Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk (PS4)

Nippon Ichi takes a break from Disgaea to craft a dungeon crawler that does Bard's Tale better than Bard's Tale 4.

Yet, this is a slow burn. Even though I am the perfect target audience, it took me a while to get hooked. The first few forays into the dungeon left me with a certain dissatisfaction. "Is that it?" is what I kept thinking. You roam around, kill monsters easily, try to familiarize with your very small party and while there's a lot of numbers buried under the many menus that are hard to understand in the beginning, I couldn't shake the feeling that it all felt dry, light, weightless...
Then again, this is a Nippon Ichi game so the craziness was just around the corner, and it's actually a blessing that you get introduced to it little by little and very slowly.

So while everything you can expect from the genre is there, what seems unique to me is the concept of [i]covens[/i]. You have 5 party slots, but each slot can host up to three characters for a total of 15 attackers (even though obviously this doesn't happen until late in the game). So basically a coven is the slot, and in that slot you don't simply place one character, instead you place a "pact" which more like a box that holds your characters, or a team within the party. So to recap, you have 5 slots (covens) in which you place a team (pact) with up three active characters. Seems decently easy? Yes, except every pact that you can slot is different. First of all, you loot the pacts like any other item and so there are rare and powerful pacts and simple and dull ones. To try and be more specific, a rare pact is a pact that allows you to slot three attackers and gives you a bonus to attack and maybe a few cool spells, while a shitty pact is a pact that allows you to slot only one character, or maybe two but with an XP penalty and so on. So if it wasn't clear enough at this point, the party building aspect of the game is not that different from building a deck in a card game. Not only you have characters to level up and equip with the best items as you would in any other game of this kind, but you can't just pick your best 5 chars (or more) and go with them, you actually have to decide in which slot to use them and with which buffs and debuffs and spells.
Right, cause spells come with the "pact" not with the character. So if I put a character in the "Spellcaster" pact they will have access to certain spells, while if I put that same character in a "Defender" pact they may have access to completely different spells or none at all. And I haven't even mentioned support slots. That's right, you can bring along some characters in a support slot of specific pacts. This way they will not deal nor take damage but will still gain a portion of the XP (% depending different for different pacts), but at the same time they will enable things for the active characters of that pact that wouldn't be available if you didn't slot a supporter. In some cases for example, the attackers can only use a spell if have brought along a supporter for that pact. Obviously there are requirements, like class, gender, and so on. One "Gossip" pact can only slot females. One "Barricade Pact" only characters with a defensive zodiac sign (!).

Character creation doesn't seem too complex but it's fun. While there are only seven classes, and not too many choices of looks and voices, you can still opt for things like personality trait and sun sign that determine how will the stats grow when you level up. There are plenty of personality and they also have an additional level of interaction, as your characters can become more or less friends with each other over time and that influences how often they combo up for extra damage. So once again, virtually infinite theorycrafting, if that's your thing (and it must be if you bought a Nippon Ichi game). Obviously your characters can be reborn with better stat scaling as per any NIS game. And in case it wasn't obvious by now, you'll have to manage more than 15 chars, up to a potentially infinite number. Somehow creating your little army of puppets named after pop stars or dead philosophers never gets old.

Itemization is usually the most mindmelting part of NIS games, but this time it looks like they took a step back. While there's still a billion things to loot with a billion randomized stats each, they are not forever upgradable or explorable like in Disgaea, so they will still melt your mind but will not drag you down in an infinite black hole of upgrades like in previous titles. I wish the tools to compare and understand what's better than what were a little easier to use, because with 20+ characters it's extremely easy to get lost whenever you get a new legendary item and you have no idea who should use it and who should inherit whatever is being replaced, but after 30 or more hours you get the gist of what's useful and what isn't and learn to juggle the UI to dodge its limitation. Not ideal but it doesn't matter as at this point I have already lost 18000 mental sanity points and was completely addicted.

The exploration itself turned out to be very satisfying for me. The second dungeon killed my enthusiasm cause it's a strange open sky one, but the third is my favourite so far and totally made me a fanboi. Not only you get that feeling of being lost in the deep bowels of a monster infested treasure filled mega structure, but you get to destroy walls left and right looking for secret passages and dark alcoves. There's a sense of satisfaction in finally opening that chest that required a mysterious key when you finally find it. This is what dungeons are all about, and here, after the slow start where you are try to familiarize with too many things at once and while so many options are still gated behind a ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? the mazes ultimately deliver.

