Voices of the Shattered Sun – Alyssum Igneus

Before the story starts, here are two words you should know:

  • Psykin: a psychic person who can read minds and influence the world through thought.
  • Tessencia: an “unobtainium” element found only in special natural places.

Have fun!

FL3838-Dwarf-Purple-Alyssum-Seeds

Alyssum Igneus

A Rare Alchemical Flower from Falas

“Master Leon Sirelu!” exclaimed the white-haired Ashanti man in the doorway before offering a strong handshake and an embrace. Dressed in traditional white-and-green Academy robes, Master Kane DolShir never seemed to change. His accent was as thick as it had ever been. “I am so glad you were able to return safe and sound! And with new and strange alchemical discoveries, I’m sure! How was your sabbatical, my friend?”

Leon grinned, looking back from his parlor into his personal quarters. A timid pair of red eyes watched the conversation from the comfort of a makeshift hammock deep within the room.

“It was… enlightening,” Leon said, keeping his voice low. “Pardon, Master Kane, but young Aeo is trying to sleep in the next room. Come, I’ve something to show you.”

“Oh dear, excuse my excitement,” said Kane with a nervous cough. “I’ll have to meet the boy tomorrow, yes. Of course, after you.”

Leon guided Kane beyond the parlor into his workshop. Along the far wall, several concoctions inside copper alembics bubbled quietly, surrounded by leather-bound alchemical texts and personal hand-written notes. Leon paused only to lift his hand to light the light fixture that hung just above the center of the room. With a flick of his wrist, the candle within the spherical fixture popped into life, illuminating the room. The small workshop was certainly nothing compared to the larger facilities in the basements of the Everspring Academy, but they served Leon’s purposes well enough, not in the least way giving him the ability to work in private.

f41b56710c41d486072cb44f1562b135

Leon’s Workshop – (source: Pinterest)

“Here, Master Kane, if you would,” Leon said, taking a loose page of parchment from inside his personal journal and offering it to the Ashanti. “Anything strike you as odd with this formula?”

Wordless, Kane took the page and read Leon’s handwriting under the light — although a master scribe himself, Kane had never judged Leon on his penmanship in their long friendship. After a few moments, Kane stroked his chin.

“Small amounts of sulphur and mercury, high concentrations of tessencia… In a single ingredient?”

Leon pursed his lips.

“This flower was… rumored to have killed a woman in San’Drael about a year and a half ago. I tracked down the flower’s source and spent most of my time away trying to figure out how. I had to tincturize it in 170-proof ethanol to extract and dissolve the ingredients completely, although I believe I can get away with a lower proof with further study. I call it alyssum igneus. I’ll narrow it down soon to preserve the other samples. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of a flower with higher concentrations of tessencia per ounce before, even from flowers that grow near the Everspring.”

“You haven’t tested this ingredient on yourself, have you?” asked Kane with a frown, handing back the journal page. “How much of this flower killed the woman?”

“I don’t know,” Leon said. “Evidently, not much. I’ve only ingested small doses, to test its effects. It gave me a terrible stomach ache, but not much more.”

“You may want to visit the Medical Ward for any imbalances, nom’fre,” said Kane, emphasizing the expression reserved for foolish little boys. “Dare I ask if you’ve discovered a beneficial purpose for this ingredient?”

“Yes,” Leon said. “Although I don’t think you would believe me if I told you my testing procedure. Suffice it to say, I believe the high concentrations of tessencia when combined with an effective booster such as beraceas or curcumin could provide a user with the ability to prevent the mental intrusion and the damaging effects of hostile psykin.”

42iZ8fXH37w

Kane DolShir – (source: Pinterest)

With the word “psykin”, Kane’s countenance fell. Leon noticed immediately and held his hands to make Kane pause.

“Now, I don’t yet have demonstrable proof that alyssum igneus functions in this way, but given time and opportunity to study its effects, I think that-”

With a whisper, Kane stopped Leon in his tracks.

“This… flower you study. It is ‘firebrand’, isn’t it? Leon, please, tell me this isn’t about your father.”

Leon gritted his teeth for a moment and wiped his mouth with his hand.

“It is,” he whispered back.

Kane looked away.

“All this time you’ve been gone,” he said. “This is still your purpose. You would murder to see your father again?”

“Murder…?” Leon asked, spitting on the word. “Kane, everyone in my life has told me for years that my father is either dead or beyond my reach. I have proven both of these as untrue. I plan to kill no one. I only require the tools to protect myself while I rescue him. ‘Firebrand’ isn’t just a poison. It’s so much more than that.”

“And the boy?” Kane asked. “Is he a part of this? Is he psykin?”

“No, he isn’t. But he has… potential. Magickal potential. His flames burned down the entirety of Olvaren, Kane. If he has this much power as a child, think of what he’ll be able to do with age and discipline.”

8ff78ccfb9b1d8af7d2660228e946332

Leon Sirelu – (source: Pinterest)

“I had heard as much,” Kane said, his voice low. “And a slave on top of this. But had I known you were looking for an apprentice, I would have helped you choose one a bit less… volatile.”

“Volatility is what they’ll least expect,” Leon said. “Volatility might be the key to setting my father free.”

“You expect this boy to be able to do what you cannot?”

Leon frowned.

“I’m no warrior,” Leon said. “You know this. I am doing what I can. No one will help me. No one even told me the truth of things until it was too late. So I will train my help. The boy deserved a better future than scrubbing the floors of some no-name tavern in the middle of nowhere. I can give him a brighter future.”

“You will give him a life fraught with peril,” said Kane. “You know this as much as I. That is what our “gifts” give us in return.”

Kane placed his hands on Leon’s shoulders.

“You depart for two years, you work against the will of the High Masters by investigating a flower that could kill them, you adopt a young Edian slave boy, and you pledge to rebuild an entire village. Quite an agenda, and all on your father’s inheritance. Have you even spoken to your mother yet?”

Leon shrugged Kane’s hands off and lifted a finger to Kane’s face.

“Don’t bring my mother into this. I didn’t come looking for a lecture,” he said. “As I said, I cannot do this alone. I need your help.”

“Yes, you do,” Kane said with a sigh. “You have told no one else about the potential effects of this… alyssum?”

“No.”

“Good. Continue to say nothing. The High Masters would no doubt put an end to your experimentation…and even dismiss you from the Academy. But… If you have indeed found the solution to finding your father, then I suppose I have no choice but to assist you.”

“Thank you, Kane,” Leon said, placing a hand on the Ashanti’s shoulder. “I’ll have Aeo make a copy of my notes to send to your office. The sooner we can safely test the effects and side effects of alyssum, the sooner we can find him.”

“And how, pray tell, do you intend to test alyssum’s properties?”

“I suppose we’ll need to find a willing psykin,” Leon said. “One with considerable strength and the ability to keep a secret.”

“Of course,” Kane said, rubbing his temples with his fingertips. He chuckled. “It is times like these, Leon Sirelu, that tests the integrity of our friendship.”

“Solid as stone, I hope.”

“Something like that.”

tumblr_ny8fisbMMJ1qhttpto2_1280

Everspring Academy – (source: Alejandro Olmedo)

Properties

Physical Characteristics

Alyssum igneus (or Fiery Madwort) is a flowering plant native to the deep caverns of the Falas Mountains. It grows in clumps of small shrubs with stalks reaching 10–100 cm tall with oblong-oval leaves. Alyssum igneus flowers are characteristically small and grouped in terminal clusters; they are often red or pink, although at times they can also colored orange or purple. Alyssum igneus can be found growing where natural springs run deep and warm, making them rare anywhere near the surface.

Properties

When ingested, alyssum igneus flowers cause mild gastrointestinal discomfort and headache. Even when concentrated, these effects are minor to the normal person. To psykin, however, ingestion of even unconcentrated doses of alyssum igneus (i.e. the stem, flowers, or leaves) can cause damage up to and including temporary or permanent loss of mental acuity, brain atrophy, internal hemorrhaging, stroke, or death depending on the dosage and duration.

