Saturday, 25 July 2015

Artifact Adventure: When an Instruction Book Really Would Have Helped

The day of the instruction manual has largely disappeared in video games. No longer are we required to pour over these booklets if we wanted to make any progress. Over the years, they were slowly replaced, first by in-game tutorials, and then pretty much by the first level of a game. However, there are some times when I really wish games had on. In this case, it came while playing some Artifact Adventure.

It's a small doujin RPG that quietly appeared on Steam a little while ago. As a concept, I actually quite like it as the game places as an open world 8-bit RPG. While some folks like to complain that the RPGs of that era were rather linear I never agreed with that assessment. There were plenty of times in early Final Fantasies and Dragon Quests where I'd hop on a ship, cruise across the ocean, and make landfall on some random continent, then wonder how far I'd make it before some mysterious monster would wipe out my party. Artifact Adventure takes this concept and runs with it, encouraging the player to wander around, talk to people, make decisions with consequences, and just see where things go.

Nonetheless, I really wish there was some sort of manual for the game. The problem is that as players collect these artifacts that they're on an adventure to find they gain new abilities, which should be pretty useful. However, there's no way of telling what the ability will be until you get it. I've made some decent educated guesses based on my years of playing games in the genre and looking at the name of an ability with alright results, but they haven't always been great. A lot of the stuff has fallen under, "Sounds like something a mage would use" so I've been bombarding abilities on my shaman, but it isn't always that easy.

Simply adding a quick list of the artifacts and what they do would have been an immense help here. I'm not asking for a return to the glory days of console RPG documentation with beastiaries, item lists, dungeon maps, and the like (though I would still love to see that some day...). All I want is some basic documentation. If a company is going to go through the trouble of translating the game anyway, why not make such a reference card while they're at it? There's a lot to like about this game, but it's being hampered by not knowing in advance what these artifacts do.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Heading Heavensward

Warning: There will be a few plot spoilers in this article. If this is a problem for you, stop reading now.

As some of you may know, I'm kind of a big fan of Final Fantasy XIV. The amount of time that I poured into A Realm Reborn is disgusting, so it was only a matter of time before I got around to playing the expansion. I wasn't there for the early bird pre-order stuff, instead opting to wait a couple of weeks and then hopping in so I could enjoy the game without it being a mad house of people running around everywhere. So far it's been a lot of fun. Square-Enix have done a lot of things with the new content that has improved on the original game, there are some massive zones, and some new features that I've been enjoying. That isn't to say it's all smiles and sunshine. There are a few elements of the game that have me concerned, but those have been far outweighed by all of the good stuff.

Players need to take their characters through the main scenario quests via a combat job if they want to get anywhere in the game. A big reason for this is that all of the new zones allow for flying mounts but in order to do so you need to unlock aether currents. Some of these can be found via a compass that you're given early on, but each zone has five currents that can only be unlocked through completing quests, some of which are part of the main quest line. I was a tad disappointed by this, as I was hoping to level my crafting and gathering jobs first, but at the same time this approach does make sense. It's just like what Blizzard has been doing with many of their expansions for World of Warcraft where players are forced to use land mounts when first questing through the new content before being granted flight at or near the new level cap.

Thankfully, the story has been pretty good so far. One thing that I didn't like about the main quest line in A Realm Reborn was that there was a lot of filler in it resulting in several quests that felt like a chore. A lot of the fluff has been removed in Heavensward with the story marching along at a much better pace. I was pleasantly surprised to see Ysayle play a big role in the first half of the adventure. She was by my side for much of the ride from level 50 to 55. I'd thought she would just be around for the Shiva arch earlier in the game, but apparently not. I actually don't mind that there isn't much in the way of Scions in the expansion either. None of them really appealed to me except maybe Yda. I'm assuming that they'll be back at some point as I get closer to level 60, but thus far they haven't been missed.

It is a bit worrisome, though, that new players will be forced to play through all of the content from A Realm Reborn before they can touch Heavensward. The only exception to this is the ability to make an Au Ra in the character creation. If you want to go straight to Ishgard or play as an Astrologian, Dark Knight, or Machinist, too bad. You'll have to get through all of the other content first. There has been a lot of debate about this already, as this can be a very daunting task that becomes all the more annoying for a new player trying to catch up so that they can play with friends in the new areas. A new player is probably looking at about a month of solid play to get through everything from A Realm Reborn and that's a pretty tall order. If this sort of gating continues into future expansions, I could see it being a huge turn off for potential new players and it could well cause subscription numbers to suffer.