The combat is what it should be. 100% turn based (so are the grid movements in the open map), you pick who attacks, who defends, who casts and who uses an item. Then, there are the zany twists. Your covens (remembers? The 5 slots that contain your teams of characters) can be placed in the vanguard or rearguard with obvious differences in aggro generation and range of weapons, then there or formations which provide different bonus and malus depending of which slots are in the vanguard or rearguard, and then there are[i] reinforcements[/i], which is a currency that start from 100 every time you deploy in a dungeon and can be used for lots of things, like reinforcing your atttack or defence on the fly, or give a unit a specific order, or to stack XP (another super clever risk-vs-reward mechanic which allows you not to gain XP right after a fight and put it in a stack with a multiplier. You can cash it whenever you want but the longer you keep it in the stack the more it grows. Obviously you lose the WHOLE stack if you die or escape from a fight before cashing it in). Reinforcements basically represent your dungeon exhaustion. When they are close to zero you better start considering going back to the surface as you are gonna run out of precious tools soon.
Another cool aspect is localised damage. Your characters can sustain critical hits that mutilate them. When that happens not only you can't use the equip in that part of the body, but you suffer a major drop of your max HP. You can fix that when you go back to town, but in the dungeon that's a "lovely" additional danger you have to pay attention to and that makes every fight more tense.

And then there's the weird spellcasting Rendakor was mentioning a while ago. Basically, while every character in each team/coven/slot/pact can make an attack, only one character per coven can cast a spell and if they do that counts as the only action for that coven. So if I have a coven with three characters, they can all attack, but if I decide to cast a spell with one of them then the other two are not gonna do anything this turn. It feels strange and stupid, but it's just an additional layer of strategy that forces you to make hard decisions. This game is all about this. Nothing is ever simple or clear, everything has advantages and disadvantages. So in many cases casting a spell and forcing two characters to sit idly doesn't seem like a good idea, but there are situations in which only a spell will grant you enough damage to get through a particular enemy, or a spell is the only way to heal another character, and so you are forced to consider stuff like this all the time. In general, you won't be casting spells in every fight as spell points (donum points) are precious, and most fights will simply be resolved with the auto-fight function which is a staple of dungeon crawlers, but spells can be devastatingly powerful, especially the AOE ones, and once again the party/deck building plays a very important role. My most powerful spell-casting pact only allows for one character in it. Which means, I am basically giving up two characters altogether that I can't bring with me in order to give one caster the best arsenal. I am not even sure I am doing things right at this point, but while everything feels overwhelming when you unlock all the functionalities, it also feels cool to study and experiment with. There's definitely a lot of depth, and I am only 30 hours in (fourth dungeon).

With all of this said, I haven't mentioned the story, which takes place in traditional NIS vignettes and entails some fucked up plot involving witches, nuns, some totally out of place sexual harassment, and an annoying child. I actually love to come out of the dungeon only to find a new snippet of the story, but it is all clearly just an excuse to push you deeper and deeper into the maze. Once again though, if you know and like NIS games you would probably enjoy these segments, their style, and the music which is always pretty cool.

I could have kept this as short as a couple of lines but I guess I wanted to manifest my appreciation by lining up all the things that I enjoyed and how I got to discover and understand them. This is a game about venturing down into a dark mysterious well and the whole experience is aptly represented by both the trip of your party through the well itself, and your personal journey through the fog of the overwhelming mechanics. I was expecting a lot from Labyrinth of Refrain, then I found myself a bit disappointed when it all seemed too simple, only to become completely addicted when comfort and familiarity got swallowed into the darkness of unmanageable numbers and infinite decisions. All while trying to survive the dungeon and play "one more turn" to see what lies ahead.

Must buy.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Sunless Sea

Remember (Sid Meier's) [i]Pirates![/i]?

If you liked that game and have been complaining for 25 years about the lack of any true successor, here it is. Sunless Sea is fantastic.

This is a game about exploring distant and mysterious lands, where the disconnection from history, which was the brilliant but inherently limiting foundation on which Pirates! was built, gives the authors the tools to surprise us and to create the best seafaring game ever made in an unexpectedly original mix of Lovecraftian and Vernian atmospheres. As I mentioned, it takes a while to understand what the hell is going on with the UI and what is it with the inventory and quest log (?), but once you crack the surface of what was originally a clever browser game ([url=http://fallenlondon.storynexus.com/Home/LoggedInViaApp]Fallen London[/url]) you'll probably sink in the Sunless Sea and won't come out until you'll have explored every port at least once.

