Backstage Tales – Harvest Time

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This was me over the weekend!

Sure, Pac-Man has his pellets, Mario has his Stars, and Sonic has his rings. But my strange obsession with the modern definition of “farming” for digital items in video games started a bit differently.

Imagine ten-year old me playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time after school (no, I had not done my homework, stop asking). The fishing minigame at Lake Hylia could only be described as pure relaxation, coupled with extreme frustration when the largest fish in the pond would continually ignore my lure. I have great memories at age twelve of finally understanding the Junction system in Final Fantasy 8 and scouring the Islands between Heaven and Hell for the most powerful magics in the game. And, of course, I’ll never forget fishing and treasure hunting in Dark Cloud 2.

And then came the creative survival games with their in-depth crafting systems, and made farming for some items a matter of life or death. After all, a man’s gotta eat, and not just for a stat boost. Minecraft makes this pretty clear; you’ll be munching on steaks, porkchops, and loaves of bread if you want to stay alive for very long underground or in the Nether. And diamonds aren’t just a girl’s best friend. No, they’re everybody’s best friend, and diamond armor is your best friend in hard mode.

No Man’s Sky (a game I’m very interested to write about comparing how it started at release verses where it is now) is big on this list of survival games, since in order to thrive you must harvest almost everything you come across in its vast universe. The game’s next big update (which, incidentally, is called NEXT and is said to include multiplayer) releases on Tuesday. It might take me a while to digest it all, so stay tuned for that 100-Hour Review, because I already know it’s going to be that big.

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Me and my buddy Crafter on the Meraki server!

MMOs changed the way we farm for items, and I’m not strictly talking about farming dungeons and killing bosses for the best gear. I’m talking about hunting for items that the denizens of these worlds would consider “everyday items”. Or, perhaps, not so everyday, depending on your skill level. Fishing, mining, chopping trees, weaving fabric, tanning leather, fashioning weapons of war… You know, the essentials in times of war and political turmoil.

Every MMO handles crafting a bit differently, with each having its own set of strengths and weaknesses. The Elder Scrolls Online: One Tamriel, for instance, has resources scattered all across the map, which you can always gather if you find the nodes; the resources scale with your crafting skill, meaning you could find elite rank materials while your level one friend would find common materials in the same area. I think this makes for fantastic MMO design for inviting brand new players, but it does leave immersion behind (why can I find cotton plants in Hammerfell and Morrowind at the same time but then level up and find them nowhere) and leave you at the mercy of guild stores if you ever want to craft a lower level piece of armor or weapon.

Final Fantasy XIV and Star Wars: The Old Republic, on the other hand, have leveled areas (or planets) where you can find level-specific materials for every crafting class, and if you ever need to level up your crafting or gathering skill, you can always visit these areas again for additional materials. In reality, this makes a lot of sense. On the downside, you’ll be looking up online chart after online chart trying to search for that one resource you’ve been looking for, and it will never seem to be in the spot you’d think it would be. (For example, the honest-to-goodness description of faerie apples in Final Fantasy XIV is: “A tart variety of apple commonly found growing in the cool mountain passes of Coerthas.” I thought: “Cool. I’ll wait until I level up to the mid-30s and get to Coerthas to gather them.” But no. It is found nowhere in the cool mountain passes of Coerthas. Instead, it’s found in the temperate forests of the Shroud, much earlier in level than the description describes. Thanks, game. Maybe now I’ll be able to make and sell my apple tarts in peace.)

Farming in MMOs (and the mind-blowing amount of items corresponding to each gathering and crafting skill tree) is a time sink. But it is a time sink that strangely benefits the player. Want a really powerful item? Spend time developing this crafting skill, and you can have it without having to kill a really powerful monster or have to accomplish an impossible quest for it. Not only that, but farming gives the player control over the items they want to create and sell on the player market. You can spend as little or as much time farming as you want. There is an optimal way to level up, sure, but I’ve never really been into min-maxing my time like that. After all, I spent about the first sixty hours of Final Fantasy XIV not crafting a thing, and it didn’t really affect me in the slightest. Go kill those monsters and beat those quests. But if you want the best gear in the game, though, really high-quality gear that you can use or sell to other players and make a profit, then crafting is how you’re going to do it.

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The ever-stalwart miner, searching diligently for silver ore. You know, for making earrings that will boost my mining abilities. Because style is EVERYTHING.

Why do I tolerate farming? Why is the grind something that doesn’t set my normally-anxiety-driven brain into overload, constantly worrying about the time I’m wasting performing such menial tasks?

Well, truth is, even to this really laid-back guy, it does. Whenever my pickaxe comes across a particularly difficult resource node and clunks (meaning I don’t receive experience or materials), my heart drops. But boy, when I encounter that resource node that boosts my gathering rate and gives me high-quality materials one after another, it really makes you think, “Okay, that node made up for the last failure, maybe I can keep chugging along.” And unless you follow a guide to know exactly how much of any particular material is necessary for other crafting skill lines, you won’t really know when to stop. After all, the worse thing in the world to someone who already thinks farming is a waste of time is discovering you’ve run out of the resource too early and have to go back to farming it.

Or, *gasp*… Knuckle down and buy it on the market.

But then, pretty soon your gathering skills level up! Your ability to gain the resources you need are greater than before. You find what you need, the resource you’re collecting doesn’t help you level quite like it did before, and it’s time to find a new place with new materials.

