  This can be especially frustrating when trying to navigate death traps or fatal drop-offs.  Worse still there are a number of hidden collectables needed to progress to the finale.  The player can return to previously cleared areas to search for overlooked secrets, but the problem is revisiting a stage results in all the original enemies being replaced with one annoyingly powerful foe that stalks the player relentlessly.  Ultimately, poorly thought out design decisions such as these prevented me from finishing the game.

Still, the resemblance between Blade of Darkness and the Souls series is striking.  In fact, I'm inclined to think that these two IPs have a similar degree of overlap as say Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil.  That said, Blade of Darkness doesn't have much of an inventory system, nor are there magic spells that the player can cast.  The story is also a lot more straightforward than the Souls series with a narrator giving context to each new zone, as well as conveying the bulk of the plotline.  All the same, this is the most proto-Souls game you're likely to ever find...just keep in mind that video games have come a long way since when it released back in 2001.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Episodic? Unfinished? or Ill-Suited?

It looks like Telltale Studios' last story is just about told, and as such there has been a lot of reminiscing on the internet about titles like The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Tales from the Borderlands, and so on.  A lot of criticism of Telltale, then and now, is centered around the similarity of the template applied to all their IPs.  I see where they're coming from, but to me the Telltale formula was fine.  It just felt like they were only sub-components of what should have been much meatier games.

Take Minecraft: Story Mode, there's really no story in vanilla Minecraft aside from the vague and tedious goal of slaying the Ender Dragon.  Why not integrate Telltale's product directly into Minecraft and give the world's most popular digital sandbox a much needed narrative driven setting?  A common gripe with Telltale products is the illusion of player choice.  I understand that creating dialogue and visuals for every branch and outcome is a task that grows exponentially in terms of time, money and labour, but it doesn't have to be if the decisions the player makes influence gameplay rather than simply a truncated narrative arc.

Hypothetically speaking, suppose Telltale's Game of Thrones had a tactical RPG gameplay element built into it (similar to Shining Force, Vandal Hearts or Fire Emblem).  Choices made by the player during conversations could factor into the combat segments in all sorts of interesting ways.  Everything from enemy placement, unit types, and battlefield conditions to character stats, available movesets, or even objectives could be affected.  This kind of thing has been done on a limited scale in the past by titles like Suikoden and Sakura Wars.  So, why not expand on the concept?

Now, I know some will read the above and conclude that increasing the scope of a Telltale game would drastically up the workload....it's true to some degree, but possibly not as much as one might be inclined to think.  For one thing all Telltale games are hand-animated, a needlessly labour-intensive process when performance capture would take care of this and fulfil the voice recording which has to be done regardless.  Having a separate combat system would also eliminate the QTEs that Telltale games use for action scenes.  Graphics and sound assets could be shared between teams and a lot of the overhead costs of running a studio probably could have been alleviated by not basing the company out of San Francisco (the most expensive place to live in the entire USA).  Any additional development costs could be recouped by a modest price increase.  I don't think most customers would mind paying a bit more for Telltale games if the had more to them than a bunch of streamlined adventure game mechanics.

Speaking of improving on the basic formula, a number of indie studios have done precisely that.  Oxenfree strips away the uncanny valley that Telltale games suffer from by going with a simpler, yet more stylized visual presentation.  The Council, while somewhat of an eyesore, adds in some board-game-like mechanics which adds another layer to what would otherwise be a somewhat shallow experience.  At the very least you'd think Telltale would have added some crafting/exploration/survival mechanics to the later seasons of The Walking Dead.  Instead all that the studio did was make some minor graphical improvements to "Telltale Tool," an inelegant in-house rendering engine that only remained viable as long as it did because of the blood, sweat and tears being fed into by the development teams (who in recognition for their hard work were fired en masse without proper compensation or warning).  Stay classy Telltale execs...stay classy.

Saturday, September 29, 2018