When brewed correctly and consumed by a non-psykin, however, an alyssum igneus tincture has the ability to block the user’s mind from mental intrusion and damage by nearly all beings with psychic abilities, including giant Falas wolves and humil, Ashanti, and Eshain psykin. The effect lasts for several hours depending on the dosage imbibed, although the negative side effects mentioned above can happen to a normal person if overdose occurs.

d0f1dc9867f59cfd66cb410bb3a6f262

Alyssum Tincture – (source: Pinterest)

Only by combining alyssum igneus with other ingredients can these benefits be obtained. Beneficial concentrated tinctures also require much greater quantities of alyssum igneus flowers than their lethal counterparts, not to mention a mastery of the alchemical arts to produce the desired effects.

Interestingly, only the flower petals of the alyssum igneus plant share the beneficial qualities, whereas the whole plant can be processed to produce the negative. Regardless, no matter its form or combination, psykin should avoid alyssum igneus at all cost lest they lose their abilities (temporarily or permanently) or their lives.

History & Usage

History

Originally discovered by merchants traveling to Edia through the Falas Mountains roads, the rare red flowers were sold as mysterious alchemical reagents and even decorative gifts (although they couldn’t grow without very specific conditions). When an Antielli mage and psykin died from unknown causes (which was, in fact, a purposeful alyssum poisoning) in San’Drael in 216 A.R., the alchemist Leon Sirelu overheard details specifying the existence of the flower and decided to investigate its source. This led him to his exploration of Falas and his discovery of alyssum igneus.

Once only thought of as a rare but effective poison to psykin, Sirelu’s discovery of alyssum as a psychic deterrent threatened to shake the power structure of an entire nation. Before its classification by Sirelu, alyssum igneus was known by several titles, including “firebrand”, “brain-burner”, and “the dumbing flower”.

Antiell

Rough map of the Antielli Continent

Trade & Market

Finding alyssum igneus on sale in the market stalls of San’Drael is highly unlikely. If it does, guards are unlikely to spot and confiscate the unassuming flower immediately. Even most Psykin apprentices wouldn’t recognize it by sight. If an experiences psykin recognizes it, however, expect swift confiscation of the offending flora and an intense interrogation as to the flower’s source.

More often than not, alyssum igneus can be found in black markets across the continent. Even then, it is tightly controlled, especially in Antielli territory. Since buyers often seek out the flower for dark political purposes, it behooves the vendor to sell alyssum only to those they trust. Typical transactions of alyssum igneus don’t involve much more than a few flower petals, a stem, or a couple leaves. As even milligram doses can kill a psykin man or woman, trading entire bunches (or even possessing entire bunches) is unheard of.

Law & Regulation

d7b44b310bc2c4983fe9388f1dfc9c88To the public, alyssum igneus is a simple but rare decorative flower. To those who know better (namely, those in the business of assassination) recognize the red flower as the perfect tool for eliminating otherwise powerful and ever-observant psykin. To psykin heads of state, guildmasters, and academy headmasters, alyssum was an unavoidable silent killer — unless you were unscrupulous and wealthy enough to hire a psykin taste tester for all your meals, beverages, and spirits. While the source of the flower has been known for some time, it was never discovered in large enough quantities to enable additional study. The Falas wolves, mephandras, and other predators ensured no one had the opportunity to carefully explore the mountain. Even after the disappearance of the Falas wolves and its discovery as a defense to psykin intrusion by Sirelu, the flower remained a rare resource because of information and quantity control.

________________________________________________

How can a flower change the course of history? That’s what I want to find out as I write Alyssum and the Voices of the Shattered Sun series. Ha, series. More like a very rough outline and a few chapters that no longer follow my headcanon. Funny how developing a story beyond its inception tends to do that.

So there are a lot of words in this that I’ve made up. Note to self: pull back on the new vocabulary throttle when writing the story. Then again, it’s like I’m writing the Silmarillion and the Hobbit at the same time. A lot of this might not make sense yet considering it takes place after Aeo and Leon get off the mountain. But it won’t make sense until much later as Aeo learns about himself and his world along with the reader.

My 10-Hour Tale – Endless Sky

20180608173636_1

Release Date: October 2015

System: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux (Steam)

As you walk down your loading ramp into the anchorage of the Helheim starport, the musky smell of fusion coolant and greasy off-world cuisine fills your nostrils. Filled with about two dozen similarly-sized if not similarly-designed freighters, you immediately sense anxiety in the air as your eyes scan the port for the delivery office. Dozens of cargo containers line the edge of the dock, makeshift homes for a crowd of miners looking to find their fortunes excavating this toxic volcanic world.

Good thing you aren’t looking for work yourself. Many of these young men have probably been waiting for weeks to get a mining permit or join a crew. It isn’t that the dangerous mining jobs are scarce; it’s no doubt the mountain of legal paperwork, performing physicals, and collecting hastily filled-out medical and insurance waivers that makes the entire hiring process run like molasses.

To your surprise, three young men in port authority uniforms approach, two of them picking up and carrying a large fueling hose towards your ship and one stepping towards you with a digital ship log in his hands. You’ve never seen a starport with such prompt ship service, especially one as busy as this.

“I.S. Faulknor, registration number 281-79-AS675. You’re Captain Elizabeth Oren, correct?”

You nod and reach your hand to shake his. His hands don’t move from the clipboard. In fact, his eyes don’t quite match up with yours.

“You have the twenty tons of medical supplies we requested from the Delta Velorum system, correct? I’ll have my men confirm your delivery logs. Follow me.”

The uniformed man turns without waiting for a response, walking roughly towards what you hope is the dock delivery office. You follow behind him, instinctively reaching to check that the blaster at your hip is still there. It is.

20180515153835_1

Hyperspace! Weeee!

The uniformed man leads you through the crowd of desperate and bored miners. You notice that many of these would-be miners look a lot younger than legal working age, and give you, the sharp-looking and (some would say) good-looking starship captain, a look of curiosity and interest. At the very least, you’ve taken a shower in the last 48 hours – many of the miners looking at you look and smell like they never have. The stares get more pointed and even indignant as you follow the uniformed man past the city entrance gate and the long job lines.

You ask your new companion why delivery confirmation would be done outside of the starport. He doesn’t respond immediately.

“My… My supervisor is off-duty but said wanted to speak with you the moment you landed. Please follow me. You will be paid after you speak with him.”

You struggle to maintain a straight, unassuming face, despite the fact that the young uniformed man isn’t watching you. He picks up his step, looking over his shoulder every couple of moments, not at you, but for someone or something else.

The entrance of Helheim looks nothing like the bustling starport. Instead of sprawling lines and crowds, you see only a few tired people and rusting bots stalking the streets. Large refuse trucks collect trash, dirty government offices line the streets, and smokestacks of the refineries smolder down the road ahead of you. You pass alleyway after alleyway, each one dustier and more filled with heaps of slag and garbage than the last. Unsurprisingly, your young friend turns into one of these alleyways ahead of you, not stopping to check if you are still following. Before you can call out to him, you feel something sharp press against the small of your back.

“Captain Oren, I presume,” says a deep somewhat mechanical voice behind you. “I wouldn’t move if I were you. I have two snipers hidden up above on rooftops watching your every move, and we wouldn’t want any accidents to happen, would we? If you would kindly remove your blaster belt… with your blaster on safety, mind… and give it to me, I would be much obliged.”

You sigh, unclipping your belt. You ask the figure if he disarms all the pretty ladies this way as your eyes scan the street ahead of you. No one notices the exchange, least of all any police drones.

“Just twice,” replies the voice. “Once, when some ornery lass tried to swindle me out of some credits while gambling on Shorebreak. And once before that, when some smartmouth little lady tried to smooth-talk her way into a passing grade from her flight instructor… Shame those street smarts didn’t translate to the real world very well, eh?”

The moment you hear the words “little lady”, your eyes widen.

“Kaden…?” you whisper, straining to get a look behind you. “William Kaden?”

The sharp pain vanishes.

“That’s Instructor Kaden to you, little lady,” says the synthesized voice, the volume of his voice suddenly much lower. “Keep your eyes forward and don’t look around. I wasn’t lying about the snipers. Though, admittedly, they’re less for you and more for anyone else that might be following you.”