For my first job that I'm taking to 60 I've stuck with warrior. In every other MMORPG that I've ever played, healer was the role that I gravitated to. However, with FFXIV I decided to change things up and go with a tank. It was a nice change of pace and something that I want to continue in Heavensward. Going through dungeons, the mechanics haven't been too hard thus far. I'm about five dungeons in so far having cleared The Vault the other day and they don't really throw too many curve balls.

One thing that has bothered me is that I seem to have terrible luck in finding decent healers. In FFXIV, a lot of healers try to pump out DPS when they have time. This I have no problem with. However, when one is not up to the task and people start dying as a result, I begin to get annoyed. I've probably done about 30-40 dungeon runs in the new areas so far and maybe 10-20% of the healers I've gotten have been competent. The rest just toss a HoT on me as I run into a pack of mobs to scoop them up, then expect it to be enough while they switch to Cleric Stance and DPS. First of all, don't toss a HoT on a tank when they're running in to grab a pack. Once that thing ticks, they're going to dog pile on the healer and the tank has to go out of his or her way to scoop them up again. Second, when picking up large packs the tank is going to take a lot of incoming damage. Why not actually heal during this time? Yes, we have a good amount of cooldowns we can blow through to mitigate it, but that only goes so far. Start the pull focusing on heals, and then as things get under control start DPSing to help clean up. Third, don't DPS if you're just going to tunnel vision on that, consequently forgetting to heal, failing to notice that you're standing in bad stuff and dying as a result. It's nice if a healer can DPS while in a dungeon, but not a necessity. Pay attention to how well you're performing and be honest with yourself. If you're DPSing and as a result doing a sub par job of healing, just stop DPSing. If you want to DPS so bad, level an actual DPS job.

Horrible dungeon experiences notwithstanding, the rest of what I've seen in Heavensward has been pretty impressive. I really like the new zones. They're huge compared to A Realm Reborn. I also like seeing them from the ground and re-exploring them from the air after unlocking flight, as it gives a very different view of the area. Ishgard itself looks amazing. The buildings tower overhead and have a nice Tutor-esque feel to their architecture. I don't know if I have an actual favorite zone yet as I'm still in the process of unlocking them. Sea of Clouds is pretty nice and The Churning Mists was alright.

Music has been pretty good so far as well. The soundtrack has always been a highlight of FFXIV, and that continues here. There aren't too many songs with cheesy lyrics in them. Ravana's battle was a bit bad for this, but on the whole it's more instrumental stuff. Again, I like the songs for Ishgard here and The Sea of Clouds' music sounds like something from a 16-bit platformer. I almost expect to see Sonic the Hedgehog run by when I'm in that zone.

So yeah, it's been a lot of fun for the most part. Healers are a pain, and I'm half tempted to level my scholar after capping warrior so I can be part of the solution on that front. For now, though, I'll focus on getting warrior to 60 and spending a lot of time crafting and gathering after that. There's still a ton to do and a content patch just around the corner, so I have a feeling Heavensward will be keeping me busy for a while.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Some Thoughts on Pillars of Eternity

It's been a few months now since the release of Pillars of Eternity. Those who had been salivating for a return to tactical isometric RPGs from the age of the Infinity Engine have had a chance to pick the game apart, myself included. Inevitably there comes a time where one will want to place the game in terms of where it stands compared to favorites of the past. Is it as good as Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale? Does it outdo them? Maybe it falls short. Whatever the case, there is that desire to place it in the pecking order, and it's something that I've been thinking about ever since I finished the game.

On the whole, Pillars tugs all the right heartstrings. The combat is very similar to games from the era it's trying to continue on from, albeit without the Dungeons and Dragons rule sets that were prevalent in many of those titles. If anything, this works out as a plus since battles could much more be designed from the ground up without having to tailor everything around those particular rules. Whatever the case, the combat is familiar enough for anyone who played these sorts of games in their heyday. I do wonder if I should have started out at a higher difficulty, though, as the game is a bit on the easy side on default settings.

Part of this was probably due to party composition and then also a bit of common sense. My character was a wizard and I also had Aloth in the party, so we had quite a lot of area of effect (AoE) damage from the start. By late game we also had items that did a certain number of AoE spells after each time the party rested and Hiravius was in the group, which just made it easier. Basically, I just had Eder take point while everyone else waited in a room down the hall, shoot an arrow at a group of enemies to get their attention, then have him run to the doorway and use it as a choke point while everyone AoE'd the baddies down. About the only time this was problematic was against ghost-like creatures since they can teleport, but on the whole it did trivialize a fair bit of the game.

