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I have successfully completed XCOM2. And I am not entirely sure I will be playing again.

There is a lot to like about the game. If you enjoyed the first XCOM reboot, this one will likely be right up your alley as well. Good turn-based tactical games are hard to come by, and this is decent. There is also the Civilization-esque “one… more… turn…” element when it comes to researching new technology or building new rooms; it is technically just watching a clock spin around, but you occasionally get “interrupted” with critical missions, which you finish, then want to the research to finish before closing the game, but then a new mission… etc.

That said, there are just some core design decisions that I just don’t like.

The biggest one – which admittedly hasn’t changed from the first game – is how enemies get a “free turn” when you first discover them through the fog of war. I mean, I get it, a squad-turn based game needs some sort limitation set so that a scout running around doesn’t let your team instantly mow down tightly-grouped packs of enemies before they can react. Still, I hate it every time, and it warps my tactical considerations in an entirely metagame way. For example, it immensely dissuades melee units, because they can inadvertently reveal new enemies in the middle of a turn, which then causes your team to get hosed out of nowhere.

Another arguably “unfair” criticism I have is the mostly binary damage model. Firaxis isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary here – tactical turn-based games are tactical. But when you have a dude sporting a minigun that sprays plasma rounds at an enemy from 10 feet away, missing a 68% chance to hit and dealing zero damage strains my suspension of disbelief. Missing a sniper shot is fine. Even a few shots with an assault rifle is okay. But shotguns and miniguns should be doing something to your target provided you pointing it in their general direction.

The last problem I have is the same one I brought up with my Impression post. Namely, the wildly uneven difficulty. Early game Sectoids mind-controlling a squad member when you can only field 4 at a time is ridiculously punishing. But by mid-game? My forces were almost untouchable.

I mean, it matches the narrative of a scrappy resistance slowly taking the upper-hand against highly advanced aliens. At the same time, the actual gameplay element immensely suffers due to it. Ironman mode might make things more difficult simply because of it exacerbating the problems outlined in the prior two paragraphs, but the fundamental problem is that more options = easier game. Throwing higher health enemies with extra armor at me does nothing when I can dance around them with Mimic grenades, grappling hooks, and wrist-mounted rocket launchers.

I bought XCOM2 via Humble Monthly bundle for $12, and it has generated 40+ hours of relatively enjoyable gameplay. It is entirely possible that something like the Long War 2 mod could generate even more. So, yeah, I can highly recommend this game. I just can’t particularly say that I want to play it anymore.

Review: The Banner Saga

Game: The Banner Saga
Recommended price: < $5
Metacritic Score: 80
Completion Time: 10-12 hours
Buy If You Like: PC ports of mobile tactical games, Kickstarter games

Oh, you. Wait, was he serious?

Oh, you. Wait, was he serious?

The Banner Saga is one of those darling Kickstarter stories in which a scrappy development team (or professional game designers) achieves high accolades for a beautifully drawn, epic soundtrack-having mobile-to-PC tactical RPG port. When judged against its Kickstarted peers, it stands rather tall amongst them, especially for having actually made it to release. When judged on its own merits however, The Banner Saga falls somewhat short despite it’s high Metacritic rating.

The basic thrust of The Banner Saga is one of Norse-style apocalypse. The gods are dead, the historical baddies (Dredge) are flooding the North, and everything is going to hell. The plot follows two separate caravans as they rapidly become refugee trains fleeing the destruction. Along the way you are presented with a series of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure blind choices and are rewarded or punished (mainly punished) with abrupt character deaths, loss of supplies, and similarly depressing news. Oh, and occasionally battles.

The tactical combat system in The Banner Saga is not one I have seen before, and I’m tempted to say that was for a reason. Every unit has both an Armor meter and a Strength meter, the latter of which is also your HP. Damage is calculated as “Your Strength – Their Armor = They Lose X Strength.” I already consider such systems a Red Flag simply for how many times it leads to snowball situations: wounded characters immediately lose most of their combat value. “Luckily” enough, damaging Armor isn’t tied to Strength at all (Armor Break is a separate stat you can increase), so even a character with 1 HP (i.e. 1 Strength) can do something useful. Also, some character classes have special abilities that do a set amount of damage no matter that’s character’s Strength.

Another day, another grid with the same enemies.

Another day, another grid with the same enemies.

My issue with things comes from the Turn Order system. Simply put: it alternates. Before you get into combat, you can decide which of your party members goes in which order. Once combat begins, it starts with your 1st member and then goes to one unit on the enemy’s side. If you manage to kill an enemy before their turn, the next enemy in the turn order will take their spot and everyone else moves down. This continues until there is only one enemy left, which starts “Pillage Mode” and your whole team gets one turn for every one that the last enemy receives.

