The problem with espionage in strategy games…

… is that it tends to boil down to a single die roll.

The key word is “single”. Consider spies in Civilization, agents in Total War, and paid assassinations in Crusader Kings. Even in games without tactical combat, where battle is ultimately a matter of rolling the dice, the player can determine the outcome of a war through superior numbers, technology, or manoeuvre on the strategic map. Since armies comprise multiple units, a single unlucky die roll won’t be decisive.

By contrast, spy actions in strategy games have traditionally been determined by a single, all-or-nothing roll. If it succeeds, wonderful. It it fails, the player’s lack of control over the outcome makes it a temptation to reload – especially as failure may incur the loss of an experienced, irreplaceable asset.

In the last few years, designers have grown wise to this. Now, it’s common to see spies and agents grant a passive bonus, or a gradual effect that builds up over time. For example, in the more recent Total War games, agents have both a “passive” ability (such as granting bonus experience to friendly troops, or extra income in a town) and an “active” ability (such as assassination or sabotage).

Personally, I think this is a big step forward. I find passive, predictable bonuses to be less fiddly and more conducive to planning. And by limiting the number of agents that can be deployed, relative to the number of potential opportunities, designers can require players to make “interesting decisions” about where to deploy their scarce agents1. I look forward to seeing what designers come up with.

  1. Consider spies in Civilization V, who can increase the player’s influence in a given city-state. Since there are far more city-states than spies, which ones do you choose?
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Clippings: The Sherlock Scan, Part 2

Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is now out, and emboldened by generally favourable reviews, I snagged my copy. Two hours in, it’s really good!

The key is that Crimes and Punishments sells the illusion that I’m experiencing a Holmes adventure. Its production values are pretty good, and the writing and voice acting are very good. It also has a sense of humour. For all the cool authority Holmes projects, Watson is clearly the one who has to put up with him on a daily basis, and their banter is laugh-out-loud funny. The traditional adventure game “examine everything” mechanic makes perfect sense in a game about Sherlock Holmes, a man renowned for his powers of observation. And uniquely, it’s possible to reach the wrong conclusion on the basis of the evidence. My one gripe – there is no “save anywhere”. There isn’t even “save and exit”. Instead, the game uses a checkpoint system.

Meanwhile, Jane Jensen informs me via email that the soundtrack for the Gabriel Knight remake will not be sold separately:

Hi, Peter – no, it is only available digitally as a gift with the pre-order of the game.  It will not be sold separately due to our licensing agreement with Activision.

In other news:

  • Impressions seem favourable for Age of Wonders III‘s expansion pack, Golden Realms, and for Endless Legend. Both are on my “buy on sale” list. Reviewers are generally positive on Endless Legend‘s artwork and original world, with the caveat being the game’s AI. And it sounds as though Golden Realms addresses pacing, my main concern with the base AOW3.
  • Hands-on previews are trickling in for Civilization: Beyond Earth and This War of Mine. I wonder how much depth there will be in This War – its premise is certainly great.
  • And speaking of premises, check out SWAP, a capture-the-flag FPS minus the shooting, and upcoming indie tycoon game Big Pharma.
  • The newly announced Zodiac is a Vita and iOS game that owes a clear debt to FFT (name and music), and to Valkyrie Profile and other side-scrollers (gameplay). I am a little concerned by the possibility it might be free-to-play – we’ll see if that’s confirmed.
  • Finally, USGamer takes a look back at Resonance of Fate, a PS3/X360 JRPG that I’d like to finish one day.
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Musical Monday: “Triumph” (Frozen Synapse), composed by Paul Taylor

Frozen Synapse has recently been ported to Vita (as Frozen Synapse: Prime), so for this week, I thought I’d highlight my favourite track from the original game. Together with the visual design, the music is key to the game’s cyberpunk atmosphere – I suspect it’s especially important given the minimalism of the rest of the game. Enjoy!

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EB Expo 2014: Bloodborne, Far Cry 4, Lara Croft & the Temple of Osiris, and more!

I spent Friday at the EB Games Expo in Sydney, walking the floor, playing games, and keeping an eye out for what seemed interesting. For me, it was a chance to catch up with the “AAA” space and chat to some Australian indies. It was also a chance to learn about games that I would otherwise have missed. Read on for more!

