Category Archives: Review

Review: The Witcher 2

Game: The Witcher 2
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: ~36 hours
Buy If You Like: The Witcher, atmospheric and political fantasy gobbledegook

The atmosphere is almost - almost - enough to carry the entire game.

The atmosphere is almost – almost – enough to carry the entire game.

The Witcher 2 (TW2) is a sequel to the original, fairly ground-breaking game following the travails of Geralt of Rivia. Geralt’s profession is a Witcher, a human who has mutated his own genes in order to more effectively fight the monsters that spontaneously appeared in the world many years ago. After the events in the original game, Geralt was playing bodyguard to a king only to see his charge assassinated in his presence and then framed for the crime. TW2 takes place immediately following those events, and the wider ramifications and intrigue surrounding a recent batch of regicide.

I am going to be completely honest here at the beginning by saying that I finished playing TW2 only grudgingly, and after several months-long breaks inbetween. The game features a decently robust journaling system that will allow you to read up on what you are supposed to be doing and the general lore of the entire game world, but the litany of nonsense fantasy pronouns and references to the original game events (and the books they are predicated on) is truly unending. While I am willing to admit that the breaks I took inbetween playing certainly contributed to my general confusion, I do not absolve the game from what I feel was a profound lack of engagement. “Why was I doing this again?” “So I’m fighting this guy, but it’s important I don’t kill him, because I want this valley to become independent, so that… err?”

One of the major strengths of the first Witcher was its creation of what felt like a distinctly authentic atmosphere. Most fantasy games have a sort of whitewashed, Disney quality to them at odds with the historical reality of peasantry who bathed infrequently, had access to few paved roads, and a general unconcern with hygiene. The Witcher felt dirty, gritty, and real. I am happy to report TW2 continues in that praise-worthy tradition. Hovels look like hovels, trolls like like trolls, and you can practically smell the NPCs through the screen. The casual race discrimination (in terms of humans vs nonhumans) and ease in which people’s lives are upended or destroyed feels correct in a way practically unique to the genre.

Layered on top of this “fantasy realism” are the most banal, discordant, gamey quests and mechanics that I’ve ever seen.

Good ole meta-humor.

Good ole meta-humor.

We are talking about completely shameless fetch quests, kill 20 monster quests, and boomerang quests that shatter any sense of immersion in the fictional world. In fact, by the end, I hated the game world for its perfectly realistic twisted pathways and obstacles, as I was forced to circumvent them dozens of times as I did quests A, B, and C in sequence. And can I talk about the map for a second here? Literally the worst, most useless map in any videogame I have ever played. Shit made no sense, and zooming out gives you a view of the overworld that had zero to do with anything given how you were actually trapped in small zones around the one main location of the Chapter.

The combat in the first Witcher was not particularly deep or complicated. Combat in TW2 has actually devolved to the point where I was feeling nostalgic for the timed button pressed of the original as a measure of skill. All you do here is left-click for a quick attack and right-click for a strong attack. You can block, cast a Sign, roll-Dodge, or use an item too, but combat never felt integrated into the game world at all. Maybe the devs were intentionally trying to ensure you didn’t feel like a badass playing as a Witcher. Well… mission accomplished.

By far the worst aspect of the game though (map aside), is the direction that they took potions. See, potions are an important part of the game’s fiction; Witchers mutate themselves almost solely so they can brew potions that let them regenerate health, have extra power, and so on. In the first game, you could drink potions at any time, but could only meditate (e.g. sleep off the toxic potion side-effects) at certain locations. Which was dumb. However, TW2 decided to let you meditate almost anywhere, but you must be meditating before you can drink a potion. When can you not meditate? In combat, near combat, or somewhere where combat is implied to be occurring. The issue is that your abilities are balanced around potion use but potions only last for 10 real-time minutes. So you spend the entire goddamn game quicksaving every 30-seconds because getting into combat without having potions up is suicide, but you can’t exactly be running around with potions up the whole time, especially when you are exploring.

Only in The Witcher series...

Only in The Witcher series…

I am belaboring the utter travesty of the combat system because I’m at a point in my life where this shit just doesn’t fly any more. I used to suffer through all kinds of JRPG combat systems for the fruit that was their (quirky) plots. You can’t really even say that TW2 would have been a better Adventure game though, because the physicality of fighting is important to understanding the world Geralt and friends inhabit. You can’t cut-scene every battle, after all.

Ultimately, I think what killed The Witcher 2 for me was the simple fact that the rest of the gaming world continued moving. Yeah, this is a game that came out in 2011, so a certain amount of slack should be given. But… I can’t. If you have played Skyrim, for example, coming into this game will be physically painful – you will chafe at not being able to hop off the wall where you want, not being able to attack when you want, not being able to go where you want, not being able to drink goddamn potions when you want. All of which is a real shame, because The Witcher 2 features a wide array of morally grey choices that actually change large portions of the game, rather than being “mere” emotional placebos.

But, you know what? I kinda want to have fun when I’m playing video games and The Witcher 2 offered me the opposite of that. I’m keeping an eye on The Witcher 3 because I enjoy the game world they have created and the choices you can make inside of it, but I am oh so wary. And oh so tired of poorly implemented game features/design.