This game does an incredible job in making you feel like an epxlorer of unknown lands, and I can't remember any other game where I felt the urge to discover [i]just another[/i] port only to see what stories it had to tell and what secrets or treasures or weird culture it could hide. This is the biggest strength of this game: the dark, bloody impenetrable underground sea rewards you with the best pioneering experience to date, as the hand-crafted locations, even when painted with broader strokes, are masterfully rendered and meant to inspire, unsettle and make you giggle. All at the same time.

Eventually, it is also a game about surviving. Making sure your boat is fueled, your crew is fed, and you don't go crazy and start eating your folks instead of leading them. It's a game about giant monstrosities, about romance, and not getting lost in your nightmares, not being killed by evil and unnameable forces, and not disappear without leaving a trace. It's not just another sandbox where you like the premises but can't expect a complete package for another three years. Sunless Sea politely asks you for your goal when you start playing, and then invites you to find the solution to the searing enigma that you created for yourself inside its pitch black pit of haunting maritime prose.

But is it fun? If you like reading, exploring, and exploring while reading, then yes, it is some of the best fun videogame money can buy.

The Cat Lady

To call this "a gem" would be an understatement. This is a fucking treasure chest. Technically, it belongs to a different era, but who cares? Artistically it's just fantastic. There aren't many games like this and there probably won't ever be. Granted, not everyone will like it given its peculiarities, but is there something that everyone likes?

You are Susan Ashworth, a woman that has killed herself. Your intro to the game is her suicide note. And suddenly her beautiful, narrating voice transports you into her nightmare and all that happened after she ingested the pills.  
This is a very intense story about depression, sorrow, friendship and sisterhood. For once it's really not about men, and it doesn't sport sexy girls in any shape or form. It is a deeply introspective travel into the mind of a forty years old woman who has chosen to end her own life, but gets forced into a series of events which will make her fight her own struggle with newfound tools.

It's hard to say anything without spoilering something, but this really is a surprising game best enjoyed without too many forewords. Lynch inspired nightmares fade comfortably into mundane scenes, and spikes of pure horror and gore do not interfere with the emotionally charged exchanges between Susan and the people she meets. The bad interface is what you'd expect from a 90s game, including dialogues slowed down by the way the engine works, but as soon as you'll get over it you will be teleported in a eerie, oppressive, dark but fascinating dimension full of character, characters, and stories to tell. Sure, there are times where you feel things have been cut too abruptly, and it would be great if some characters and topics could be explored even further, but here's probably where concessions to the limited funds had to be made. The author is an actual nurse working in a hospital, and according to him he still makes games on his free time as a hobby.

It's not a long game (it can be finished in 6 - 8 hours) and the puzzles are super easy, which is good because they don't trip the narration. The artistic direction is just incredible for a game of this kind, and the music is very good and perfectly placed. Even in big AAA productions it's rare to find a game where the soundtrack and songs blend so well with everything else, so imagine my delight when I realized what a good job Mr. Mihalski has done here.

Rating: The Cat Lady is fantastic.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Mad Max

Luckily this is not a movie to game game. This is just a bunch of things that might have happened to Max after Beyond Thunderdome and right before Fury Road. You CANNOT live up to the glory of Fury Road in any way, but the representation of the Mad Maxian wasteland in this game is nothing short of fantastic. If you think it's bland by looking around for the the first few hours you are so missing out. The world is immense. Sure it has a lot of the same theme, but the different areas are characterised with wonderful attention to details. Even camps and minor loot areas tend to be diverse from each other and when you thought you've seen everything you end up in a cave, or an abandoned subway station, or a buried church, or a condemned gas pipeline or (my favourite) a secret, and immense, airport.

There has been some complaining about the gating in the first few days, but I would assume that came mostly from people trying to rush the story. Yes, I believe that's the case if you choose to go that way, but it would be a mistake to rush the story exactly because there is so much to discover in the open world that even when you are done with the main quest there's still plenty to look around. Lots of huge areas aren't even touched by the main story which is nothing but a vague indication of where to go next. Mad Max The Game is proudly story-light which was a winning choice by the Devs you ask me since anything more specific would have just clashed with multiple personal interpretation of Max exactly for the reasons Stray mentioned. Instead of characters, this game is about the world which faithfully to the most recent rendition of the Mad Max universe chooses to bother you very little with plot and other questionable motives leaving you the time and space to settle in, dig it up, and enjoy what feels enjoyable and forget the stuff that just doesn't (the damn mine defusing). Criticism is fair when people point out that characters are too streamlined, but this is probably a nod to old games, where NPS and dialogues were short and to the point, and to the Mad Max tradition where action and atmosphere -more than words- make the movies.