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Come, Dread Pig! Your sweet bacon (and its EXP bonus) will be mine!

Farming in The Elder Scrolls was something you did as you played the game. To be honest, farming in ESO sucks. If you managed to concentrate hard on your environment, farming in The Old Republic is tolerable and helped with companion missions. But in Final Fantasy XIV, it’s almost its own multi-appendage arm of the game, something you have to go out of your way to develop, and it’s kind of endearing in a realistic and sometimes frustrating way. You have to choose to develop your gathering skills as well as the crafting skills that utilize all the materials you gather.

Can I tell you how difficult it is to sit down and pick a profession to improve when the professions themselves depend on so many different kinds of items? Sure, I can just buy all the things I need to level up from the player’s market. But screw that, I need to save my money, not spend it! In order to level as a weaver, I needed help from a carpenter and a goldsmith, and to level them, I needed help from a miner, a botanist, a leatherworker, and an armorer. Pretty soon, all of these jobs were requiring different resources from each other!

I may be wrong, but if you only remain one thing in your life and never discover and develop other talents, you’ll probably find life to be much more bland and difficult. For example, as a writer, I am expected to be an expert voice about every subject I write about, whether I actually know my stuff or not. In my previous work experiences, I wrote about everything from water purification and automotive repair to long-distance medical services and the benefits of essential oils. Was I 100% accurate about these topics? I hope so, but I doubt it. Those skill trees had not been fully developed. But on this blog, talking about video games, art, and mental therapy, I’m in my happy place, and my well-practiced skill lines of video game design, Photoshop, cosplay, and entertaining prose intertwine to present something I can be proud of. Farming and crafting work in the very same way.

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We’ve struck gold! Er… silver!

Does farming in an MMORPG like Final Fantasy XIV or a survival game like Minecraft make me a better person?

I think that’s the wrong question to ask of video games in general. “Is it a waste of time?” is a better question.

My answer? Same answer for this question: “Is my blog a waste of time to me?”

Absolutely not. Why? It’s a distraction from the harsh realities of this life, a comfortable space to retreat to when my mind is on the fritz, and a way to have fun on my own or with others. Sometimes the weight of the world is too much. When it gets that way, it’s time to pick up the digital pickaxe and go mining for digital ore. Turn on some inspirational music and let the time fly by.

My 10-Hour Tale – Tropico 4

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*sigh*

I’m going to have to talk about politics, aren’t I?

Nope, not going to do it. I’m going to talk about a really fun strategy game that’s themed around political intrigue, foreign relations, benevolent dictators that can make the rebellious “disappear” at any time, secret police, every citizen living below the poverty line, social security, free healthcare, free college education…

Nope. You can’t make me. I’m not going to do it.

Mmmm. Hmm-mm. Nonononono hmmmmmmMMMMMMM BOTH DEMOCRATS AND REPUBLICANS ARE THE PROBLEM THE US WAS NEVER MEANT TO HAVE A TWO-PARTY SYSTEM CHANGING LAW SHOULD BE NATURALLY DIFFICULT BECAUSE OF MANY VIEWPOINTS NOT JUST TWO THE FREE MARKET SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO REGULATE ITSELF I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY MARIJUANA IS ILLEGAL ESPECIALLY FOR MEDICAL PURPOSES I SYMPATHIZE WITH WOMEN’S RIGHTS ON ABORTION BUT ADOPTION IS A MORALLY ACCEPTABLE AND LIFE-CHANGING OPTION FOR ALL INVOLVED ESPECIALLY FOR COUPLES WHO CAN’T HAVE CHILDREN RAISING THE MINIMUM WAGE IS SELF-SABOTAGE AND NATURALLY LEADS TO FEWER JOBS ESPECIALLY FOR THOSE WITH NO EXPERIENCE EDUCATION SHOULD BE MORE ACCESSIBLE TO THOSE BELOW THE POVERTY LINE NO MATTER THEIR RACE OR RELIGION SCHOOL TUITION COSTS ARE RIDICULOUS AND SHOULD BE BETTER REGULATED BY THE STATES I ACCEPT MY WHITE MALE PRIVILEGE BUT UNDERSTAND THAT NOT ALL WHITE MALES HAVE PRIVILEGE EVERY LGBTQ+ PERSON CAN AND SHOULD BE WHO AND WHAT THEY WANT TO BE AS LONG AS THEY AFFORD ME THE SAME COURTESY BUILDING THE WALL ON MEXICO’S DIME IS A STUPID IDEA BUT THE U.S. SHOULD BE ABLE TO CONTROL ITS BORDERS WITHOUT SEPARATING FAMILIES WHO COME SEEKING ASYLUM THERE SHOULD BE TERM LIMITS FOR EVERY ELECTED MEMBER OF CONGRESS SENATORS AND MEMBERS OF THE HOUSE SHOULD BE FORCED TO LIVE IN THE DISTRICTS THEY SERVE TO KEEP THEM ACCOUNTABLE TO THE PEOPLE PRESIDENTIAL AUTHORITY TO USE EXECUTIVE ACTIONS SHOULD BE RESTRICTED I HONESTLY BELIEVE THE WEALTHY WOULD PRODUCE BETTER GOODS HERE INSTEAD OF IN CHINA AND OFFER BETTER PAYING JOBS DOMESTICALLY IF NOT FORCED TO PAY SUCH HIGH TAXES HEALTHCARE IS NOT A RIGHT BUT MODERN MEDICINE IS WOEFULLY IMPRECISE IF ADMINISTRATION FEES DIDN’T COST SO MUCH AND GOOD DOCTORS HAD BETTER PROTECTION FROM LAWSUITS MEDICAL COSTS WOULD BECOME AFFORDABLE ON THEIR OWN

mlezo

ERROR: OPINION OVERLOAD. UNABLE TO UNDO. (I was going to use the Scanners movie head explosion, but thought it a bit graphic.)