Review: State of Decay

Game: State of Decay
Recommended price: $7.50
Metacritic Score: 76
Completion Time: 18 hours
Buy If You Like: Grand Theft Zombie, Sandbox Roguelikes

Even with shortcuts, the game world is pretty large.

Even with shortcuts, the game world is pretty large.

State of Decay is an open-world zombie sandbox game originally released for Xbox Live Arcade and ported to the PC. You take control of a randomized character and thereafter do your best scavenging buildings for supplies to build up your home base while recruiting additional survivors whom you much switch to after your character becomes tired or injured. Or killed, given how State of Decay features permadeath and auto-saving checkpoints. There is a fairly standard plot you can run through to beat the game, but it can be ignored for however long you wish.

I want to highlight the “PC port” part of this game again, because State of Decay unfortunately takes some hits from both angles. First, the game can be buggy. Zombies inside buildings can sometimes clip through the walls and start trying to give you a nice hug while still being immune to bullets to the face. During one play session, the NPCs on escort missions decided they would just stand there at the end of the mission instead of running to the “end mission” zone. Since the game won’t save until a mission in complete and there isn’t any way to cancel a mission in progress, I was stuck until I tried the outlandish solution of physically moving them inches at a time by bumping into them with my character. It worked, by the way.

The second PC Port hit comes from the fact that the game… well, it could use some work mechanics-wise. The core gameplay itself is rather amazing and refreshing. The map very much feels like a real set of small towns, and you can explore and ransack 99% of the buildings you see. As anyone who has read this blog might know, I have a (un)healthy obsession with looting stuff in post-apocalypse games like Fallout, and State of Decay definitely scratched that itch.

I see what you did there, devs.

I see what you did there, devs.

The problem is that some shit doesn’t make any sense, gameplay-wise. When you’re looting a house and come across a crate of supplies (Food, Medicine, Ammo, etc), you can load it into a duffel bag and take it back to your base to deposit. You can even drop the duffel bag and pick it up later if you want. What you cannot do, apparently, is load the duffel bag into your car trunk. Or have the NPC that accompanied you into the house to carry something. Or drop off the supplies at an Outpost you created, even though it has a Supply Chest that gives you access to all your gear no matter the distance to your home base. While you can call in scavengers to sort of auto-loot the house, the fact that they travel on foot and are fully exposed to the zombies you likely drove right past means looting the next town over is pretty much 100% up to you.

Also, I’m getting real tired of games where you can loot items from containers, or leave items in containers, but cannot put items back in containers. “Oh, I suppose I have to destroy this perfectly useful baseball bat because I picked it up first instead of this handgun.” That sort of nonsense is nothing more than lazy programming.

Loot ALL the things.

Loot ALL the things.

The game also doesn’t quite seem sure what type of challenge it wants to present. Your character can sneak around and even perform stealth kills on zombies, but said stealth kills aren’t really stealthy at all – it always makes enough noise for other zombies to investigate. That’s… realistic, I suppose, but it makes stealth gameplay mostly irrelevant. And while it is frighteningly easy to die when mobbed, for the most part killing zombies is EZ-Mode; melee attacks interrupt zombie grabs, and homemade silencers make gunplay perfectly safe. There are stereotypical “Freak” zombies with extra abilities, but the open-world nature of the game means that most of the time you can lure them outside and then run them over with a car.

At the end of the day though, I enjoyed my time killing zombies and looting things in Trumbull Valley. The skeleton of an amazing game is definitely there; the devs just have to flesh it out a bit more. What I would like to see is a full-fledged sequel called Nation of Decay or something, in which I can load up the back of my Camero with supplies, pop a 80s rock ballad in the tape deck, and slam a zombie with my car door as I speed down the highway into the sunset.

Review: The Last of Us

Game: The Last of Us [PS3]
Recommended price: $30
Metacritic Score: 95
Completion Time: ~17 hours
Buy If You Like: Metal Gear Zombie, brilliant storytelling, good games

You can almost say the post-apoc was an improvement.

You can almost say the post-apoc was an improvement.

When it came down to a decision as to whether I should do an extremely late jump into this (now past) console generation, I really only had one question: did I want to play The Last of Us, or the Halo series? Despite ultimately choosing the PS3, I waited on purchasing The Last of Us for quite some time. This was the reason I bought this console, and I was a bit apprehensive about putting that $200+ decision to the test. After all, everyone raved about Bioshock Infinite at release and looked how that turned out for me. How could this Metacritic 95/9.1 game live up to the expectations I have levied upon it?

The answer is “Easily.”

The Last of Us (TLoU) is 3rd-person, stealth-emphasized cover-based shooter set twenty years into a “zombie” post-apocalypse. An outbreak of mind-destroying spores has nearly wiped out humanity, and the survivors are doing their best to stay alive in a world of infected bites, raiders, and mundane starvation. You play as Joel, a professional smuggler and hardened badass, who along with your partner Tess is looking to get even with a guy who robbed you both of a shipment of guns. After a series of close calls, Joel & Tess take up one last job: to smuggle a 14-year old girl out of the city and to a safe house.

