Tuesday, 29 March 2016

An Early Look at StarCrawlers


About a year ago, StarCrawlers slinked its way into Steam's Early Access and since then has been getting regular updates as it makes its way to becoming shipshape for a full release. In a world where science fiction themed RPGs are vastly outnumbered by ones with a decidedly fantasy shtick, this one certainly got me to raise an eyebrow when it came along. Moreover, it's a dungeon crawler, and as such had me instinctively reaching for my wallet. Of course, with it being unfinished, this excitement could have been premature if playing it revealed a game needing much more time in the oven. After pouring a fair bit of time into the game, that's certainly the case to a degree, but thus far it seems to be more a case of sorting out some of the text in conversations than any game breaking bugs.

This is a first person dungeon crawler with procedurally generated areas, so, right off the bat, one can see that exploring, fighting baddies, and collecting loot will be a big part of StarCrawlers. While there is an actual main line of quests with a story, most of one's time can be spent wandering futuristic corporate offices, derelict space ships, monster-infested mines, and the like without paying it much mind.

Players have a space station referred to as STIX that they use as a home base between jobs. It has basic amenities to help aspiring crawlers do their job better. There's a shop for buying, selling, and upgrading gear, a medical bay for patching up badly injured party members and resetting talent trees, there's a black market for playing a lottery to get gear of varying degrees of quality, and, most importantly, a bar.

The bar is where StarCrawler's main quest line advances and where players can find the job board to accept new missions to go on. Jobs are divided by difficulty and can be told apart by their color coding. Gray jobs are of a low level and will be very easy for your team to complete, green are also easy but not complete pushovers, yellow are slightly challenging with enemies a level or two above your party, and red are hard missions with much stronger enemies. As one would expect, pay and experience gets better and better the harder a mission is. Your reputation with various corporations will also impact what jobs are available. Obviously, if you've pissed off a particular faction, they aren't going to be offering you work. Also, most of these companies are trying to screw one another over constantly, so completing missions will put you in some of these factions good graces while steadily increasing the ire of others.

It's also possible to recruit new members for your team at the bar. These are actual individuals that are being hired, though, and not a class of character that can be recruited again and again. For example, once you hire Bob the Force Psycher, he's your Force Psycher. You've made a commitment to this guy. It doesn't appear to be possible to have multiples of a particular class in a party. Given that each class has talent trees with three branches this also means that one can't have two of one class in their group with each character accentuating a different branch of the tree, which is a bit unfortunate.

The classes themselves are pretty neat. More or less they follow typical RPG party rolls with tanks, damage dealers, support, and the like. However, there doesn't appear to be a bonafied healer. Protecting characters is performed more through covering them in shields and other buffs or just getting a soldier to tank harder, rather than belting out some sort of curative ability from time to time in order to replenish an injured party member's health. There are health packs one can carry around with them and use as needed, though, should traditional healing become necessary.

So far, there are eight different characters available. Players can recruit all of them eventually, but they must choose four to go on any given mission while the rest stay behind on the space station. Since the different recruits have three different branches to their talent trees, they can serve a variety of roles. Depending on one's disposition, some pretty adventurous builds can be had, but they also have some fairly traditional progress paths as well. For instance, once I saw that soldiers have a lot of tanky options to them, I chose to accentuate that rather than fiddle around with heavier damage options. Similarly, cyber ninjas can be very good at dishing out damage, so that's what I've been focusing on with that class.

The roles that have caught my attention the most are ones with support capabilities and the caster classes. For the former, engineers and hackers have struck me as the most interesting. Engineers use spare parts like a resource (think mana) which they use to issue orders to their pet robot. Her talent tree is divided such that different types of robots will be made depending on which branch players spend points in. This can lead to a tank-oriented robot, a damage dealing robot, or a support robot. The nice thing about this is that as a result players can add more units to their party in the form of their robot while out in the field. Hackers, on the other hand, are very much a support class. Most of their abilities in battle are either damage over time attacks, crowd control / debuff skills, or applying various buffs to the party. These characters don't hit very hard, but over the long haul can be very helpful in a fight. As their name suggests, they can also be quite useful when hacking into various terminals and trying to disengage various security systems.

Looking at the casters, these are divided into two types: Force Psychers and Void Psychers. The former has powerful attack abilities and can shield party members. However, they have a very finite amount of force points available to them so battles need to end quickly or their usefulness begins to trail off quickly once they run out of force. Void Psychers are known for being slightly insane and have an enrage mechanic to play off of. Most of the abilities they use build up a void meter that counts to 100. Once it gets over 50, this character becomes increasingly unstable and there's a risk that they'll lose control, releasing a massive explosion of void energy that inflicts damages on all enemies and all allies alike. However, they also have abilities that consume this energy, bringing the meter back down. With that, players need to manage it, letting it go up and risk losing control so to unleash these abilities. It's a particularly dangerous situation because many of their best abilities require quite a lot of void energy to hit hard or even use in some cases. At the moment, I'd argue that Void Psychers feel a little bit overpowered. Once they get going, they absolutely demolish enemies, especially once they start getting to the strongest abilities in their talent trees. Even with the risk of running wild, as long as players are mindful not to get their meter all the way up to 100, the chances of this happening generally aren't that bad.

About the only major problem that I've run into while recruiting new members is that they come in at whatever level the rest of your party is at the time of the hire. So, if you recruit one and wait till later to get more (because these guys do cost a fair bit early on), once you recruit the rest and feel like using them as a B-Team the early recruits will be falling behind in levels. Worse still, random mission assignments match the average level of your group, so if you do have one or two characters that were recruited early, but kept on hold till later, they can become a liability on these missions since they're so far below the recommended level.

That being said, if the group is of a recommended level, the game does feel a little bit easy so far. My main team consists of a soldier, hacker, force psycher and void psycher, and these guys are demolishing everything that the game throws at them. About the only trouble they've run into are some of the more advanced security units that either hit really hard or constantly summon robots into a battle. Even then, the void psycher's miasma ability is a powerful area of effect damage over time ability that usually hits every enemy on-screen. Meanwhile, all of my party members have very good weapons and armor, so they can hit like a truck even when not using abilities. In fact, my hacker has a pair of blades at the moment that inflict a DoT of their own, plus her own DoTs, plus the miasma ability, so each turn enemies often take over 100 damage without my party even doing anything once all of those are up. With that, pretty much everything melts in front of this group. I've yet to come across a truly devastating foe in the game as a result, not even some type of boss, resulting in the game feeling like a bit of a pushover at the moment, even when doing missions of the hardest difficulty.

Loot in StarCrawlers has an easy to understand color coded system which has become prevalent in RPGs. Grey is common, green is somewhat rare, and blue is the rarest. As one would expect, the rarer the gear, the more powerful it is. There are only four slots on each character, so there isn't a huge amount of stuff to go around, just weapons, shields, armor, and accessories. Also, some attribute slots don't do anything at the moment since the game is still in development and just have the acronym NYI, which I assume stands for "Not Yet Implemented". By the looks of things, though, the developers do want loot to be a draw for the game as people hop into dungeons again and again in search of better gear.

If players are going to be replaying areas constantly, the levels and enemies better look good, and they do here. There are a decent mix of environments to explore, though it is recommended to read the description of a mission before hand to get an idea of where you'll be heading. Failing to do this could result in players going to corporate offices or mines constantly, and getting bored of seeing the same environments over and over. The levels themselves have a nice atmosphere to them with dim lights, various bits of furniture, computers, and equipment appropriate to their settings. They don't have a huge level of detail, but they get the job done. Enemies also look good, but their variety is a bit lacking at the moment. I've fought legions of the same types of robots, space mites, worm-thingies and the like without much deviation from this limited range of baddies. Hopefully we'll see more added by the time the game is complete because as it stands, things could get redundant if more enemies aren't added.

