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?'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?