*pant* *cough* Sorry. Give me a minute.

There. It’s done. It’s all out there. I’m a strange specimen of libertarian/independent mixed up with a conservative upbringing. I have reasons and personal experiences for thinking all these things, as most people do, and I’m fairly flexible accepting well-reasoned arguments on both sides of any topic. I have a lot of respect for those that consider themselves classical liberals, trying to understand socialists gives me a headache, fascists are just plain wrong, and communists need to go live in 1970’s Cuba or 1960’s East Germany.

So why do I reveal these many political sins I call opinions in a video game review? Well, two reasons. First, because I must be a glutton for punishment, as I have the overwhelming desire to be part of a discussion I’m very unqualified to participate in (although you should never assume unqualified means uneducated). Second, because it’s games like Tropico 4 that make me wonder what it would be like if I threw out all of my beliefs about good government and became a dictator of my own resource-rich island out in the Caribbean.

Turns out, I’m pretty good at being a dictator.

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My very refined Presidente avatar. Yes, a pipe instead of a cigar. I was going for “the most interesting Presidente in the world” look.

Tropico 4 is, yes, the fourth game in the strategic Tropico series by Haemimont Games and published by Kalypso Digital where you take the reins of your own Caribbean island as a Fidel Castro-esque figure with an awesome voice actor. You can choose to be a fascist dictator that offers nothing but swift and terrible military action to your rebellious subjects or a benevolent presidente-for-life who offers free education, free healthcare, free housing, and free margaritas to all your loyal citizens. Okay, maybe not the margaritas, but you can certainly set up your own cabaret and celebrate the good life.

Having played the previous Tropico games, I chose this one to write about because it’s been my favorite. It’s also the best in the series right now, if reviews would have you believe. I haven’t played Tropico 5, but friends and many reviews on Steam say Tropico 4 did everything better. Tropico 4, like its predecessors, comes with a plethora of DLC (too much DLC, in my opinion, although I got them all in a bundle) that breaks down into the very-positively upvoted Modern Times and…everything else. You get additional islands and challenges along with a smattering of questionably useful buildings like nuclear bomb shelters and propaganda towers in case life in the Caribbean gets a little… fallout-y.

As dictator (or El Presidente!), it’s your job to balance the many goods and services your citizens need as well as manage the many different factions of people that arrive on your sun-kissed shores. These tasks can range from painfully easy to painfully difficult depending on the difficulty settings (yes, there are easy-to-use difficulty settings, huzzah) imposed by the level or by yourself in free play mode.

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Yes, that is farmland and a dump in the middle of my community. It can’t smell good, but it just works.

First, Tropicans need to eat (a variety of foods always helps the mood). They need proper housing (good housing is expensive) that is free of crime and gang violence. They need to worship God in churches and cathedrals. They need good medical care from clinics and hospitals. They want liberty of information through radio, newspapers, or television. Tropicans want good and meaningful jobs and education opportunities.

On top of all these things, Tropicans have opinions about how Tropico should be governed. Each belongs to a faction, like the religious faction who value faith and church availability above all else, the militaristic faction that values national defense, the loyalists which value independence from superpowers, the environmentalists that will complain against you for over-exploiting Mother Nature, the Capitalists and the Communists (duh), and the intellectuals who value education and wisdom.

Tropico 4 is all about maintaining a balance of all of these factors and somehow still make a tidy profit for your national treasury… as well as improve the financial health of your hidden Swiss Bank account. You’ll get foreign financial aid from the US and Russia as long as you remain in their good graces, but it’s never wise to go into the negative for very long lest your foreign relations deteriorate and almost everyone starts to protest (sounds familiar to modern-day politics, to be honest).

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Typhoon!! Everyone hide in your baseme- oh. Island. Right. Um, duck and cover?

So how do you make money? You can jump-start agriculture with cash crops like tobacco or sugar, mine iron or gold, raise cattle or llamas, or strike into the tourism business and establishing a few hotels and entertainment venues. Then, build factories to take advantage of your island’s natural resources, like cigar or weapon factories. In Modern Times, you can even establish chemical plants, concrete factories, and business offices to supplement your income. Most factories come with extra upgrades you can unlock by providing them with power from power plants or wind turbines, letting you improve the job quality for your factory’s workers or help you produce goods faster.

In fact, you’ll need power for lots of things, like movie theaters and hospitals. And giant rotating statues made of solid gold. You know, the essentials.

Establishing a fully-operating and well-oiled economy in Tropico can be tricksy. To help you navigate the dangerous political waters of life as El Presidente, you can pass certain laws or edicts to increase the people’s opinion of you… or remove any dissidents that would raise their voice against you. Edicts include social security for the elderly (the price of which increases as your island’s population grows older), declaring a national holiday (which changes some Tropicans into Loyalists or Nationalists), issuing tax breaks straight to each citizen (which is obviously great PR but pricier the more people live in Tropico), make housing free (which is great for public opinion but the capitalists hate it and cuts into your bottom line), establishing a literacy program (increase the rate at which workers gain experience in their jobs), and even printing money (which grants a ton of money but makes everything you build permanently more expensive).