20180515171754_1

You’ll see this every time you land on a planet, and planets will offer different services, such as starports for purchasing ships, outfitters for buying upgrades, and more.

Memories of your flight training on your homeworld of New Boston years ago fill your mind, memories filled mostly with pain and disappointment from your time under the tutelage of Instructor William Kaden, ex-Republic pilot and all-around hard-ass. Although you had graduated by the skin of your teeth, he had been the one teacher you had never been able to please or impress. The pain of him asking for your training pistol and your flight badge at the end of Kaden’s advanced flight class still stung.

Now someone – possibly William Kaden – is standing behind you threatening you with a combat knife and possibly your own firearm. Whether the man was bluffing about the snipers was irrelevant; attempting to disarm him and return to your ship is out of the question. Although, if this man really is Instructor Kaden with a voice-changer, you know you don’t have anything to worry about; William Kaden is – and was – one-hundred percent Republic lawman. But what would a retired Republic pilot and flight instructor be doing on a mining world at the edge of Republic space?

You ask him bluntly if he’s looking to purchase twenty tons of medical supplies.

“Afraid not, little lady. As I’m sure you’ve deduced by now, you’ve been shipping something a little more important than morphine and band-aids. Don’t know the grade of your ship’s sensors, but the crates were hermetically sealed and lead-lined. All the better you didn’t know. Let’s take a little walk, shall we? Don’t acknowledge me, now, eyes forward. Just down this first alley, that’s it. I’ve got a proposition for you that you might not want to pass up…”

*             *             *             *             *

The original Escape Velocity was one of my favorite Mac games growing up (yes, I still have my dad’s old Power Macintosh G3 right above me on a shelf now, it even has a Zip drive… remember Zip drives?) Later on, I fell in love with Escape Velocity: Nova. Absolute love. This game made you captain of your very own ship and gave you a galaxy full of opportunity and danger to explore. You start out in an admittedly tiny cargo shuttle, but you could eventually become admiral of your own fleet. Or, you could join one of the many factions in the game and accept their storyline missions to eventually unlock amazing ship types and ship upgrades.

While Escape Velocity: Nova remains available for both Macintosh and PC, there’s one thing it isn’t, and that’s FREE and OPEN-SOURCE.

20180515180255_1

There are dozens of ships, from tiny shuttles to gigantic warships. Some can be bought, some have to be earned, and others have to be stolen.

Endless Sky is a single-player “2D space trading and combat” game “inspired” by Escape Velocity. The quotes are mighty hefty, because Endless Sky is basically nostalgia fuel for anyone who played EV or EV: Nova in the 90s and early 2000s. You might even call it a spiritual successor.

Just like its influence, in Endless Sky you can essentially be any kind of pilot you want to be. Set sail (or engine) as a raider who boards ships to plunder their cargo (don’t forget yer peg-leg and eyepatch, yarrr), or follow the law and become a mercenary who chases down pirate bounties. You can be a simple trader who goes from system to system trading ware like metals, luxury goods, and (yes) medical supplies. You can even land on pirate systems and accept smuggling runs that pay very well if you don’t get your delivery scanned and confiscated by policing gunships.

You can certainly play to your heart’s content in this sandbox space simulator. But like Escape Velocity, Endless Sky has a main storyline that the player can follow as well. There are even unique dialogue choices to help you decide what kind of captain you want to be. Unlike Escape Velocity: Nova, unfortunately, it seems like this storyline isn’t quite as complex when it comes to branching pathways and joinable factions.

Yet.

The game is still in an early state; while I’m hesitant to call it ‘Early Access’ since so much of the game is complete and ready to play, there are many items that lack graphics and tooltips, and many of the alien factions (of which there are many, owning systems that are accessible only by jump drive that enables travel between unconnected systems) are lacking any story connections or starting points. This makes many ships and items unavailable unless you attack and disable the alien ships yourself and steal their equipment. This, obviously, makes them hate you, which is never good if you ever wish to travel in their territory.

20180515163040_1

If you’ve played EV: Nova, you’ll find the minimalistic UI very comforting and familiar.

If you can’t tell by my attempt at writing a storyline hook above, I’ve wanted to build a storyline in EV: Nova ever since I started playing the game. Now I’m feeling the same way about Endless Sky. There are quite a few mods available for the game at the moment, and modding seems very easy compared to modding Escape Velocity. (As you can tell, I have so many things I want to do that I obviously can’t do them all. I can’t say it’s the next thing on my list but making a storyline mod for Endless Sky is on there.)

The major strength of Endless Sky is also its weakness: it is a free, open-source game, being developed as a hobby by a single very busy developer. This means that, unfortunately, updates seem few and far between. As of now, it’s been more than six months since the last update. According to the Steam discussion board, the developer hoped that the end of May would mean an update to v0.9.9, but so far this hasn’t been the case. Communication is relatively regular, however, so I haven’t lost hope in the game’s development.

I would do better to explain how the game plays, but you know what? It’s FREE. I urge you to go play it for yourself. Relax. Go on some trading missions. Once you have a bigger ship, go blow up some pirates. Or be a pirate, either one. It’s worth your time, and updates are only going to make the game even more entertaining. Should it ever go on sale, this is one game I will be paying for.

Review: 9/10

 

Backstage Tales – Goopy Fish

IMG_0263

So… My house is filled with many different art and ceramics projects, most of them decorative slab containers that my mom wanted to keep because they’re cute reminders of us kiddies when we were in elementary and junior high. Last week, however, I caught sight of this little guy, which was sculpted by my sister in junior high… and I knew exactly what I had to do.

His name is officially Goopy Fish, for I have named him this way. All my sisters think I should start an Instagram for this little ceramic fish, and I’m contemplating adding it to my weekly workload.

So, I started small:

Rogue-one-hologram

That’s no moon. It’s a Goopy Fish. The ultimate destructive power in the universe that just wants a lick of your ice cream.

This is my first Star Wars hologram. Not too shabby, right? Shoot, I was going to link to the tutorial, but I’ve lost it. But thank you, Pattern Tool!

So what was next? Well, naturally:

indiana

There’s no boulder chase scene after this. Indy just gets buried in three tons of wet trout.

Okay, I could have done a better job on this one; I went a bit crazy with the Clone Stamp tool in the background, there. I might redo it in the future.

So I’m thinking, okay, movies about fish. Oh! Simple!

Jaws-movie-poster

He just wants to lick all over ya. Frightening and suggestive. Not suitable for all audiences.

Too easy? Yeah, I agree. But I was able to find the Jaws font, so that’s pretty cool.

My mind was still settled on movies, so where else could I take Mr. Goopy?

silence

Hello, Clarice. Have you met my pet fish? I think you’ll find his appetite for your company quite… voracious.

I can’t tell you how much of a nightmare it was trying to remove the moth while smoothing out her skin in the complex shadows. I couldn’t use Goopy Fish to completely cover every mistake, or else it would cover her nose. I think this one turned out pretty well.

Found the font for The Silence of the Lambs, too. Pretty metal.

Then I thought: okay, what if Goopy Fish found his way into the art world?

Seurat

I’m sorry, Mr. Seurat. Though I’ve seen worse intrusions in your style.

How many Goopy Fish can you see? I think it’s hilarious for Goopy Fish to be beached and playing with a small puppy. That puppy is going to get his head gobbled immediately.

And then this one just made me laugh:

Jacques_Louis_David_-_Bonaparte_franchissant_le_Grand_Saint-Bernard,_20_mai_1800_-_Google_Art_Project

Sacré bleu! C’est du poisson britannique! Fuyons!

Bwahahaha!! I love the horse’s shocked expression. I’d be pretty shocked if fish rained from the sky all singing “God Save the King” in perfect unison, too. You can’t see the singing, obviously, but it is happening.

There will be more Goopy Fish in the future! Photoshopping him is just too much fun!

 

My 10-Hour Tale – Into the Breach

20180511152620_1

Release Date: February 2018

System: Windows (Steam, GOG.com)

Unto the breach? Into? Oh well.