The entire system leads to bizarre scenarios wherein an enemy unit can suddenly get 3-4 free turns of attacks off on a character before you can react, as you uselessly move around other out-of-range characters. In other words, the enemy gets more dangerous the more enemy units you kill; conversely, this never seems to improve your own odds of success when put in similar situations.

The other major problem I had with the game design was… well, the rest of it. You receive Renown points after battles, and Renown pulls double duty as both currency to purchase items/Supplies for your caravan and as an upgrade currency. If you want to level a character up from 2 to 3, that costs 10 Renown, for example. The problem here is that there is never enough. Which, okay, it’s Ragnarok, what are you going to do? But The Banner Saga is not at all gun-shy about killing your playable characters without warning in one of the frequent dialog choices, taking the 30+ Renown you’ve invested along with them. I couldn’t help but feel like the developers were trying to make the game be a roguelike but only going halfway. Am I supposed to reload my last auto-save when I find out that X died? Or will there be enough Renown later to off-set the loss?

Spoiler alert: no.

Know what's fun about these sort of choices? Nothing.

Know what’s fun about these sort of choices? Nothing.

In the end, I find it somewhat hard to recommend The Banner Saga, at least with even a fraction of the fervor it was recommended to me. If you are looking for a solid tactical RPG ala Final Fantasy Tactics, you will be disappointed. If you are looking for an engaging roguelike, you will be disappointed. If you are looking for a regular RPG with a great story, you will be disappointed – the game ends abruptly with a cliffhanger, as it was designed as a trilogy from the start. If you are looking for an iPad game to play for more than 10 hours, you will be disappointed.

There is some good things going on in The Banner Saga – the music, artwork, and animations are fantastic – but it’s not a complete project. The less you treat it as a serious game and more as an interactive picturebook, the better off you will be.

Review: Dragon Age: Inquisition

Game: Dragon Age: Inquisition
Recommended price: $25
Metacritic Score: 85
Completion Time: 40-90+ hours
Buy If You Like: Dragon Age, CRPGs, Bioware titles

1080p, Medium settings, ~50 fps.

1080p, Medium settings, ~50 fps.

Dragon Age: Origins felt like a seminal moment in computer gaming when it came out back in 2009. Here was an epic RPG written by Bioware that followed in the Baldur’s Gate style with all the conveniences of modern gaming. The lore was deep for a brand new IP, and turned many of the traditional fantasy tropes on their head (elves are actually slaves in the ghettos instead of immortal elites, etc). While certainly not the first title to do so, Origins also featured quite a few deliciously vexing moral decisions with no good answers. Although it stumbled here and there, the game nevertheless took me on a 100+ hour journey with characters I sorely missed after the ending credits.

Then there was Dragon Age 2. It went okay.

The first dozen or so hours in Dragon Age: Inquisition felt distressingly similar to Dragon Age 2. For example, combat remains more Action than Tactics. In fact, Bioware removed the pseudo-AI programming you could do in the prior two games and replaced it with… not much. The plot begins with a limp handshake via two factions warring that I care nothing about and no inklings that things will get better. In short, I was very, very worried.

Once I finally had a base of operations though… you know that feeling in the Mass Effect series once Shepard reaches the Normandy? Inquisition had that moment for me, and suddenly it felt as if my peripheral vision widened. The fun switch was flipped and stayed on for pretty much the entire ride.

You can get sorta tactical with CC.

You can get sorta tactical with CC.

The game feels massive. In fact, one of the big criticisms of Inquisition is that people end up staying in the first map (Hinterlands) doing quests for 15+ hours, long past the point when they could be exploring new lands. And I totally fell into that same trap myself. Honestly, Inquisition could easily have been the first draft of Dragon Age Online. It would not at all have felt out of place to see other Inquisitors running around, killing bears and closing Fade portals. Hell, the game already features a rather needlessly complicated and fiddly crafting system complete with dozens of resources nodes spread across the map.

Combat is much more like Dragon Age 2, as mentioned before, but gone are the magically spawning waves of enemies. As a result, most of the enemies you encounter feel as though they are actually part of the world you inhabit, and thus fighting them feels “real.” It also helps that there aren’t necessarily any prescribed “combat zones” – you could be fighting in the woods with trees blocking projectiles, or attacking up the side of a mountain, or using a boulder for elevation to trigger your Archery talent for bonus damage. Indeed, the sheer amount of verticality in the game is a huge triumph in making the world feel more organic.

Serious competition with Varric for best party member banter.

Serious competition with Varric for best party member banter.