Given that the places players go to are procedurally generated, there's a bunch of variety in that regard. A lot of art assets are obviously the same, but going around the levels, watching out for traps, hacking into computer systems, and just generally exploring is good fun. There's a mini-map that plots everything out as you go, and it can be expanded to show everywhere the player has been, so it's easy enough to figure things out. Basically, it gives a nice, quick means for people who like first-person dungeon crawlers to get their fix and be on their way. I haven't come across a dungeon that's taken more than 30 minutes to complete yet, so it's a very in and out experience.

This is where the appeal will come while playing StarCrawlers: hopping in for a quick mission or two and hopefully getting some snazzy loot. It's quick and to the point with straightforward dungeon crawling and combat. My only real complaint right now is the potential for neglected characters to get left behind and have difficulty catching up level-wise unless players bring them one at a time on missions until they've gained some levels, which could get tedious in a hurry. As it stands, there aren't very many first person dungeon crawlers on the market, and certainly not any with a science fiction theme. StarCrawlers could be the game to fill that void.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

The History of the Wild Arms Series

Wild Arms Characters

When the original PlayStation came out, it was an exciting time. People were belting out technical jargon about polygons and 3D graphics, getting ready to kiss 2D sprite graphics goodbye and embrace the future. One game on everyone's mind was Final Fantasy VII. It would be the latest installment in one of the biggest JRPG series out there.

But what does this have to do with anything? This article is supposed to be about Wild Arms, isn't it? That's the thing. People were becoming very eager for an RPG on the PlayStation. Obviously, Final Fantasy VII was at the top of their list of must have games, but in the meantime fans of the genre were hungry for something RPG related to fill the void as they waited for Squaresoft's title to come out. Given the amount of time that it takes for such a game to be developed, pickings were slim early in the PlayStation's life.

Folks were desperate for an RPG on their shiny, new Sony console, which would help to explain all those copies of Beyond the Beyond that were sold. More sensible people who actually took the time to read some reviews before buying games made the smart choice, though, and grabbed themselves a copy of Wild Arms. It was something a little bit different from a fairly new, unknown developer calling itself Media.Vision. The game wasn't fully 3D but gave players a glimpse of things to come as this new technology established itself. Moreover, the thing had an Old West theme to it. An RPG and cowboys in the same place? Now there's something you don't see everyday.

From there, what many viewed as a stopgap to pass the time until Final Fantasy VII came out became a well established series that would run for the next 10 years, with future installments making their way to the PlayStation 2 and PSP. In the end, Wild Arms would become one of the most popular, longest running Wild West themed series to appear in the world of video games.

Wild Arms 1 Box Art
WILD ARMS

As was mentioned above, early in the PlayStation's life there weren't very many RPGs available. They're a type of game that tends to take quite some time to develop given all of the content crammed into them. So, when a new system comes along its often the last genre to grace its library in large quantities. Sony was anticipating this and wanted to get an RPG onto the PS1 in a timely manner so that people could see what the company's very first console could do with the genre.

With that, they got a hold of Media.Vision who hadn't even made an RPG before. By this point, the studio only had two games under their belt, Crime Crackers and Rapid Reload, both of which were run-and-gun affairs. With Akifumi Kaneko and Takashi Fukushima heading the project, production got underway and by 1996 the game was shipped.

While the game was intended to give people an idea of what the PlayStation was capable of, it didn't go full bore with the 3D graphics. A lot of Wild Arms was still a 2D, sprite-based game. Walking around town, exploring dungeons, and wandering around on the world map were still done in the traditional overhead view that had been common to JRPGs since the 1980s. It was when battles broke out that things would change, with players being thrust into a 3D polygonal environment. The whole thing was very simple, as enemies and the player's party were far from detailed, but it was enough to whet people's appetite when it came to this new approach to graphics. If Wild Arms was capable of this, what would future games look like on the system?

Looking at how battles transpired, they were very traditional as far as JRPGs went. However, to help spice up the gameplay, Wild Arms included a number of puzzles for players to solve, which could sometimes be quite challenging and would become a regular feature of future games in the series.

Wild Arms 1 Battle
The game's story was straightforward enough. 1,000 years in the past the world of Filgaia was attacked by some sort of robotic civilization intent on making the planet their own. The humans of Filgaia managed to win the ensuing war, but were unable to completely destroy their leader who continuously regenerated. So, the only option was to seal her away, containing the threat. Of course, like any self-respecting RPG trope, that ancient evil isn't going to stay sealed up forever. It's either going to find a way to free itself or some of its minions are going to do the deed. In the case of Wild Arms, it's the latter. The only hope of stopping all of this is a 15-year-old boy named Rudy who happens to have something called an ARM, a weapon from the war 1,000 years earlier. As he stumbles into his destiny other join his group, and they set off to try and stop another war from happening.

Granted, it wasn't the most original premise for a story to ever appear in a JRPG, but many found it to be a fun ride. It was made all the better since Wild Arms had an Old West setting. It's something that doesn't happen a lot in video games. Even now, 20 years later, there just aren't a lot of games that embrace that aesthetic. This game was different and stood out from the crowd because of this. As a result, Wild Arms did pretty well for itself. It wasn't a runaway hit, but the game managed to become popular enough to warrant making a sequel. The game even got a remake a decade later on the PS2 with Wild Arms: Alter Code F.

Wild Arms 2 Box Art
WILD ARMS 2

A couple of years later, the game got a sequel, sometimes referred to as Wild Arms: 2nd Ignition. It wasn't a huge leap over the original, but it was a sign that Sony wanted Wild Arms to be more than a one-off.

Right from the get go, one could see the similarities between the two games. The story, while having different characters, followed a very similar premise as the original Wild Arms. Another evil from 1,000 years ago was threatening Filgaia. It was a totally different evil that required a totally different hero, but one couldn't help but wonder what was up with that world. It's like all of Filgaia had its heart set on becoming some cyclical JRPG trope. Players were greeted with a new cast of characters, not to mention a larger cast besides. It helped give the story a little more flavor, but a lot of folks felt like Wild Arms 2 was treading overly similar ground to its predecessor. What really hurt the story was its translation, as it was sub par at best. There were many instances where people playing the game had no idea what it was trying to reference or were stuck muddling their way through an awkward passage of text.

There were a variety of minor tweaks to the game. Exploring the world required a radar unit to find different areas, as the map would be blank initially. The radar would need to be used to alert the party of locations to visit and even then they'd need to be informed by others that these places exist so that they had some idea what to look for in the first place. It was an interesting departure from the legions of other RPGs with a world map smattered with icons representing towns, castles, caves, and the like, and added a sense of mystery as players ventured into the unforgiving frontiers of Filgaia.

Wild Arms 2 Gameplay
Next, the battle system got a major work over. Fights in the first Wild Arms were pretty straightforward as far as JRPG combat went. The sequel tried to bring some new ideas to the table. This was achieved by doing away with magic points. Instead, each character had something called a Force Power meter. As they gave and received damage this would fill, capping at 100 points. This would be used as a resource for accessing various abilities that required a predetermined amount of points to activate. It made players strategize how to manage this in order to be most effective in battle, as opposed to a traditional magic system whereby one simply dealt with a mana pool that declined as a character cast spells. Also, if someone didn't feel like getting into a fight it was possible to avoid many battles. This was a time when random encounters were still a thing, so games that gave players a means to skip them were always welcome.

From an aesthetic standpoint, Wild Arms 2 graphics made a much more pronounced shift toward 3D. Environments were now in 3D, though characters remained 2D, and battles were 3D just like the first game, though they looked a lot better. Really, the game was a graphical improvement over everything one saw in the first Wild Arms game.