Some of the more interesting edicts that I rarely played with until recently include legalizing same-sex marriages (which increases intellectual respect but lowers religious respect), call for an anti-litter campaign (which decreases pollution but also decreases liberty), and declaring martial law (in case crime gets out of control, liberty and all production is decreased). Modern Times brings a few entertaining edicts to the table, including banning social networks (increases production, but it also shuts off Tropico 4‘s social integration at the same time, lol), passing healthcare reform (increases the amount of people that can be treated at clinics and hospitals), and calling for a Festival of Love (makes a baby-boom population increase and boosts tourist spending for a few years).

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And you thought I was joking about the giant rotating golden statue.

So how do I play Tropico? Probably in the most ham-fisted way possible: the guy with the money makes the rules. Farming farming farming cash crops right away, leaving only a few farms to make food for everybody. Open the doors of Tropico early enough with an immigration office, and you’ll have all the labor you’ll need to see huge profits (or, as Trump would say, YUGE). Unless I start with a church, I tend to ignore them until I have a big enough checkbook to afford a high school first (as churches can only be run by educated priests). Buy a clinic; there is no choice here (people dying is the last thing you’ll want). If you’ve got lots of white sandy beaches, go for tourism immediately: even with few amenities, tourists will practically shower you with money in between the timed exports.

The intellectuals, the religious, and the loyalists usually hate me for a while, and a rebellion starts to form when you get to about 45% approval rating or lower. But by the time it gets down to about 43% or 42%, I usually have enough money to afford churches, entertainment, and a ministry to help me pass edicts like social security and my first tax break. From there, build even more farms and plantations, a college, an armory, and a few guard posts, and the paltry few rebels who’ve chosen to live alone in the miserable jungle will have no choice to accept the amnesty I offer when approval gets back above 50%.

I think Tropico 4 and the series in general is so funny (and fun) because while you can choose to be a communist “presidente” who does nothing positive for the people, you still have to rely on foreign markets, exports, and trade in order to progress. Why do you think embargos and sanctions work so well in real life? The money has to come from somewhere, and sorry Venezuela, but printing money only gets you so far when inflation rages. Education and healthcare might be free in Tropico, but all the farms, mines, office buildings, churches, restaurants, hotels, and tenements are all state owned and regulated as cheaply as possible. What’s an education in North Korea worth these days? Would you trust Cuban doctors to treat a heart defect or operable cancer?

Workers aren’t paid according to their skills; workers are paid on a scale of what the government thinks they should be paid, usually dependent on which jobs are needed most at that time. Which can be $1 a day, if you wish (although job quality will go straight down the crapper). Don’t want to be a teamster? Well, the teamster office is paying $25 an hour at the moment, even though it’s on the other side of the island. How many of us would drop our current jobs, abandon our homes, and remain nomadic depending on where the money goes?

Does that appeal to anyone?

If it does, imagine if your “presidente for life” was some politician you really couldn’t stand. *ahem* In real life, you may be able to vote in your country, but very few get to choose their dictator.

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Tropicaaaaaaans iiiiiiin SPAAAAAACE!

Tropico 4 is a fantastic game from El Presidente’s perspective. It asks the grand question, “What would the dictators of the world do with unlimited resources and man power?” Tropico‘s seemingly fantastic answer is: “What they’re already doing and then some.” I like to think I’d be a pretty benevolent dictator, if thrust into that position. But you didn’t see many people fleeing to communist Cuba during the 80’s and 90’s for its economic opportunities, religious freedom, and safety from political persecution. No, I’m pretty sure those rafts were floating towards Florida, not away from it.

Review: 9/10 for fun, 9/10 for making me research history and current events, 1/10 for making me talk about politics

My 10-Hour Tale – Endless Sky

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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

 

My 10-Hour Tale – Into the Breach

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

My 100-Hour Tale – Dark Cloud 2

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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+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.

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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.

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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…

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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

My 10-Hour Tale – Reus

Before writing this review, I shot and edited a short gameplay video with no voiceover to put on YouTube as an experiment. Immediately after uploading, it was flagged for content ID on the game’s soundtrack, despite Abbey Games insisting that the game could be streamed, recorded, and even monetized for Let’s Plays. So that kinda sucks. Maybe I’ll attempt an update once I do more research and practice my editing skills. I’d love to do video reviews along with the written blogs.

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Release Date: May 2013

System: Windows (Steam, GOG.com)

Okay, okay, after my Backstage Tale about god games, you probably think I have a purposely narrow view of what a god game should be. I really only have my personal definition of a god game (you know, ‘miracles’, a dividing line between minion behavior and player direct control, and perhaps a bit of terraforming) because I wish to see other games of this genre succeed.

Expanding on the subject, there’s something intriguing between having world-changing powers but no control over your subjects. You could see it as giving mortals ‘free will’. A natural conflict between the player and pre-defined NPC behavior arises immediately. This lack of player control can become immediately frustrating, as I illustrated in my previous article about the game Black and White and its giant creatures. Even with proper AI programming, minions are nearly guaranteed to annoy the player if given too much independence. Perhaps the most difficult comment any god game designer could hear a player make is: “I could get this done a lot faster if I could just control them.”