I do think that this was in part because there weren't many enemies that could throw a person for a loop. About the only truly difficult ones that I ever encountered were dragons (not to be confused with drakes), and there are very few of them in the game. Pillars doesn't exactly have the plethora of enemies a game like Baldur's Gate did with the myriad of annoying abilities that could make certain battles rather complicated.

Nonetheless, it was nice to watch baddies melt from the unrelenting onslaught of fireballs and lightning storms that my party was hurling at them. I'll just have to remember to crank up the difficulty should I ever decide to replay the game in the future.

One area that I wish I could have liked more was the castle. As first it seemed like a neat little diversion getting a fortress to repair and call your own. It almost reminded me of Suikoden for a moment. However, the place ultimately felt like a money-sink with little value. I wound up completely upgrading the thing and hiring a bunch of mercenaries to keep an eye on the place, but there didn't seem to be much meaning to it. Sure, I could collect some taxes and do some fancy bounties, but the money I poured into the place hardly made it worthwhile. Even the mercenaries weren't that helpful. Whenever the keep is attacked, players get the option of going back and defending it themselves, or letting it auto-resolve where the mercenaries do all the work, and they aren't very good at their jobs. Each time I did this, my keep took a tone of damage and some sections needed to be completely rebuilt, so it became a necessity to take my party back before an impending attack and protect the place since the mercenaries were obviously not up to the task.

The stories, at least, were more or less enjoyable. The main one with all of the reincarnation talk and trying to stop a plan that's been in motion for thousands of years was pretty interesting. However, some of the party members' personal stories just didn't interest me and by the end of the game I didn't even bother trying to complete some of them because I just didn't care anymore. Durance and Aloth were the highlights of this aspect of the narrative for me, especially the former. I really wanted to know whether he was a straight up misogynist or maybe the war from a decade earlier had done something to make him that way. Aloth kept my attention because I liked the way he had two drastically different personalities, and it explained some of how the soul transferring and reincarnation worked in Pillars' world. Eder and Kana were alright. I finished up Eder's story just because he's such a nice country boy and I wanted to help him find out what happened to his brother. Meanwhile, Kana being the eccentric intellectual, who doesn't want to hang out with a guy like that. The rest of the main party members just didn't resonate with me, so I wound up just leaving them at the keep most of the time and in the end didn't help them at all.

As much as it sounds like I'm complaining about the game, I did enjoy it quite a lot. If not, I wouldn't have bothered to finish it, or delve 15 floors through a massive optional dungeon. The fact that Pillars exists and we're getting more games like it is great. I've really missed these pause-able real-time tactical RPGs and if we're about to enter a Renaissance for this sort of thing I'm a-okay with that. However, now that I finished the game, if I feel an itch for a game in the genre, it won't necessarily be the first game I reach for. As much as I've enjoyed it, titles like Planescape: Torment or Baldur's Gate will still win out in the end.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Shooting the Ships in Steredenn

Engaging the fleet in Steredenn

Bullet hell shooters and rogue-likes are two genres that I've never really thought of in the same breath. At their core, they've traditionally been very different types of games. In one corner, we have the shmups, where a key part of mastering them is intense memorization, knowing exactly when and where enemies are going to come from, and having intimate knowledge of bosses' bullet patterns. Meanwhile, rogue-likes' main draw is the promise that each outing will be different. No two adventures will be the same. This flies in the face of bullet hell shooters, as it eliminates the need to remember everything since enemies won't necessarily be the same, come from the same places, or use the same bullet patterns.

Nonetheless, some folks have opted to make a game that combines these two very divergent genres with Steredenn. The game is still in development but from what's there so far, this unexpected hybridization works surprisingly well. Instead of making mental notes on each playthrough of the game, keeping track of everything that happens, the player is forced to fly by the seat of their pants and rely on instinct in order to survive.

Early boss in Steredenn
This isn't to say that every each playthrough will be utterly unique from the next, as there are certain basic patterns that seem to recur from time to time. I've noticed similar ship formations or laser deployments that happen on a somewhat regular basis. Also, the bosses follow a set pattern of scaling power, going from a very simple introductory one to much more decked out ships later on, all the while sticking to the same models. There seems to be a variety of bullet and weapon patterns when fighting these guys that varies on each playthrough, but the vessels themselves stay the same.