In short, I think that this game doesn't succeed or fail based on some absolute metric, and that's probably why it's getting such incoherent ratings, but more on how much you enjoy the immersion in a huge postapocalyptic world made of killer cars and hundreds of explorable and mostly depressing locations. And even though this game is not directed by a George Miller, it isn't often that you find such attention for mood and tone in a blockbuster action game.

There is NO game without repetition and deifnitely no open world game without repetition. It makes sense that Mad Max doesn't click to some so it starts to feel like a grind pretty soon. Hell, I love Diablo but after a week I have to put it down, even though I still love it. At least here, all the gameplay elements are solid and flow like silk albeit certainly simplified to the extreme, and the presentation is so beautiful that it isn't rare to just get out of the car, sit on a hill, simply listen to the wind and gaze at the horizon as the sun sets over some sand dunes. Only to see some faint lights glimmer in the distance and get back in the Interceptor for more exploring and scavenging. Side note: this might have the longest viewing distance of any game I've ever played, and it adds SO MUCH to the whole experience.

"But is it fun?" Obviously yes if you ask me. But even more than usual, this is a moody one: you have to be into a particular theme, and have a certain appreciation for solitude, to appreciate it in full. Otherwise, yes, it's as boring as Shadow of Mordor, Batman or Far Cry are to me.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Ether One.

Ether One looks like a Walking Simulator at first but it's actually more like an evolution of Myst/Riven combined with the new Dear Esther line of games. A meatier Gone Home if you like. While you will spend most of the time exploring a masterfully handpainted British coastal village of the 60s (powered by the latest Unreal Engine) getting sound cues whenever you approach something meaningful, you will have to collect pieces of the various puzzles scattered around and put them together to learn more about the story of this now abandoned village and its long gone inhabitants.

While one could maintain that the environment is beautiful and extremely fascinating by itself, and the puzzles easy enough that you feel compelled to complete them even if you are usually not a big fan, it's the story that draws you in. It begins without telling you much, other than you are someone willing to undergo a certain experiment apparently dealing with memory recovery and memory loss. You enter a high tech facility and sit on a weird chair that sends you back to the magnificent Pinwheel Village and its wonderful tangle of intense, dramatic and lovely little stories. As a detective of memories, that you will somehow piece together, you will learn about a slew of minor facts and most importantly what led the village to its downfall, not to mention the most important task you've been sent to solve: who are you.

As I mentioned, I don't have the patience for puzzle games anymore, but Ether One got me hooked since the very first minute. The smartest idea White Paper Games came up with is that you DO NOT really have to solve the puzzles if you don't want to. You can advance the main story simply collecting some red ribbons in the each area you visit, but it goes without saying that by doing so you will skip the large amount of content they filled Pinwheel village with. Every house has a story, every office of the mining facility seems to have some memories worth uncovering and every character you find traces of in one part of the little town might have more of his/her personal story revealed later on as the lives of all these people were intertwined with each other, and their sons and daughters, as you would expect from such a tiny community. Thing can get emotionally intense, which is a bonus for me, but never in a suffocating way. For a puzzle game this does a really good job in leaving the players freedom to play it the way they like.

Took me about 15 hours to go through all the content I could find only to realize there's a whole extra section I missed that will totally make me replay the game. I feel like I am from Pinwheel too now, and I care about my neighbours or at least the memories of my neighbours, and feel bad for what happened to some of them or happy for the positive outcomes of some others. While I am sure that more expert puzzlers than me can finish the game in about 8 hours, there's much more to see and do than I was expecting from a 7€ title. The visuals are great and so is the level design, and a special mention deserves the audio department which does a wonderful job in giving life in an otherwise empty and abandoned village.

Rating: Buy it.

Everlasting Summer, by Soviet Games.

Everlasting Summer looks like your usual Japan-inspired dating-sim visual novel but you know something odd is going on when the name of the company making it is "Soviet Games" and the title screen greets you with hammers, sickles and Lenin busts.

Don't get me wrong, this really is a Japan-inspired dating-sim visual novel, but it takes place and has been made in Russia so you should expect lots of quirky stuff even when they are just trying to fit a stereotype. The premise is that you are a twenty-something internet addict with no friends and passions, who get sucked in a 1980 Pioneer Camp, the Soviet version of boy/girl scouts, before the Berlin Wall collapse. Trying to understand what the hell happened to you and how to get out from the Past you got stuck into turns out to be only half of your quest, while the other half is, of course, getting acquainted with all the girls in the camp, have sex with them, and live amazing things you couldn't experience in your actual, dull, apathetic timeline. Over the course of 7 days you will make some sparse choices that will decide what ending you get access too. This is weird cause at first it totally looks like you couldn't choose much, but the game has 13 VERY different endings and I would say that this is where it shines.