The principal gameplay is exploring, sneaking, and killing from an over-the-shoulder perspective. While the environments are extremely linear and the number of enemy types fairly basic, I found the gameplay itself to never get dull. Supplies are almost always limited, so some real decisions will need to be made as to whether you take the time to sneak around and get some stealth kills versus lobbing a Molotov cocktail into that group of enemies right now. Compounding this, the human AI is brutal in its sensibility – enemies will fan out, attempt to flank you, send only one guy to investigate noises while the others watch, and so on.

There will be a lot of waist-high obstructions to crouch behind.

There will be a lot of waist-high obstructions to crouch behind.

About the only complaints I have about the combat side of things is the reverse difficulty curve and checkpoint system. Like many similar games, TLoU is harder in the beginning and only becomes progressively easier as time goes on. Part of that is familiarity with effective strategy, given how there aren’t a lot of new enemy types, and part of that is from access to more/better weapons. Indeed, facing human enemies became somewhat of a joke later on since they would frequently congregate in small groups at the beginning of encounters, which made it extremely easy to blow them all up at once with a nail bomb. And while I give Naughty Dog some credit for a truly seamless checkpoint system, it ends up doing some strange things to the difficulty insofar as discreet encounters only end up being ~5 minutes long.

For as fluid and exciting the combat system may be, where the game truly shines is everywhere else. The visual juxtaposition of ruined human civilization and a greenery of nature reclaiming the space filled me with sadness and wonder simultaneously; it feels like the most compelling combination between the movies I Am Legend and The Road. The musical score is amazing in its ambiance and willingness to not take over a scene. As for the voice acting, well, I never really noticed there being voice acting at all – it was just normal, natural dialog.

The overall narrative is likely the thing most everyone talks about when TLoU is brought up, and I can confirm that it is about as amazing as advertised. The weird thing is that there was not one particular moment in which I remember sitting there thinking “Wow, that’s some good videogame plot.” Instead, I felt permanently affixed to my screen, playing in five-hour increments, as each scene segued perfectly into the next and I eagerly devoured every little detail.

That queasy feeling you get when you realize you'd probably do the same thing.

That queasy feeling you get when you realize you’d probably do the same thing.

Now that I think about it, there actually were a few details in cut scenes in which my jaw dropped at the excellence of Naughty Dog’s craft. When Joel ever-so-briefly looked at his watch, for example, I was taken back to that first wink in Mass Effect when I understood, for the first time, how much farther gaming as a storytelling medium has evolved. These subtle-yet-significant gestures hold such a hidden depth of emotion that it boggles my mind that their meaning wasn’t as belabored in-game as I am doing right now. I mean, the gesture would be ruined if it called more attention to itself, but it is such a calculated risk that I’m surprised they did not.

Ultimately, The Last of Us is one of those shining examples of Games As Art that also happen to be extremely compelling to play. And unlike some other titles which overreach in their attempts to be narratively “deep” and complex – *cough* Bioshock Infinite *cough* – The Last of Us simply presents its case amongst gripping gameplay and, story told, drops the mic as the screen fades to black.

Review: Torchlight 2

Game: Torchlight 2
Recommended price: $5/bundle
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: 35 hours
Buy If You Like: Torchlight 1, Poorly itemized Diablo-clones

At least the combat feels improved.

At least the combat feels improved.

Torchlight 2 is the hack-n-slash sequel to the original Torchlight, itself an homage and erstwhile competitor to Blizzard’s Diablo series. Indeed, Torchlight 2 was released around the same time Diablo 3 was making headlines with its controversial always-on requirements and server-dependent gameplay. While it makes a great counter-point to Diablo 3 on the feature listings, Torchlight 2 is essentially more of the same from the original game. Which, in my case, is bad news.

My fundamental gripes with both Torchlight games are their meaningless adherence to archaic game design, and a fundamentally terrible itemization/progression system. Torchlight 2 features four different classes to choose from, each with three separate class trees. While they mainly follow traditional hack-n-slash roles, there does exist room for experimentation: there are more than enough talents to choose from to transform, say, the archer-esque Outlander into a melee-only tank (albeit not likely as powerful as a normal tank class). Where this experimentation immediately breaks down is how there is no respecing in Torchlight 2; at most, you are allowed to get a refund on your last three talent points. While this was how things worked in Diablo 2, it is also true that at one point people thought asbestos as insulation was a good idea.

The more crippling flaw though, and the singular design that undermines everything else the game set out to accomplish is the awful itemization and item progression system. While not as outlandishly terrible as the original Torchlight, it is still entirely possible (and even likely) that you will receive a random drop at level 17 that you will still be using 40 levels later at the end of the game. The core of what made the Diablo series so compelling to play was how items and gold erupted from nearly every enemy you faced, and thus you had a steady supply of dopamine over the course of what otherwise is series of perpetually unengaging clicks. Torchlight 2 has none of that – nearly two-thirds of the game was spent vendoring every ring, helmet, amulet, and pants I came across.

Not even the class-specific helmet from the last boss was an upgrade.

Not even the class-specific helmet from the last boss was much an upgrade to my level 14 helm.

It gets even worse, if you can image that.