Weapon choice is pretty standard stuff with bullet shots, rockets, lasers, and bots. The last of these feels a tad overpowered at the moment, though, as it's easy to deploy a bunch of these and they will auto-target incoming enemies, continuing to fire at them until they're destroyed. Putting out lots of these results in tons of concentrated fire on enemy ships, making quick work of them, and they can also be used to block incoming fire. If you saturate the screen with these things, the game feels a bit easy.

Latter boss in Steredenn
I'm having some mixed feelings about the visuals, however. It's that pixelated psuedo-retro look that has been popular for the last while. At first, it was an art style that was kind of pleasant to look at, but the indie game scene is becoming so saturated by it that it's beginning to wear its welcome. The stuff in Steredenn sort of reminds me of Dungeon of the Endless in terms of art direction. It's not horrible per say, but for those who have played quite a lot of games with this aesthetic of late, things may feel a little bit long in the tooth.

Nonetheless, the game could turn into a decent time waster. A randomized shmup does have its charms and is a nice departure from the legions of fantasy-based games that go the rogue-like route. One can only take so much swords and sorcery before going bonkers.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Playing Through The Longest Journey Pt. 2 - From Arcadia to Police HQ

April's first trip to Arcadia
Warning: This post will have spoilers. If that's a problem, do not proceed.

I have to say that I'm quite pleased that I'm able to be writing this article. As was mentioned in the previous one, The Longest Journey doesn't seem to like running well on my computer. It's been the occasional stubborn freeze that forces me to reboot up until the other day. When April was visiting the Newport Police Headquarters, I hit a particularly nasty bug. This one actually caused the game to shutdown and I was having a heck of a time getting past it to the point where I was seriously wondering if I'd even be able to finish this series of articles. Thankfully at the eleventh hour I stumbled upon a patch mentioned on GOG's forums and was able to correct the issue, so hurray.

Anyway, I've managed to make it to the end of chapter three since last time. Originally, the plan was to write something at the end of each chapter, but I wound up enjoying myself so much that I just kept on truckin' after the second one and now here we are.

While the first chapter was heavy on exposition as it explained characters, the city, and the basic situation that April has found herself in, things really picked up with chapter two. For one thing, the puzzles started showing up with far more frequency. I was quite happy about this, as it is something that I closely associate with adventure games and was hungry to really start digging my teeth into some.

The Mercury Theatre in Newport
Good ol' Officer Minelli.
The logic behind the puzzles was pretty solid on the whole. I've started to learn to be exhaustive in examining an area and while talking to people, as it gives April ideas as to how she can go about proceeding. More importantly, I've learned to make good and sure that I look very closely at each item she has in her inventory. Somethings these things wind up having detachable parts or can be activated somehow, and it usually turns out this facet of the object is absolutely crucial to progress.

Case in point: The inflatable ducky and the keys on the subway track. In general, this puzzle was tricky, as I needed to find a way to get an iron key off of the tracks without coming into contact with the live wire right next to it. Sitting in the inventory was a rope and a clamp, which I figured could be cobbled together to make some sort of fishing reel to grab the thing. I even attached the ducky because I figured there'd be some sort of logic about using rubber as an insulator so as not to get shocked by the electricity (I assumed the rope was still wet from dredging it out of the canal). What I didn't realize was that the clamp needed to slowly close around the key as it descended. It took me a while to figure out how this was supposed to work and for a time I thought that I might need something mechanized to make this happen. Not so. After much fiddling around and head scratching I discovered that there was a bandage on the ducky keeping the air in and pulling it off would cause the thing to slowly deflate. So, I pulled the bandage, re-inflated the duck, and slowly lowered it down to the tracks so that I could retrieve the key. Mission accomplished. This really drove home the importance of taking a close look at everything. It also boggled me as it didn't strike me as the most intuitive puzzle at the time, but looking back on it I can see the logic.

The other puzzles that I came across weren't nearly as perplexing, but did require some observation skills. Better still, some of them were actually kind of funny. Both run-ins I've had thus far with Officer Minelli have resulted in some satisfying hijinx, and I can't help but wonder if I'm going to inadvertently ruin the guy by the end of the game. Dealing with the two door repair guys at the police station made me smirk a couple of times as well.

Murals of the Balance
Getting the lowdown on the Balance.

