Memoir #2 – The New Face of West Virginia, October 23rd, 2102


I remembered something called the “sky”. As dimly as the lights in the vault. As dimly as I remembered writing my name on paper for the first time, a big blue ceiling with a bright lightbulb during the day, an endless sea of stars at night. In the exit presentation, Vault Boy reminded us not to stare at the sun or risk permanent blindness. Sure, I thought. Looking right at a lightbulb is kinda dumb. When that great vault door opened, sunlight streamed into the suffocating steel-and-concrete room like an endless flood. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Instinctively, I dug into my tool bag strapped around my shoulder to grab my welder’s goggles. Though tinted green through the lenses, I knew I stared into a wall of pure white.

Everyone around me hugged their loved ones or held hands tightly. Some tears were shed. Some prepared to exit the vault with the solemnity of a funeral march. No matter their individual feelings, one thing was emphatically certain: Vault 76 was closed for business, and all the Mr. Handys cheered us on to remind everyone of the fact. Every single dweller crowded inside the atrium cheered as the machinery pulled the gigantic cog aside. With the door open, the air was sheer electricity. 

Liz and Liam came to stand by me as the metal catwalk extended. I noticed (as much as I could with welding goggles on) that they both holstered weapons. Liz, a custom-machined six-shooter, and Liam, a brand-new automatic AER9 laser rifle. With my baseball bat tied to my backpack, I suddenly felt very naked. Liam also had a walking stick of sorts, a surprisingly well-kept wooden cane that I’d never seen before.

“Whoa. Liam, that’s a real nice-”

I then felt my goggles fly off my head.

“Don’t be a pansy,” Liam growled, handing me back my eyewear by shoving it against my chest. “The sooner you get used to sunlight, the better.”

“You even remember what the sun feels like?” Liz asked me.

“Sorta,” I mumbled.

Vault staff busily prepared individual teams and approved travel destinations while we stood behind the expectant crowd, so we had some time to examine our new equipment.

The heaviest by far was our C.A.M.P. units. We had been instructed in their use in bimonthly meetings, but to finally have one of my own felt incredibly satisfying. The size of a piece of luggage, I deployed it for just a moment to check out its functionality. A workbench all its own, the C.A.M.P. came with a rotary tool, a small inlaid table saw, a lathe, and a drill press. With a display screen much like my Pip-Boy, the C.A.M.P. came pre-programmed with schematics for machining everything from tools and basic electronics to laboratory equipment and everyday appliances. There were even instructions on how to make stuffed animals. 

I noticed one in particular and chuckled; what kind of deal did Vault-Tec have with Radiation King to include detailed instructions on how to repair and replicate their televisions and refrigerators? Or Nuka-Cola with instructions to build their vending machines? I found the thought of a vault filled with company executives just waiting to retake their brands in the nuclear wasteland entertaining.

“What do you think of these perk cards?” Liz asked, flipping through the multi-colored and laminated packets. Wrapped in crisp cellophane, these “cards” measured about four by six inches; some were thin while others were thick enough to be books. Thinking back, of course Vault-Tec would call them “perk cards” — let’s make post-war life collectable! Regardless, each showed Vault Boy performing many different activities. Shooting rifles, mending armor, hauling heavy loads, haggling with merchants. Liz opened one titled “Home Defense” and discovered these cards were, in fact, compact instructional manuals that detailed how to develop the specific skills depicted on the cover. “Wow. Look, there’s codes for our C.A.M.Ps to build military turrets. Biometric sensors. 5.56 and AER9, everything. Missile launchers even? Now that’s living.”

Liam peered over Liz’s arm to look, remaining silent but appearing interested.

I thumbed through my own cards and came across one that looked simple enough to start with: “Inspirational”. I unwrapped the plastic and opened the front cover. From its own description: “Travelling alone in the wilderness? No longer! Become a stalwart leader and ‘inspire’ your group of fellow survivors towards a better tomorrow!” The perk card described ways to rely on your companions as well as boost their morale and talents in times of need. “Feel a boost of confidence and discover all new experiences,” it said. “Learn from your companions as they learn from you! In no time, you’ll be ready to take on even greater challenges. The future is in your hands!”

I shrugged. Might as well start with that. If the little “perk card” could teach me how to learn from Liam and Liz’s skills, I’d take that advice any day.

At last, the crowd began to move forwards, and our fellow vault dwellers stepped into the outside world for the first time in twenty-five years. Liam showed our route to the overseer’s assistant, and I passed him to walk into the warm rays of the sun. Like stepping in front of a gentle radiator, I did exactly what Vault Boy instructed me not to do: I looked upwards at the sun. Now filled with radiation, I stopped and waited for the red mass in my sight to fade. Liz laughed and patted my shoulder. Leading me forwards, I soon saw the most glorious image I had ever seen before: the whole of Appalachia. Maple trees whose red and orange leaves fluttered in a gentle breeze, the baby-blue sky that went on and on, and distant rain clouds creating a veil of grey some miles south. In the distance I could see the colossal digging machines that once excavated Mount Blair. I’d never imagined the great Appalachian mountain range and West Virginia’s forests would be so beautiful. I’d seen such sights in the holovids, sure, but nothing compared to seeing it in person.

Now no longer completely blind, I realized the first hint of the world I’d stepped into: the railing upon which I laid my hands flaked with red-iron stains, leaving rust on my fingers. The mighty billboard some meters to my right stood, but only barely, as the metal struts had deteriorated greatly. I looked around me, and saw stone benches chipped, broken, and storm weathered. The poles that once gave light were entirely rusted and useless, their bulbs shattered. Even the hills surrounding the plaza had collapsed, covering the concrete floor in rocks and piles of soil-wash.