Of course, games can be fun with a lack of control. Just ask anyone who’s played on a slot machine. There’s that issue of balance again: on one side, you win or lose by complete chance (or RNG), and on the other, it’s simply a strategy game where the player controls everything. So, what’s the middle ground?

Meet Reus.

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Just a bunch of giants on a barren world, full of potential. Nothing big.

Just Me and My Fellow Giants

Developed by Abbey Games, Reus is a two-dimensional god sim/strategy/puzzle game where the player isn’t a god exactly. Instead, the player controls four giants with god-like powers: a forest ent-like giant, a rock giant, an ocean crab giant, and a fungal ‘spore’ giant. These giants all have abilities to create different biomes across a circular worldspace: oceans with the crab giant, deserts and mountains with the rock giant, forests with the forest giant, and swamps with the fungal giant. Once the biomes are in place, the giants can lay down resources like plants, minerals, and animals that vary between biomes. With enough resources planted down, humans will settle into villages and towns, claiming the resources you lay down. You have no control over the behavior of these humans, including how they’ll react to neighbors and even towards the giants themselves. Initially, the goal of the game is to complete the different eras, helping the humans grow their settlements. Besides the eras, there are 30, 60, and 120-minute games where you can complete challenges ranging from simple to remarkably difficult.

There are three basic types of resources: food, wealth, and tech. Food can come from elderberries (which your father smelt of), mackerel, and pears. Wealth can come from beaver (their hides, I assume), agate, and quartz. Tech can come from peppermint, ginger, and dandelions. This is just a few of the many types of resources your giants can lay down: there are over 100 different types, all with their own bonuses or ‘symbioses’ (for example, chickens produce more food if placed next to a blueberry plant). In order to ‘transmute’ a resource into a more advanced one (such as changing tech-based agate into more versatile salt), your giants can use ‘aspects’ which also act as a resource boost (to change agate into salt, you need to have your rock giant use ‘seismic aspect’.

On top of this, every resource can be granted multiple aspects, and even more so if those aspects are ‘potent’, ‘greater’, or ‘sublime’. The forest giant can use an ability called ‘fertility boost’ to increase the chance of higher quality aspects. This also happens in locations that have a higher ‘natura’ rating. Most plants grant ‘natura’ naturally.

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A tiny bayou town living under the shadow of a giant rock and the living embodiment of hay fever.

This is all to help your villages complete special projects that, when completed, will grant your giants human ambassadors which will upgrade your giant’s powers based on which biome the ambassador comes from. These unique projects grant big resource boosts, like granaries providing food, toolshops providing wealth and tech, etc. These projects themselves can be upgraded multiple times, each with more complex resource and situation requirements than the last.

But wait, there’s more! Your giants can provide a lot of resources very quickly, but if you give a village too much too quickly and not include resources that also provide a resource called ‘awe’, your villagers will soon grow discontent in their prosperity and attack nearby settlements and even your giants. That’s right, your giants are vulnerable creatures. Each has a life bar and can ‘die’ at the hands of tiny Kratos-like warriors. If you lose a giant, they return to sleep in the earth to recover and you will no longer have access to their powers for the remainder of the era. With multiple villages established, you’ll be herding cats to make sure villages don’t kill each other or your giants before you can help them all complete their projects for the essential ambassador upgrades.

Bummer. Good thing the rock titan can cause an earthquake that will topple the largest villages and towns into oblivion if they get too uppity. You can use the crab giant to sink a village into the ocean. If desperate, the fungal giant can lob giant balls of swamp goo at attacking armies.

Too Fine a Balance?

This is where Reus attempts to draw the fine line between chance and control, with ‘attempts’ being the keyword. While you can’t directly control what your villages do to your giants or to each other, you can use ‘awe’ to calm them, remove ‘awe’ to provoke them, or invoke the ‘clean slate’ protocol by quaking or sinking them. (Some high-end project upgrades like the level 3 Historic Point require that village to destroy the closest nearby village, for example, so some war is useful.)

On paper, this seems simple. Unfortunately, since you have no say on what your villages end up building for their projects, and since many of the challenges hinge on the creation of certain projects, and since it’s pretty RNG which other villages your villagers make peace or war with, Reus seems to fall off the balancing wire into a game of chance once you’re on the hunt for challenge completions. Increasing your giants’ ability to control the environment (and, accordingly, the humans) takes a lot of practice and memorization.

I’ve gotten lucky with resource symbiosis once or twice where I created a good enough amount of ‘awe’ to stop a war. But it didn’t happen often, and I couldn’t tell you which resources I used to accomplish it. It seems like resources with useful amounts of awe are few and far between, or are reserved for higher-level transmutations. And those higher-level transmutations are entirely dependant on upgrading your giants with the right projects from the right villages in the right biomes with the right resources that don’t go to war with each other or end up hating your giants.

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It’s kinda hard to tell, but there are tiny soldiers on that mountain, and they’re throwing spears at the swamp village. Look at Rocky’s face. Rocky isn’t mad, just disappointed.

A Puzzle of Many Colors

This is another game I often come back to because it’s so easy to pick up and play. But it’s hard to master. Maybe not hard, but time-consuming. If you don’t know your end goal, you’ll waste a lot of valuable time making, upgrading, smashing, and remaking resources until the right symbioses happen. Worse, even if you do know your end goal, there’s a chance your aspects won’t be potent enough for upgrades, which leads to more resource remaking.

