Thursday, October 25, 2018

Sunday, October 14, 2018


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 "galĂ©rien" 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'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.