My 10-Hour Tale- My Time at Portia

I have hundreds of games in my Steam library, and I’ve only actually reviewed… two. Including this one. Sad, I know. So I’ve decided to dedicate at least ten hours per game and give my thoughts on what I think is good and what needs (or needed) improvement. From early access to AAA games, here’s Chains and Tales’ first 10-Hour Review!

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Release Date: January 2018

System: PC (Steam)

I saw My Time at Portia come up in my Steam queue a couple of times before I decided to pick it up, though it was mostly from being poor that I didn’t pick it up sooner. As of now, it has a “very positive” rating and equally positive reviews. I liked the fact that some of the reviews hinted to the fact that calling it a Harvest Moon clone wasn’t quite fair, and from what I’ve seen so far, I agree with that sentiment. While you can farm, the game has a lot more going for it than just farming.

Kickstarter

While I’m generally wary of kick-started projects with great ambitions, it seems like this one is a success.

My Time at Portia was kickstarted successfully at 146,697 dollars of a requested 100,000, and while it was a little late on delivery, I think it hit the mark really well considering its influences were Animal Crossing, Dark Cloud 2, Harvest Moon, and the Miyazaki animated films. That’s what I like about it: it’s a mixture of my favorite design styles and gameplay mechanics.

The closest comparison I could make is a three-dimensional Stardew Valley. Is it as complete as Stardew Valley? Well, it is in early access. Considering it’s only been out since January, this game has an amazing amount of design polish that I haven’t seen from other early access titles. In fact, in the ten hours I’ve played so far (and going in blind without assistance from guides), I can genuinely say that this is one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve had with an early access game.

It’s not without its problems, of course. Once you get past the playful and cheery art style that really reflects well on the game, one of the first things you might notice from the opening scene of the game is the voice acting. Some of it is okay.

Some of it is… a bit cringey.

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Mei’s voice wasn’t bad. The voice of the bartender named Django was… memorable.

Some Steam reviewers had issues with the main character having a voice. I had no problem with it. The option to turn it off is available in the character creation screen, just for those people that like the strong and silent type. And for the rest of the NPCs, there’s always the volume controls. In my mind, however, an early access game with dozens of fully voiced characters is impressive. Maybe needs a bit of polish before an official release, but not game breaking. I don’t personally mind it.

Of course, as any farm game begins, your Pa went and disappeared, leaving you a ramshackle workshop and home of your own to develop from scratch. Will our hero ever discover his/her father’s whereabouts? It is unknown! When introduced to our rival, who is currently the wealthiest builder in town, of course he’s a snobbish jerk. Does he get a redeeming character arc beyond snobbish rival character? Not sure yet. I’d be surprised, but then My Time at Portia has already surprised me a few times.

Like any game that involves resource management and crafting, My Time at Portia features a system that takes a bit of getting used to. It can be a bit grindy, especially in those first few in-game days… Or whenever you realize you don’t have enough wood to fuel your stone furnaces. Stamina management is a bit dull in those first days as well, and like Stardew Valley, I found myself having to cut my days short just to sleep and restore my stamina.

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Home sweet home, after the holes are patched. I found the couch in an old ruin. The Ancients didn’t need it.

When it came to ruin delving and acquiring my first bit of copper and tin, I was actually a bit surprised that mining was actual underground tunneling, complete with a jetpack for escaping deep holes and x-ray goggles for finding the really good stuff. This game was suddenly Minecraft with cheat codes on. Considering the world in My Time at Portia just recently suffered a cataclysm of some type in its recent past and the local church is confiscating and destroying what it calls ‘forbidden’ technology (including those oh-so-valuable data disks you’ll dig up in the ruins), it sure lets its explorers have some fun toys.

The game starts off slow with quests and character progression, but I think it already has a good balance once you get past the initial hurdles. Pretty soon you’ll be drowning in quests from the NPCs living in town, and I found I could complete many of the minor ones simply by building up my manufacturing capabilities. Grinders make pipes and parts, civil cutters make boards, skivers make leathers and fabrics, and your assembly station makes all your heavy equipment. You’ll go from copper axes and pickaxes to bronze and then iron, all the while making larger trees and rocks harvestable.

And then there’s combat. Remember when I mentioned that My Time at Portia felt like a three-dimensional Stardew Valley? The combat is very similar. You can dodge for a chunk of stamina and swing your sword in front of you. That’s about it. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se. Your character can be upgraded with perks as you level up to increase loot drops, damage, healing rate of items, and other bonuses, although leveling can take a while. Fortunately, everything you do counts towards leveling, from slaying llamas to chopping down trees.

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Give me your fur, your meat, and your fleeeese!