When not doing puzzles, there's still been a lot of narrative to take in. Cortez is as mysterious as ever, and I'm pretty sure he's immortal, or at least cannot die of natural means. What really peaked my interest is finally travelling to Arcadia, the magical fantasy realm of the game. This was actually handled very well, as the world is presented almost subtly. Yes, it has magic and strange creatures, but this wasn't shoved down my throat. While exploring Marcuria, the most noticeable thing about the place was the exotic architecture. Otherworldly stuff was kept to a minimum. There was a peculiar beast in the main square, a talking bird, and some blue fire as far as things that scream Magical Land of Wonder go, but on the whole it was the buildings themselves that drove home the fact that April had passed through a rift into this new land. I really appreciate this too because a lot of games might be tempted to go over the top with dragons flying everywhere, some crazy wizards' duels, and maybe an army of orcs marching by. Instead of going for something so in your face and vulgar, TLJ actually feels tasteful when April takes her first tentative steps into Arcadia.

Newport Police HQ archives
At the archives at police HQ.
The trip didn't last long, but it was enough to peak my curiosity. Chapter three returned to the futuristic world of Stark, trying to find the Guardian and save the Balance from being destroyed. Still, the world doesn't feel massively over the top with how it presents this high tech realm. There are some sliding doors, the occasional hover vehicle whirring by, and hints of a much more technologically advanced segment of the city cordoned off for the wealthy, but on the whole the game is continuing that surprisingly contemporary motif that I mentioned last time.

Most interesting about the third chapter was getting an understanding as to who the Vanguard are and why they're such a threat to both Stark and Arcadia. The game has only just begun to scratch the surface with these guys, but already I'm getting the sense that they are really nasty with their whole Trans Dimensional Cult Masquerading as a Corporation / Major Religion shtick.

However, with that chapter completed and the fourth about to get underway, it's time to return to Arcadia once more. Things are starting to get very interesting now. We have an idea of who the bad guys are, a lot of events are in motion, and things feel like they're about to pick up.

The Longest Journey Playthrough Index:

Part One - Talking Dragons and Burned Out Hippies
Part Two - From Arcadia to Police HQ

Sunday, 5 July 2015

All Aboard the Bloat Boat

Lightning in Final Fantasy XIII (FFXIII)
Years ago, there was a time when my friends and I would have conversations about hard drives and say stuff like, "It's a whole gigabyte? What would someone do with all that space?!?" Now, a good 20 years later it's all about the terabytes. Huge, hulking drives with what seems like enough space to keep any sensible person happy for years. However, when one looks at the steadily bulging sizes of a lot of major game releases that come out each year, it's hard not to wonder if even these new technical marvels' days are already numbered.

It's only been over the last year that I've really begun to take notice of this trend, starting with the PC release of Final Fantasy XIII. When I perused the specs for the game on its Steam page, I noticed that it requires a 60GB download. Even with all of the fancy cut scenes and dual Japanese / English voice acting, that's a pretty bitter pill to swallow, and required some creative uninstalling to make space for it. Sure, we get slightly less annoying dialogue from Vanille, Hope, and Snow, but it comes at a very high cost.

Final Fantasy is by no means alone, though. There are plenty of other games that are sporting some rather hefty downloads. Titles like Wolfenstein: The New Order (50GB), Elder Scrolls Online (85GB), Grand Theft Auto V (65GB), and Batman: Arkham Knight (55GB) are but a few examples of the bloat we're beginning to see in terms of how much hard drive space games are beginning to gobble up.

Granted, all of the games that I've mentioned are of the AAA variety. Those that have little to no interest in that sort of thing aren't really affected. Nonetheless, there's still a substantial number of people who do like them, and are being impacted by this.

Fire fight in Wolfenstein: The New Order
Wolfenstein: The New Order is a 50GB goliath.

To an extent, growing game sizes makes sense. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, it's something that has been happening for years. With each leap forward in technology, we've seen games' graphics get better, but it comes at the cost of bigger files. Now, as this process has continued for 30 years or so we're at this point where the files in question are gargantuan.

That being said, when I look at some of the other recent titles to come out that have had some very high fidelity visuals, they haven't suffered from quite the same bloat as the traditional AAA games have. One just needs to look at something like The Witcher III or Elite: Dangerous. Both have been released only in the last year, have stunning visuals, and yet they've managed to avoid the 50GB+ club. This in mind, it does begin to bring into question what some of these other studios are doing when making their games. Is there a certain level of sloppiness in the coding that is contributing to this bloat?