Before I decided to purchase Into the Breach, I only knew one thing about the game: it was made by Subset Games, the same studio that brought us FTL: Faster Than Light. I haven’t reviewed that game just yet, but I can firmly say that it was one of the most difficult and enjoyable experiences I’d had with an indie “roguelike” title back in 2012. FTL’s systems were unique, varied without being overly complex, and an entire campaign could go south within the space of a single battle. At the end of your travels to warn the Federation of the rebellion’s impending invasion, you were either prepared to go up against the mighty Rebel flagship or you were not. And more often than not, I was not prepared. But that’s the fun of the RNG and exploration.

In like fashion, Subset Games brought a new grid-based tactical game into the world that shared the same kind of desperate upgrade-as-you-go can-they-save-the-world feeling. Into the Breach makes me think of Gundam or Pacific Rim set to the tactical system of XCOM or Final Fantasy Tactics, but with a twist: not only do you want your heroes to save the day by defeating all the bad evil monsters, you also want to do your best to save the civilian cities and buildings. In other words, the point of the game is to be opposite of a Michael Bay film. A pixelated Michael Bay-less film.

I mean, collateral damage is going to happen, and it may or may not be my fault, but heroes don’t have to worry about that, right? No. Wrong. Very wrong.

Oh, and time travel! That’s always good, right? Don’t worry, no terrible time loops in this story.

20180511004130_1

It’s the leader units you want to look out for. These things are big meanies.

Giant Mechs Versus Giant Aliens

So as far as the narrative goes, here’s the gist of it: Earth in the far-flung future is being invaded by gigantic city-sized alien bugs called the Vek. An unnamed group of human and A.I. mech pilots are called upon to battle them with three giant robots armed with a variety of different weaponry and gadgets. The Vek multiply quickly, and the odds look grim for humanity… The only ace-in-the-hole our intrepid pilots have is the ability to reverse time and “start over” whenever defeat seems imminent. Through this mechanic, the pilots (and the player) can even reverse time once per battle, restarting a bad turn.

Into the Breach is a turn-based game in which the player will face increasing numbers and types of Vek in battles that only last about five to six turns (a turn being all the Vek move, then all your mechs move, rinse and repeat). This means the combat can be very fast paced if you allow it to be; this is not recommended, as speed invariably leads to making terrible mistakes. In reality, you can take your time, analyze the battlefield, and create the best solution to squish the Vek and keep them off of civilian population centers and important buildings and vehicles. Call it a side-effect of time travel.

20180511152434_1

FAILURE: INVASION IMMINENT. EMERGENCY TIME TRAVEL PROTOCOLS INITIATED.

Future Arms and Tech

Your pilots will have a single mech team at the beginning. But unlocking achievements will help you unlock additional mech teams that can bring all new exciting tactics to the fight. For example, the Rift Walkers (your initial team of mechs) have pretty straightforward attacks, including the Titan Fist (which damages and pushes the target backwards), the Taurus Cannon (a long-range attack which has the same effect as the Titan Fist), and Artemis Artillery (which damages the center target and shoves all surrounding units one tile away from the center). Eventually, you’ll unlock mechs with weapons like Aerial Bombs (which damages and create smoke on the target, making the target unable to act), Flamethrowers (which damage units over time) and Acid Projectors (which inflict A.C.I.D. status on targets, doubling any damage the unit suffers). Better yet, every piece of weaponry will show you their effects when mousing over it, so there’s no confusion about their effects.

The point of all of this weapon diversity is to help you twist and manipulate the battlefield to your advantage. You see, the Vek emerge from the ground (which you can stand on top of to block their emergence) and they don’t act immediately after announcing their attack. This gives your pilots the ability to counter them before they act.

The Vek will attack your mechs, allies, or civilian buildings, and it’s up to you to choose whether to attack and kill them, somehow shove them out of the way of their intended target, or even shove your target into other Vek, damaging them both. If you’re clever enough, you can even turn Vek attacks against themselves, and there are achievements for doing so. If you’re even more cleverer and willing to take a risk, you can smash your own units into the enemy or push yourself with artillery explosions for a movement boost. The game encourages you to do anything, including self-sacrifice, to achieve victory. Don’t worry, though; the mechs are capable of self-repair, which you can take advantage of instead of attacking.

20180511001752_1

Your first team: the Rift Walkers.

Be cautious, though: not only do your mechs have HP bars (and losing pilots means losing their valuable experience and abilities), you have an overall “Power Grid” that represents the health of the civilian cities. Damage to structures will remove bars on the Power Grid, and when it hits zero, it’s game over and time to time travel to an alternate timeline where you didn’t screw up. This sets up a conundrum you’ll encounter many times in combat: should I sacrifice my pilots to protect my Power Grid now, or should I sacrifice the Power Grid to save my pilots for the future?

Oh, and one more thing: your pilots aren’t the only ones time-hopping. Every once in a while, a “time-pod” will drop onto the battlefield that you can secure or ignore. Don’t ignore them for too long, though, or the Vek will also attack them. You won’t want to ignore them since they’re filled with goodies like new pilots and mech powerups… Unless you’re going for the achievement to ignore them, of course. Into the Breach is pretty achievement heavy when it comes to putting you at every disadvantage possible.

Not-Exactly-Paradise Islands

In every campaign, there are four island sectors ruled by different factions (including corporations, terraforming specialists, A.I. engineers, and scientists). On each, you’ll encounter different biomes which can work with or against your overall strategy. At first, you’ll only be able to go through the islands one at a time, but after you successfully defend each island, they’ll become available from the beginning of a campaign from then on.

Missions on each island will have special secondary objectives on top of simple survival. A successful “lightning bolt” objective will add to your Power Grid power rating. A successful “star” objective will grant the player a reputation point that they can spend at the end of the island on new pilots, fusion reactors (which power the weapons and defensive capabilities of the mechs), weapons, tools, and Power Grid power. If no weapons appeal to you, purchasing Grid Power is sometimes a good option as obtaining any power over seven will add to your “Grid Defense” rating. This is the percentage that civilian buildings will completely resist Vek damage. There’s nothing like losing complete hope only for a building to negate its own damage!

20180511003126_1

Such a simple UI. It didn’t need to be any more complex than this.

After completing two islands, you’ll be able to play out the final battle at the Vek Hive island… If you think defending additional islands too risky, then, by all means, take on the final battle. The difficulty of the final fight will curve to how many islands you’ve completed, but you’ll probably be better prepared if you complete three or four islands. If you succeed in destroying the hive, you’ll get a happy ending, and your pilots will time travel to another timeline, ready to continue the fight (for eternity? Some lines suggest that your pilots have been in the fight for a very long time, relatively speaking).

Of course, it’s also possible for a fantastic run to be killed in the final battle. Or any battle, for that matter. Just like in FTL, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is a very distinct possibility at all times in Into the Breach.

Success and Failure

Into the Breach manages to be difficult without being overbearing (unless you want it to be, there is a brutal hard mode for expert tacticians). There’s an “every single move and action counts” mentality that makes the game feel a lot like the game of chess I never knew I wanted to play, complete with a time travel “turn reset” button in case I mess up somewhere along the way. The whole campaign isn’t very long, meaning it’s a great game to pick up on a lunch break, and failure isn’t ever permanent. In fact, I found that getting certain achievements depended on a bit of failure.

Deciding what each mech is going to do and how they will move is completely dependent on which type of mech they are and what armaments they have. Artillery with increased move distance makes them infinitely more versatile, melee mechs need increased health and a pilot that can make the mech armored (or resistant to single points of damage) and flying mechs never have to worry about water or acid pools. Of course, it’s completely up to you to upgrade your mech in every game. Utilizing every mech’s strengths and overcoming their weaknesses is where the true challenge lies. Each mech team you obtain has a completely different game plan, and it took me quite a while to get used to a team change.

20180514181857_1

Of course, the Vek live in an active volcano. Where else do giant bugs live?

My personal favorite? Blitzkreig. A hook mech to reel enemies in, a boulder mech to squish and stop Vek from emerging from the ground, and a lightning mech to chain-electrocute close-up enemies (even through buildings).