Clearing an entire map’s worth of mobs and collecting every single piece of vendorable debris results in what I would like to term one “Gear Unit” (typically 2000g-3000g). Each GU allows you to either purchase one item from a vendor, or upgrade an existing item by either adding gem sockets, enchantments, or purchasing gems themselves. This ridiculous stinginess with gold means you are perpetually strapped for cash, only allowing you to augment the gear you’ve accumulated one map clear at a time. God help you if you’ve finally accepted the fact that you’ll never replace your boots only to have an infinitely rare upgrade drop right after spending 10,000g (or 3 GUs) on your old pair.

Oh, and by the way, the Gold Chests and Boss Chests that you are “rewarded” with for going out of your way to find the keys or defeat said boss end up dropping jack shit 99% of the time. I have found more rares and unique items out of normal, everyday treasure chests than I have ever gotten from boss chests. How do you fuck something like this up?

Oh, hey, a Minecraft reference.

Oh, hey, a Minecraft reference.

I am spending all this time talking about loot and such because that is the heart and soul of the hack-n-slash genre. To get loot wrong in these sort of games is to create a racing game with poor-handling cars or a FPS where the guns don’t shoot at the crosshairs. Indeed, would anyone play a Diablo-esque game if there was no gear at all? The gameplay, which consists of mowing down tens of thousands of mobs within seconds of their appearing on the screen absolutely is not compelling enough on its own, that’s for goddamn sure.

All of which is certainly a shame, as Torchlight 2 is otherwise an improved sequel in pretty much every other way. The gameplay (such as it is) feels more responsive and impactful; the environments are detailed and fun to look at; the music is about a half dozen artful remixes of the Tristram theme; and I enjoy the visual style. It just feels, you know, completely unrewarding to play.

It is worth mentioning that all of these problems have been solved by better game designers, e.g. the players submitting mods to the game. There are mods that range from introducing new character classes to entirely new dungeons to, you guessed it, fixing the loot issue by guaranteeing Unique or better drops from Gold/Boss chests. I decided early on to stick with the vanilla game because I wanted to get a feel for what the devs learned from the original Torchlight. The answer is “pretty much nothing.” Playing with mods “taints” your character though and otherwise makes you ineligible for achievements. But since the base game feels like such a massive chore to play, I highly recommend anyone deciding to install Torchlight 2 to go ahead and fix what the devs had not the brains and/or balls to do.

Review: Dungeon Raid

Game: Dungeon Raid [Android]
Recommended price: $1.99 (full)
Metacritic Score: 80
Completion Time: 10+ hours
Buy If You Like: Match-3 games, Time Killing, 10000000

Arrows are special "Sword" tiles that can match 1 tile away.

Arrows are special “Sword” tiles that can match 1 extra tile away.

Dungeon Raid is a rather brilliant and addicting “Match 3″ roguelike game in the same sort of design space as 10000000. Whereas 10000000 focused on fast reflexes combined with steady progression, Dungeon Raid has a more tactical focus with only sporadic RPG-esque progression.

The first thing you’ll notice when playing is that there is no timer or other reason to rush. Additionally, while three is technically the minimum number you need to match to capture tiles, there is no limit on how long a chain can run. Even more interesting, you can capture/trace a path diagonally if you like, opening up many more opportunities to capture tiles.

The tiles themselves are relatively simple: potion, coin, sword, shield, and skull. At the end of each move, all the skulls on-screen will deal their damage to your armor and then your HP. You “capture” skull tiles by dealing enough damage to them to bypass their armor and reduce their HP to 0. The damage you deal is determined by your base attack and then increases by your weapon damage for each sword tile you cross; skulls and swords can be chained, of course. Potions tiles refill your HP, Shield your armor, and coins increase your wealth.

The RPG mechanics come in several forms. You earn XP mainly for killing Skulls, and each level lets you pick 2 of 4 random upgrades. Some of those upgrades will be special powers (max of 4) which can have impressive effects like turning all Coins to Swords, or getting an entirely fresh board (Teleport); once used, these skills take X number of turns to recharge. Capturing Shield tiles while already at full armor will increase an armor XP bar, which lets you chose 1 of 4 upgrade options for your current gear. Filling up the Coin “XP” bar will also let you upgrade gear.

Layered on top of all of this are the bonus/penalties that come from your class, your race, and what abilities you put in your pool to randomly pick from. Classes need to be unlocked by defeating boss Skull tiles, which have their own special abilities and necessary tactics. Sometimes they drop nothing but gold, sometimes they drop a new class item, and sometimes they drop class upgrade items instead. The higher level a class is, the more you can customize it by, say, turning your priest into an Orc for the racial bonus (etc). Nothing caries over inbetween games other than these class unlock/upgrade items though, so a run in which no boss drops a token is basically “wasted” (hence the “sporadic” progression). This does suck once you realize it, but the plus side is that you won’t be “beating” the game as quickly as 10000000.

All of this sounds complicated, sure, but it becomes intuitive and fun pretty quickly and ends up feeling more like FTL and Binding of Isaac than a typical phone game. It’s fast, it’s fun, and it’ll break your heart when you lose +10 Regenerating, 30 Armor, +8 Poison Weapon toon. But you’ll immediately start again despite the fact that your lunch break ended two hours ago.

Highly recommended.