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Offworld Trading Company interview with Soren Johnson

Offworld Trading Company Logo

Offworld Trading Company is an upcoming RTS where, to quote developer Mohawk Games, “money, not firepower, is the player’s weapon”. Its stated inspirations include board games, Railroad Tycoon, and conventional real-time strategy.

Below, I am very pleased to present an email interview with Soren Johnson, the lead designer of OTC. Soren has previously been co-lead designer of Civilization III, lead designer of Civilization IV, a senior designer and programmer of Spore, and lead designer of Dragon Age: Legends.

 

Peter Sahui: Hello, Soren – welcome to the site!

Offworld Trading Company is one of the most unique strategy games I’ve encountered. Even after finishing the tutorial and playing several rounds against the AI, it still feels unfamiliar.

Does that affect your work as a designer? Has OTC’s novelty posed any particular challenges?

Soren Johnson: We are purposely making a game unlike any other. As a small studio, our games will never be able to compete with established strategy franchises from big publishers, so we have to be different to stand out. Offworld is an RTS game that uses tycoon game mechanics, instead of combat mechanics, to create conflict between players. The only well-known video games somewhat similar are M.U.L.E. or Railroad Tycoon, which are both quite old and also not really competitive RTS’s. What makes Offworld unique will hopefully get the game attention, but we are aware that it could also put off people who are unsure what they would be buying. Thus, as a designer, I am trying to ground Offworld as much in the conventions of RTS games as possible – from game length (30 minutes) to number of players (2 to 8) to game options (multiplayer matchmaking, single-player skirmishes, dynamic campaigns, etc). We are hoping to develop some type of cooperative mode for team play or just fighting the AI. We want people to understand that it is still a competitive RTS at the core – just one without guns.

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Ayutthaya Universalis: Building an Empire in Southeast Asia

Ayutthaya (dark green) at the start of the game.
Ayutthaya (dark green) at the start of the game.

The Kingdom of Ayutthaya was the major power in Southeast Asia in the 14th and 15th centuries. Based in the capital of Ayutthaya on the Chao Phraya River, this decentralized Thai kingdom managed to exercise hegemony over the area for many years. Trade rivalry with Malacca and constant wars with neighboring Burmese and Khmer kingdoms typified the history.

EU4 developer diary 38

At the start of Europa Universalis IV, Ayutthaya is a big fish in a small pond. As the largest and strongest state in Southeast Asia, it is still a minnow compared to Ming China and the eventual European invaders. Over the 350 years of the game, I set out to change this. With patience, luck, and the odd save/reload, I succeeded:

Final score.
Final score.

My journey took me from Southeast Asian minor to Asian power; from an Asian power to the Asian power; and from Asian hegemon to one of the world’s Great Powers. This was one occasion when EU4 shone as an “empire-building game”, and I’ve given some thought as to why.

The starting point lies in EU4’s (and, by extension, the entire Europa Universalis series’s) choice of subject. Every Paradox game is about the struggle for power: Crusader Kings is about the struggle between individuals, Victoria is about struggle between states and struggle within states, and Hearts of Iron and Europa Universalis are almost entirely about the struggle between states. The player’s tools in EU4 reflect that focus: you fight wars, colonise territory, befriend (or antagonise) other states, send out explorers, merchants, and trade fleets, and unlock bonuses via technology or National Ideas. Other aspects of the period are abstracted or, in the case of the emerging gap between European and non-European powers, taken for granted.

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CA announces Total War: Attila (updated to add video)

Creative Assembly has announced Total War: Attila, a sequel in all but name to 2005’s Rome: Barbarian InvasionEurogamer, IGN, and USGamer (amongst others) have previews up. (Update: I have added a gameplay video above – skip to 4:12. Hat tip to frogbeastegg.)