My verdict? If you like tactical board games, you should definitely play this game. Into the Breach is slow enough for beginners to learn and enjoy, yet there’s nothing stopping a more advanced player from playing at crazy-fast speeds if they wish (there are speed achievements, too). Complete with an intuitive UI and tooltips explaining absolutely everything, I never had any questions about the effects of any weapon or gadget.

If you can learn chess, you can learn Into the Breach faster. In fact, the only thing Into the Breach is missing is a multiplayer “mech vs. Vek” or even “mech vs. mech” feature, which I think would put it over the top in my book. Co-op with two teams of mechs versus a mass of Vek on an expanded board would have been amazing.

And I just found out there are mods for the game. I think my brain just broke because of the awesome.

Review: 9.3/10

Mental Chains – A Light Shining in Darkness

mh-editor-letter-image-1525293450

It’s been a while since I’ve given a full update on my mental health. Considering how insidious mental health issues are in our culture, I think it’s important to be accountable to someone and share both our successes and failures. The morning of the day I’m editing this, Anthony Bourdain had committed suicide in France. His family is devastated, and even his own mother had no idea about his intentions. Here’s a man who literally has everything and has travelled the world doing things I’ll never hope to experience, a man who has been celebrated as a professional the world over, sharing a meal in Vietnam with the President of the United States and winning Emmys…

And it isn’t enough. But it never is.

I know very little about Mr. Bourdain. Yet his death makes me incredibly sad. Travel writing is a career path I’ve considered looking into. Mr. Bourdain was an inspiration, a light to many people, and no doubt he saw light in the people he met. Where does peace come from when your mind can see only darkness? As Uncle Iroh says in Avatar: The Last Airbender, “If you look for the light, you can often find it. But if you look for the dark that is all you will ever see.” Even with all the goodness around him, did he only see the dark?

static1.squarespace

It seems like some people always walk in the light. Maybe some do. But I’m finding that this is rare if not impossible.

For the last decade of my life, I’ve known nothing but valleys of darkness landmarked by peaks of energy, positivity, and light. What I came to realize was hypomania came in irregular intervals every few months for a day at most while the remainder of the time I was lost, tired, and lonely. Hypomanic moments were magical. I felt like I’d come up for air after choking on sea water. I’m a writer, I’ve been writing fiction since I was seven, and hypomanic moments like those times enabled me to use my imagination again. (I realize the “depressed fiction writer” is a meme/trope at this point, but I’m also an English major and I write for a living, so it really is part of who I am.) After a night of no sleep desperately trying to hang on to the mania, I would inevitably come back down into the dark, and I wouldn’t be able to type a single word. My fiction sat stale in my head for years, and still does to an extent.

I was diagnosed with Bipolar Type II three years ago, and my exploration of medications began. I had no insurance, so I worked with my university’s health center. However, I never found the right medication, much less the proper dose. As much as I loved my psychiatrist for her efforts to help me, my university’s health center just isn’t a proper professional medical facility. I had tried everything: Lamictal, Latuda (worst medicine ever), Risperidone, Oxcarbazepine, Wellbutrin, Lithium, Depakote, Effexor… Without a job, I then went through a state mental health program that didn’t do much good for me at all; my doctor there put me on Wellbutrin to give me more energy, but it also made me anxious and panicky — I would break down into tears at the slightest provocation. It took finding a full-time writing job that took a chance on me and getting insurance to finally be able to see a psychiatrist at my local hospital.

Finding the right doctor with the right experience has made all the difference.

Turns out I just hadn’t taken enough Effexor. My doctor upped my dose of Effexor and risperidone, took me off the anxiety-inducing Wellbutrin, and the effect has been like walking out of a dark cave. I can write again. It feels like a never-ending hypomanic episode compared to where I was. I recently got a new job, and I can write without any mental restrictions. In fact, I’m writing so much that I’m starting to run myself ragged by staying up until two in the morning every night because I’m so afraid that this newfound mental strength (which only a few months ago I equated with a limited-time hypomanic state) is going to go away.

hermans-cave-belize

St. Herman’s Cave in Belize. Kinda feels like that.

I have a fear I never thought possible: I’m afraid that my “happiness” is going to vanish. That I’ll soon lapse back into the dark and not be able to write again. But I also know that I’m not on a maximum dose of Effexor, and things can always be adjusted. I’m in good hands. While treating mental issues with modern medicine is still scattershot when we hope it would be hyper-accurate instead, it got me to this point. I can write again. Even if it doesn’t last, my terrible journey has at last brought me to a state of peace that I’ll never forget. It’s been worth the mental and financial cost.

The tough part? I had been on Effexor before. But the dose had been so low, it hadn’t done anything for me. Is it frustrating to me to think that I might have gotten to this point of stability sooner had I known this? Sure, a little bit. But I know a lot of people who have gone through my same process of trying medication after medication and finding absolutely no results. Finding the right mixture of medicines to give me a solid mental foundation wasn’t a simple process. I don’t know of anyone who diagnosed and “solved” their condition quickly.

Every person is so unique, and no two people will experience the same medicines in the same manner (except with Latuda, surprisingly enough). We think we live in the “Golden Age of Medicine”, and compared to even the 1950s, this is true… But treating mental illness is still almost recklessly imprecise. Even in the United States, complete and holistic treatment is accessible to few. Psychiatrists are sometimes poorly trained to recognize symptoms, and medications are doled out too readily to fix issues that may overlap with other conditions (major depression and bipolar type-II being good examples).

But despite all the obstacles I faced, I found a medicine that has helped me rise above the darkness. “Recovery”, for what that word is worth to a mental illness, is possible. Attaining at least a sense of normalcy and stability is possible. It took the right combination of luck in my job search, finding affordable insurance through the government marketplace, and having access with a professional psychiatrist who recognized what I needed. Not to mention a whole lot of medication experimentation. No matter where your journey takes you with your mental health, never lose hope.

970309-Barbara-Johnson-Quote-Faith-is-seeing-light-with-your-heart-when

Someone on my LDS mission asked me why I have faith in anything. “Survival,” should have been my reply.

Always be looking for the light in the world. Play with a puppy. Listen to a baby laugh. Rock out to music you haven’t listened to in years. Listen to the birds. Meditate. Pray. Write down your thoughts and feelings in a journal or on a private blog (or make it public like me). Get the right amount of sleep, eat right, drink lots of water, and keep fighting.

You’ll get the dark, but you’ll also get the light. Life is a package deal, but so worth experiencing until you can’t experience more. Whether you seriously wonder if you have a mental health issue or have been fighting a diagnosed illness for years and years, know I’m back here cheering for you. You’ll find clarity and contentment again. My journey isn’t done; as my other mother says, and God willing, I’ve still got a lot of years left in me. I might relapse, I might not. But I’ll have had this time of stability to enjoy. And that’s worth any price.

Backstage Tales – Bethesda’s E3

It’s time, boys and girls!! How was that concert by Andrew W. K.?! Awkward enough for you? It also looked like many of the presenters were a little bit flustered. All except for Todd Howard, which really knows how to work a crowd. Oh well. I’d be freaked out to present in front of rabid fan gamers too. So which games am I looking forward to?

RAGE 2: It looks okay. The gameplay looked a little rushed and “presented”, but the open world experience and vehicle combat reminds me a lot of Borderlands and Fallout combined. We’ll see how it turns out. I won’t be pre-ordering it, but I’ll probably pick it up at some point.

Elder Scrolls Online: Wolfhunter and Mirkmire! I also will be playing Summerset later on this month and reviewing the main story once I play through it.

DOOM Eternal: Ooh! Sequel! Can’t wait to see it at QuakeCon! I need to play the 2016 version and review it.

Quake Champions: Eh. Maybe. From what I’ve seen, it does look okay. Unique heroes and their abilities will add something awesome to the mix.

Prey Mooncrash: DLC available now, you say? Ooh. It might make me pick it up.

Wolfenstein Youngblood: Twin daughters! Co-op! Cool! I’ve never been a Wolfenstein guy, but I should give the games a try. I’ve watched them all the cutscenes on Youtube, and it looks like a good time.