Unfortunately, the game didn't review very well in the West. Outside of dedicated RPG outlets, a lot of the more mainstream magazines and websites didn't seem too interested in Wild Arms 2, meanwhile Japan gave the game a much warmer reception. One has to wonder if Wild Arms 2 was largely overlooked when you consider all of the other high profile games that came out around that time. There were a lot of big name JRPGs that came in the summer of 2000 with games like Chrono Cross, Legend of Mana, Vagrant Story, Legend of Dragoon and Valkyrie Profile all hitting North America in rapid succession. When one considers that Wild Arms 2 released in this maelstrom of top tier games that would go on to become classics, it's easy to see that the game had its work cut out for it.

Wild Arms 3 PS2 Box Art
WILD ARMS 3

By the time Wild Arms 3 came along, we were on to the age of the PlayStation 2, a system that became a bottomless pit of top quality JRPGs. Eager to keep up with the competition, Media.Vision made a number of improvements for this game.

Obviously, the visuals were a lot better, not just from a technical standpoint, since new hardware was in play, but also in terms of artistic choices. Cel shading was becoming increasingly popular during this period for its ability to make characters and environments look more cartoon-like while still retaining a 3D polygonal sensibility. Games like Jet Set Radio, Sly Cooper, Dark Cloud 2, and a slew of others were helping to popularize the art style, and Wild Arms 3 would be one more game to take advantage of such an aesthetic. On the whole, it worked out well. Characters and enemies looked good and it helped to better define the game visually, becoming a hallmark of the series as its developers improved upon the art style with each new game.

Also benefiting from an overhaul was the battle system. From the very late 90s, one could see that JRPGs were making more of an effort to move away from the static battles that were so common to the genre. More games were trying things like having characters and enemies move around the battlefield, rather than just standing still. It made the whole thing feel a lot more dynamic than simply looking at some portraits of your party and the enemy while selecting actions from a menu. Instead combatants kept swirling around for a more advantageous position to land their attacks. With this game, we saw Wild Arms start to tap into such an approach to battles as well, as players watched their characters move around the screen while enemies did likewise when combat broke out. It wasn't hugely meaningful how everyone scrambled about, leaving some to consider the whole thing a bit of a gimmick since all of this movement didn't serve an actual purpose, but some enjoyed it for at least attempting something different.

Wild Arms 3 Gameplay
As new and fangled as the visuals and battle system may have been, the story retreads themes of previous games, and the genre in general. It focuses of a quartet of drifters, basically treasure hunters, who explore Filgaia in search of relics and adventure. Once more, it turns out that in the distant past a conflict between humans and a great evil erupted, and now, centuries later, it looks like trouble may be brewing once more. While this is certainly becoming a very well tread narrative for the series, it's increasingly obvious that the journey is what makes these games work. Getting to know the characters and following their adventures towards a final encounter with Wild Arms 3's big bad is what makes the story enjoyable. Interestingly, the game included a degree of dialogue branching when talking to people. It was a noticeable departure from the typical JRPG where players tended to feel like a spectator watching the conversation unfold, instead having more input in the direction it would take, though this didn't have any major impact on the story as a whole.

Thankfully, this game received a much better localization than its predecessor. In Wild Arms 3, everything made sense, and there were no weird situations where players were left scratching their heads trying to figure out just what happened. The game also had an interesting feature when loading up a saved game where one would be treated to a little anime sequence bringing things up to speed on what's been happening in the game so far, and it changed as they hit different progress points while playing. It was a nice touch for getting people back into things when returning to the game.

On the whole, the game was very well received, and considered by some to be a high point in the series. At the time, it was certainly viewed by many as the series getting back on track after Wild Arms 2. If nothing else, it got fans of JRPGs excited for more games in the series to be developed for the PlayStation 2.

Wild Arms 4 Box Art
WILD ARMS 4

A few years later, those people's wishes would be granted with Wild Arms 4 releasing on the PS2 in 2006. As a neat bit of trivia, this marks the first game in the series that wasn't published in the West by Sony Computer Entertainment America. Instead, XSEED handled the game's Western release. In fact, this was the first game that the company actually put out after their inception.

With this installment things felt quite different than previous games. In some ways it almost seemed like Wild Arms 4 was trying to become some sort of action platformer. When wandering around the various areas, there was a fast, fluid sense to everything as players guided their party down corridors, interacted with the environment, and solved puzzles. Like so many other games, the party was represented by one character on this map, which gave the game this platformer-like feel as they ran, jumped, and bonked things around them.

Meanwhile, Media.Vision spent some time fleshing out the combat system for this game. While characters and enemies were able to run around the battlefield in the previous game, it almost looked like chickens running around with their heads cut off. In Wild Arms, 4 we saw a hexagonal grid superimposed on the field with everyone having the the ability to move to difference grids and because of this positioning was something that mattered more, especially when one wanted to use magic. It wasn't all that elaborate, and certainly not on par with what one can find in strategy RPGs, but it added a greater layer of depth to combat instead of just being something for show like what we saw in Wild Arms 3.

One thing that almost came as a pleasant surprise with this game was that it took a step back from the very cliched story premises that had been so prevalent in the series up to this point. At it's heart, this was a coming of age story for Wild Arms 4's cast of characters. They were all in their teens and spent a lot more time learning about what it meant to become an adult while fending off a group calling itself the Congressional Knights who were rather intent of kidnapping one of the main party members, Yulie. Sadly, with all these young'uns running around, many felt that the story got a tad whiny as the game railed against adults and how they ran the world. So in some ways, despite ditching the "ancient evil threatening the world" shtick of the last three games, the story here was viewed as a bit of a missed opportunity.

Moreover, this game was probably the least Wild West themed entry among the Wild Arms games. So, to some degree, one of the things that helped set these games apart from so many others in the genre was slowly being stripped away in favor of a more traditional fantasy / sci-fi setting.

Unfortunately, this installment in the series didn't see much input from composer Michiko Naruke. She had taken ill during its production, so only contributed about a quarter of the songs found in the game. However, Masato Kouda, who had previously contributed to many Capcom soundtracks, and Ryuta Suzuki came along to fill the void. The end result was still quite good, but one could hear a slight difference in the general feel of the music.

Ultimately, most people seem to have enjoyed Wild Arms 4. It reviewed reasonably well and fans have fond memories of it with many citing the battle system as a real high point of the game. Thankfully, after this one players wouldn't have to wait another three years for a sequel. In fact, the next game would be just around the corner.

Wild Arms 5 Box Art
WILD ARMS 5

In the summer of 2007, what would turn out to be the final installment in the mainline series was released for the PlayStation 2 with Wild Arms 5. Compared to how long it took for part four to come out, this was a very quick turn around. Considering how similar 4 and 5 are, this probably shouldn't have come as a surprise.

Instead of continuing with the steady process of evolving the series with tweaks to the battle system, dungeons, graphics, and the like, which was a common thread throughout Wild Arms' history, Wild Arms 5 took a lot of what the previous game did and improved upon it. As a result, it was a game much more about polish than bombarding players with a cavalcade of new systems that they had to acquaint themselves with.

Dungeons once again had a more platformer-inspired approach to them with players running around, jumping off of things, and solving puzzles. Traditional tools present in previous games were absent, however, but to make up for this Dean, the main character, could use his ARMs to interact with his surroundings.

Wild Arms 5 Gameplay
Meanwhile, battles saw the return of a grid system that emphasized positioning in order to do well, although greater effort was made to provide a variety of layouts to the hex grid this go around. On top of this, a combo system was implemented whereby characters could work together to really pummel an enemy. The ability to move and attack in the same turn was also added, something absent from Wild Arms 4 that turned into a point of consternation for many.

Just like pretty much every other game in the series, Wild Arms 5's story wasn't going to turn a lot of heads. Players followed the adventures of a young man named Dean who was an amateur archaeologist searching ruins in hopes of learning more about golems, giant mechanical beings from ancient times. While doing this one day he has a run-in with a girl named Avril who has amnesia. This leads Dean and his friends going on an adventure to help her remember her past and figure out who this Johnny Appleseed she keeps going on about  is.