In terms of plot, character development, and companion dialog, it is difficult to nail down my feelings on the matter in terms of whether it surpassed prior titles. I ended up playing Inquisition for over 90 hours, largely because I wanted to squeeze every ounce of party banter blood I could from even the stones of irrelevant sidequests. At the same time, most of the excellently written characters were from the first or second games (notable exception: Iron Bull), which feels like… cheating, somehow. Were they particular good in this game, or was I carrying over emotions from prior ones? Tough to say.

What is not at all tough to say is that I very much enjoyed my Inquisition experience overall, and am sad to see it go. I would not rank it amongst my favorites of all time, but Inquisition is the Dragon Age game we deserved after Origins. In short, it has renewed my faith and interest in the series as a whole, and was a joy to play besides. I am ready to follow Bioware into whatever form Dragon Age 4 takes.

Unlikely Encounters

There are a lot of tropes in RPGs that go largely unexamined, but I experienced one in Dragon Age 2 recently that seemed especially egregious: the impossibly unlikely encounter.

Now, you know how it is, you are walking around town and just so happen to stumble across a conversation between a woman looking for her son and guards clearly not interested in searching for him. What were the odds you would be walking by that one-minute exchange in the middle of a sprawling city? It’s a trope, but I can forgive that out of necessity; how else could you really set up such a quest organically, right? I’m not talking about those sort of encounters.

No, I’m talking about the part in Dragon Age 2 when I run across a band of Elvish assassins confronting a human along a desolate path on the Wounded Coast. The human is apparently a former werewolf who inadvertently killed the mother of the main Elf assassin, but the Warden from the first game has cured his lycanthropy. You get the choice here between letting the assassin finish the job, defending the man, or trying to shame the Elves into leaving. I did the latter, got paid 50 silver by the grateful man, and both parties left.

Err… what?

This wasn’t even a quest. It was just a goddamn throwaway encounter miles from any sort of civilization and/or rational explanation for how the two people could have met one another just in time for me to waltz by. It wasn’t like this dude was trying to assuage his guilt by watching the beach. As far as I can possibly determine, there was no reason for him to be there at all; he was not a trader, nor hermit, nor on the run. I would have been infinitely more sympathetic with my suspension of disbelief if this occurred in the city. Or in a cave he was hiding in. Or as part of a plot-line or rumor which suggested someone was looking for a former werewolf.  Instead, this scenario gets more and more ludicrous the longer I think about it.

I mean, sure, most of the quests that I have seen in Dragon Age 2 so far seem rather unlikely. Who exactly is going to trust a complete stranger who was conveniently eavesdropping on your conversation in the first place? Actually, it might be fun for there to be an RPG in which all of these sort of tropes are subverted; some sort of deranged, manic dude cavorting into the middle of groups of people and “completing their quests” based on random snippets of dialog. But, man, that Wounded Coast encounter is on an impossibly absurd level of its own.

Review: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Game: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
Recommended price: Debatable ($5)
Metacritic Score: 81
Completion Time: ~45 hours
Buy If You Like: Single-player MMOs, Action RPGs

Graphics aren't half bad.

Graphics aren’t half bad.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (hereafter Reckoning) is a 3rd-person, over-the-shoulder action RPG that comes the closest I have ever seen to any game perfectly emulating an MMO experience. After being resurrected and freed from the constraints of a setting bound by Fate, you set out into the world to stop the various forces that want to make your death stick this time. Along the way, you will kill many enemies, destroy a lot of boxes, explore many caves, and complete quests until you get so utterly sick of them that you swear you will never accept another quest in any game, ever. Then you will complete some more.

As mentioned, Reckoning is for all intents and purposes a single-player MMO. About the only thing missing is the ability to zoom out the camera (an issue that becomes rather annoying after a while) and the ability to jump. Other than those two, you will doing a lot of the same things in exactly the same ways. Each new town will have a half dozen or more NPCs offering quests, there is a quest-tracker of sorts, monsters can randomly drop rare/epic/legendary loot. As you level up, you can put skill points into three different skill trees that correspond with Fighter, Mage, and Thief. Depending on how many points you slot into each tree, you can choose certain Fate cards that are basically “classes” which give you certain passive bonuses. While the bonuses are generally worth specialization, it’s also entirely possible to cherry-pick some of the better abilities in the early trees.

In terms of general gameplay, I would say Reckoning is alright. Your main attacks are bound to left-click and right-click, with some of them requiring aim via the mouse. There is some element of timing to your attacks rather than just spamming the buttons, although it’s possible to do that too. Part of the game schtick is “Reckoning Mode,” which is really a re-skinned Limit Break from FF7 – kill enemies until the Reckoning meter fills up, then unleash a ludicrously powerful attack. And by ludicrously powerful, I mean forcing all enemies into slow-mo, killing normal mobs in two hits, and otherwise cheesing 100% of every boss fight in the entire game. Oh, and did I mention that your final attack against whatever target will trigger a Quick Time Event that lets you spam a button to get increased XP for all the dudes you just murdered? Yeah.