The game falls into a pit I affectionately call Blind Crafting Syndrome: even if you’ve crafted it before, unless you’ve memorized the recipe, the game won’t give you a clue on how to repeat it. While enjoyable with no prior knowledge, Reus is frustrating to return to after time away. Reus doesn’t quite have a crafting system like Minecraft or My Time at Portia, but there are so many different combinations and requirements of resources and aspects and biomes that it requires an immense amount of trial and error to complete the higher-level challenges. If Reus had some type of planning tool you could use before laying down a resource, or even an in-game encyclopedia, it would help immensely.

Your giants are incredibly pondering and slow creatures as well (I guess they should be). Managing an entire world, even a small or medium-sized one, takes a lot of travel time and planning. All the time while playing, I would have a sinking feeling that I was doing something out of order or inefficiently, but I didn’t want to have to look up online someone else’s ‘correct’ answer. Maybe it’s my anxiety of time limits and incredible challenges, but all the time-wasting trial and error (mostly error) dulled the game for me. This game should be casual and relaxing. But it’s not. Yes, there is an endless mode, and I could practice my Reus skills. But you can’t complete challenges in ‘alt’ mode. No, I would probably head to the Reus wiki or the Steam guides for help to figure out a game plan for finishing a particular challenge in the timed game.

I would, that is, if I had an intense desire to continue to play.

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Give a forest village some chickens, they’ll ask for some blueberries. Give a forest village some blueberries, they’ll want some pear trees… Etc.

Reus is another indie game that looks simple, colorful, and inviting at the beginning but by the endgame becomes a very challenging strategy/puzzle game. A bit too much into the puzzle genre for me. In fact, to me, it feels a lot like a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. I get why people enjoy putting them together, and I’ll find joy in locking a few pieces together here and there (hence why I’ve played Reus on and off through the years since its release). But I don’t have the patience to put the whole thing together.

While not wholly applicable, this one, in particular, came to mind.

Review Score: 7.7/10

My 100-Hour Tale – Realm Grinder

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Release Date: June 2017

System: Windows, Mac OS X (Steam), Online (Kongregate.com)

Clicker games are a relatively new concept. Well, ‘last six years’ new.

Wikipedia calls them ‘incremental games’, a game whose gameplay “consists of the player performing simple actions such as clicking on the screen repeatedly…to earn currency”. After enough clicking, there’s usually some mechanic (a ‘minion’, a ‘service’, a ‘structure’, or a ‘business’) that enables the game to ‘click’ for you, enabling you to earn immense amounts of the game’s currency over a certain amount of time. Multipliers are added into the mix, stacking higher and higher to the point where even a 28000% increase isn’t a drop in the bucket.

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Where it all starts. Again. And again. And AGAIN.

It’s inexplicable. I can’t describe it. There’s something about Realm Grinder that appeals to me, despite the very nature of the game. I shouldn’t like it. I shouldn’t like to waste time watching numbers tick ever upwards while watching Youtube videos. I shouldn’t like clicking on upgrades whose effects are soon lost in the flood of even more upgrades. Numbers increase exponentially to the point where I have to consult a chart to make sure they’re the numbers I want. Unless you’re a college physics major that deals with incredibly large numbers on a regular basis, I doubt you know how many zeroes are contained in ten-quattuordecillion… Or what that is in scientific notation. I sure don’t. I might as well be playing with my graphing calculator. At least that way, I could type the number I want immediately instead of waiting for some silly game to get there.

But then I wouldn’t get the serotonin rush from having reached that point over an achingly long period of time, would I?

The Gainful Grind

Realm Grinder is an incremental game (or an idle RPG, according to the Steam page) developed by Divine Games and originally published on Kongregate. In fact, that’s where I first played this time sink before discovering it was also free and linkable to Kongregate through Steam.

Do you like a game with goals? Trophies? Upgrades to go with those trophies? A ton of factions to choose from with different upgrade trees to suit your preferred playstyle? Then Realm Grinder is the clicky game for you!

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Happyville, tax rate: 49.13 undecillion gold coins per second. Talk about hyperinflation.

You start the game with very little money at first, building neutral buildings like farms, inns, and blacksmiths. These don’t produce much. In fact, without the right upgrade path, these units (businesses? Buildings?) will count for almost nothing. Then, for a small fee, you’ll choose a path: good or evil. The good side emphasizes a more active playstyle, while evil emphasizes idling and offline growth. The good path has honorable buildings such as castles and cathedrals while the evil side has slave pens and hell portals; either side you choose, you’ve got eleven building types to build, seven morally aligned and four neutral.

But we’re not done yet. Once you’ve picked good or evil, it’s time to choose the race you’ll align yourself with in that playthrough. On the good side, you’ve got the fairies, the elves, and the angels: fairies focus on boosting the output of the lowest tier buildings, elves focus on clicking, and angels focus on spell casting and mana regeneration (more on that in a second). For evil, you have the goblins, the undead, and the demons: goblins get cheaper buildings, the undead get increased production the longer the playthrough lasts, and demons increase the output of the highest tier evil buildings.