In fact, while going about my business slaying llamas for their fur and experience, I came across one of the children NPCs, a boy named Toby, walking around outside of town. Normally, I don’t think twice about NPCs, children in particular, because in many other games children are a bit of a letdown in the character development department. But in my quest to get everyone in town to like me, I talked to him. To my surprise, instead of the normal conversation menu appearing, my character spoke up (as in, the voice actor for my character spoke up) and asked Toby what he was doing. The kid responded (fully voice acted) that he was going to pick apples from the trees outside the walls. This started a simple quest to kick some apples down from the trees for the kid for some experience, some pocket change, and a relationship increase. This simple interaction surprised me; not only did the developers take time to record actual dialogue with voice actors for such a simple quest, I might have overlooked it completely had I had chosen not to interact with Toby at all. All of a sudden, as a player, I feel more obligated to talk to NPCs on the off-chance they may have something for me that’s simple to do but worth my time.

This is a challenging and time-consuming aspect of game design for a developer, but so vital for player retention. Place the burden of success on the player. Once you reveal that rewards can be found in unlikely places, the player is going to continue to search for them.

It’s one of the main reasons I love farming/role-playing hybrid games like My Time at Portia and Stardew Valley; characters in the world are allowed more time to be given a personality, likes and dislikes, and not just a few repeating chat lines. Don’t get me wrong, My Time at Portia has repeating chat lines. But simple interactions with NPCs like this gives the believability of a populated world.

A populated world, multiple monster-slaying dungeons, crafting, farming, marriage, and more. And this is an early access game, remember, and only my first ten hours in the game.

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Do da jerb, get da rewards. Repeat ad nauseam.

Overall, my first ten hours with My Time at Portia has been very enjoyable. I’m interested to see where else the game will go, and how else it plans on surprising me. If you like would like a laid-back adventure in colorful if a bit unpolished and incomplete world, you could definitely do worse.

Rating: 8.5/10

 

Difficulty Over Fun – XCOM 2

XCOM-2

Release Date: February 2016

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

Don’t get me wrong – XCOM 2 is a killer game. I mean, REALLY killer. As in, you will die playing this game. Many, many times. I mean, those aliens really love slaughter!

From the very ‘tutorial’ level of the game, you realize the aliens who revealed themselves in XCOM: Enemy Unknown are officially in control. Not only did they finish invading our planet decades ago, they’ve set their image as benevolent ambassadors from the stars, acting as a worldwide government and enforcing peace with their technology and strict laws. The stakes are high for the organization known as XCOM. Once a reasonably strong resistance force fighting against the mysterious and frightening alien menace 20 years ago (supported by the many governments around the world, in fact), they’ve come to be regarded as nothing more than terrorists. Not only do you start your experience in XCOM 2 incredibly outnumbered by the alien authority, you begin severely behind technologically, just as you were in the original XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

I love what story I’ve been able to see — our heroes, enduring insurmountable odds, fighting to bring freedom to the oppressed. The turn-based strategy of XCOM 2 is, for the most part, a joy to play with. The developers even improved the aiming mechanics to the point that your snipers can’t shoot through three homes and two car engine blocks at 100% accuracy. The return of the base-building mechanic in your massive flying airship is absolutely welcome (did I mention your base is a massive flying airship?) And the fact that said airship can be forced down by UFO interceptors is a really neat mechanic, leading your soldiers to defend the ship until it can be repaired. The many class specialties have changed a bit since the first game, mixing up the possibilities; while there are the traditional snipers and heavy-weapons-guys, you also get machete-wielding rangers for close combat and techie specialists equipped with awesome hover drones for hacking computers and healing the wounded. Finally, the many researched upgrades, armors, and weapons make the strategist in me grin madly. Ever played Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare or that one sci-fi movie with Matt Damon? Yeah, you get that kind of modern heavy-duty power armor. With missile launchers attached. Oh yeah, and the myriad types of enemies you’ll encounter will make your eyes bulge out of your head and make you immediately wonder “how the hell am I going to take that thing down?” Can you say Sectopod?

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Okay, all the good stuff, great. No, really — everything that made Enemy Unknown excellent is all there and much more.

But you know what really kills the game for me?

The game’s difficulty.

XCOM 2 has many difficulty modes, ranging from rookie to legend. When I played the very first time, I selected rookie. I wanted to see the story before the challenge, see what enemies I would be facing in higher difficulties, which tactics and upgrades would be best to pick as the game went along.

A few battles in, and I’d lost all of my most experienced soldiers (three rookies dying immediately in the first fight), and the aliens were halfway to developing their ultimate weapon. That ultimate weapon (called the AVATAR project) doesn’t immediately herald an automatic game over once completed (it gives you a 20-day limit once it finishes), but it does make the game feel like a frantic sprint to an unknown finish line instead of the progressive tactical experience I expected and experienced in the first game.