All the now-previous inhabitants of Vault 76 grouped together and gazed in awe of the outside world. Just as before, some trembled at the cool autumn air, some celebrated, and some were already breaking off and heading west. As I saw them depart, I lifted up my Pip-Boy to my view and checked out the Geiger counter and health screen. I half-expected to be glowing within half an hour, but I heard no clicking, and Vault Boy was as happy as I’d ever seen him.

“So this is what we have to work with,” Liz said, doing the very same thing with her Pip-Boy. She lowered it and looked outwards to the horizon.  “Huh. I expected worse.”

“We haven’t seen anything yet,” Liam said, joining us with his regular step-clank limp. “Sure, it looks pretty, but I’m more worried about what lives out there.”

“That’s what we have you for, Peters.”

“And that’s what I have you for, Liz,” Liam said emphatically. “And you, Greg. I’ll have your back, and I expect you both to have mine.”

“You bet. We’re a crew, right?” I said.

Liz laughed.

“Right,” she said with a grin. “We got a name for this crew of ours? Oughta make it official.”

Liam rolled his eyes.

“If that’s the kind of crew I’m in, I’ll go back inside and leave you to it.”

“Come on, Liam, don’t be a bulkhead, ” I said. “Hey, what about the Bulkheads?”

“Nah, you’ll make us sound stupid. Hmm. How about the 76ers?”“I’m pretty sure that’s the name of a baseball team.”

“And I’m pretty sure you’re thinking of the 46ers. Austin, Texas, I think.”

“Ah, whatever. Besides, we wouldn’t stand out from all the others. How about the Operators? Like, operating heavy machinery?”

“You’re gonna make us sound all mafia-like. Don’t you remember ‘Dully Williams and the Gangsters of Villa Nueva’? Like we’re ‘operating’ a laundering scheme or something.”

“Oh yeah. Forgot about that vid. I liked that one.”

“Oh hell, you two,” Liam said, taking a step away from us cane-first. “We’re burning daylight. Talk about your dumb little names on the road.”

We headed towards the stairs that led east when we began hearing screaming. Over the railing, I saw the lower plaza level (where the Mr. Handy named Pennington had set up happy yellow-and-blue balloons) and quickly recognized the cause: a rotting corpse of a man lay at the stairs besides the enthusiastic robot. One vaulter, Julian Colter, I believe, held people back from the body as the groups continued to the dirt path down the stairs.

“Poor bastard,” Liam said, looking below with me. “Probably looking for safety in the vault.”

“But there’s no way he died twenty-five years ago.”

“Nah, he’s probably a survivor what got his ass handed to him by someone else with a gun,” Liz said. “Or sickness, maybe. The meetings always said critters would turn into radioactive monsters, but I don’t know if I believe it. Rabid, sure, but full of rads?”

“Come on, people, keep it moving,” Colter said, waving my fellow vaulters on. When one older woman expressed pity, he added: “Don’t worry, our group will come back and bury the poor fellow. Keep moving.”

When it was our turn to pass, I got a good look at him. Wearing ratty clothing, the man’s skin had turned a bluish-green, what remained of his hair matted beneath a red leather cap. His smell caught my nostrils as I passed, and I nearly gagged. Fortunately, it’s a smell I would soon become very accustomed to.

“Yup, recent,” Liam said. “I doubt Pennington even noticed him when setting up the damn balloons.”

“Arrivederci!” Pennington shouted to the departing vault dwellers, all but confirming Liam’s theory. “Au revoir! Auf wiedersehen! Goodbye, my friends! Good luck out there! Stay safe!”

“I miss Sparks already,” Liz said with slight contempt in her voice.

“Come on, Sonny, we’ll find another Mr. Handy out here somewhere. You’ve still got his memory chip, right?”

“Yup. Don’t worry, kiddo. We’ll have a mechanical army soon enough.”

I gave Liz a face behind her back as we continued past the deceased man.

“Enough with the kiddo kid junk. You ever going to stop calling me that?”

“Nope, never will.”

For thirty minutes, most of Vault 76 continued down the steep trail that led towards the 88 highway. As far as switchbacks go, it shouldn’t have been difficult. But at that time of my life, the most cardio I did on a regular basis was a few hours in the vault gym every week. Sure, I wasn’t out of shape, but I had never walked on uneven ground in my entire life, much less did so with a fifty-pound pack on my back. By the time we reached semi-flat earth, I wished I had brought one of the vault sweatbands with me.

Hiking through the trees and smelling pure nature for the first time is something I’ll never forget and never stop enjoying. I’ll be honest: the Forest is the only place I’ll consider setting up my C.A.M.P. anymore. Every part of West Virginia is beautiful, but only the Forest provided good hunting and relatively radiation-free soil. The water’s terrible. But then again, the water’s terrible everywhere. At least the lurks won’t jump out and snap your head off. Just your fingers, maybe. But I digress.

Checking my fold-up Vault-Tec-brand map of the area, it seemed like we’d run across a lumber mill of sorts. A place where wood was processed into planks used in house construction. I only knew this from the holotapes.

The group that stayed together and traveled east down the path numbered about one-hundred or so. A bunch of blue-and-gold wide-eyed vault dwellers: the perfect target.

Entering the mill yard, most of the group remained very quiet. Some kept the group together, leading them forwards. Then, ever the leader, Colter stood upon an abandoned wood pile and turned to address us.

“This is where we begin our reclamation,” he said. “Once we power this mill, we will have all the construction materials we need to rebuild, providing homes and shelter for all of us.”