By way of background, the original Barbarian Invasion was my favourite Total War game until Empire and Shogun 2. If 99% of strategy games are about going from rags to riches, Barbarian Invasion (played as the Romans) was the exception: a game about staving off and ultimately reversing decline. The Western Roman Empire begins with an empty treasury, rioting cities, and mutinous generals – I remember looking at an FAQ, reading that I should have used a certain general to lead my counterattack, and then realising that guy had already rebelled. And after that, they still have the barbarians to worry about! By the time I stabilised the situation, stopped the Huns at the river crossings into Italy, and began my grand counterattack, I felt like a cross between Augustus and Diocletian. Even though I never finished that campaign – my hard drive died partway through – it remains one of the most memorable, unique experiences I’ve had with a strategy game.

Based on the previews, CA understands how much Barbarian Invasion relied on that apocalyptic mood. Here’s a particularly interesting comment from IGN – it suggests that the player must race to prepare for an endgame showdown:

A few turns after the start of the campaign in 395 AD, Attila will be born. Once he grows to adulthood, he’ll lead a nearly unstoppable army of Huns in a terrifying march to the west, steamrolling everyone in his way. Your job, as the ruler of one of the powers in his way, is to prepare your defenses and alliances in order to hold out as best you can or to divert Attila to your weaker neighbors.

Over the game’s 60 to 70 year campaign, which is played out in seasons, certain portents of doom will herald Attila’s coming. These portents coincide with a gradual shift in the snow line, which moves south, pushing Germanic tribes with it. It gets so bad, that some of the toughest towns in the north have three seasons of snow per year. Attila and his forces are not a faction in the traditional sense and can’t be played. They’re more like a force of nature that sweeps across the map, destroying and spoiling everything they touch…

For Attila to succeed, CA will have to avoid its traditional pitfalls – bugs, bad AI, late-game pacing, and sprawl. These problems ensnared Rome II — though from what I hear, a year’s worth of patches have finally turned it into a good game. There’s a lot of potential here… but time will tell if it can be realised.

 

This painting seemed appropriate: "The Course of Empire - Destruction", by Thomas Cole, 1836

(I’ve used the above painting before, during my interview with Jon Shafer about At the Gates. The time seemed ripe to haul it out again.)

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Clippings: Xenos and Wastelands

I haven’t forgotten about that Europa Universalis IV piece! I have half of it written, along with half of a first impressions piece about Xenonauts. The short version is, Xenonauts is a clever homage to the original X-COM, and my first seven hours have been a blast – but I wonder if the next seven will be as fun. Perhaps it’s the rose-coloured glasses talking, but Xenonauts‘ ground combat seems slower and more grindy than X-COM‘s. It’s definitely slower and more grindy than Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

Just a few links this week:

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Musical Tuesday: “Walls No Man Has Seen” (The Banner Saga), composed by Austin Wintory

This week’s song begins slowly, and it’s not as “attention-grabbing” as, say, the music that plays during the finale. Give it 30 seconds. I love how it builds to a higher, hopeful note. Enjoy!
 

 

Change of format this week – I’m including the video on the front page. I’ll revert this if it ends up lagging the page; otherwise, it should spare the need to click through. 

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Clippings: Sims, Space, and Seedless

The good news is that The Sims 4 is out. The bad news is that reviews are lukewarm. Read one review, and you’ve pretty much read them all. The consensus is that TS4‘s new features, such as the ability for Sims to multi-task, don’t make up for the loss of TS3 features such as a wide-open neighbourhood. As someone who’s loved The Sims ever since the first game, this is a bit of a disappointment – I think I’ll stick with 3.

One game that has come out of nowhere is space-opera RTS Ancient Space, developed by new studio Creative Forge and published by Paradox. Beyond a couple of good-looking videos, details are scanty. I don’t think I’ve seen a single hands-on preview, and this for a game due out next week. For now, I’m cautious. Once the game’s out, I would love to hear impressions.

Did you know that there was an ill-fated attempt in the ’90s to create a Witcher video game? Meanwhile, The Witcher 3‘s release date – next February – has crept up on me. I still haven’t finished the second game…

What I have finished is my Ayutthaya run in Europa Universalis IV. Good fun! I’m also this close to finishing Final Fantasy X HD, which is very good despite a few flaws. I’ve written part of a follow-up article about EU4, and I will probably post some concluding thoughts on FFX, so stay tuned. And I’m fiddling with a preview build of  Offworld Trading Companyif you have any questions you’d like me to ask Soren Johnson, please leave them in the comments.