That's right, he's going to be impaled on that spike.

That’s right, he’s going to be impaled on that spike.

Beyond what I have already talked about, there were two main issues I had with the game. The first is a nitpick of sorts, and an unfortunate one at that. Basically this game came out three months after Skyrim. There is nothing at all this game does better than Skyrim and a whole lot that it does worse. Is it a fair comparison? Nope. But having played Skyrim first, you just can’t help but feel every little thing they have in common – such as picking herbs out in the world, questing, exploring, etc – is simply worse-Skyrim. If you are sensitive to that sort of thing, playing Reckoning will be an issue.

The second thing is that Crafting is broken. Like most of these sort of games, Reckoning allows you to put points into Blacksmithing and whatnot to craft your own gear. And like many games in which you can do this, the designers – either on purpose or accident – allow you to very easily craft gear so far beyond the scope of any possible random drop that loot itself loses all meaning. I understand that there is always a tension of sorts between crafted loot and random drops, in that if random drops are better, then the crafting system becomes a bit useless in comparison. But, seriously, come on:

The crafted weapons are just as ridiculous.

The crafted weapons are just as ridiculous.

Just so we have it in text form, my equipped gear was 82 Armor, +12% crit damage, and +3% crit chance. Meanwhile, my crafted gear is 122 Armor, +12% crit damage, +28% Health, +17% Damage Resistance, +10% Physical Resistance, and +15% Damage. I don’t even remember at which level I crafted that piece of armor, but I basically never equipped anything else until the end of the game. Which meant 100% of the armor drops I received from then until the end were vendor trash. Which meant my motivation for actually completing these quests and/or acquiring more gold dropped to zero.

Overall, it is sort of hard to recommend Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The game isn’t terrible, even if it cannot really stand up to its peers. If you enjoy the combat and the questing, there is a ton of content that will keep you busy far beyond the ~47 hours it took me to beat it. In fact, that is sort of what happened with me: I was on a mission to complete ever single quest I came across, up until I got burned out and just did all the storyline quests until the end. Then there is the sort of mystique that comes from playing the game from the imploded studio and getting a feeling for what the Amalur MMO might have looked like.

But if you are strictly interested in compelling games to play, well, I might recommend taking even that $5 somewhere else. Reckoning is probably worth $5 in a vacuum, but that same $5 can buy so much more these days.

Nostalgia Level: Star Ocean 2

Just doing my nightly Kotaku crawl when I came across a Let’s Talk About Star Ocean 2 article. Holy nostalgia, man.

Okay, I don't remember this part.

Okay, I don’t remember this part.

The article itself was really talking about how bad the dialog/localization was in the original game (apparently remedied a bit by the non-digital, PSP-only re-release) which, like most things in 1999, I don’t remember being much of an issue. What I mainly remember is: sci-fi JRPG, action combat, 60+ hour campaign, Private Actions (a pretty novel method of character-building at the time), and 80+ endings. And those Skills. Good lord, those skills.

There was even an in-game Iron Chef sequence.

There was even an in-game Iron Chef sequence.

I keep thinking that if I had infinite time, that I would replay all these PS1 games, even if the experience itself would not quite be the same. It’s hard going back though. As the sidebar indicates, I’m sorta-maybe playing FF4 for the first time (started due to the Japan trip) and it’s tough getting past the “X and Y were bad game design decisions” sort of mentality. I can’t even imagine the field day I’d have with games like Star Ocean 2.

Still, I have some rather pleasant memories of that whole gaming era, which landed straight in my formative high school years. Star Ocean 2 doesn’t really come close to FF7 or Xenogears, but it ranks up there with the LUNAR series as being an unexpected delight.

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.

Future of Gaming: We (May) Be Screwed

If you play games and had a pulse in the last fifteen years, you have undoubtedly bore witness to the meteoric rise of the Free To Play (F2P) model, which had been preceded by the Downloadable Content (DLC) model, which had been preceded by the “new Madden game every year” model, sandwiched inbetween the 8-hour single-player campaign and Skinner Box School of Character Advancement loafs. It is enough to make a grown man cynically quip “I told you so!” as he shuffles back into the 1990s when games were games, and boys dreamed of somehow getting credited as Writer in the next Squaresoft Final Fantasy epic.* You know, when gaming was cool because it was an ultra-niche hobby that catered solely to you and your demographic – back before the industry totally sold out** and before it was considered hip to pretend you were upset that something sold out.

Well my friends, it actually might be worse than you think.

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