He might have been right. The lumber mill even included yellow protectrons with saws and clamps for appendages that continued harvesting the nearby woods, declaring a needless intent to: “Chop wood. Chop wood. Chop wood.” No doubt they’d been working for the last twenty-five years by the amount of wood waiting to be processed. To a burly 76er nearest to it, it plopped a pile of wood into his arms with the words: “Please, enjoy this complimentary sample of wood.”

“Those might work,” Liz said with a grin, whispering over Colter’s continuing speech. “What do you think? We’d have all the materials we’d need to build our garage.”

“Wood, though?” I said with a grimace. “I was thinking straight to metal and concrete.”

Liam, behind us, scanned what remained of the treeline.

“I don’t like it. This place. It’s too exposed.”

“Exposed to what?” Liz asked.

“Everything,” he replied. “Gunfire, radioactive freaks. Whatever’s out there could see us for half a mile.”

Liz and I also turned to look, and the old man was right.

Very, very right.

Colter’s speech was then immediately hushed as the entire crowd gasped in awe of a figure emerging from the treeline. Then another. Then another. From the back of the group, I couldn’t get a proper look at them. But everyone else did.

“Survivors!” declared some voices. “Are they dressed?” said two or three.

“Hello!” Colter said with a grand swing of his arms. “Hello my fellow survivors! We are inhabitants of Vault 76, here to reclaim the wasteland and restore America to its former glory! Please, don’t be afraid, we are peaceful!”

At first, the three, then four, then five figures did not advance. They seemed to view us timid dwellers with great interest. For a minute or so. Murmurs of unrest rose from my fellows.

“Grab your bat, Greg,” Liam said, untying my weapon from my pack and latching his cane to his hip. As I readied myself for a melee, I heard the soldier insert a micro-cell into his laser rifle, making an electric click-bwee that told me that safeties were off.

“You don’t think they’re hostile,” Liz asked quietly.

“I know they are,” Liam said. “Come on, this way. We’ll wide circle around them and head for Flatwoods once we can’t see ‘em.”

We three broke from the group, heading north and keeping to the edge of the treeline. Off the path, the terrain grew steeper, and I stumbled more than a few times. Fallen and unretrieved logs made hiking difficult. I looked back, and saw many 76ers watch us retreat; more than a few I recognized from security made to the lumber mill interior in front of the large crowd, raising and preparing their own weapons.

“Please, come forward! We would like to make peace with you and your-”

One of the security staff grabbed Colter by the arm and brought him down, no doubt whispering to him of the potential danger.

The six, the seven, and the eight figures emerged from the trees and began to walk forwards. Security held their ground behind the processed logs while the group itself began to shuffle away from them. A growl called out from the forest, and three more human-like creatures appeared very close to us, limping down the trail we’d just descended.

Then, the screaming. God, the screaming. I’ve heard it hundreds of times since, but I’ll never forget the first mindless screech of the ghouls surrounding us. They descended upon the crowd from the south, nineteen, twenty-five, thirty-seven. I’m only guessing at the numbers, but I don’t exaggerate: they heard us all, and they came like a tidal wave of fury.

Security opened fire. The naked and emaciated husks of humanity fell easily enough, but two replaced each one that fell. The front of the group became the first victims. Ghouls jumped and tore at my fellow vault dwellers with diseased claws and gnarled teeth. Many of the vault dwellers weren’t equipped with weapons, and so fell to the wave of terror. Sure, our vault suits protected us from bites and scratches, but that’s not where the ghouls were aiming. Blood and flesh flew into the air as they ripped into necks, hands, anything exposed. Some fought back successfully, shoving the ghouls back. Many did not. The second layer of vault dwellers, at least the men, grappled with the monsters and attempted to save their fellows and loved ones. Some were successful, the more prepared 76ers clobbering and slashing the fiends with security batons and makeshift machetes we’d crafted in maintenance. The least fortunate were tackled by three, four, and five ghouls, brought to the ground and ripped apart.

Layer by layer, the ghouls flung themselves at my fellow vault dwellers as they retreated into the mill. Security continued their fire, but bullets only did so much to the horde. Those inside the mill held their own. Those less lucky holed up inside the ruined building beside it to the south. I never saw what happened to them.

“Come on, come on!” Liam hissed, his robotic leg having trouble through the brush. “Come on, get into the trees, quickly now.”

More than distracted, I watch the scene unfolding. Bloodied bodies strewn upon the ground marked the ghouls’ advance. Security’s defence seemed to waver as gunfire peppered in and out. The more intelligent and fortunate groups fled through the mill and east. I couldn’t see anything else besides the monsters entering the mill with shrieks of madness. They don’t devour the dead for sustenance; they simply attack for rage’s sake, and I witnessed that first hand.

“Don’t look back, boy, don’t look back,” Liam said to me, waving me on. I obeyed.

The ghouls didn’t see us. Pure luck. Maybe my S.P.E.C.I.A.L. test had been right about me.

My 100+ Hour Tale – Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

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On Tuesday, I finished the main story quests of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (I got the end credits and everything), and now I feel that the game can truly begin with the expansions of Heavensward and Stormblood. But before I continue, I wanted to condense my thoughts about the base game as much as I can and share what I think works in this MMORPG and as well as what things I’ve seen that have been done better in comparable titles.

Here is my Warrior of Light, Jerik Noa:

Jerik.jpg

Sing, O sing, ye Candidus Fellows, unto the pure Light of Dawnbreak!