Book Review: The Malazan Book of the Fallen

The Malazan Book of the Fallen

Author: Steven Erikson
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Books: 1-10 (complete)

I waited until finishing the very last book in this epic fantasy series before writing this review, but going forward, I am not entirely sure whether that is the best way to handle works of this size and scope. Especially series of this size and this scope.

At its base, The Malazan Book of the Fallen mostly follows the tale of the Bridgeburners, a special squad of marines in the Malazan army as they are tasked with acts of sabotage and subterfuge in a world with magic, undead warriors literally hundreds of thousands of years old, actually immortal shapeshifting dragon mages, gods, ascendant gods, elder gods, reality-destroying chaos magic, and good old-fashioned armies of human meat and bone and iron. While the Bridgeburners are an integral story arc, there are actually two more completely different ones that are of similar heft and importance.

The very first book, Gardens of the Moon, was perhaps one of the worst possible opening books in any epic fantasy series that I have ever read – it immediately tosses you into this new world, confuses the hell out of you with a cast of hundreds of individual characters, and doesn’t pause to explain anything. For example, the magic in this world comes from Warrens, which are a sort of pocket dimension aligned with certain traits. Thus, when the books says “they opened a warren,” it can both mean they are casting a spell or actually opening the warren as a means of physical escape. Or both, simultaneously. None of that is explained anywhere in Book 1.

I’m highlighting the failing of the first book because the rest of the series is so mind-boggling good. It does not have the cleverness of Name of the Wind or the timelessness of Lord of the Rings, but it’s close. Each book is designed to sort of stand on its own, following the world’s (suspiciously convenient) tendency towards a convergence of powers, but the weaving of characters and story arcs is tremendously good. While the internal monologs are consistent with the book’s fiction, they often bring up devastatingly good philosophical arguments regarding the realities of war, the existence of god, and the general ugliness of the human condition, all with not being too overt.

This is the sort of writing you can expect:

There is something profoundly cynical, my friends, in the notion of paradise after death. The lure is evasion. The promise is excusative. One need not accept responsibility for the world as it is, and by extension, one need do nothing about it. To strive for change, for true goodness in this mortal world, one must acknowledge and accept, within one’s own soul, that this mortal reality has purpose in itself, that its greatest value is not for us, but for our children and their children. To view life as but a quick passage along a foul, tortured path – made foul and tortured by our own indifference – is to excuse all manner of misery and depravity, and to exact cruel punishment upon the innocent lives to come.

I defy this notion of paradise beyond the gates of bone. If the soul truly survives the passage, then it behooves us – each of us, my friends – to nurture a faith in similitude: what awaits us is a reflection of what we leave behind, and in the squandering of our mortal existence, we surrender the opportunity to learn the ways of goodness, the practice of sympathy, empathy, compassion and healing – all passed by in our rush to arrive at a place of glory and beauty, a place we did not earn, and most certainly do not deserve.

And this (a piece of narration):

He hurried on, grimacing at the ache in his chest, still feeling the parting kiss of his wife on his lips, the careless hugs of his children round his waist.

He was a man who would never ask for sympathy. He was a man who sought only to do what was right. Such people appear in the world, every world, now and then, like a single refrain of some blessed song, a fragment caught on the spur of an otherwise raging cacophony.

Imagine a world without such souls.

Yes, it should have been harder to do.

Still gives me chills. Maybe you have to have been there read the greater context. In any case, the series can feature both heavy emotion – there were three separate instances across all the books where I contemplated killing the author – but also welcome moments of great levity. Some examples from the latter:

‘Excellent, and your name is?’

‘XXXX. Er, we got references—’

‘No need. I am confident in my ability to judge character, and I have concluded that you two, while not to be considered vast of intellect, are nevertheless inclined to loyalty. This here will mark an advancement in your careers, I am sure, and so you will be diligent as befits your secret suspicion that you have exceeded your competence. All this is well. Also, I am pleased to note that you do not possess any parasites of a debilitating, unsightly sort. So, XXXX, go yonder and find us one, two or three additional guards. In the meantime, I will attend to YYYY.’

And another (context: the female sergeant is an alcoholic):

‘That snake! I knew it, a conspiracy! Well, I’ll deal with him later. One mass-murderer at a time, I always say.’
‘This is madness, Sergeant! Let go of me – I can explain—’
‘Save your explanations. I got some questions for you first and you’d better answer them!’
‘With what?’ he sneered. ‘Explanations?’
‘No. Answers. There’s a difference—’
‘Really? How? What difference?’
‘Explanations are what people use when they need to lie. Y’can always tell those, ’cause those explanations don’t explain nothing and then they look at you like they just cleared things up when really they did the opposite and they know it and you know it and they know you know and you know they know that you know and they know you and you know them and maybe you go out for a pitcher later but who picks up the tab? That’s what I want to know.’
‘Right, and answers?’
‘Answers is what I get when I ask questions. Answers is when you got no choice. I ask, you tell. I ask again, you tell some more. Then I break your fingers, ’cause I don’t like what you’re telling me, because those answers don’t explain nothing!’
‘Ah! So you really want explanations!’
‘Not till you give me the answers!’

The bottom line is: if you enjoy fantasy novels at all, I highly highly recommend picking up the entire series. However tempting it might be to skip the first book based on my experiences, it would be a costly error – the characters introduced in the first book are integral in how the rest of the books play out. The first five books can technically stand on their own, but everything will be more meaningful if you know what the characters had to go through to get to that point.