With all of the improvements over part four many were quite pleased with what they found in this game. With all of the polish to various gameplay elements and a reasonably entertaining story, things were looking good for Wild Arms 5. Unfortunately, this was the beginning of the end for the series, as no further sequels would be made.

Wild Arms XF Box Art
WILD ARMS XF

In 2008, one final Wild Arms game was released for the PSP. It was meant as a spin off, going for a tactical strategy RPG approach rather than being a full on JRPG like the previous games in the series. Given the use of a basic hexagonal grid battle system in Wild Arms 4 and 5, perhaps this was the next logical step for these games, embracing a much more elaborate approach to such combat as the series rubbed shoulders with the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, and the like.

Once more the game takes place in the world of Filgaia and once more it's a desolate wasteland that was once lush and green in the far off distant past. Players take on the role of a young woman named Clarissa Arwin and her half-brother Felius as they pursue Robert Dandridge for the murder of their mother. As this unfolds, it becomes obvious that the world is facing its own threats, especially the once tranquil Kingdom of Elesius, and before long the pair are swept away in a web of political intrigue.

As stated earlier, this was a strategy RPG, and thus something quite different from the other Wild Arms games. Players had a maximum of six characters in their squad at a time for fighting enemies with, but could have many more in reserve for later. These included main characters that were integral to the story as well as hired mercenaries. Outside of combat it was possible to change anyone's class (except one character who was a dog), so we saw something more akin to Final Fantasy's job system here. More importantly, as these different classes got stronger it became possible to learn more and more skills pertaining to it. Once a skill was permanently learned, things got particularly interesting because characters could still have it equipped even when switching to a different class, which resulted in the possibility for a lot of customized hybrid characters.

All of that being said, Wild Arms XF gained a reputation for being quite challenging. Opportunities to gain experience points were sparse, so it wasn't really a viable option to grind out levels to overcome tough fights. Players would have to put on their thinking caps if they wanted to get past these obstacles. As a result, some were turned off by the game, abandoning it after only a few hours. Those who stuck with it found the game to be an interesting take on tactical RPGs, and a unique addition to the franchise, resulting in the game largely being looked at as an intriguing curiosity in the Wild Arms series.

MANGA AND ANIME

Wild Arms Manga and Anime

From time to time if a video game becomes popular enough in Japan it winds up getting an anime or manga spin off. In the case of Wild Arms, it got both. These things can be risky, as the quality of such products can be all over the place ranging from being an absolutely terrible cash grab capitalizing on the popularity of a game to a show or comic that turns out to be quite good.

The anime of Wild Arms wound up being somewhere in the middle, turning out reasonably entertaining, but certainly nothing great. Titled Wild Arms: Twilight Venom and originally airing in late 1999, the game loosely took place around the same time as Wild Arms 2. There are even vague references to some of the characters from that game in the show. Revisiting Twilight Venom now, it is very obviously a product from a bygone era in anime. The art, music, and structure of the story screams of the 90s, which some people today, more used to modern anime may not be keen on. Moreover, the series suffered from quite a few filler episodes which hurt the show's overall pacing.

On the other hand, the two separate manga series based on Wild Arms are considered to be pretty good. First there was Wild Arms Hana Nusubito, translated as Wild Arms: Flower Thieves, released in 2001. It was unusual in that the story took place on Earth rather than Filgaia. The terrain and general theme were the same as ever, with the planet being a desolate wasteland after a battle between humans and demons 1,000 years earlier, but it was unexpected that our own planet would be dragged into things instead of just having it take place on Filgaia as Wild Arms always had up to this point.

Several years later, coinciding with the release of Wild Arms XF, a manga based on the game also came out. It focused on Clarissa and Felius, giving readers a little more insight into the characters, and made for a nice companion to go alongside the game.

LEGACY

It has now been almost a decade since a new Wild Arms game has been made. Media.Vision has moved on to other things, having created the Chaos Ring series of RPGs for mobile, last year's very well-received Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth, and just recently announcing their next project, Valkyria: Azure Resolution. By the looks of things, Wild Arms just isn't on the books for them. There was a bit of speculation back in 2014 that a new game might happen, but since then things have been quiet. 2016 does mark the 20th anniversary of the series, however. Wild Arms' creator, Akifumi Kaneko, as well as the games' composer Michiko Naruke have been in meetings with people at Sony to do something for it, but as of now we don't know what this might entail. Kaneko has told people not to get their hopes too high, but if something could help rekindle people's interest in the series, that would be most welcome.

As it stands, not a lot of games get released that have an Old West setting when compared to all of the fantasy and science fiction offerings that there are to choose from. Wild Arms marks a very rare case where not just one game embraced it and managed to become popular, but an entire series. In the end, that is definitely something to be commended.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

A Look Back at Gaiapolis

Elaine in a castle
There was a time when Konami pumped out a lot of really great beat 'em ups. Hell, there was a time when Konami pumped out a lot of really great games, but that's a story for another day. Right now, we're here to set our gaze back to 1993 when the company released Gaiapolis. It's not exactly one of their most well-remembered games, which is a shame, but it was a good romp and a beat 'em up that tried to do things a little bit differently.

Right from the get go one can see that the game was trying to break away from beat 'em up convention. The perspective of everything happening on screen is from a much more overhead view rather than seeing everything from the side. It works quite well and allows for a lot more freedom of movement than other games in the genre. Instead of being on that constant march from the left side of the screen to the right, players would guide their character left, right, up, and down.

Granted, quite a lot of time was spent going from the bottom of the screen to the top. However, going in these other directions made the levels feel larger and more natural when compared to the much more simple, linear experience one would get when traversing the stages of most other beat 'em ups.

Also, the game was a looker. Around this time, Konami was making some very pretty games, particularly for the arcade. Their sprite work could be quite detailed and they were using rather bright colors in many of their games. The result were games whose visuals really popped off the screen and caught the attention of those passing by, enticing them to drop a quarter or two into the game and give it a go. Gaiapolis was one such example of this thanks to the high fantasy settings and anime-inspired character designs.

Another thing that the game did to set itself apart from its competitors was to implement some basic RPG elements. Characters would gain experience whenever they defeated an enemy, leveling up once they had gained enough, as well as occasionally coming across a new weapon that they could use that would make them stronger. Also, there was a surprisingly fleshed out story, especially for this being an arcade game. After each stage, there would be a simple cut scene with some portraits and dialogue text as the characters discussed their situation and what to do next. It wasn't much, and Gaiapolis certainly wasn't the only example of this happening in arcade beat 'em ups as Capcom was experimenting with similar ideas in games like The King of Dragons, but adding these aspects to the game resulted in a greater sense of progression than what one might have found in other comparatively simple games of the genre.
Gerard versus a robot
The story itself is simple enough. The Kingdom of Avalon has been destroyed by the Zar Harc Empire, and now Prince Gerard Himerce wants to take revenge for what happened to his kingdom. If players aren't all that keen on vengeful princes, they have two other characters that they can choose to play as. First there's Elaine, a half-human and half-fairy who looks an awful lot like Nei from the Phantasy Star games. Alternately, one can go with the dragon warrior Galahad if they prefer. They all handle a little bit differently, but not by a huge amount.

It's interesting to note that this also made the game fairly long as far as what one would usually find in an arcade. Gaiapolis clocked in at over 60 minutes to complete, and probably closer to an hour and a half for most people. By arcade game standards this is an eternity. Most of these things would take 30 minutes tops someone to beat, and, really, taking longer than that could feel like one was becoming pressed for time, or at least instilled a slight fear of missing the bus or appointment. Gaiapolis was pretty darn massive by comparison. In order to address this, Konami included a password system whereby players could jot the thing down and pick up from where they left off at another time. Granted, password systems can be pretty obnoxious as anyone old enough to remember those things can attest to, but it was a huge help in getting through this game without being stuck in the arcade for hours on end.