You see, the missions required to delay that the AVATAR project would often spawn too far away from my current world position — to travel to different sections of the globe, you need to have the necessary amount of communication stations in your base to contact the resistance factions in each area. Not only is it very difficult to find the resources necessary to construct these comm stations, it became even more so with the demands of R&D research into improved weapons and armor. Resources and supplies feel too little and too far between, especially with the amount of time required to ‘pick them up’, while in Enemy Unknown, you’d get a monthly paycheck of sorts you could use right away.

But oops, don’t research those weapons and armors too quickly, though — the aliens will quickly advance above you, ensuring the upgrades don’t feel half as effective as they should. Obtain gauss weaponry instead of traditional firearms? Alien HP bars double. Obtain power armor? Alien weapons will tear through it with ease. I know similar progression existed in Enemy Unknown, but the upgrades still felt like upgrades… Not gateways into a more painful experience.

You’re going to lose men and women. Repeatedly, and sometimes randomly, no matter their experience. So what’s the use of upgrading a soldier when the chance of losing them before they become interesting is so high? I feel like I’m sacrificing rookie soldiers as an unholy offering to the RNG gods just to make one or two high-level soldiers survive and thrive. Then, if you lose them, there goes the whole game.

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And then there’s the timers. THE TIMERS.

In Enemy Unknown, a few missions required you to complete an objective in a set amount of turns. There’s weren’t many of them, and their inclusion was a challenging but enjoyable change of pace.

In XCOM 2, almost every single mission is timed. And not slowly timed, either — like, you have seven turns to complete an objective point and evac all your troops. Sorry, but this makes the sharpshooter class one of the most difficult classes to use effectively, especially when snipers were so enjoyable in Enemy Unknown.

Did I mention the entire game has a big ‘ol ultimate weapon countdown timer? Everything in this game feels so desperate.

Yeah, I get that’s the theme of the game, in both story and gameplay.

But we’re still talking about rookie difficulty.

I know that I might be outside of this game’s demographic when I say this, but I enjoy simple tactical gameplay and lower stakes. Yes, I’m one of those that selects rookie mode over legendary, even over normal mode. I like to experience the story. I like seeing the soldiers I’ve spent time with grow and develop. Maybe I’m too chicken to play this game the way it was intended.

Ever play Final Fantasy Tactics? Sure, there’s always the possibility of losing two or three characters over the course of the game, but it’s a challenge to lose your entire party in a single fight (barring the late game battles) once you know what you’re doing. Here in XCOM 2, it’s not rare to lose an entire party of rookies in the first real fight. And the second. And the third. Then you spend your hard-earned resources on more rookies. Etc.

Lead developer Jake Solomon did an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun and spoke about the game’s difficulty:

The difficulty is actually one of those things that can be traced to a particular conversation pretty late – very late, actually – in development. I had been pushing the mantra for a long time that we need to make Normal or Veteran difficulty basically an ‘I want to see the cinematics’ mode, an ‘I want to see the story’ mode, and the player can get through it and it shouldn’t be that difficult. But very, very late in development everybody was playing the game, all the team was playing the game and they were coming back saying “yeah… it’s fun. But it’s pretty easy.”

…It definitely happened by late, but I think when the game got more difficult then you started to see people engaging, you felt that spark of life. ‘Ok, I do want to try again.’

…There are cases where it’s difficult to imagine getting through a mission without somebody dying. Some players can get frustrated by that, and that’s something that we’ve been thinking about quite a bit later. Obviously some people respond really positively to the difficulty and others say ‘it’s too much’, and that’s something we’re thinking about. How do we please both players, basically?

How to please both kinds of players? Well, make rookie difficulty actually rookie difficulty, for one.

There’s a balance between having fun playing a game and playing it for the challenge. Both should obviously exist. But in my opinion, XCOM 2 decided to take the difficulty over the fun. If it was during the late stages of development, I understand that perfecting these systems to balance out is difficult. But if the game was fun and too easy to begin with, I feel the pendulum swung a little too far towards difficult and unmanageable.

And that ‘spark of life’ the early players felt to try again and again? I just don’t feel it with this game like I did with the previous title. Even with modding options to raise the limit on those awful timers, I don’t feel like I’m progressing with the difficulty of obtaining resources and useful upgrades. And I still get torn in half by the aliens, killing my soldiers and my desire to play.

The game is praised almost universally by players and critics alike. And I can understand why. But XCOM 2 lost me. I didn’t want it to, either. I love blasting aliens. But I can’t finish the game on rookie mode. Maybe I’m not a true gamer.

And that makes me sad.

EDIT: I have BEATEN the game by modding out the timers. A couple of times, now, in fact. It’s quite the learning curve, and I haven’t even gotten the DLC for the game yet (which I hear raises the difficulty to incredible heights). So, yeah. Git gud, right?