The more currency you collect, you’ll start to gather gems, which give you a base multiplier to all production. In order to collect your gems, you have to start your playthrough from the beginning, but you’ll have that base multiplier to help you out on your next playthrough. Play long enough, and you’ll gain the ability to reincarnate, giving up all of your gems to really start over with yet another type of base multiplier. And as you collect currency, you’ll increase your chances of finding faction coins, which allow you to gain additional multipliers in your current playthrough! Did I mention that each faction has their own spells which give you additional short-lived multipliers through the use of a slowly refilling mana bar (or quickly refilling, depending on your faction)?

But wait, there’s more! You can even spend real-world money on rubies, which can allow you to receive gems without restarting your playthrough, boost your multipliers even further, and purchase unique upgrades.

Oh, the multipliers. I told you this game is all about multipliers.

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Notice the red ‘Buy All Upgrades’ button. You’ll be clicking this a lot.

Play long enough and unlock their many treaties and pacts, and you’ll get to play as neutral factions like the Faceless, which become stronger over multiple playthroughs, the druids, which focus on magic and balance, and the Titans, which have multipliers for your multipliers. Advance even further, and there’s the good dwarves (which enhance the base good factions), the drow (which enhance the base evil factions), and the dragons (which enhance the neutral factions). And then there are the mercenaries, which allow you to take any perks and upgrades from any factions to mix and match them to your heart’s content.

“Oh, Don’t Worry, It’s Free…”

Can I tell you how much time I have in this game? Hint: not nearly as much as some of the reviewers in the Steam reviews have.

155 hours.

I won’t lie, a lot of that time was from me having left the program on in the background while doing other things. But I think an equal amount of time was me having my mouse hovering over the next upgrade, waiting for the currency to tell me when I could click. I don’t remember if I actually gave money to this game. I think I did. A dollar or two. Considering the amount of screen time I spent with this “free” game, I thought the developers deserved something from me.

I say “free”. Steam says “free”. But no. This game and the many ‘incremental games’ I have on my phone have cost me a lot of time. Was it time wasted? Perhaps. Was it time I would have wasted anyway? Maybe.

But man, can these games be addicting, especially in your downtime. It feels as though clicker titles like Realm Grinder take the most enticing thing about video games – slow and steady progression – and drip feed it to you just enough that the itch never goes away. I had stepped away from this game for about three months before writing this, and the game was just where I had left it, ever chugging its dozens of multipliers away like I’d never left. I’m not quite sure if it’s my computer or Kongregate’s server that logs my progress. Maybe it’s both.

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Oh, did I mention the excavations? More upgrades! More multipliers!

Either way, I’ll keep it installed. I never know when I’ll need something to fiddle with while watching my favorite streamers on Twitch. If you feel like it, give some love to GrandPOObear and MrLlamaSC, won’t you? I’ve just got to unlock the dragon faction. I just have to. Then I’ll uninstall this wretched game.

Maybe.

Review: 8/10

Backstage Tales – God Games: Imposters in the Pantheon

How does one program a God?

Yikes, religion on the internet!

Ha, funny. I’m talking about god games, simulators that give you power over a worldspace or the creatures and elements within it, typically on a massive scale. It could include such features as mass terraforming, devastating ‘miracles’ that can be seen as good or bad depending on the target, development of said powers from simple to overwhelming, and maybe even helping supplicants and acolytes grow to the top of the pack.

“A Mighty God Was He (or She)…”

I have very fond memories of Populous: The Beginning, one of the first god games I ever enjoyed. You start off with a shaman, the head honcho of the tribe through which miracles and spells are cast, and you wander the solar system gathering followers to increase your power and influence. If people won’t join you (as they follow other gods and their shaman can unleash the same powers as you can), it’s up to you to convert or destroy them. No peaceful coexistence in this universe. Your powers in this game ranged from summoning hordes of stinging insects to directing tornadoes to incinerating entire villages in fiery volcanoes. I’ll never forget that at the end of the game, you finally have enough power as a god to do the spell casting yourself without a range limit, and the resulting destruction of your enemies is incredibly satisfying.

You know, I never understood how the ‘swamp’ spell meant instant death to anyone who walked through it. Invisible crocodiles? Fast-acting trench-foot? Psh, I dunno, but man, it made for an effective deterrent.

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What a quaint village. Would be a shame if something… happened to it while the shaman is away.

I then played a game later in my childhood called Black and White, a game made by one of my favorite now-defunct studios, Lionhead Studios. Admittedly, I really couldn’t get into this game. At all. Why in the world would an all-powerful god put so much time and effort into training a giant creature who, for all intents and purposes, does nothing but annoy your villagers, cause property damage, and poop everywhere? I’m sure they can be trained to not do that, as I have seen insisted on many a website touting the game as a masterpiece. I never got very far in the game because I couldn’t figure out what to do with the leashes and my creature would inevitably go off and cause trouble, getting itself killed in the process (despite me nailing its super-extendo-leash to a tree near my village).

Interesting that this game is yet to make a debut on GOG.com or anywhere digitally. Sad day. (Not that I would buy it again. I distinctly remember having terrible troubles with it on my first PC… A trend that future Lionhead Studios games would follow.)

So What Changed?

So, getting both good and bad as a kid, why do I believe that god games like Populous still haven’t tapped an incredibly deep well of potential?

It’s because of how broad of a subject ‘god games’ have become these days.