Of course, the big question with a game like this is, "How's the beating things up part?" To which one would have to answer, "About what one might expect." It's not the most exciting response that could be given, but it is accurate. Trudging through any given level, players smash their way through wave after wave of Zar Harc cannon fodder, which aren't all that difficult if one makes even the slightest effort to avoid being swarmed. These guys largely feel like an opportunity to get some experience points and hopefully level up, giving players a greater sense of accomplishment, rather than any kind of serious opposition.

On the other hand, the bosses themselves are where players will really feel like they've done something important. These enemies were quite large and usually had a decent amount of mechanics. One would have to make a point of learning their patterns of attack and adjusting accordingly. For their time, these were some pretty neat fights.

NES version of Gaiapolis
The NES version of the game in all
of its 8-bit glory.
Helping to keep combat in general a little more interesting were helper pets that could be found in treasure chests from time to time. These would be creatures like an armadillo, a baby dragon, or a little rodent in armor with a war hammer. They didn't look like much but could be quite helpful in fights.

Unfortunately, Gaiapolis never received an official home port. Konami was very hit and miss in terms of which arcade games they gave ports to, generally leaning toward the miss side of things. Unexpectedly, though, a team of Taiwanese pirates (the coding kind, not the swashbuckling Yee-har-ar type) took it upon themselves to make a bootleg version of the game for the NES. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but here we are. The game isn't completely horrible, which is nice, and it does make for a quaint novelty, but one can't help but wonder why they didn't opt for the SNES at least if they were going to put themselves through all that work anyway. Other than that, the game has largely faded into the mists of time outside of Elaine inexplicably becoming an unlockable character in Konami's equally obscure Battle Tryst.

So, there we have it, Gaiapolis. One more of Konami's classics that far too many people are either forgetting about or never knew existed in the first place. The game is well worth trying out for anyone curious. It's an enjoyable enough beat 'em up and a reminder of when Konami was still one of the dominant forces in the arcade.

Monday, 21 March 2016

The History of the Elder Scrolls Series

Elder Scrolls symbol

Today the Elder Scrolls is one of the most popular role-playing game series on the market. Beginning over 20 years ago, it has so far spanned five main line games, a slew of spinoffs, and an MMORPG. The games have helped to popularize large, open worlds, and has become something that many other developers strive for when creating their own games to take place in sprawling landscapes.

This article will be taking a look back at the series from its early days in the mid 90s right up to the end of 2015.

Elder Scrolls Arena box art
ARENA

Everything began when Bethesda released The Elder Scrolls: Arena in 1994. At first, it wasn’t the intention of the developers to even make an RPG. Their original plan was to create a game where a band of gladiators traveled from one town to the next fighting other gladiators in hopes of eventually becoming champions of the world in this rather bloody competition, hence how the name Arena came about. However, that was eventually scrapped in favor of making a first-person perspective action RPG, bringing us the game we know today, whereby pretty much everything but the name got the boot.

It was a very ambitious project. A big priority for the team was to create a large, open world that players could explore at their leisure doing quests and slaying monsters along the way. There were a few other games that attempted to present fairly expansive worlds to wander before this. For example, Might and Magic: World of Xeen was considered colossal by most people’s standards back then.

The folks at Bethesda wanted something much, much grander, though. Whether or not they’d be able to pull it off was a big question at the time. The people at Sir-Tech, who were working on Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant at the time, actually laughed at them when they found out what the team was planning with Arena. Ultimately, they did succeed, giving players the largest game world that they had ever seen.

In Arena, players were able to explore the entirety of Tamriel, as opposed to subsequent games in the series that focused on a particular province within the Empire. It was actually necessary to use fast travel in order to travel from town to town since the world was so big. The wilderness outside of any given city was created via algorithms and went on for miles and miles. While there was adventure to be had in those places, getting to the next major settlement wasn’t an option there. Players would need to hop on a horse instead.

The story was simple enough. Emperor Uriel Septim VII was banished to an alternate dimension by the battlemage Jagar Tharn who had his eye on taking over the Empire. However, his apprentice, Ria Silmane, caught wind of this and tried to go to the Elder Council to warn them of what was happening. Unfortunately for her, Jagar knew what she was trying to do and had her killed. From here, the player has several encounters with Ria’s spirit as she tries to guide them through finding all of the pieces of a shattered artifact that, once reassembled, can be used to open a portal to the alternate dimension and rescue the Emperor.

Elder Scrolls Arena image
The whole time, the game was far from linear. There was no rush to go and save Uriel, and there was a great big world waiting to be explored, so what was the hurry? On top of this, there was a slew of side quests to go on. As a result, players could wander Tamriel at their leisure, soaking in the sights and sounds, helping the locals along the way without feeling rushed to go rescue the Emperor. Even many of the NPCs were created through algorithms. While many of them said the same thing, it did make the world feel much more populated, enticing players to wander around and talk to people all the more.

While Tamriel’s great outdoors tended to be procedurally generated, the dungeons of the game were handmade. Exploring these, players could see the attention to detail. These would often times be quite large and very complex, reflecting the far more elaborate dungeon designs that were the norm in games of this period.

The game even had an early sort of day / night cycle. As time passed, the sun would go down, shops in towns would close for the night, and the streets would become a dangerous place with the town folk at home safe in their beds and monsters now lurking the thoroughfares.

As exciting as all of this was, Arena did gain a reputation for being hard on newcomers. Right from the start, players were dumped in a dungeon with hardly anything in the way of equipment. They had to wander it looking for some basic loot that they could arm themselves with and make a beeline for the exit, all the while fighting rats and goblins, and sometimes more powerful enemies if they lingered too long in the labyrinth. For people new to the game, it could sometimes be a brutal system as they would get pummeled again and again, being forced to load old saves, hoping against hope that at some point they’d be able to escape that terrible place.

Elder Scrolls Arena image 2
Over time, though, the game would become much more manageable. Once players finally got a hold of some decent gear and developed a better understanding of the game, their journey started to feel a little bit easier as some of the daunting difficulties from earlier melted away.

It didn’t take much time with Arena to see what its influences were. Pen and Paper RPGs as well as computer role-playing games such as Ultima Underworld and Legends of Valor were quite visible in Arena. These were other examples of players going into some sort of game world and having the freedom to more or less do as they pleased, or in the very least not be on the rails so much, forced to follow a very set path carved out by some designers. Bethesda tried to take the relative freedom and immersive first person perspective of these games and enhance it as players ventured throughout Tamriel.

All of this being said, Arena got off to a rocky start. Originally, the game was planned for a Christmas 1993 release but got delayed by several months. When it finally did come out, the thing had quite a few bugs still. As a result, critics were not all that impressed with what they saw. Making matters worse, only about 3,000 copies shipped in the original release. Things were not looking good for the game. Luckily, Arena got a lot of positive word of mouth, allowing it to slowly develop a cult following as the months wore on. In the end, the game managed to do quite well for itself. No one had seen such a huge, living world before in a video game, and what Bethesda did with this game started pushing people to think about RPGs a little differently and wonder about the possibilities if designers continued in this direction.

DAGGERFALL

Elder Scrolls Daggerfall box art
A couple of years later, the team put out their second Elder Scrolls game, Daggerfall. Continuing what they had started in Arena, this was another very large game with a huge number of places for players to explore. However, this go around the adventure would center on the province of  Daggerfall, even though when the game was in its very early stages of development the team was looking at having it take place in Morrowind instead.

Looking to build upon what they did in Arena, Bethesda added a slew of new features for Daggerfall. Magic was highly customizable with players able to create their own spells. Players could buy their own house. It was possible to become a vampire, wereboar, or werewolf. A dynamic political system was also implemented, a favorite with players. This brought about a sort of faction system whereby how players dealt with and helped one group could have an impact on how other groups would react when encountered. We also saw a change to how characters leveled as the game did away with traditional systems of purely accumulating experience and then spending points on abilities upon leveling up, and instead characters’ abilities grew stronger depending on whether or not players actually used them.