And yes, with the conclusion of the final story quest, I just received another bottle of Fantasia, so I might be changing into a female character soon. They just seem to have so many cooler fashions and styles available, besides the fact that I usually prefer to play female characters (I’ll have to write an article about my thoughts of gender in video games, especially in games where you customize your character down to the freckles on their cheeks; although, come to think of it, that approaches the unassailable gates of feminism and political discourse, and we all know how prepared I am for those topics). I’m thinking a Mi’qote, as that was the first race I played as when I first picked the game up, although the thought of playing a hardass Dark Knight Lalafell is hilariously intriguing. I would be playing a nightmare-fueled spikey-armor clad toddler with a three foot soul-sucking blade that just wants a hug.

Is that racist? That seems racist. Can you be racist against fictional fantasy races? I mean, it’s no better than my character now: whenever I change job classes to weaver or goldsmith, I suddenly become Eorzea’s most frightening butler, complete with cummerbund and necktie. Mi’qote just seems like the right middle road between plushy-adorable and mildly-threatening.

 

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On the left: Warrior of Light. On the right: adorable Papalymo. Would you believe the one on the right is arguably more dangerous?

So, how was the ending? Without spoilers, of course, I can say that it was… unexpected. Having gone into this MMO aware of some of the story elements, I knew a few different things had to happen, and a few things still need to happen. I just wasn’t sure how it would all pan out. Unaware of what parts of the story fall into place between A Realm Reborn, Heavensward, and Stormblood, I realize that I still have a ton of content to get through, not to mention taking to time to master all of the other classes and trades.

Here’s my list of good versus bad (with some neutral sprinkled in) from what I’ve played so far in Final Fantasy XIV:

Positive: Changing Classes Made Easy

I started this particular playthough as a gladiator, although I quickly realized that starting the game off as a tank is just asking for trouble in multiplayer dungeons and raids. If you aren’t familiar with a run and you tank for the first time, you’ll probably tick off your teammates. Fortunately, FF XIV makes it super easy to change classes and level them up, even going so far as to make the process of leveling faster for those who already have a high level in another combat class. I hadn’t been an archer before, so I chose to continue my game as an arrow-slinger and eventually as a Bard.

I’m really looking forward to playing as a machinist, as machinists have royally screwed me over in PvP with their pushing and pulling abilities, and I would like to experience being on the other side of the coin. But, then again, tanks are in short supply nowadays, and dark knight looks awesome. Either way, I’ll get to it all eventually.

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Astrologian, too. Heart of the Cards, baby.

Negative: Vesper Bay

Why. The heck. Does Vesper Bay. Not. Have. A FAST-TRAVEL OPTION.

I would say this is a simple complaint, but bear with me, it’s more complicated than just missing an important waypoint. This has more to do with a lack of balance and a clear insistence on wasting my time and resources than it does with ease of travel. Considering you come back to this place repeatedly in A Realm Reborn makes this a travesty in more ways than one.

First, there are two ways to get to Vesper Bay. The first is by fast-traveling to Horizon and hoofing it all the way across the map of Western Thanalan to get there. Even on chocobo-back, this is an annoying journey to have to repeat again and again. I consider this the ‘unintended’ slow way, but the alternate route is no better. The other way to Vesper Bay is by boarding a boat from Limsa Lominsa (by talking to an attendant next to the Arcanist’s Guild). This necessitates teleporting to Limsa Lominsa, teleporting to the Arcanist’s Guild, then taking the boat. Unless you want to spend a lot of money teleporting to Limsa Lominsa again and again during the story missions, then expect to set your home marker to Lominsa.

But with your home marker on Limsa Lominsa, what’s the use of being in any other Grand Company than the Maelstrom? You’re going to spend a lot of money teleporting to Gridania and Ul’dah if you join the Twin Adders or the Flames, since acquiring and spending guild seals with your Company is a good way to keep your character’s gear up-to-date, not to mention keeping your Barracks active once you reach that point.

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I’d rather not, Minfilia, thanks.

Once you’re done with the story missions, I imagine (or desperately hope) you won’t have to travel to the Waking Sands as often, and you can set your home point elsewhere. But it really bothers me when games make important oft-visited locations difficult to get to. Even search “vesper bay ffxiv” in Google, and the third entry is: “How do you get to Vesper Bay”. When you’ve made it that inconvenient and confusing to repeatedly return to a story-critical location, you’ve either accidentally screwed up as a developer or you’ve done it intentionally. As the game has been out for almost five years now, I’m thinking the latter.

Related Negative: Fast Travel Costs

Just a short point: fast travel is insultingly expensive. I’ve never played an MMO with such high costs of travel. And since your home point is Limsa Lominsa, a landmass away from Gridania and Ul’dah? You’ll be paying out the nose every time your journey takes you hither and yon.

Positive-ish: Oh, the Joys of Resource Gathering

Remember when I talked about fishing in Ocarina of Time and Dark Cloud 2? Well, strap on your gathering pants and get ready to make some money, honey! Whether it’s steel, alumen, mythril, electrum, red coral, fleece, or boar leather, there’s goods to procure from your local environment. I’m not overly fond of the resource node system, especially with how difficult it can be to obtain necessary materials like elemental shards. I understand how high-quality materials work, and I like that part of the system; it’s a thrill to hit those HQ nods and hear the sharp bang of the sledgehammer or the golden glint of the catch on your line. But in The Elder Scrolls Online, for instance, you’ll obtain about three to five resources per node in a single instance and only have your crafting skills to worry about. In FF XIV, the craft and the gathering are separate, and the gathering is more literal, piece by piece.

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Until you rage-quit from worse-than-XCOM accuracy percentages. What do you mean, I missed three times in a row with 92%?!