We’re all here for Todd Howard! And the moment you’ve all been waiting for:

SKYRIM ON EVERYTHING.

Oh, wait. No, that’s not right.

Pip-Boy

Woo! Pip-Boy 2000!

Fallout 76: West Virginia! November 14, 2018!

Okay, the online-always aspect of the game is really concerning. This means a rocky first few weeks of gameplay when the servers won’t be able to handle the load. This also naturally means no mods beyond Bethesda’s own (it may also mean people with money for Fallout 76’s Creation Club can power themselves up over other players with exotic gear, but I’m 75% sure Bethesda is aware of how bad this would look and function in game). They showed footage of someone wielding a machine gun going against someone with a rocket launcher. What if I start up a new game and find I’m in a “server” with half a dozen “level 50” players looking to grief the newbie vault dwellers? The reason I don’t play Call of Duty is that I’m not talented in the gunplay department. Does this mean they’re going to dumb down the weapons and increase the effect of armor and the HP bar to create the illusion of fairness, removing player skill and turning everyone into a bullet sponge? Do they plan on balancing servers based on player level? If that’s the case, I don’t think I’d like to play on “level 50” servers where everyone is in X-01 power armor and nothing but a team of four equally power-leveled players with Fat Men will get rid of them… Or everyone has found the Chinese Stealth Suit and you get backstabbed every ten minutes.

Todd Howard said the game can be played solo but will be “easier” with a group. Well, yeah, sure. I’ll be shocked if anyone besides supremely talented solo players will be able to infiltrate the heavily infested nuclear launch sites dotted across the map and actually launch nukes. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that’s what the beta is for: to determine the balance between teams and solo players. Okay, game progression goes with you in death, so no douchebag is going to be stealing my weapons. But there’s going to have to be a robust respawn system that will enable me to respawn close to avoid having to travel halfway across West Virginia when a team of four jerks show up, all wielding Shishkebabs.

revenge

Took his arm off with a revolution-era pistol and then demolished his head execution-style. Against a missile launcher?

It’s Bethesda. There’s a story. That’s what I’m playing for. If I have to struggle over ten other players — or worse, multiple groups of four players — to complete story mode quest objectives, then I’m going to cry. Bounties are intriguing, sure. But I want to option to turn off PVP. I’m not a raider, and I never play as one. Will other players be alerted of my presence and receive a bounty notice to come after me if I get too close? Or just if I attack? Can players be set to neutral? If I get a mile into a dungeon just to get gangbanged by a team of twelve-year-olds with pipe rifles and frag grenades, I reserve the right to be pissed.

Will I be building my base (all in real time) or upgrading a bunch of neat guns I just found only to get blown away by a sniper? Does the settlement system serve a purpose like it does in Fallout 4, i.e. rebuilding a faction and settling down? Or is it all temporary and I’ll have to rebuild or resettle parts of it in a new location if I want to get my bearings and rest? The apparent temporary nature of settlements with the C.A.M.P. device doesn’t appeal to me if that’s the case.

Is there a fast travel system? With a map four times the size of Fallout 4, surely this is the case. But always being online doesn’t make this seem very fair. If I can build literally anywhere (that’s not irradiated, obviously), you just know some team of “level 50” douchenozzles plan on setting up their bases in front of story-critical dungeons and covering them with auto-turrets, daring any low-level player or team to fast travel in. That’s what griefers would do for fun, right? Impede others from enjoying a game? Do I have the right to identify these “raiders” from afar with my sniper rifle and put up a high bounty with my own caps to entice others to band with me to break the blockade? Is that what I’ll be expected to be doing for fun in the endgame? Breaking up other players’ camps? Can this be accomplished at all as a solo player beyond X-01 and Fat Man-ing it up? Either by a Fat Man or an ICBM, getting destroyed in nuclear fire while I’m trying to enjoy myself doesn’t seem particularly rewarding.

Beast of Grafton

The wildlife does intrigue me, however. In fact, almost everything but the multiplayer aspect of Fallout 76 intrigues me.

In MMOs, I know the rules. PVP is often optional. Playing with friends is never an issue. But this is a totally different beast. I’m more worried than optimistic at this point that I’ll have to concern myself more with my friend’s online availability than my own skill and time to enjoy this upcoming Fallout game. Don’t even get me started on how immersion-breaking it will be to come up against xxxSephiroth6969xxx in a one-on-one gauss rifle staring contest. But I’ve worried about this kind of thing coming to pass ever since I entered the Fallout franchise. Do I trust Bethesda to overcome some of these problems? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is the fact that this beta will certainly iron things out, and I recognize why they’re calling for one.

EDIT EDIT: Dead video, so I linked to reputable ones. More info! Mods and private servers, just not at launch. Okay. Okay. I’m liking this. Oxhorn is the man, by the way. Check him out if you have any questions about the lore of Fallout.

Elder Scrolls: Blades: Sure, why not? Okay, actually, I now think I’m more interested now that I’m aware of a PC version.

Starfield: IT’S A THING!!

Elder Scrolls VI: IT’S A THING!!

So yeah, all in all, quite the E3 presentation. More questions and concerns than answers from me at this point. And Poor Andrew W. K. Probably not the best audience he’s ever had.

Backstage Tales – The Illusion of An Endless World

Fallout+4+Wanderer+trailer

For game designers, I understand the desire to fill your game world with as much content as you can possibly cram on the disk (or the digital download). After all, you never want your players to feel like you’ve sold them half a game. This can lead to a lot of development time planning quests, writing dialogue, writing scripts for enemies to appear at the right times and places, and possibly even preparing branching paths and establishing consequences for player choice. Even if you have a triple-A video game company’s worth of manpower, I also understand the desire to invest in R&R for systems that can automate this lengthy process.

Bethesda’s solution for ensuring their games last even longer than their expansive quest list would suggest is their Radiant quest system. Whenever you play with certain factions in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or Fallout 4, you may notice that some NPCs grant you repeatable missions that you can enjoy over and over to your heart’s content. These quests will involve you traveling to a location and killing everything hostile there, finding some item and returning it, escorting an NPC to a location and returning, killing a random friendly NPC in a town without being caught by guards, etc. etc.

b3o1012n5mx01

Hi, Mommy! I wuv you!

For completing these quests, you’ll get a moderate amount of gold or caps as well as (in Fallout 4’s case) a small amount of experience. Some notable Radiant quests include the Jarl’s bounties on dragons and bandits, the Night Mother’s assassination missions for the Dark Brotherhood, gathering Shalidor’s writings for the College of Winterhold, escorting Brotherhood squires to locations around the Commonwealth, and the ever-present “another settlement needs your help” Minutemen quests.

Normally, asking for a game to have less content doesn’t sound sensible. Never having to set down Skyrim or Fallout 4 sounds great on paper.

But man, I hate the Radiant quest system.

As this Redditor points out, Bethesda doesn’t ever want to let you off the roller-coaster. I realize that for any game developer, wanting your players to play as often as possible can only be good for sales numbers. Although I’d like to see a solid study between total player playtime and total Skyrim: Special Edition sales, it’s apparent that replayability is vital. I get it. Bethesda wants us to play their games for as long as humanly possible. We’ve already discussed my extensive hours in Bethesda games; I think their focus on replayability is the only reason Bethesda’s execs allowed the modding scene to become as large as it has with attempting to completely control and monetize it.

As clunky as the Creation Club is, imagine if it were the only modding option we had. But I digress.

fallout-4-creation-club-beta-announcement-content-listing

Horse power armor. Ugh. The only reason I have it was because they made it free a while ago.

My first complaint about the Radiant system: it’s not readily apparent which quests have significance to progression and unique rewards and which don’t. I was shocked to discover that the Randolph Safehouse Radiant missions for the Railroad in Fallout 4 actually do have an “ending” of sorts, as well as a rarer armor mod reward for finishing them all. The quests, however, even take place in Far Harbor; why would a secretive Boston-based synth-rescuing cell of operatives even need to be in Maine in the first place? And don’t tell me it’s because they know about Acadia, because isn’t the sole survivor (if siding with the Railroad) the first agent to discover the sanctuary and report on it? I’m digressing again.