In this game, players had been sent to Daggerfall by the Emperor for a couple of reasons. First, they had to free the ghost of the dead King Lysandus, whose spirit had been shackled to this realm. Second, one had to figure out what happened to a letter sent by the Emperor to Blades spy in the region. As the story unfolded, players would see many of the inner workings of the Empire and begin to understand why the letter was so important. Depending on how one tackled the main quest, the game had six different endings, adding quite a bit of replay value.  Of course, there were plenty of side quests too, so players could wander off doing their own thing in this world for quite some time while barely touching the main quest if they were so inclined.

With all of these different places to go and all of these different things to do, a lot of work had to go into making Daggerfall a reality. The result was a grueling development cycle. For example, only three of about 20 artists to contribute to the game managed to survive through the whole of the game’s creation while the rest tossed in their towels and went elsewhere.

Nonetheless, the game released on schedule in August of 1996.  Again, the game was criticized for an abundance of bugs in it, but this time it was much easier for developers to address the problems via patches. That being said, this did give the team pause and got them thinking more about their development schedules and what they could do to prevent such buggy releases in the future. Despite the less than perfect release, the game once again was embraced by its players and word of mouth ensured that would be a success.

BATTLESPIRE

Elder Scrolls Battlespire box art
In 1997, Bethesda began to take a break from the mainline Elder Scrolls games and experiment a bit with a couple of spin-offs. The first of these was Battlespire, a game released under the “Elder Scrolls Adventures” banner. Originally planned as an expansion for Daggerfall, it eventually became its own standalone game.

Taking place in the Battlespire, an academy of the Empire for training battle mages to join the imperial legion, players took on the role of an apprentice who was supposed to be on their final day of training. However, it was discovered that the place had been invaded by the Daedra Mehrunes Dagon and his army. Players had to travel through the realm of Oblivion in order to fight these legions of baddies and put a stop to the daedra’s plans while also rescuing their partner who had been captured.

Compared to Arena and Daggerfall, this was a much simpler game. There were only six races to choose from: Dark Elf, Wood Elf, High Elf, Norn, Breton, and Redguard. There was no rest feature, and shops and gold were removed, necessitating players acquire items from fallen enemies and the like, also enemies didn’t respawn, nor were they randomized.

Interestingly, the game included an online multiplayer mode. Here players could either tackle the single player story in a coop environment, or go head-to-head in a two-player versus mode.

Unfortunately, the game didn’t go over well with either fans or critics, as both felt that the it lacked in scope and simply didn’t impress like Elder Scrolls I&II did.

REDGUARD

Elder Scrolls Redguard box art
A year later, the studio went in a slightly different direction with 1998’s Redguard. This game was an action-adventure much more similar to the likes of Tomb Raider than the RPGs that had comprised the series up to this point, and was again released under the “Elder Scrolls Adventure” label.

Taking place 400 years after Arena, players followed the story of Cyrus, a Redguard who had come to the island of Stros M’Kai in search of his missing sister. The game remained non-linear like its predecessors but it was also a lot more contained with it taking place on such a small landmass.

One can actually see the beginnings of a change in design philosophy with this game that would continue with future installments of the Elder Scrolls. Up to this point, creating large amounts of the game world through algorithms had been heavily used in the series, but in a 1998 interview with series producer Todd Howard, he discussed how those games were really big, but sometimes this lead to a certain amount of samey-ness depending on what the algorithm spat out. With Redguard, he chose to create the world by hand as an attempt to move away from this. Hence the game taking place on the tiny island that it did, and the relatively small number of NPCs to interact with, as the game tried to go for a less is more approach.

Elder Scrolls Redguard future games hint
If you look carefully, you can see the foreshadowing of future Elder Scrolls games in Redguard's opening.
There was actually plans for a sequel to Redguard at one point revolving around the Eye of Argonia, but that never came to light. However, more observant players will notice a little bit of foreshadowing for the series in the game’s opening cinematic where one can see a bookshelf where tomes named The Elder Scrolls: Arena, The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are sitting. Given the actual path that the main series took in the years to come, one can see that the team had been planning this stuff out well in advance.

MORROWIND

Elder Scrolls Morrowind box art
In the wake of Battlespire and Redguard, things weren’t looking good at Bethesda. Neither game managed to sell very well and the studio was facing serious financial difficulty. Being brought into Zenimax in 1999 provided the company a stay of execution, but their next game would have to be a bonafide hit if they were to survive. With that, the studio got to work on Morrowind. So dire was the situation that there were only six people working on the game initially. In a sense, Bethesda was facing a Final Fantasy moment where their next project would either make or break the company.

With that, Morrowind turned into a game where the development team took a lot more risks in what they implemented. They took an almost nihilistic mindset heading into the project, tossing all sorts of ideas at it figuring, “What’s the worst that can happen? We lose our jobs?” It was a rather extreme attitude to take, but it worked. To this day, Morrowind is one of the most unique entries in the Elder Scrolls series.

Right from a very early point in the game, players are greeted by a strange event. After creating their character, wandering around the starting village, and picking up some supplies, one will usually head into the world to see what’s out there. Assuming they took the main road, they’ll have barely walked a few steps out of the village when suddenly a wizard comes falling out of the sky right in front of them, slamming into the ground, dying instantly. This leaves players wondering what the hell just happened. You just don’t see wizards raining from the sky in RPGs, or any other genre for that matter. As players wander further and spend more time getting to know Morrowind, it becomes clear that the event is like a message from the game’s developers telling them to expect the unexpected and that this run-in with the wizard is just the tip of the iceberg for what's in store from the game.

The province of Morrowind was always regarded as a strange, exotic place by the other regions of Tamriel. From the wildlife, to the flora, to the architecture, there were countless signs that this was a very different land.  Walking around the edge of town and seeing a silt strider for the first time, seeing all of the peculiar dome-shaped houses, trying to strike up conversations with the secretive, standoff-ish dark elves, the whole flavour of the game felt very different from the vast majority of other RPGs being released at the time where more often than not a European fantasy motif was employed.

Elder Scrolls Morrowind image 1
All the while, the game looked quite pretty for the time. While today, some may feel that Morrowind hasn’t aged very well when run without mods, when it first came out people marveled at what was happening on-screen. The environments were filled with details, there was real-time weather effects, something you just didn’t see in 2001, when the game first came out, and glass armor was much sought after so people could just stop and oggle it in all of its green, shiny glory. About the only question players had about the visuals was, “How could such a pretty game have such an ugly citizenry?” Because character models’ faces were far from elegant back then.

Character progression built upon what was done in Daggerfall whereby skills were increased through practice, study, and training, resulting in countless players endlessly jumping down the road in order to level acrobatics, because why not? Frustratingly for some, however, dice rolls played a part in determining whether an attack would land as well, so no matter how much one trained axes, for example, if the dice weren’t cooperating, it didn’t really matter.

Adopting a similar philosophy to what they did in Redguard, the developers went for a smaller, handmade world. This was the first mainline entry in the series to do away with algorithmically created areas. Instead, the team sat down and made everything themselves. The world was still very large compared to anything else out there, but everything felt more fleshed out and like it had purpose since it was actually created by a human.

The plot of the game centers around a prophecy in Morrowind that says one day the reincarnation of Indoril Nerevar, known as “The Nerevarine”, would one day return to the land in order to defeat Dagoth Ur and his followers. Players first arrive in the province as a convicted criminal largely forced to work for the emperor and investigate this prophecy. Compared to Arena and Daggerfall, Morrowind’s story felt more fleshed out, but there were also far more side quests. The game was designed more to try and intertwine these such that players really interacted with the world and got a better sense of all the layers of intrigue and political battles going on behind the scenes among the various factions and noble houses of the province.