Oh, and if you don’t upkeep your gear with your current level, you’re going to find gathering a waste of time. Instead, worry about leveling up with fieldcraft leves as soon as you can, then go back and get the materials you need.

Related Negative: Inventory Space

I don’t have housing yet. All my money has been spent fast-traveling and getting stupid lightning and wind shards for crafting. So my inventory is full, my chocobo’s pack is full, and I’ll soon be turning to my retainers to hold mats. You can’t sell anything in this game. Almost everything has a crafting purpose, no matter how obscure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chucked something to free up space just to have to go grovelling back to the Market Board to buy more later on.

Everything about the inventory is so dang inconvenient. Except the ‘Sort’ key, that I like. Let me have a material’s sack like The Elder Scrolls Online, realism be damned!

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I have to have all these coeurl skins and pinches of mythril sand and fishing bait and walnut logs and…

Negative: The Overabundance of Story-Critical Dungeons and Trials

I’m imagining this is how it went.

One thing the developers of Star Wars: The Old Republic realized as the game was getting longer in the tooth was that its emphasis on story was more important than multiplayer gameplay. That isn’t to say The Old Republic had lackluster gameplay; far from it. They realized that they had so much content gated behind dungeons and trials that most players passed it by on their way through the main story missions for each class. Not everyone who plays MMORPGs wants to do so with friends. So they chose the RPG over the MMO and rebuilt their dungeons so players could single-handedly go through 4-man dungeons by themselves (with help from a tanky battledroid and their NPC companions).

And it doesn’t matter what class you choose to be, either. A tank can DPS, and healer can tank, and DPS can… well, DPS more.

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Violence solves ALL the problems!

Final Fantasy XIV went the completely opposite direction. Not only are their 4-man dungeons not optional, there is no way for players to accomplish them by themselves. Dungeons are strictly one-tank, one-healer, two-DPS affairs that break down if any player doesn’t do their part with relative skill. I’m making this sound more dramatically bad than it is, of course, but you all know how I feel about multiplayer; last night I was the only one in the group who hadn’t run the 8-man final dungeon, I fell behind pretty dramatically at one point, and all the other players talked about while the unskippable cutscenes were playing was Japanese porn and masterbation. I won’t question their ability to kick Ultima Weapon in the junk, but I’d rather not hear about what they plan to do with theirs.

“You’ll be doing this dungeon a lot,” they said when I fell behind.

Uh-huh. Like hell I will.

*sigh*

I probably will.

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Despite their vulgarity, my fellow players in that 8-man dungeon were very nice about me getting behind since it didn’t impede their progress. If it had… I would have had a worse experience.

Positive: Gameplay. Like, All the Gameplay

Everything I wrote above this would probably make you think I dislike Final Fantasy XIV. But that isn’t true; I’m 250 hours in, and I’ve probably got that much to give and more with the fun I’ve had so far. I’m in a good Free Company that answers questions (and at least doesn’t kick me out). I’ve nailed down being a level 55 Bard, and I’m excited to see where the storyline goes as I proceed into Heavensward.

It’s a joy to fight, especially when you line up all of your attacks appropriately (and with my mechanical keyboard, it sounds good too). Maximizing my DEEPS (or DPS, damage-per-second) is awesome, and I feel like I’m in a good spot.

Just as long as I can keep multiplayer at arm’s length. Or find a good group of friends to connect with, which is unlikely considering I’m one of the few people I know that cares for a subscription MMO and Final Fantasy and has an appropriate system that can play it. In other words, yes, I anticipate my journey in Eorzea will end due to repetition, multiplayer negativity, and poor time-wasting design decisions. But it won’t be for a while.

At least until Fallout 76 appears. Or I buckle down and actually write more for Alyssum. Type-type-type-type.

A Realm Reborn Review: 8.5/10

Backstage Tales – My Current Games

I didn’t mean to, but I think I used all of my powers of literation on Thursday’s blog; my writing powers were spent. I generally avoid two things: politics and philosophy. If I use my brainythinks too much on weightyhuge fingertypes, my uplander braincase gets clogged up with thick gooeythoughts. Then I no can write good next time.

So, instead of hefty theoretical musings about game design, how about I share with you what I’ve been playing recently?

Firstly, which should be obvious by my goblinspeak (which is incredibly fun to write, by the way):

Final Fantasy XIV

Here is my character Jerik Noa:

Jerik

I feel so strong, even though I’m not!

If you saw my earlier blog and thought to yourself: “Weren’t you playing a Mi’qote a minute ago?” Well, you’d be right. I decided to use my Fantasia to turn into an Xaela Au Ra, and I officially look like a blue-eyed Daedra out of the Elder Scrolls. I’m suddenly two heads taller than everyone else, and my chocobo’s size doubled, taking fewer and much longer strides. When I change classes to weaver or goldsmith, I become the world’s most terrifying butler. It’s awesome. I’m in no way a maximized level 50 bard, either, as my jewelry needs to be updated, and my crafting classes have a lot of leveling to go to create that kind of gear.

I finally got my bard up to level 50 and got the full Birdliege set of PvP armor, and… It certainly doesn’t help my win percentage. My long-distance-ness is never long-distance enough. But I’m having fun regardless! I’m actually impressed at how active PvP matches and instances are in FF XIV; they’re all but dead in The Old Republic. And with expert deliveries to the Grand Companies, you never have to worry about getting “junk” equipment from lower-level instances. Sure, they may be of lesser value, but the developers of FF XIV seemed really determined to make everything useful at least in some way to higher level characters.