Docking procedure
Elite: Dangerous looks gorgeous, yet manages to clock in
at only 7GB.
At least on the PC gaming side of things we can readily address the issue simply by installing a bigger hard drive. This will at least make sure there is enough space to accommodate these games. However, unless you go with one that is solid state, there will still be hurdles, that being the thing's writing speed. HDDs are quite slow when it comes to this, and installing one of these mammoth-sized games on such hardware takes some time. When I was installing Final Fantasy XIII, I pretty much couldn't do anything else with that computer once the process got into full swing. Adding insult to injury was having to wait over two hours for everything to complete. It's a bit of a drag having to deal with something like that. Obviously, over time SSD will come down in price, the process has already started, but as it stands, the technology is still more of a luxury than anything else for a number of people. Even when it does become affordable to the masses and we don't have to deal with sluggish write times anymore, it won't change the fact that these games are massive storage hogs that only seem to be getting bigger.

This doesn't even take into account the console side of things. Those have some pretty small hard drives that can fill up fast. It is possible to replace them, though much easier on the PS4 than the Xbox One by most accounts. The question is how many people out there will actually do this. I'm sure the majority of those reading this article have the technical wherewithall to do such a swap in their sleep. However, when it comes to the general public, I'm not so sure. How many people in that group will upgrade their console HDDs? I can't imagine them doing so en masse.

Scenic view of the city
Grand Theft Auto 5 gobbles up 65GB
on PC.
Whether one has the means and knowledge to upgrade their hard drive, be it on a PC or console, there's one area where they will likely have far less control: their ISP. With games shifting so heavily to digital distribution they're going to have to get downloaded from somewhere, and that means bandwidth consumption. In my neck of the woods, this is a serious concern. Plans top off around 400-500GB transfer per month, and it comes at a fairly hefty price tag. More common plans average about half of that. So, if someone wants to download even a couple of these massive games, they could well have eaten up half or more of their allotted bandwidth for the month. If someone streams a lot of movies, downloads various other things, and generally makes thorough use of their internet connection on a regular basis, they could suddenly find themselves hitting their bandwidth cap and being throttled or paying additional fees after.

All of this being said, I have to wonder if the growing install size of modern games will be a problem that is corrected on its own. It's hard to imagine this not impacting purchasing decisions. I know I'm thinking twice before buying a game now, taking the time to look at its specs and make sure of just how much hard drive space the thing is going to take. If it's over 25GB I stop and give the game some very serious thought before proceeding. In many cases, I actually don't buy it, or at least put it off for quite some time. Sure, I'm missing out on an experience, but I also don't have to rearrange a small army of other games in order to make space for that big one. Moreover, it alleviates having to worry about going over my bandwidth limit for the month.

Planning a thing
Elders Scrolls Online takes a whopping 85GB of storage space.

It wouldn't surprise me if others are doing likewise, and this may well help to force developers to examine how they're making their games. Should sales begin to take a hit because games are getting to darn big, they'll have to sit down and take a look at what they're doing and find a way to address the issue. The sad thing is that I don't see this happening any time soon. For now, we're just going to have to suffer through these massive installs, and get creative with managing hard drive space and our monthly bandwidth.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

NotGTAV is a Very Silly Game

notgtav title screen
So, while taking a peak at the Steam front page yesterday, I happened upon a rather unusual game there called NotGTAV. Hmm? A silly parody? This isn't just YouTuber fodder, is it? As it turns out, it's not, and is actually a pretty good piece of satire. You will need to be abreast of current events in the UK in order to get most of the jokes, but if you're in that crowd, there's a good 30 minutes to an hour of silly good times to be had. All of the proceeds go to charity, so you can feel even better about yourself while laughing at David Cameron and horse meat.

Basically, the game is a glorified version of Snake, with players guiding an ever-growing procession of things around a field either trying to gobble up more things, or avoid dangerous ones, all while not bashing into walls or obstacles. It's something most people have probably played at some point in their life, probably on their mobile phone, but with a shiny veneer of tongue-in-cheek humour. What makes the whole thing work is the ridiculous settings players are thrust into, which includes driving around a camp site running over tents with a tractor, or zipping around London on Saturday as Britain's prime minister while avoiding all of the protests marching around town.

While the missions and their objectives are both very silly, the majority of the laughs comes from all of the comments everyone is making while you drive / walk around a level doing your thing. It largely pokes fun at politics and the socio-economic situation in the UK, and really cuts to the heart of a lot of the problems facing the country. About my only complaint is that they focused so much on David Cameron here when there are so many other people in his party that deserve to be mocked as well. I didn't really notice any jabs being taken at George Osborne or Iain Duncan Smith, and, even more shocking, not a one at Michael Gove. Michael Gove. The man is practically a walking punchline.