But only partially, because my second complaint about the Radiant system is the fact that these quests can send you to almost any location in Skyrim and the Commonwealth. The first time I met with Scribe Haylen in a new playthrough after installing the Far Harbor DLC, she sent me to retrieve technology from the Vim! Pop factory. I was level five, I believe; I hadn’t even met Nick Valentine, the detective upon which the whole intro to the DLC is based, and I wasn’t going to visit Far Harbor for quite a while. According to the Fallout wiki, this is a bug. I have a hard time believing they didn’t do it on purpose. Even if it was an oversight, the fact that Radiant quests can send you to far-flung parts of the map long before you’ll have the equipment and weapons to explore the area much less complete the mission can make these missions sit in your journal or pip-boy unfinished for a long time.

In fact, the locations sometimes make absolutely no sense, as if certain Radiant quests were designed to appear confusing. What will likely be your first Minuteman settlement mission asks you to travel to Tenpines Bluff and help them. They complain that the raiders at the Corvega factory are stealing food from them on a regular basis. You mean to tell me that the raiders at the much closer Outpost Zimonja (whose boss has a Fat Man and power armor) aren’t a more immediate threat, considering the raiders at Corvega would have to walk through or clear around the very-ghoul-infested Lexington just to get to you? And you haven’t been troubled by the raiders at USAF Satellite Station Olivia at all? I somehow doubt Corvega is your most immediate problem.

Tenpines_Bluff

It’s a terrible settlement location, too. So there.

Third, Radiant quests have no effect on the game as a whole. They don’t. In fact, they make the game stagnate. There is little narrative developed by escorting Brotherhood squires for Kells, collecting technical documents for Quinlan, or “acquiring” food for Teagan. No increase in Brotherhood rank, no settlement or resource opportunities, no perks, nothing of note beyond caps (which are plentiful by the end of the game), possible companion affinity (when working with Paladin Danse), and a measly amount of experience.

You know what would be a really neat idea for those Brotherhood squire escort missions? If, when I had taken enough of the little tykes out to slay their first deathclaws, Sergeant Kells took me aside and asked the Sole Survivor to become the permanent mentor to a squire companion of my choosing (an invincible Atreus who could learn a valuable lesson about synths from becoming friends with a certain diminutive synth in the post-story). How about if, when I had procured enough technical documents for Proctor Quinlan, he allowed me a glimpse at the research he was performing and gave me schematics for constructing advanced plasma or tesla turrets for the Sole Survivor’s settlements? What if, when the Sole Survivor had “borrowed” food from enough settlements on behalf of Proctor Teagan, a small farmer-led riot would happen on the doorsteps of the Boston Airport, and the Sole Survivor would be ordered to “take care” of the crowd – through force or reasoning?

Most important of all, what if my standing in the Brotherhood could develop through the completion of these quests? Fallout: New Vegas’s reputation system would serve well here. I’m not expecting the game to let the Sole Survivor take Elder Maxon’s place; I rather prefer Bethesda’s decision that you can’t become the ruler of the Brotherhood through a coup. But I think it would be an experience-enhancing feature of the game if the Sole Survivor, after going through all of these Radiant quests for reputation, got the chance to make some game-affecting choices.

Prydwen-Squires-Fallout4

These kids get the cool flak jackets. I want a cool flak jacket.

Extrapolating further, what if Radiant quest reputation could stack? There’s something New Vegas and even the 2D Fallouts didn’t really do. What if, because of his or her reputation as a leader in the Brotherhood and the Minutemen, the two factions formed an official alliance, and the Sole Survivor’s first task would be making one of the many settlements he’s founded become the manufacturing arm for Brotherhood power armor or weapons? Granted, this would require a spotless reputation record from the Brotherhood to trust you with those level of schematics and probably a required number of established Minuteman settlements to be able to “produce” the facilities. But from then on, the Sole Survivor would have the ability to create power armor and laser weapons (maybe even plasma) at unique crafting stations. Heck, you could “minimize the Brotherhood’s potential casualties” (as Quinlan would say) and give the Minutemen access to the same heavy arms and armor for the infiltration of the Institute at the end of the main story. Not only would this combination of faction strengths fill in the unanswered question of how the Brotherhood replaced all the T-45s with T-60s in between Fallout 3 and 4, it would put the player in a fun and unique position based on their time spent with each faction.

You could easily come up with similar combinations of the Railroad/Minutemen (becoming a heavily-fortified synth refuge) or Institute/Minutemen (a settlement staging point for coursers and synth expeditions). Obviously, Brotherhood/Railroad wouldn’t work, and Brotherhood/Institute is right out. But a Minutemen/Diamond City alliance could produce a lot of caps in trade (might have to happen after the main story when Mayor McDonough is deposed) and a Vault 81/anyone could provide a steady supply of stimpacks, antibiotics, and radiation-free food, just to set a few examples.

I use Fallout 4 as a better example of how the Radiant quest system failed because, in Skyrim, it felt like the system was in its infancy. Radiant quests could have had such a larger impact on Fallout 4.  I truly hope Bethesda finds a better system for creating “endless” content. If they must continue to use the Radiant quest system in the upcoming Fallout 76 and other future titles, I hope they develop it to the point where these types of quests serve a greater purpose and no longer feel repetitive.

All I’m saying is that the Radiant system could have had so much more meat on its bones. I admit, I know nothing of Fallout 4 modding, but I’m surprised very few mods have messed around with the effects of Radiant system quests… Well, except for mods that mark them as such or disable them entirely. Interesting that such a “vital” system to replayability makes Fallout 4 really… Oh, what are the right words?

Oh yeah. Unimmersive. Boring. And worst of all, a waste of time.

6249-1-1450383080

When your “feature” gets modded out, something screwed up.

My 100-Hour Tale – Dark Cloud 2

1897-1520240807

Release Date: November 2002

System: Playstation 2, Playstation 4 (PSN)

First off, let me apologize: this review may be all over the place, there’s a lot to cover. I considered making this a Backstage Tale instead of a review, but I figured just because Dark Cloud 2 is one of my favorite titles on the PS2 doesn’t mean I can’t be critical of some of its features and give it a good ribbing. I’ll admit right now that, although I attempt to create the illusion of impartiality, I’m a pretty biased guy. I have no journalistic aspirations. After all, if you want a 100% objective review, here’s a good example (ha, and you thought there was no such thing).

When it comes to games that represent my childhood and teenage years, games that I’ve given hundreds of hours of my life to leveling and grinding, games with soundtracks I’ll play in my car to make my sisters embarrassed to know me, I might gush a little more than usual.

That being said, Dark Cloud 2 is one of the most entertaining and fulfilling games I’ve ever bought for two systems and never finished. Blasphemy, I know. But I never did say my 100-Hour Tales had to have a satisfying ending.

Dark Cloud邃「 2_20180514184424

Yes, that is a pig monster I flipped on its head with a sword with gold exploding from its butt. Isn’t that how you make money?

Timey-Wimey Ball

Dark Cloud 2 is a third-person action-adventure RPG known as Dark Chronicle everywhere but the good ol’ United States (because we love our sequels so much that we don’t buy a game unless we see a number next to the title, no matter how disconnected the stories are between the two games). Go figure, huh?

Level-5 is responsible for the development of this wonderful game. And they are known for delivering wonderfully-Japanese games (of course they would, they’re Japanese). This is the same company that has given us such gems such as Dragon Quest VIII and XI, the Professor Layton series, the White Knight Chronicles, the Inazuma Eleven series, and the Studio Ghibli-designed Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch and Revenant Kingdom. Level-5’s design and story development are lovingly anime every step of the way, and Dark Cloud 2’s is no different.

For this review, I’ll start with the bad. Okay, not bad, just rough.