Also, this is hilarious:

Such a fun game, and a really positive community. As time goes on, I’m continually impressed by the quality of players, both in skill and desire to help new players. While you’ll always get the occasional negative guy who quits the group when the instance isn’t run to his liking, I’ve found that more often than not, players of FF XIV are very accommodating and cool when compared to other MMOs. We’ll see if that holds true with late-game content.

Minecraft

This is me:

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Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.

…and getting nothing in return. A whole lotta iron, and no diamonds. That, and the mob farm that I just built got hit by a creeper and broke a lot of the redstone machinery, so I get to sit down and rewatch the tutorial I followed just to see that everything is put back together again.

Minecraft is one of the only games I know that requires you to make three or four backups of essential gear and equipment if you’re going to want to keep playing. I finally managed to create the perfect pickaxe with Fortune III, and swam underwater to go searching for diamonds in a ravine close by. All was going well (I HAD 40 DIAMONDS AT ONE POINT) until I got too close to an underwater cave that wasn’t filled with water (because screw Minecraft’s water physics). Whereupon a creeper proceeds to blow me up, despite being fully-armored and fully-healed, and my diamonds are gently floated into lava where they burn up and disappear.

Yes, the server I’m on is on Hard difficulty. Not my regular cup of tea. But you’d think a bit of challenge would be fun once you’ve gotten yourself established.

No. It’s just pain. So, instead of exploring and adventuring, I’m planning on going back into my mines and trudging through miles of stone so I might find those precious diamonds and possibly have a chance at survival the next time a creeper decides to hug me.

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This is not cute. This is the plush equivalent of a guillotine.

No Man’s Sky

I’m not spending nearly as much time with No Man’s Sky as I originally wanted to. It’s not that the game isn’t fun, it’s just that I’ve forgotten how grindy the game was and still is. Sure, the game is a gorgeous screenshot simulator (with some screenshots I’ve seen looking like they’ve been digitally created for a paperback sci-fi novel), but I’m finding actually going through the main story missions a bit repetitive and mind-numbing. Exploration is entertaining to a point, but if I have to endure sitting in a cave waiting for a radioactive storm to pass over me again, I might go a bit crazy.

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NYEHHH!!

I’ve tried to get into Creative mode, but it just physically hurts me to have everything available for base building. If I don’t build it legitimately in survival or normal mode, have I built it at all?

Ha! I should ask Minecraft the same question.


So that’s what I’ve been getting into lately. I’m still very excited for further news and gameplay of Fallout 76 at QuakeCon in three days, so that should be fun to see. Still, having plunged a bit deeper into the multiplayer swimming pool, I’m more hesitant than ever to see how multiplayer will change Fallout as a whole.

Whether we’ll see anything about it by this Thursday, I’m not sure. But I will want to discuss it in a future blog, so stay tuned!

Backstage Tales – Multiplayer and Me

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Guess which one I am.

So our group on the Meraki Minecraft server were all geared up on Friday evening and ready to take on the mighty dragon in The End. I had spent more than a few hours trying to find the diamonds and the levels to prepare my gear with enchantments and protections to help me make a difference in the fight. I had even created a bunch of level two healing potions for our entire group. When the time came, we all donned our carved pumpkin heads to avoid pestering the endermen, prepared our weapons and supplies, and jumped into the End portal.

We ended up suspended on a platform a good thirty or forty blocks away from the dragon’s island, hanging over eternity and watching the dragon swoop, unsure if he’d spotted us yet. Not the best situation. As quickly as we could, we bent down low and built a bridge to the island, fortunately connecting to a cliff where we could hide or regroup if the battle went poorly. I followed my friends into the cliff side as they dug upwards, readied my bow, and charged forwards, ready to fight…!

The dragon sneezed at us just as my friends broke through the wall. I promptly fell off the bridge from the force of the blast, hitting a lower cliff on the way down. It broke my fall a little too well.

Yes, I died, not thirty seconds into the fight, and without even seeing the dragon. And I would have lost all my gear if not for the fact that the cliff caught some of it, and one of my friends had been kind enough to break away from the dragon fight to help me reclaim what was left. Of course, none of my awesome enchanted armor had survived the fall, or my awesome enchanted bow, so I was all arrows and pickaxe against the toughest creature in Minecraft. Yes, I died a few more times trying to help. My sister ended up beating the dragon, seemingly single-handedly (at the very least, she didn’t die once).

*sigh*

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“One of us… One of us…”

Then yesterday, a much less exciting but equally self-deprecating thing happened. I had spent a few more hours trying to reestablish my equipment and levels. Finding myself on a footing almost equal to my pre-dragon-fight condition, I decided that it was time to actually build something on my little plot of land. I gathered up all the materials, even making many colors of stained glass to see if I could make something with that (it was new to me, so you can see how long it’s been since I’ve sat down and enjoyed Minecraft), put some of my materials in a chest near the build site… and my dad calls me to go help him do something. So I put the game on pause and leave my computer.

Yes, pause. On a multiplayer server.

So, naturally, I come back to see the words ‘Game Over’ pasted on my screen and a very smug-looking and now sunlight-immune zombie peering down at my death camera wearing a shiny new diamond helmet. He had no doubt spawned during the nighttime, attacked defenseless little old me, and had nothing better to do than sit there for me to return so he could gloat. In punishment, I punched him to death. It took me about ten minutes.

*sigh*

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Jerk.

Turning to something outside of Minecraft, earlier last month, I tried my hand at playing Darwin Project, a third-person arena-style survival shooter where it’s survival of the fittest in a wintery wasteland of frozen death. Me, my brother-in-law, and a few friends were taking turns sniping each other with arrows and axing each other senseless.