In book news, I’ve been reading quite a bit by fantasy author Daniel Abraham. Most recently, I’ve been reading his Long Price Quartet: the first two books are decent and original, the third book was a WHOA, and I hope the fourth will be as good. Here is a good write-up of the series. I hope to add my own write-up about Abraham once I’ve finished the last book.

Lastly, if anyone wants a free copy of the original Warlock: Master of the Arcane, please comment during the next week – I picked up several copies from Humble Bundle promotion. They’ll expire if not redeemed by the 22nd.

 

 

 

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Buy Armageddon Empires, one of my favourite strategy games, for $1

The main map of Armageddon Empires. My hand of cards is visible at the bottom.
The main map of Armageddon Empires. My hand of cards is visible at the bottom.

 

Heads up — Armageddon Empires (together with several other games) is $1 at Humble Bundle for another four days.

AE is a 4X post-apocalyptic turn-based strategy game, overlaid with a CCG. Before each match, players choose units, heroes, and buildings for their deck, and the cards on hand determine what can be built on any given turn. I described AE as something that “every strategy aficionado, and certainly every strategy designer, should play” – it’s unique, quick to play, and marvellously evocative of pulp science fiction. At this price, there’s no better chance!

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Musical Monday: “Cherry Blossom Color Season” (Katamari Damacy), composed by Yu Miyake

This week’s song is a great, quirky, happy piece from a great, quirky, happy game. It’s perhaps my single favourite from the Katamari soundtrack – no small feat, given how strong the other songs are. Enjoy!

 

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Clippings: The Sherlock Scan

 

Above is a trailer for Crimes and Punishments, Frogwares’s upcoming Sherlock Holmes game, which showcases Holmes’ fabled ability to size up a person in a single glance. I do see the risk that the Sherlock scan will turn out to be an unintuitive guessing game, or a glorified pixel hunt, and from what I recall, the previous Frogwares games received lukewarm reviews. Still, my interest is piqued — the trailer looks pretty cool, and the separate gameplay trailer made me chuckle. The game will come out on September 30, and looks like one to watch.

 

In book news, I’m slowly going through the superbly readable The Guns of August. Good if you want an introduction to the opening days of World War 1… although I should note that it doesn’t have much to say about why the war broke out. I’ve also recently read a couple of very good specialist books on World War 2, Adam Tooze’s  Wages of Destruction and Gerhard Weinberg’s A World at Arms. All three books are candidates for the reading list I’d like to create for this site.

 

I can also report that the Android version of King of Dragon Pass is mostly good. My play-through was marred by two bugs – one minor, with the interface, and one major, which interfered with my choice of difficulty and game length. As at the time of writing, the game length option has now been fixed, while the difficulty settings are still bugged. The game itself is still very good, and its interface otherwise works well on my Note 8, so I would recommend it once the bugs are gone.

 

Other than that, I’ve been re-playing, re-reading, and re-watching old favourites. Europa Universalis IV as Ayutthaya – a Southeast Asian nation located in modern Thailand – has been a lot of fun, as I’ve progressed from middle power to the new top dog in Asia. The Wargame: Red Dragon campaign has also been a lot of fun, if sometimes hair-pullingly difficult; managing to stop modern Soviet tanks with 20-year-old relics, a handful of helicopters, and a lot of rocket artillery has been a lesson in improvisation. I’m also re-reading, for the umpteenth time, Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion – the book I linked to last week. It’s as good as I remember, and for two more days, it’s still pay what you want! And I’m slowly rewatching my favourite anime, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit – a warm-hearted tale of adventure, loyalty, and parenthood in one of the best fantasy worlds I’ve seen.

 

This week’s other links:

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The Beginner’s Guide to Wargame

Wargame is one of my favourite RTS series. It can also be daunting — I know several readers have picked it up on sale, only to bounce off. I hope the following guide will help.

 

Introduction to Wargame

 

Wargame is a series of real-time military tactics games (European Escalation, AirLand Battle, and Red Dragon) set during the Cold War. Like Total War or a real-time Panzer General, Wargame bridges the gap between dedicated simulations and traditional real-time strategy games such as Company of Heroes. It’s also really, really good.