From an aesthetic standpoint, NotGTAV is about as lo-fi as they come. The visuals are crayon scribbles with just enough detail to figure out your location and what you're driving. All of the sound effects are sampled mouth noises, and the music is people humming / singing in the background. They even went through the trouble of making mock radio stations for the levels set in London.

The game is dirt cheap at about three bucks regular price, and even less when on sale. It's very short, but benefits from that as the jokes would have worn thin if it was drawn out too much. At its current length, with the satire it has, the game is an entertaining little romp. Like I said before, if you're not from the UK or at least up to speed with the news over there, the majority of the humour will go straight over your head. Those who are will have themselves a good time.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Revisiting Anachronox

Boots and Gromps

During the late 90s and early 00s, it was a great time to be a fan of RPGs. It didn't matter if you were playing them on consoles or PC, there was a steady stream of quality titles coming to the platforms. Over the course of a half decade we got the likes of Final Fantasy VII, Dragon Quest VII, Baldur's Gate, Fallout, Wizardry 8, and Diablo to name a few. Among these games we had Anachronox, which was interesting as it took JRPG combat sensibilities and incorporated them into a Western game that was released on PC

However, to simply call it a JRPG developed by a Western studio doesn't really do the game justice. Yes, that was part of the game, but if that's all it was Anachronox would have fallen flat after a time and been a one trick pony. What makes the game so memorable is how it managed to successfully combine so many different things into one title and still work. It's like the game is an ensemble of ensembles: an ensemble cast, an ensemble of locations, and an ensemble of game modes. Going this route is extremely risky as a title runs the risk of being written off as a Jack of all trades and master of none, failing to have quite enough meat on its bones to hold players. Thankfully, Ion Storm did manage to pack on the protein with Anachronox, avoiding this pitfall.

One of the challenges that comes along when revisiting polygonal games of this era is that from a visual standpoint the games have not aged very well. The industry was still transitioning out of the 2D visuals that had been the standard for over a decade, and while at the time these clunky, chunky 3D renderings were pretty darn cutting edge, they can be pretty hard to look at now. I could give you a list as long as my arm of PS1 games that I have a really tough time getting into nowadays because they suffer from this. However, Anachronox is a game where I'm willing to overlook its incredibly dated visuals, and it's for one simple reason: atmosphere.

Rho and PAL
Rho and PAL look on as Gromps and Boots bicker.
Right from the start, the game hits players with a Blade Runner-esque noir world of aliens, flying cars, and dark cityscapes illuminated by an ocean of neon, all the while analogue synths gently hum a tune in the background. Wandering the metal-plated corridors, talking to its denizens, the gritty feel of a world where thuggery is the norm, and the rule of law a fantasy quickly takes form.

Then as one progresses further and further into the game, visiting new planets and meeting new people, we constantly see their surroundings change.  Each planet has its own personality, whether its the hyper capitalist denizens of Sender Station, Votowne and the satirical approach to democracy found there, Hephaestus' ability to whittle religion down to a business (I get "Personal Jesus" by Depeche Mode stuck in my head whenever I visit that place), or something as simple as a Star Wars parody while on the surface of Democratus. Each destination is a bit of a caricature, but an enjoyable one, and gets the player wondering what sort of wacky adventure they'll be up to next as their ship disembarks.

And silliness is a very important part of Anachronox. It came at the tail end of a time when humour was still far more front and center in gaming. Throughout the 90s and into the very early 2000s, there were a lot more games that went straight for the funny bone, or at least hung out there a fair bit. We had the Leisure Suit Larry series in full swing, two NOLF games, Tim Schafer was doing his thing at LucasArts, and several other games. Anachronox doesn't necessarily get mentioned in the same breath as these games when discussing more comedic outings of this period, but certainly deserves a nod.

A lot of the humour comes from the interplay of the characters themselves. The main protagonist, Boots, may be a fairly typical noir private eye, but he gets a lot of the punchlines going as he chats with everyone else, and overall the whole cast has a lot of chemistry. Watching the cut scenes often feels like something out of a 90s sitcom with its witty dialogue and excellent timing.