Which, believe me, is a lot. I mean, Jesus, wait till you get to the Chain of Dogs. Or the Pannion Domin. Or what happens to your favorite characters in Darujhistan even though you can cynically see it coming from a mile away and yet you squirm and sweat and try to close your eyes but you can’t because you’re reading a goddamn book and the words were already written anyway and oh no, this can’t be happening… why do you do this to me Steven Erikson?! Why does your fiction both inspire and destroy my faith in all that is good and right in the world?

Ahem. Read these books.

Reviews: Gunpoint, Rogue Legacy

Game: Gunpoint
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 83
Completion Time: ~2 hours
Buy If You Like: Indie puzzlers, Hilarious but too short games

Child's play

Child’s play

Gunpoint is a short, 2D indie puzzler with some of the most hilarious writing I have ever seen in a videogame. You take control of Richard Conway, a freelance spy whose latest customer was murdered before he could get the details. From that classic film noir story hook, you get a classic film noir plot broken up by bouts of mildly interesting puzzles.

At their simplest level, the puzzles in Gunpoint revolve around interacting with a computer and then exiting the map via subway station. The central conceit is Conway’s ability to rewire a building’s electronic systems, such that getting caught on a surveillance camera actually opens the locked door instead of triggering the alarm. Some of a building’s circuitry is “hardened” (it has a different color), which means you have to reach a certain (color) breaker box before being able to reroute that circuit’s wires. Completing maps will give you currency to purchase more gizmos, including the ability to electrify certain devices or even the ability to (temporarily) reroute a guard’s gun – causing them to either open a door when they pull the trigger, or forcing them fire the weapon at a buddy when you flip a light switch.

The puzzles are fun, but… well, they end up being only mildly interesting. Rewiring electronics turns out to be fairly powerful as a sort of default ability, which is reflected by the fact that the latter half of the game basically features only 2-3 things you can actually interact with (one light switch, maybe a camera). There are some mechanics that prevent you from simply pouncing/shooting your way through all the guards (the subway gets locked down after any gunshots), and as a result the game becomes incredibly abstract by the end. Normally, that might not matter for, you know, a puzzle game, but I actually enjoyed the early gameplay over what it ends up “evolving” into.

Like I mentioned at the beginning, Gunpoint is extremely short, clocking in around ~2 hours of gameplay. Given that, and given my ambivalence towards the later gameplay, I would suggest waiting until Gunpoint hits $5 or a bundle. It is a game definitely worth your time to play at some point – trust me, the dialog alone is almost worth it – but that time doesn’t have to be now.

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Game: Rogue Legacy
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: ~13 hours
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes, Harsh action platformers, RPG-esque indie games

Not a boss run.

Not a boss run.

Rogue Legacy is a sort of indie hybrid RPG roguelike action platformer. The developers describe the game as “Rogue-Lite,” as the central premise is that while the game features permadeath, your children will take up the family mantle and invade the procedurally-generated castle to avenge you. This design is actually pretty compelling, especially considering that while purchased equipment/abilities cary over from one character to the next, the gold used to purchase these things do not. So what ends up happening is failed runs (usually!) end up leaving you with enough gold to be stronger for the next one, while not encouraging you to hoard gold in the meantime.

The castle itself is divided into four main areas, each with a boss at the end. While the general location of the areas are stable, all of the individual rooms and transitions are randomly determined. I say “random,” but the vast majority of rooms have a high level of coherence, as opposed to the truly random nonsense of games like A Valley Without Wind. You do not technically need to clear a room of enemies to move on, but it is generally a good idea considering getting better equipment and stats requires gold. That being said, there is an entire class (Miner) that encourages you to avoid combat as much as possible while quickly snagging as many treasure chests as you can.

The gameplay itself is pretty unforgiving. While you can equip a bunch of Vampiric gear later on, and occasionally find a piece of health-restoring food when destroying furniture, for the most part damage you take is permanent. This can lead to frustrating scenarios in which an otherwise solid-looking boss attempt is stymied on the way to the door because you landed on some spikes in the prior room. Or misjudged a screen full of projectiles. Or faced one of those goddamn wolves that seem to charge half a second earlier than you’re prepared for.

And by “solid-looking boss attempt” I mean that at least one of the three children you can select for your next castle run had a good class/characteristic/ability combination. For you see, sometimes your favorite class might be Farsighted (makes the center screen fuzzy), or the screen is upside down, or they have an enormous character model (increased weapon reach, but increased hitbox too), or maybe everything is good except they have a weak magic ability.

I am not attempting to dissuade you from purchasing Rogue Legacy, but I do want to point out that while the devs say “Rogue-Lite,” the game is still pretty roguelike. I had a pretty solid 9 hours of fun, and a less fun 4 hours of being stuck grinding gold and new abilities to give me the hope of downing some of the bosses. Admittedly, being better at the game might have reduced that time, but then again, being worse would have increased it exponentially. So in your game purchase decision, be sure to take into consideration how good you are at semi-twitch platformers.

Reviews: Elven Legacy, QUBE

Game: Elven Legacy
Recommended price: bundle
Metacritic Score: 71
Completion Time: ~21 hours
Buy If You Like: Hex-based strategy games, old games

The strategy bits weren't bad at all.