Well, since absolutely everything is new to me, from the map layout to the arena decorations, I have no idea what I’m doing. Very first round, I spawn on an island-ish checkpoint surrounded by lava.

I walk straight off the cliff into the lava and die.

Okay, shake it off, shake it off…

Next round, my brother-in-law and I discover each other in the same area of the map and attack each other. Now, when two player in Darwin Project attack each other at the same time, their ax attacks clang against each other, negating damage to either player and sending them flying. This happens to us, I just so happen to have my back against a cliff.

I go flying into lava and die.

Okay, twice isn’t a pattern.

The next round, my brother-in-law and I are teammates. I see these strange mechanical mushroom things springing out of the ground in groups every so often. They look smackable, so I smack one with my ax and I go flying; of course, they’re supposed to be trampoline pads you can use to get speed and direction.

I go flying into lava and die.

That’s three times. Now it’s a pattern.

*sigh*

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Oh, cozy. Warm. WARMER. TOO HOT. BURNING MY FLESSSSHH.

Sure, when I play games like Fallout 4 and Fat Man myself into oblivion by accident, I can laugh and continue from my last save. I can mess around in The Sims or Cities: Skylines without fear of judgementI can dedicate myself to ridiculous min-maxing in Final Fantasy Tactics, Path of Exile, or Diablo 3. When I make a mistake in a game like Civilization or Endless Space, it can cost me a lot of time and in-game resources, but it doesn’t ever affect anyone but me.

But get me into a multiplayer game, even one in which I have a lot of experience and play time, and something is going to go wrong. Murphy’s Law might as well be a fiery blood-stained mantle that descends from the high celestial heavens and onto my weak and feeble shoulders whenever I join others for a digital jaunt. And I’m not talking about the anxiety and uncertainty that comes with playing multiplayer. Oh no. That’s an entirely separate issue. An entirely plumb-shaped separate issue from hell. I’ll talk about that another time.

I’m talking about the struggle of even appearing competent in multiplayer situations. I’ve been taught by society at large that multiplayer is the best way to play. When you know your teammates or are related to them, I agree. But when you don’t know who you’re playing with, feelings are ambiguous at best and antagonistic at worst.

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It’s not about having fun. It’s about crushing your enemies. Seeing them driven before you. And hearing the lamentations of their women.

In certain MMORPGs like Final Fantasy XIV, the main story missions ask you to queue up for a four-man trials or instances. If you happen to be a tank class character on your first foray into these dungeons, be prepared to get yelled at by impatient teammates (despite the fact that there’s always a tank shortage in the game roster, hmm, I wonder why). If you’re not a tank, you better play to your role and know how each sideboss and main boss functions. If you screw up, prepared to get berated. Heck, even if you do know the dungeon and can get through it with few problems, prepare to get lectured at by a player who insist they know better regardless. And guess what? There’s no continuing the story if you can’t get past these dungeons. (It’s why I played The Old Republic for so long and am only now getting back into Final Fantasy XIV – through the entirety of the main story, dungeons are multiplayer optional and are even now able to be enjoyed single player.)

Know why I quit playing Team Fortress 2 after reaching almost 300 hours with it? Same reason I stopped playing League of Legends: because of my inability to deal with toxic people. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not crazy-skilled at first-person shooters or hero arena games. But needless to say, the second, third, fourth, and fifth etc. to admit it would be anyone I played with.

Winning is the point of most multiplayer games, at least in the short term. If you don’t know anyone in the game, in the guild, or on Discord, it feels like you’d better have the skills to pay your hypothetical bills, or else you’re like to become a pariah (or in the very least feel like one). For a few weeks after my first Darwin Project experience, I felt like you could pretty reliably label me as ‘Falling-Into-Lava-Man’, and I wouldn’t have held it against them if they never invited me to play again.

 

And now, in front of the same group of people (some I know well and some I don’t), I fall immediately to my death in Minecraft at the moment I could have been most heroic, and the story of Falling-to-Death-Man continues.

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All that preparation and balance for a quick drop and a short stop.

Do you know how much it hurts me to hear talk of AAA single-player games “dying off”? (Believe me, I want to rant and rave at the writer of this Forbes article, EA, and the entire line of thinking, but I won’t.) Do you know why I connected so deeply with No Man’s Sky when it was first released? It was an entire universe all to myself. There was no emphasis on multiplayer. In fact, their whole design philosophy was on the experience of loneliness amid the stars. The head of Hello Games, Sean Murray, said that the chances of meeting another human being in the game were slim to none, the universe was so huge (this was proven incorrect, of course). Sure, other people could name things in it. But I wouldn’t be stumbling onto Xxx_ManBooty69 or his PvP attitude anytime soon.

But yes, it appears that No Man’s Sky caved to public pressure for multiplayer. Or maybe it was always meant to be this way, but the game wasn’t given the development time to see it through until NEXT. I’ll hesitantly agree that the game is better with the multiplayer component than without it (since its inclusion was never PvP, and NEXT wouldn’t have been half as successful without its inclusion). Yes, I know the option to turn off network play is there. But really: in this day and age, when mankind has never been more connected through the medium of technology, when screenshots of the fantastic sights of the procedurally-generated cosmos fill the subreddits and Twitter, did we really need multiplayer to enjoy No Man’s Sky together?

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not advocating that every single game cater to a single-player preference. But as a gamer who is coming to the realization that my passion for gaming is far outweighing my talent, to see a traditionally single-player game like the upcoming Fallout 76 reveal itself to be multiplayer makes me more than a little nervous (and I’m not the only one). I can’t even claim to be the crotchety old man who prefers single-player games, as video games have been since their very inception been multiplayer experiences. I’m just a gamer that prefers to escape the pressure of the world through the medium of games instead of more closely connecting with it.