I got undeniably hooked when I realized how different the story can get based on what "branch" you pick. The problem is that without a guide, and after your first clean playthrough, it isn't clear at all how to get into a different branch or what you could have done differently. But as soon as you try to get a little deeper into the mechanics you'll realize the amount of story(es), for a game of this kind, is quite huge. This doesn't change the fact that Everlasting Summer is definitely too long in some sections and the writing is uneven at best, which might have to do with a different cultural style from what I am used to, I'm not sure. The different endings though, including a few crazy ones, are interesting and while some interactions and dialogues are beyond childish, there are also times when you can appreciate the education background of the writers.

The characters get more interesting through replays, since the first trip through the 7 days don't leave much room for their personalities, but whenever you take a different branch you get to know them better. As I mentioned before, this is the strength of the game: the 13 endings paint a whole picture. I am not a completionist but this is one case where you can only really say you finished the game when you got all the endings since only then you will really know Sovionok Camp and the story of the guy who got trapped into it.

The character design is weird at first, as pretty much everything that wants to look Japanese but it's not Japanese, but you'll get used to it soon and will probably appreciate it after a while, and the background pictures/paintings are honestly beautiful. Finally, the 1980s Soviet Union setting is just unbeatable.

Don't forget to download the Hentai patch from the official website, since the Steam version will just give you a black screen where you are supposed to see sex or breasts. It is not much at all, this is not a hentai game, but it's better to see all the stuff instead of censorship blankness.

Rating: It's 100% free, on Steam, so yes go ahead and buy it.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Neo Scavenger, or Apocalypse Manager.

Neo Scavenger is on Steam with the now usual Early Access formula, so approach with caution as many things are unfinished especially the plot/story, but what we have here is a incredibly detailed game about surviving a post-apocalytpic wasteland in a vast Michigan area (including Detroit) while dealing with all sorts of potential problems.

This doesn't sound new, I know.

What is new (although presented in a very old style) is that you literally micro manage thousand of items, containers, conditions, and most importantly actions your character can undertake. You move on an hexagonal map that represents the surrounding areas and while everything is highly stylized (you never see your character, you are just a silhouette in the global map) what happens to you is expressed through detailed lines of text that you can react to by taking actions among the ones that are presented to you based on your skills, traits, items and many other things. What is surprising, as I said before, is the amount of details that seems to be tracked by the game, a task made easy by the quite complete absence of visuals (except for a map, some locations stills, and vast inventory screens).

Here's an old (2012) trailer.

You start the game by waking up in a lab where you've been cryogenically frozen for years and realize that world has gone to hell and you are wearing nothing, it's damn cold, and something is coming, growling, from the dark corridor in front of you. Based on what you pick at character creation (among talents and flaws, which allow you to pick additional talents if used) you are offered different ways to deal with the situation, and get a taste of how the game always offers you different ways to do something, and different rewards based on it. For example, I started a game as a medic, and I was offered the chance to wake up people in other cryogenic tanks to distract the beast. As an electrician, I could reconnect the lighting in the place and make it my new base camp. As an eagle-eyed person I could spot a weapon that I would have otherwise missed, and as a tough mean melee fighter I could have just punched the attacker into oblivion.

The general feeling is that you are playing something between a management simulation, a roleplaying game, an overdeveloped Oregon Trail, a piece of interactive fiction and Pick Your Adventure of book. All adorned with a seemingly impressive amount of items you can collect, craft and interact with, about a hundred "story" encounters, a meaningful amount of randomization between each game, and the obligatory perma-death as in any rogue-like (yeah, almost forgot about that) inspired game. The author is super active on the Steam community, and basically jumps in to discuss and debate every meaningful topic and seems very open about ideas and explaining the gears and bolts behind it.

The UI, while clearly in need of a lot of work, is somewhat pleasant to deal with once you got the hang of it as the actions you can partake are presented to you as buttons, with new ones popping up whenever you have a chance for something you couldn't do before, so there's almost a sense of discovery that comes by playing through the interface itself. Fight is another text-buttons based thing. It reminds me of Bard's Tale and Wasteland (the original ones) but with many more options and details, which reinforces the feeling you are playing the last great game of the 80s more than with a tiny indie project from the 2010s, but that isn't a bad thing unless you simply can't deal with a lack of visuals.

But is it fun? Yes!

Rating: Buy it.