The strategy bits weren’t bad at all.

Elven Legacy is a somewhat more traditional hex-based strategy game featuring PS1 graphics, a somewhat abbreviated plot, and an incredibly brutal single-player campaign.

What I recognized early on was that I had not actually played many “strategy” games before, as opposed to more tactical affairs. The underlying mechanics were fairly simple: units can move and attack each turn, all units have 10 HP, sometimes there are special abilities or perks that can come into play, units gain XP and levels, and you can move your entire team each turn. When all the moving pieces come together however, you begin to realize how much the odds are against you on each and every map.

Allow me to present an example. During your turn, you move your spearman up to attack an enemy unit. Before committing to the attack, you see that you will deal 5 damage and take 2 damage in return. During the attack, the damage numbers were actually 4 and 3 – the projected numbers are simply the average range. The damage a unit takes is counted as either wounded or dead, with the spread being determined by perks and… well, I’m not actually sure how its counted. I noticed higher level units take more wounds than deaths, so I’m sure stats are somehow involved. Regardless, your now-7 HP unit will deal less damage than that same unit at full health. On your next turn, you can choose to order that unit to Camp, which will heal all wounded (not dead) units, at the cost losing both its attack and move phase.

Another wrinkle is morale. Units attacked below a certain baseline will Break, reducing their attack and defense scores by 4 until they Camp, while also retreating a hex away. Even units that do not Break will retreat a hex back when low on HP. This can wreck havoc with your plans should you attempt to attack with two units, only to have the first attack send the enemy out of range of your follow-up. This can lead to some odd behavior, like attacking with your weakest units first, probing for the breaking point, before sending in the big guns to hopefully annihilate the unit.

Then you have the hero/monster units, which can heal to full all the time. Then you have magic spells, which have unlimited ranges by only 1-2 charges per spell. Then you have terrain bonuses/penalties. Then you are picking one of three Perks for each level a unit gains. Then you are sending units around the map looking for artifacts that you can equip to give certain units more abilities/stats. Then you realize you often have a time limit to complete the map. And so on.

While the game was surprisingly strategic and all, literally everything else was forgettable. I have not dabbled much in the strategy game genre, but I know enough to know that there are likely better titles out there to buy. I purchased Elven Legacy at some ridiculous discount a year or so ago, and it is probably only worth that much (or less). It was fun while it lasted, but it really only succeeded in me wanting to look at other strategy games.

Note: I purchased the DLC along with the normal game, but was unable to get any of said DLC to actually work. The new campaigns showed up and were selectable, but none of the dialog or win conditions or any text was visible.

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Game: QUBE
Recommended price: bundle
Metacritic Score: 69
Completion Time: ~3 hours
Buy If You Like: Portal-lite, FPS puzzle games

Aesthetically, it was quite nice.

Aesthetically, it was quite nice.

QUBE is a first-person puzzle game in the Portal tradition. In fact, basically all you need to know is that QUBE is Portal-lite. Throughout the game you can manipulate the behavior of a series of colored cubes that have standard behavior: red ones extend out one square at a time to a three-square distance, yellow ones make a step-ladder patterns, blue squares act as spring-boards, etc. Actually, why stop describing them now? Purple cubes rotate a section of the wall/floor, and green create either a block or ball, depending on the puzzle. Oh, and there are magnet walls. There, that is 100% of the set pieces.

While all this sounds simple, QUBE veers into some ridiculously fiendish puzzles before the end of its ~4 hours of gameplay. At one point, you have to solve a puzzle in the dark, with only one element at time being lit up. Another requires the fine manipulation of otherwise inert cubes of differing sizes by using magnetic walls. Yet another requires the navigation of a sort of Wheatley-esque robot that only makes right turns through a maze.

Overall, QUBE provides a lot more depth than I originally thought it could, but it did not provide enough to overcome the otherwise deserved “Portal-lite” title. Just image Portal minus GLaDOS, minus the threat of death, minus the ability to move blocks manually, and minus the ability to put portals almost anywhere. Oh, and minus about ~10 extra hours of gameplay.

Grab QUBE as part of a bundle if you can.

Review: Don’t Starve

Game: Don’t Starve
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: 20-60 hours (variable)
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes that don’t kid around, amazing indie games

Pro tip: everything kills you.

Pro tip: bees will STAB you TO DEATH

Don’t Starve is a harsh, survival indie roguelike with dark humor, a fairly unique visual style, and a pointed lack of hand-holding. You control a man named Wilson who suddenly wakes up in the wilderness, is told that finding some food before dark would be a good idea, and then… you are on your own. From there, the basic idea is to scrounge for some carrots/berries while using available materials to craft torches, tools, traps, and other basic gear as you do your best to survive in a world that wants you dead.

Moving around and interacting with the world is surprisingly easy and intuitive. You can move around via left-clicking the ground/objects or by using WASD. Interacting with objects is done either with left-click or right-click. Pressing the Spacebar will cause your character to perform some context-sensitive activity, like start chopping a tree if equiped with an axe, pick up something if it is nearby, or attack an enemy. Combat is not particularly deep, but the “shallowness” combined with the roguelike nature of the game lends a tremendous amount of gravitas to battles. It reminds me of survival horror games that have clunky combat on purpose, to ratchet up the implicit difficulty.