Factions played a very important role in the game, as there were several pitted against one another in Morrowind and because the player was an outsider, it became all the more important to win them over. Everyone refers to you as “Outlander”. You’re constantly reminded that you’re not of this part of the world, and you’re going to have to work very hard to gain the dark elves’ trust. As the player interacts with the various groups at play, it becomes apparent that Morrowind is a very complicated place.

Elder Scrolls Morrowind image 2
This was the first Elder Scrolls game to get a console release, coming out for the original Xbox, and marks the series first steps toward garnering greater mainstream success, being its first multi-million seller. The game was also extremely well-received by critics, garnering very high review scores. The size of the world and the attention to detail in creating it were highly praised in reviews, and held up by fans as some of the best aspects of Morrowind.

It did so well that Morrowind got two expansions: Tribunal and Bloodmoon. Tribunal was the first of these. It took place in the walled city of Mournhold, completely cut off from the main game’s world, requiring players to be teleported to it. The expansion continued the story of the Tribunal deities as well as including some minor improvements to the game proper, such as tweaks to the journal system. Bloodmoon came next and reintroduced lycanthropy into the game, with players eagerly running off to become werewolves. It was also a larger expansion than Tribunal with quite a few more quests and adding more land to the main game with a large, tundra region to the north.

Morrowind was also the first game in the series to have its music handled by Jeremy Soule, still an up and coming composer at the time, having garnered quite a bit of attention for his work on Total Annihilation and the Icewind Dale series a short time earlier. He would stay on for future installments in the series, thus making its soundtrack one more thing that the Elder Scrolls series became known for.

Finally, the inclusion of the Morrowind Construction Set resulted in the game being heavily supported by modders, a feature that would become vital to the series going forward. With this we saw reams of user created content for the game. Whether it was armor, audio tweaks, new buildings, or entire quest lines, there was no lack of new features to come about from this editor. To this day, people still make stuff for the game, with a massive overhaul to the game’s visuals being one of the more notable additions in recent year.

THE NGAGE GAMES

Elder Scrolls NGage game
In 2003 and 2004 we saw the Elder Scrolls take an unexpected turn with a trio of titles being released on the N-Gage, Nokia’s “totally side-talking” hybrid of a cell phone and handheld game console that came and went years before mobile gaming became the juggernaut that it is today.

These all came out under the moniker “The Elder Scrolls Travels” and were called Stormhold, Dawnstar, and Shadowkey, respectively. None of these games were developed internally, instead being handled by Vir2L Studios. The games allowed up to four player cooperative play as they explored surprisingly large game worlds as far as portable games went.

Unfortunately, they were heavily criticized for their lack of draw distance as objects and enemies would only appear with short notice in many instances, and the games are largely forgotten today.

OBLIVION

Elder Scrolls Oblivion box art
2006 saw the return of the main series with Oblivion, though development started in 2002 directly after the release of Morrowind.

The story takes place after the events of Morrowind and has players trying to stop a fanatical cult calling itself the Mystic Dawn from opening the gates to the realm of Oblivion. Taking place in Cyrodiil, one can see the seat of imperial power first hand. Once more, the game is huge, with tons to explore as one tries to put a stop to the cult. Narrative was a much bigger focus during development, so there was quite a lot in the way of story in Oblivion. That being said, it was set in a much more traditional European fantasy world than what we saw in Morrowind and met with mixed opinions, where some people loved it and others didn’t much care for the aesthetic.

Bethesda also implemented their Radiant AI System for the first time with Oblivion in an attempt to make NPCs behave more realistically. Often times in games, these types of characters would have fairly fixed roles like guards maintaining the peace, merchants selling their wares, or would be characters who had very specific goals to complete or assign, like a quest giver. Even if they had a lot of conversation paths when talking to them, their overall behavior was still quite rigid as they adhered to the basic role that they had been assigned. Radiant AI was created to make NPCs grow beyond this, developing their own quirks that would make them more than just the guy you sold cheese wheels to or whatever.

The end result was modest with these characters making baby steps toward becoming their own people. As much as it was hyped up, Radiant AI didn’t make a huge difference in behavior but it was a start, and maybe for the best. Developers had stories of the system working a little bit too well during testing with one quest giver constantly getting killed because he was also a skooma dealer and the local addicts kept killing him so they could steal his supply and get their fix. As interesting of a scenario as it might have been, the developers felt it would be better to dial things back for Oblivion until they’d managed to get a better handle on this new AI system.

Elder Scrolls Oblivion image

Character development for Oblivion was somewhat simplified with it not being quite as in-depth as the previous game. This contributed to a debate that The Elder Scrolls was allegedly being “dumbed down” in order to appeal to a wider audience with things like fast travel and a dilution in the importance of factions and politics also included in this argument. As the months passed after release, there was a heated back and forth where some felt that the series was becoming too simple and should return to the more complex elements found in previous games, while others welcomed the changes viewing them as much needed quality of life improvements for the series.

Oblivion also courted controversy for being one of the first games to introduce paid DLC that got mainstream traction thanks to its horse armor. Many were incensed by this and worried that this would be the thin edge of the wedge for the business practice to get a foothold and become increasingly popular in the years to come.

Like its predecessor, the game received a pair of expansions: Knights of the Nine and The Shivering Isles. Knights of the Nine was the first of these, releasing late in 2006 and had players helping a new faction of the same name. In it, one had to find the Crusader’s Relics and use them to defeat the sorcerer king, Umaril who wanted to destroy the Nine Divines. The Shivering Isles came out in 2007, and had players deal with everyone’s favorite mischievous Daedric Prince, Shoegorath. As anyone familiar with him can guess, what unfolded was a very strange, yet very interesting adventure.  One of the biggest draws of the expansion was its level design as it was very unique, and a vast departure from the comparatively bland environments of the main game.

Just like Morrowind, mods became a crucial part of enjoying Oblivion for many with several of these becoming quite popular, performing tasks like graphical overhauls and changes to the how enemies in the game leveled up.

SKYRIM

Elder Scrolls Skyrim box art
In November of 2011, we saw the fifth installment in the series with Skyrim, as players headed to the frozen north to frolic among the Nords, a decidedly unfrolicky race among all the peoples of Tamriel.

From the moment it loaded up, one could see that this was a very pretty game. Even today the game looks beautiful. It had a very strong Norse theme to its architecture and mountainous, wooded terrain for miles. One of the main things that Bethesda wanted to achieve with this game was to encourage exploration and bring a greater sense of discovery. Players would constantly be tempted by caves, ruins, keeps, and the like as they wandered Skyrim. By late in the game, one’s map would be riddled with icons of places they had visited. It was hard not to be curious about what one might find when in some ruins, a heavily guarded keep, or an inconspicuous cave with abandoned armor outside.

Even if the player didn’t feel like wandering an ancient crypt, the game looked so good that a big part of the experience was just wandering around, enjoying the journey, and becoming a bit of a tourist. Whether it was just standing on the edge of a lake, walking around a city, or climbing to the top of a snow swept mountain, there was a very simple pleasure to exploring Skyrim and savoring its sights. Ultimately, the combination of such good graphics and so many places to go visit left a lot of people constantly asking themselves, “I wonder what’s in that cave?” “I wonder what’s at the top of that mountain?” And “I wonder where my House Carl went? She was right behind me a minute ago…”

Like Oblivion, gameplay was more simplified compared to earlier games, but wasn’t received with anywhere near the level of backlash that its predecessor suffered from. Among the more notable gameplay improvements to make their way into Skyrim was the ability to wield weapons and spells at the same time. For example, now players could have a knife in their right hand slashing away at enemies, while their left would constantly be casting healing spells or blasting fireballs. It was a nice touch that helped to streamline combat to an extent. Also, we saw the inclusion of a perks system whereby players had new means by which to further customize their characters each time they leveled up.