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You’ll take my T-51 helmet when you pry it from my cold, dead… Oh, fine. Just take it.

Of course, I undermine my entire point by saying that my experiences on the Meraki server have been very fun thus far, and the adventures of Falling-to-Death-Man will continue for a good long while. I will probably continue to collide with my friend’s ships in No Man’s Sky multiplayer, too.

*sigh*

And don’t even get me started on battle royales like Fortnite or PUBG. I hear a hellish choir rise from deep within the earth: “Git gud, scrub,” they chant. You might as well ask me to go stand out in a field with antler-shaped earmuffs and a fluffy tail during November.

My (Preliminary) 10-Hour Tale – No Man’s Sky

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“Oh, Mr. Conductor,” I say with exuberance, waving down a man dressed in a bright pink space suit and a tiny blue conductor’s hat. “Does the hype train get off at the next exit, my dear sir?”

“NO,” says the bright pink conductor of the Hype Train in a booming voice that reminds me of the unwavering density and blackness of the vast universe.

“THE HYPE TRAIN NEVER STOPS.”

Chugga-chugga, choo-choo, my friends. Man, very few video games get into the hype levels No Man’s Sky has generated. I didn’t even feel Fallout 4 or Fallout 76 got this much attention, especially considering this is the third such wave of excitement for the 70’s-sci-fi-book-cover space exploration simulator. Even the lead programmer and head of Hello Games had this to say:

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Nothing says despair and dread like a lower-case “oh no”.

His reaction is appropriate. At the game’s release in 2016, I bought into the hype train like crazy and spent the full $60 game for something that was very unpolished and most decidedly not multiplayer. This derailed the Hype Train quite badly for a lot of people, leading Steam reviews to put No Man’s Sky at Mostly Negative.

Fortunately, I don’t think Sean Murray and the team at Hello Games has much to worry about anymore with No Man’s Sky’s latest update called NEXT. How big and important was this update? When I downloaded, it came to about 6.7 Gb. Impressive, I thought, for a game that was about that large before the update. But what’s more impressive is what it meant for the originally single-player-only experience: No Man’s Sky is actually multiplayer.

And what’s more? The game looks even more incredible than it did before from both a gameplay and a graphics standpoint.

I mean, look at what the last three days did for No Man’s Sky:

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Wow!

It’s gone from Mostly Negative to Mixed. I don’t think I’ve yet seen a game do that. And that’s 2000 positive reviews more than there were yesterday. I mean, just take a look at the patch notes for NEXT. Hello Games took their sci-fi adventure and flipped it on its head. Base building is nearly infinite, freighter armadas can be purchased and travel the stars with you, and even the basic building materials and recipes have been overhauled to the point where crafting and exploration is now an exciting venture instead of a mindless grind.

Admittedly, I struggled and panicked at the very start of the game; I was dropped onto a very radioactive planet with no ship and three-fourths of my radiation shielding gone, and had no idea what materials I needed to recharge it. I didn’t even have a scanner to search! But panic turns into resolve when you finally get your bearings, and following the mysterious storyline of the Atlas is proving to be very interesting.

There’s finally a reason to upgrade your blaster: biological horrors and sentinels show up in the worst places, and even caves are no longer safe places to hide. You’ll need to refine the raw materials you harvest from the worlds you explore, and refined materials are often more valuable than their components. Oceans are deep enough to fly under (this may be a bug, I’m unsure) and mountains are now continental in height. Artifacts can be found in hidden underground ruins and can sell for millions of credits, incentivizing exploration and discovery in a way the game hadn’t before.

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I made a dad joke! Do you get it? 1.3k people did!

With all that said, I did encounter two game-breaking day-one bugs that interrupted my play.

The first was a bug with the main quest; the quest wouldn’t allow me to warp to another system until I fueled my ship with antimatter. I would craft the warp fuel and fuel my hyperdrive only to have the quest reset and send me back for more antimatter. Good news: unlimited fuel. Bad news: no way to use it. I managed to un-bug the quest by purchasing another ship. I imagine it was something to do with the fact that I got a ship with a hyperdrive earlier than the quest assumed I would get one. Interestingly, I had a similar problem with earlier updates of No Man’s Sky.

The second occurred when only partially repairing some systems on my ship. The game didn’t like ‘partial repair’ so much that the next time I loaded my save game, the game initialized on a brand new world as if I’d started a brand new game, with no inventory, no ship, no upgrades, nothing. I fixed this with help from the No Man’s Sky Reddit and editing some junk code from my save file.

As of an hour ago, I’ve learned that both of these issues have been patched out, however. So as far as bugs are concerned, the only ones I’ve stumbled across are gone.

I thought I’d start out on normal mode, but to be honest, creative mode is looking really appealing. Check out this awesome cliffside base by ParagonHex:

I’ve played NEXT for about five hours now, and I have no desire to stop. I’ll have more to share in the coming days, but until then, consider this a tentative but glowing review of No Man’s Sky. I can’t wait to helm the bridge of my own freighter fleet and establish a sprawling base on a tropical planet. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to discover my first ruin and not get eaten by horrors.

Early Review: 9/10

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

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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 – 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

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

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.

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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.

If Chris Pratt Can Do It…

raptor

Well, there goes another of my secret childhood dreams, fulfilled by video games. Her name is Ridley, and she is awesome at taking down other raptors. But man, she was a right stroppy one to take down!

Sorry, just exercising my Steve Irwin, rest his great soul. I always wondered how he would have fared in a place like Jurassic Park. Probably a whole lot better than me!