Don't worry, I got this under control.

Don’t worry, I got this under control.

The default game starts you in Survival Mode, which is really more of a Sandbox mode. While there is not really an “endgame” in this mode, the game’s structure naturally (and ingeniously) lends itself to a sense of progression and escalating danger. Establishing a base camp is pretty typical and allows you to stockpile materials and research structures, making the maintenance of your Hunger, Health, and Sanity easier. On the other hand, resources generally do not regenerate very quickly, which forces you to forage farther and farther from your base camp with each passing day. And ultimately, the arrival of Winter will stretch your capacity to survive to the very limit, given how traditionally easy sources of food dry up (plants don’t grow, ponds freeze over). This is on top of an escalation of random hostile encounters by the Hounds, or other boss-level mobs.

Those in search of a more structured endgame can seek out Maxwell’s Door, a set piece randomly located somewhere on the map. Once entered, you are in Adventure Mode, tasked with surviving five randomly-determined theme worlds while collecting four Things in order to open the gate to the next world. Even if Don’t Starve consisted entirely of Adventure Mode, it would be enough to cover at least 20+ hours of gameplay. Especially given how the brutality of Survival Mode holds nothing to Adventure Mode worlds in which you are trapped in an endless Winter, or constant rain, or even a world with zero sunlight.

I'm pretty surprised myself, actually.

I’m pretty surprised myself, actually.

While I have been infatuated with Don’t Starve for quite some time, the game isn’t for everyone. Don’t Starve is extremely unforgiving, even in roguelike terms, where death is both easy to stumble into and results in a deletion of your save file. That said, while death is easy, it is almost always going to be due to mistakes you have made, rather than randomized deathtraps. Even if you get one-shot by a particular mob, that is only because you chose not to wear armor at the time, or because you were being reckless in not running away. Compare that to a game like The Binding of Isaac, where a white pill might randomly give a buff in one game and permanently reduce health in another.

If you are someone willing to play and lose dozens of hours of progress in a roguelike though (or cheese the system via console commands or making backup save copies), I cannot recommend Don’t Starve enough. It has style, it has substance, and it is receiving developer updates every 3 weeks (at the moment). It is simple to get into, impressively complex when you start planning ahead, and always engaging while you struggle to survive.

Review: Dungeons of Dredmor

Game: Dungeons of Dredmor
Recommended price: $10 (with DLC)
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: 28 hours
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes, Turn-ish-Based RPGs, Indie Humor

Open door, immediately confronted with this.

Open door, immediately confronted with this.

Dungeons of Dredmor (DoD) is an indie roguelike RPG wrapped in a fluffy layer of humor and genre in-jokes. The goal is simple: navigate your way to the bottom floor of the dungeon and kill Dredmor. Along the way, you will explore rooms, evade traps (a LOT of traps), kill monsters, loot treasure, and level up.

The core of DoD is its extremely interesting combat/exploration system. Essentially, everything is turn-based: for every step or action you take, all enemies make one too. These “turns” occur instantaneously, so you are never waiting on some action on the part of the AI, which makes the action go as fast or slow as you want. This ends up feeling rather amazing, as it avoids the “spacebar fatigue” that accompanies other tactical games. This system ends up putting a premium on actions though, and it’s quite easy to get surrounded and murdered if you’re not careful.

The statistics part of DoD is intentionally obtuse – your six base stats affect 18+ other stats – but the “joke” belies a pretty robust equipment and talent system. When you first roll your character, you can choose seven different categories of talents, which either grant new abilities or a direct increase in stats as you spend skill points. For example, taking the Swords talent will let you get new abilities (not all of which require a sword), and perhaps some bonuses for using swords. There is a pretty huge number of talents though, and it’s entirely possible to pick a combination that simply won’t work. On the other hand, you could pick 6 warrior-ish talents and then grab the one that let’s you shoot fireballs. Armor generally decreases your magic ability, but it’s possible to either craft or come across armor that hurts it less.

Never been closer to the edge...

Never been closer to the edge…

DoD is definitely a roguelike (although you can turn off permadeath at character creation) and thus contains certain abilities/scenarios in which you are likely to die pretty quickly, if not arbitrarily. This is… dangerous, for lack of a better word, in a game where you can spend 22 hours on a single character exploring every room of each level (which you may want to do to stay ahead of the curve). Indeed, in the titular Dredmor encounter, I about died within three moves before I “cheesed” the rest of the encounter via judicious use of invisible mushrooms and the all-powerful ability to close doors.

At the end of the day, I spent 28 hours in Dungeons of Dredmor and could see myself replaying it again with another character setup, or perhaps after picking up the two DLC. It’s a fun game, perhaps a more cerebral version of Binding of Isaac, but where Binding of Isaac and FTL come out ahead is giving more focused gameplay with their permadeath. Had I lost my 20+ hour character, I probably would have quit altogether right there. Luckily for me, I didn’t, but I’d be lying if I said I did not make three backup copies of my savegame. So if this game sounds fun to you, I recommend turning off permadeath until you wrap your mind around the game’s many idiosyncrasies.