Elder Scrolls Skyrim image
Taking place 200 years after Oblivion, players were faced with two major narratives in Skyrim. First, there was the Nord rebellion, as Ulfric Stormcloak and his forces were trying to free the region of Imperial rule. This left players with a choice: support the Stormcloak rebellion or help the Empire to quell it. Second, the player would discover that they’re something called the Dragonborn, a rare, legendary figure in Nord history that is born with the blood and soul of a dragon, but the body of a mortal. This leads to one learning more about the Dragonborn as players are educated in their gift and better learn to wield their new found powers. Ultimately, this leads to a confrontation with Alduin, an ancient dragon who has returned to destroy the world.

With Skyrim, we saw the game get three expansions: Dawnguard, Hearthfire, and Dragonborn. First, there was Dawnguard which was all about vampires giving players the choice of joining a particularly ancient family of these blood suckers and helping in their nefarious plans or becoming a vampire hunter and stopping said plans instead.

Next, we had Hearthfire, which was more of a mini expansion. In it, players were given the ability to build their own house instead of just decorating whatever lodgings that they had in the various keeps around Skyrim. These were much more customizable houses that could be big or small with all sorts of rooms to choose from. Players were also able to adopt up to two orphans in the expansion, giving them a home, and becoming absentee parents as they went on adventures in this or that cave or ruin, only to return to their attention-starved child weeks later and giving them some bauble that they found, hoping it would be enough to smooth things over.

Finally, there was Dragonborn, the final expansion, where players would head to the dark elf island of Solstheim, which in many ways felt like a nostalgic trip back to Morrowind thanks to all of the Dunmer architecture and music from that game. Here players had to defeat Miraak, the first Dragonborn, now corrupted and bent on taking over the world.

Elder Scrolls Skyrim image 2
With Skyrim, we saw more mods than ever before thanks to the implementation of hte Steam Workshop. With this, legions of mods were created that could do just about anything whether it was improving the graphics, adding new quests, new weapons, or entirely new areas of the world. The game has a seemingly bottomless pit of mods that are constantly breathing new life into Skyrim.

That being said, this feature was hit with a fair bit of controversy in 2015 when it became possible for people to charge money for their mods on Steam. This resulted in a huge backlash as many felt that mods should be free and the system itself wasn’t very well-implemented. Eventually, the decision was reversed and Skyrim’s mods returned to being free, but some damage had been done. The game got so many bad user reviews that it got pushed down significantly in the rankings for that metric, as players expressed their anger by down voting the game.

Ultimately, though, Skyrim is by far the most universally well-received entry in the Elder Scrolls series. Critics praised its visuals, exploration, quests, and gameplay, while fans to this day adore the game. It’s also sold far more copies than any other installment in the series, cracking the 20 million units mark. Even now, it’s still one of the most played games on Steam when checking the “current players” charts on the service, and continues to be a top seller whenever there is a Steam sale. At this point, Skyrim is for many the high point in the series.

ELDER SCROLLS ONLINE

Elder Scrolls Online box art
In 2012, Zenimax got the idea to do something different with the Elder Scrolls and decided to make an MMORPG with the franchise. It was a risky move considering how many other companies had tried this and failed. Blizzard was still the dominant force here with World of Warcraft, but Zenimax seemed confident that their series was popular enough for it to work. Unfortunately, the game’s announcement was met with mixed to indifferent responses. Outside of diehard fans of the series, there was a lot of skepticism regarding Elder Scrolls Online.

The game was developed internally at Zenimax rather than by Bethesda. Taking place during the second era before the reign of Tiber Septim, it was a very different world than previous Elder Scrolls games, opening it up to explore a lot of relatively untouched lore. It gave players the chance to see first hand some of the things that they may have read about in the books they had found in previous games. It would also be possible to travel all across Tamriel, something that hadn’t been possible in an Elder Scrolls game for years.

By the time the game finally released, it had managed to peak enough people’s curiosity to sell reasonably well, which was impressive in a time when subscription based MMOs were a dying breed. However, the player base didn’t remain consistent with many letting their subscriptions expire. To address this, Zenimax eventually dropped the subscription all together, making it a buy to play game. This combined with console ports to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One helped to ensure that ESO would do reasonably well as it eventually found a stable audience that is sticking around more now.

And with that, we end this look back at the Elder Scrolls. It’s been over 20 years since the first game was released, and the series is easily more popular than it has ever been. The big question now is where will the series go from here. They do have a collectible card game in the works with Elder Scrolls: Legends, but beyond that we just don’t know what the series will do next. Will we get an announcement for The Elder Scrolls VI soon? Only time will tell...

Friday, 11 March 2016

The Early History of Sega AM2

A look back at the early days of arcade game development at Sega AM2.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

RGT: Stardew Valley (PC)

It's time for a video review of Stardew Valley, the closest thing we've had to a Harvest Moon experience in quite some time.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Is Sega Bringing Classic Series to Mobile?

Recently, Sega put up an online survey that they say is to help them make better games. (It all sounds so altruistic!) Being a big fan of theirs since the 80s, I decided to go fill it out as I've not much cared for many of the games that they've put out in recent years. It was always the older series that mattered more to me. Stuff like Shinobi, Streets of Rage, Sega Rally, Phantasy Star, Virtua Fighter, and a slew of others, those are the series that have always been special to me. Unfortunately, it's been years since Sega has even mentioned many of the games. The only classic series that is still around is Sonic the Hedgehog, and those games are largely a shadow of their former self.

So, with that in mind, I went to fill out the survey and at first things were looking pretty good. There were a lot of questions asking what systems I've played over the years, going all the way back to the 8-bit era, then they asked which Sega franchises I liked and why. This got my hopes up because there were a lot of old series here. They mentioned all of the games I listed above and so much more. It was like the company was suddenly remembering the huge catalog of classic series that they've created over the years. I was actually really starting to get my hopes up at this point.

Then the second half of the survey started and it was becoming clear what Sega was really trying to do, as it was one question after the next regarding my mobile gaming habits. This made me realize that the purpose of the survey wasn't to gauge which classic games to bring back for modern consoles or handhelds, or even series to consider for some sort of HD remastering. No, there is only one thing that I can assume from these questions: Sega is looking to cannibalize their library of classic games and find a way to make mobile games out of them.

While I don't completely hate mobile games, they're something that I only really play when I've had a very long day and am way too tired to go with something that takes the slightest amount of effort. Even then, it's a toss up between a mobile game and watching some very laid back anime. So, mobile gaming really isn't something that is a priority in my life. Sadly, the only thing going through my mind as the realization of what Sega was doing sank in was the "Not like this" meme.

From Sega's perspective, I can sort of see where they're coming from since they're probably looking at their local market first, aka Japan, where mobile gaming is completely dominating. They likely see a way to make a fast buck off of a wave of nostalgia if they can make something halfway decent that happens to have Shinobi, Alex Kidd, or whoever in it. The problem here is that this can easily open the door to some very cynical business practices chalk full of cash shops, a pay to win mentality, and far from engaging gameplay. It's not like we haven't seen such behavior before in this sphere, so I don't blame people for looking at this with some trepidation.

Folks have been clamouring for years to get Sega to bring back their classic series. However, I really don't think that they had mobile gaming in mind. It doesn't even have to be anything super crazy with a massive budget, just a solid experience on consoles or handhelds and many people would be overjoyed. This survey suggests that if the company does revisit these games they very much will be going the mobile route. Thankfully, there are a lot of fields where people can type in their opinions. It's not all multiple choice responses. So, take this as an opportunity to let Sega know how you feel about mobile in a thoughtful manner. Fill out the survey, and if you are concerned about these classic franchises getting pushed to tablets and smartphones, express your opinion. Hopefully, Sega will actually listen.