For anyone that doesn’t know, Dark Cloud 2 is a time travel story. This means that, just like other stories about time travel, there are plot holes the size of Mack trucks. In fact, one of the weakest aspects of Dark Cloud 2 as a whole is its story. You follow the story of a present-day boy named Maximillian (voiced by Scott Menville, who also voices Robin in Teen Titans) and a girl named Monica (voiced by Anndi McAfee, who also voices Emily Wong, an investigative journalist from Mass Effect) who comes from 100 years in the future. She was able to travel to the present (her past) because of a mysterious blue stone she holds called an Atlamillia. Max was given a similar red stone with instructions to never lose it; it, too, is an Atlamillia, and coincidentally allows the wielder (and those around him) to travel 100 years into the future. There’s a third Atlamillia in the world, but its location is unknown (the story never says where it is in the present if it even exists at that time at all).

Dark Cloud邃「 2_20180514183931

Monica, Max, and Cedric going back to the past. I refuse to make a ‘Back to the Future’ joke.

So far so good, right? Well, not so much. This big bad Emperor Griffon (voiced by none other than Mark Hamill, actually) somehow wields a lot of power over time *cough* ATLAMILLIA *cough* and has eradicated several important people and organizations in Monica’s time by erasing their origins points in the present. Pretty tricky. How Monica is able to remember these important people and organizations when they have been completely erased from time, the game doesn’t explain. The Atlamillia, maybe? *cough* WHY NOT *cough* Anyway, Max and Monica travel to these origin points and fight all sorts of monsters and recruit villagers to restore these future people and organizations so they can help you get to Emperor Griffon and stop him from messing with time.

Right off the top of my head, I can think of twelve ways to ruin our heroes’ origin-point-restoring plan with time travel before they even get started. But that doesn’t make for a fun video game. So, oh well, I’ll allow it.

The absolute worst part of Dark Cloud 2?

The dialogue.

Oh, the DIALOGUE.

(The fish isn’t around long and is never seen again, it’s a shame.)

Great voice actors, obviously terrible voice direction. Play the game and just try to endure the awkward pauses. Upon his defeat, one villain in particular is given a sob story about his mother out of absolutely nowhere, and I couldn’t take it seriously when I watched it as a teenager. It still makes me cringe. But it’s okay: you can merrily skip every last cutscene by pressing start and then triangle. I won’t say anything more because I’ll probably get in trouble with people who actually like the campy characters.

Dark Cloud邃「 2_20180514183830

Yes, that is a giant tree with a tailor’s shop in his nose and a sandwich shop hat. His name is Jurak, and you’ll be reviving his origin point, nose-tailor and all.

The Part Where He Gushes

This is the part where I gush.

The gameplay is superb. Absolutely bonkers good. Max wields a wrench (or hammer) and a gun, while Monica brandishes a sword and a magical bracelet that fires elemental spells. As the story progresses, Max gains the ability to drive Steve, a fully-upgradable mech robot, and Monica gains the ability to transform into the very monsters you fight. You start with pretty rudimentary weapons without many stats, but as you kill monsters, they’ll drop experience orbs with which your weapon will slowly level up. The last hit on the monster determines which weapon gets the experience, even if another weapon did most of the work (if you want to distribute experience evenly between main and side weapons, kill a monster with Steve then quickly switch to Max or Monica before picking up the experience orbs).

Once your weapon has a level, they’ll be granted synthesis points. On your travels you’ll pick up a lot of different resources, most notably crystals of ten different stats: attack, durable, flame, chill, cyclone, lightning, exorcism, smash, beast, and scale. Spectrumize (or break down) a crystal or resource to turn it into a synth sphere which can then be applied to the leveled-up weapon to increase the appropriate stat. (For example, let’s say I want to upgrade the ‘beast’ stat. I have a ‘Hunter’s Crystal’ in my inventory and a synthesis point available on my weapon. I would spectrumize the ‘Hunter’s Crystal’ and then apply it to my weapon for a three-point increase to ‘beast’.) You can spectrumize almost anything, including other weapons, but they may not be as effective as crystals or rare gemstones.

Dark Cloud邃「 2_20180514183906

+6 means Monica’s sword has leveled up six times, and the blue glowy lines around it mean it can evolve.

With high enough stats, your weapon can then ‘evolve’ and take on a different form, and oh boy, there’s a weapon tree for all four types of weapons (Max’s wrench/hammer, Max’s gun, Monica’s sword, and Monica’s bracelet/armband). Weapons can break and become unusable, but they’ll never disappear on you like they did in the first Dark Cloud. You can always repair them with repair powders, which are plentiful in dungeons or can be bought.

You’ll be fighting monsters in many different dungeons, which are randomly generated in a way that reminds me of a very simplified Diablo dungeon pattern filled with monsters, locked doors, an entrance, an exit, and a gate key. Even the same level will never generate the same way twice. On every level, you can gain medals based on beating certain challenges, which include beating a time limit, catching a certain size of fish (YES, THERE’S FISHING, more on that later), playing a game called Spheda (YES, THERE’S GOLF, more on that later), or meeting other special conditions. Later in the game, you’ll also find objects called Geostones which are vital to your origin-point-restoring efforts.

And at last, we reach the big draw of Dark Cloud 2: the actual world restoration project called Georama. With Geostones, you’ll receive blueprints to building the structures, natural formations, and tools your present dwellers will need to build a proper future. You’ll recruit people from the starting town of Palm Brinks to live in these communities as if they were destined to live there as well as build their homes, fulfilling the conditions laid forth in the Geostones that will end in the correct future a century from now.

Dark Cloud邃「 2_20180514184447

You’ll find lots of these. One per stage, in fact, after a certain point in the story.

No two environments are alike; Sindain is a forest with rivers and hills. Building successfully in Balance Valley depends on evenly spacing your buildings on four different plateaus. Veniccio requires platforms (since most of the building area is ocean) and metal homes of different colors. And hot embers are currently falling on Heim Rada, so wood buildings are right out. I spent so much time getting my village to look right, I was doing it more for fun than actually accomplishing it only for the objectives. The only thing that limited my creativity is the high expense of the materials.

All The Extra Bits

YES, THERE’S FISHING. And fishing competitions! And fish RACING! You can even level up your fish! When I fish in Dark Cloud 2, I remember all my fond memories of fishing in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It’s all super relaxing and rewarding.

And yes, there’s GOLF. Or spheda, as the game calls it. It is super difficult; your golf ball (‘time spheres’) and the hole (‘time distortions’) are both colored red or blue, and you can only score if your ball and the hole are opposingly colored. Every time the ball bounces, it will change color. You have to think strategically and get the ball to the hole at the same time as it changes the right color and in a certain amount of hits. I’ve had an equal amount of success and failure at spheda, but I still love it.

Dark Cloud邃「 2_20180514184157

Ahh… Night fishing at the docks. All so Max can catch a huge fish to show the guy next to him and recruit him for wacky time-traveling adventures.

Oh, and Max has a camera which he uses to take pictures of absolutely everything and can ‘invent’ items based on the photos he takes. He can even take special pictures called ‘scoops’ that he can give to a friend for a reward. This is actually a huge part of the exploration…

Oh, and all the people you recruit from Palm Brinks can join you on your adventures, providing special bonuses or selling certain items to you, even while you’re in dungeons. Cedric has saved my life by repairing Steve and his weapons so many times…

Oh, and apparently there’s a special dungeon for anyone who actually beats the game (unlike me) that ends in one of the most difficult bosses in the series, someone who may be familiar if you’ve beaten the first Dark Cloud

Oh, and you’ll be humming the earworm soundtrack for days…

Dark Cloud邃「 2_20180514185438

My favorite screen, especially if I’ve broken most of my weapons to get here.

There’s so much to love in Dark Cloud 2. I really adore this game. Like I said, I’ve bought it twice, once for PS2 and once for PS4. For anyone with a PS4, I would highly suggest picking up this game and giving it a try. I haven’t beaten it, but I keep coming back to it, even after all this time. Dark Cloud 2’s weapon upgrading system has such an addictive depth. The game’s monsters and bosses are all unique and varied, and dungeons are just fun to delve. It’s just such a shame that such an epic time travel story had to be so darn campy.

But that’s just my opinion. I know a lot of people love it because of the camp. Regardless, play this game. If you missed it in 2002, you missed a diamond in the rough.

Review: 9.5/10