If you search on Steam under the tag ‘god games’, you’re going to see a lot of different types of games, from RTS (like War for the Overworld) to sandbox games (Like Universe Sandbox) and even casual pixel games (like The Sandbox). Spore and its expansions are on this list, and while I could make a joke about a ‘god game’ featuring evolution, I’ll skip it. They even have the gall to put in the glorified screensaver that is Mountain, and the philosophical Everything. Games that I would consider to truly be ‘god games’ (complete with the spiritual and mystical aspect, the miracles, and the followers) are often not well received, with the good ones showing up few and far between (good examples are Reus, which I plan on reviewing soon, and From Dust, which is an excellent game despite belonging to Ubisoft and their terrible Uplay system). I don’t like this broad idea that if the game gives you complete control over your own little population or worldspace, it’s automatically a ‘god game’. If so, that makes Civilization or Endless Space 2 ‘god games’. It makes Planetary Annihilation a ‘god game’. It makes The Sims a ‘god game’.

These aren’t ‘god games’. Strategy, yes, but not ‘god games’.

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In From Dust, you play as a god. Ergo, this is a ‘god game’.

A Simulated Example

But this doesn’t mean ‘god games’ have to always be large-scale fire-and-brimstone destruction-fests. Let’s shrink the concept of the all-powerful ‘god game’. Imagine if The Sims were still all about the home-building and decorating, but you had no control over your sims in the slightest. What if they lived their own lives based on a list of their likes and dislikes, developed relationships with other sims all by themselves, and developed their skills without any input from you? Sounds boring? (As boring as Mountain? I digress.) Well, what if, as some malevolent or benevolent spirit or ‘god’, you could become the sim’s conscience? What if you could ‘train’ your sims to take a unique path through their lives, being the angel (or devil) on their shoulder as they live day-to-day?

What if they could ignore you if you gave them a command that didn’t match their ‘code of ethics’? This could be for good or evil, as simple as influencing a child sim to disobey their parents or as complicated as attempting to persuade a burglar sim to give back his hard-earned loot. What if, through your subtle influence, you earned enough ‘god points’ to start influencing your sims in more supernatural ways, such as through dreams, through strange ‘coincidences’… or perhaps through frightening ‘bumps’ in the night? These could give major bonuses towards future life goals, and grant convictions, changes of habit, or even phobias. What if your sim came into a choice that happened because of your influence that could change their course forever, maybe even other sims’ life courses, and they didn’t have the ‘attributes’ necessary to make the ‘correct’ choice, for good or ill?

What if you could drive your sim to become a shining beacon of humanity? Or drive them into an insane asylum after hearing self-destructive voices?

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Yes, a wholesome modern family, with a spirit from the netherworld influencing their every thought and choice. Doesn’t sound too far from the original game, to be honest.

Okay, maybe only I’m intrigued by this new Sims game. Maybe this sounds too similar to the actual game. Maybe it would give a programmer an aneurysm. But you have to admit, it’s an interesting idea that giving the player less control over their subjects can simultaneously give them more in terms of results variation. This could lead to the possibility of more replayability because of unexpected and entertaining results. This isn’t even talking about actual religious doctrine, although I suppose it could be seen that way. I see it as more of a balance between total player control (which is fun for a moment but doesn’t last long) and a complete uncontrollable game of chance (which is fun until you don’t win). And it’s all about maintaining the fun factor.

Cow

My, aren’t you rotund.

A Line of Separation

In my opinion, ‘god games’ put a fine line of separation between the player and his subjects. In Populous, if you lose your shaman, you couldn’t cast miracles until she respawned. In From Dust, you don’t have a mystical ‘hand of god’ to save your subjects from floods of water and fire; you can issue simple commands, but you have to bend the elements to protect your followers and wait for them to brave the treacherous wilds themselves to reach relics and settlement beacons which strengthen your miracles. I think this is where Black and White went wrong for me: it put one too many lines in between the player and the population in the form of an annoying giant mascot. A good ‘god game’ will balance the influence the player has with the characters onscreen, not too separated that the player feels like they have absolutely no control, but enough that it doesn’t become ‘The Sims’ where the player can control everything. You can ‘simulate’ being a god, but not every strategy game is a ‘god game’.

Does that shrink the genre into obscurity? Maybe it does. But I think people want a ‘god game’ with this philosophy in mind, one with some element of choice and ethical dilemmas, but one with a fine line of separation that makes the game rewarding and challenging. Breaking my own rules, you can see how excited audiences were for the very recent release of Frostpunk, a game where you have to make life-or-death decisions for a population living in a steampunk arctic hell. I’m surprised that isn’t a ‘god game’, according to Steam. (I want to review it as well, it looks ridiculously difficult.) I would love a ‘god game’ that limited your influence over a small isolated community to small ‘miracles’ that grew more powerful as faith in you increased. One where morality could go either way.

And yeah, I’m going to say it: maybe someday we’ll get a god game that isn’t hyped to hell by Peter Molyneux. *cough* Godus. *cough* Spore. *cough* *sneeze violently*

godus

I’m ashamed of how much game time I have in Godus. Like all ‘Molyneux Specials’, I didn’t know it by its reputation before I bought it.

I want to see another really good god game like Populous appear again. A more complex From Dust with enemy tribes and tough decisions to make, maybe. Different belief systems and powers related to them. A few of the other games under the ‘god games’ tag in Steam look intriguing enough to make me want to take a look, so maybe in the future, you’ll see a god game review where I adjust my perceptions of the genre. Until then, I’ll take any suggestions on how I can change my viewpoint, as I feel disappointed in my love for this very specific niche itch I can’t scratch.