Satire also plays a large role. As mentioned earlier, Votowne and Hephaestus do this very well, poking fun at the state of religion and the democratic process. I've always been rather fond of the former, with the world's leadership constantly making their claims of doing things, "For the people!" Looking at the time when Anachronox came out, it was a period when the US was transitioning from the Clinton era to the Bush era, the UK had its first Labour government in a very long time, Germany was in the post-Kohl period, and countless other political goings ons were in motion, so it seemed rather apropos to poke a little fun at the relationship between government and its people given all that was going on in the world at the time. Satire is something that we just don't see enough of in games, and while it was adventure games leading the charge in this area at the time, it was still nice to see Anachronox pulling off such humour so well.

Paco saves a girl
Paco, the strong, silent type.
What must have been really complicated in creating the game was implementing the sheer number of gameplay elements that it contained. Yes, a large part of it was the JRPG battle sequences. They had a bit of a Chrono Trigger feel to them, which was still a fairly hot commodity at the time, as folks had a high opinion of that game's combat. However, there was a lot more that players had to do. If anything, battles aren't really all that frequent while playing through Anachronox. Players can see enemies before engaging them, and they only inhabit areas that make sense for them to be. For example, gang members may be in an underground area, aggressive creatures stick to their natural habitat, and so forth. Much of one's time is actually spent sleuthing, uncovering clues to figure out what's happening with the galaxy's Mys Tech, and solving local problems. This actually feels like a light adventure game, going around, talking to people, gathering information, all while getting to the bottom of things.

On top of this, each player has their own special skill while wandering the cities and doing this, which results in a number of mini games. There's one for Boots when he picks locks, another has you shouting down Democratus' politicians during a council session so you can fire a tractor beam, Grumpos needs help filling his lungs with enough air so that he can weave such a long, boring "old person story" that NPCs will give up and give him what he wants, et cetera. They're fun little things to do, and often attached to such ridiculous actions that one starts looking forward to their next chance to use it. There's even the occasional "driving a thing" moment tossed in for good measure while playing. It can be tough adding so many mini games, or even a few, in a title because often they feel tacked on and poorly thought out, but on the whole the ones in Anachronox are pretty entertaining and add to the experience.

Democratus is travelling the galaxy
The people on the ring of Democratus are hilarious.

Really, Anachronox was a breath of fresh air when so many other RPGs coming out on PC were being so serious, and singularly focused in what kind of gameplay they wanted. Granted a lot of those games were great, but with Ion Storm's project it got people thinking, "Hey, this works too!" Unfortunately, we didn't see others trying to follow suit here. As such, Anachronox will go down as an unique and largely successful attempt at combining a large cast of characters and a vast array of gameplay elements that one might think would never work together, then actually succeeds in bringing them all together. It was a great game when it came out, still is now, and should be applauded for how ambitious it is.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Mostly Harmless

Well, here we are. It's July now, and The Armchair Empire's old site has sailed on into the mists embarking on its voyage to Fólkvangr. With that, all that remains is AE Infinite. With Aaron and the gang on to new adventures, you guys are stuck here with me now. Don't bother trying to escape.  I've already locked the doors.

While I've grown to hate doing game reviews over the years, writing about the medium is still enjoyable, and I can see myself doing stuff with AE for years to come. Who knows, maybe in 1000 years I'll still be here sort of like that old guy defending the Grail in that Indiana Jones movie, saying to those who happen upon the site, "He did not choose wisely!" and they're all like, "What are you talking about?!? That doesn't even make sense!" Ah, the future.

So, where will things go from here? For starters, the look of the site has obviously changed. I figure it might as well get redone with such big, bold changes in the works. Something simple and to the point. Something surprisingly not blue and yellow, considering it's been AE's colors for years and years.

Also, the days of the news, previews, and reviews cycle here are done. I suppose there's a time and a place for that sort of thing, but over the years it's all become very boring to me. Long-form articles that are more of a diary or journal of one's experience while playing through a game, more analytical pieces, and generally more slow-paced thoughtful pieces will be the norm. I'm sure there will be the occasional time I gush about some game that I recently played, but traditional reviews don't really appeal to me anymore.

Content will also shift exclusively to PC games. It's the medium that I spend the most time with now by a country mile. The majority of my time is spent on stuff like tactical RPGs, grand strategy, 4X, and even the occasional point-and-click adventure, all of which are genres that we don't see a whole lot of on consoles. So, I'm going to stick the platform that gets the lion's share of my attention.

And that's the way things will be heading from here on in. A lot of AE may be fading from this realm, but I'll be kicking around doing some writing about games still. It still appeals to me just so long as I don't have to write a review. If you like that sort of stuff, stick around. =)