 

If you don’t own any of the games, I don’t recommend the original game, European Escalation, which has been superseded by its sequels. Instead, I recommend starting with the middle game, AirLand Battle. First, AirLand is much cheaper than the latest game, Red Dragon. At the time of writing AirLand regularly goes on sale for <$10, while Red Dragon, even on sale, is seldom cheaper than the mid-$20s. Second, AirLand introduced many of the series’ best and most distinctive mechanics — the jump to Red Dragon is more modest. If you plan to play a lot of competitive multiplayer, you may wish to start with Red Dragon, where the multiplayer community has migrated. Otherwise, start with ALB, and if you enjoy it, upgrade to Red Dragon later.

 

The rest of this guide assumes you are playing either AirLand Battle or Red Dragon. The guide is current as at v564 (DLC 1) of Red Dragon.

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Pay what you want for a great book: The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Bujold - Curse of ChalionThis week’s Humble Bundle offers a fantastic deal – pay what you want for Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion (and several other ebooks).

If most fantasy – and most adventure – fiction (such as Bujold’s own Vorkosigan series) is about the bold young (wo)man who saves the day through his/her prowess, Chalion is the opposite. Its middle-aged hero saves the day through courage, and decency, and self-sacrifice. As a teenager, that left me lukewarm. As a grown-up, I love it.

If that interests you, the current offer is a bargain. You can even have the book emailed to your Kindle – I just tested this! If you enjoy fantasy, or if you liked Bujold’s other books,  check this one out.

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Clippings: Post-Gamescom Edition

Over the weekend, I finished the last episode of Telltale Games’ seriously underrated Back to the Future series. I wrote about the first episode last year – they’re good, funny, and strike a balance between riffing off the movies and establishing a character of their own. Well worth a look for adventure gamers.

In this week’s news:

  1. Relic announced Ardennes Assault, a single-player standalone expansion for Company of Heroes 2. AA will feature a dynamic campaign with persistent units – two of the coolest features in Wargame.
  2. Amongst other Gamescom announcements, Paradox showed ten minutes of Hearts of Iron IV gameplay. The new footage includes our first good look at HOI4‘s “battle plans” system. The battle plans look great – you paint objectives and movement paths on the map, then assign divisions to each objective with a simple drag-select. If this works properly, it will be a very welcome UI innovation.
  3. And speaking of Paradox, here is a post-apocalyptic America mod for Crusader Kings 2. Features include a “Mouse Tribe” near the remnants of Disneyworld, mercenary companies named after old sports teams, and invading, red-coated soldiers who worship a sinister queen. Cool!
  4. Here is a trailer for a remake of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, the ’90s adventure game. What made me sit up was the music – I wonder if the soundtrack will be sold separately?
  5. Eurogamer previews a PS3, PS4, and Vita tactical RPG named Natural Doctrine. What makes me leery is the preview’s mention of “a no-nonsense defeat condition that sees the death of one friendly unit bringing the whole mission to a close“. That sounds like a recipe for frustration…
  6. Lastly, US Gamer observes that police games are almost never about policing. This sounds like a specific instance of a broader problem – video games are almost always about combat, even when that doesn’t really suit the theme.
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Musical Monday: “Cyan’s Theme” (Final Fantasy VI), composed by Nobuo Uematsu

This week’s song is another gem from FF6, which excelled at clear, simple, memorable character themes. I’m slowly learning how to play it on the piano; the version I linked below is the SNES original music. Decades later, it still sounds good. Enjoy!

 

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Transistor: concluding thoughts

Transistor is a clever game, let down by its ending.

 

At first, Transistor resembles a reflex-driven action-RPG, with the emphasis on “action” (a la Bastion). Within minutes, the combat system reveals itself as something else. To borrow my earlier analogy, the best comparison is an isometric version of Fallout 3 or New Vegas. Instead of moving and fighting in real-time mode, I spent most of my time in Turn(), a VATS-like mode where I could plan attacks in suspended time. With the press of another button, my plans sprung into action. There is no distinction between normal and special attacks; every attack in the game is an ability of some kind, and levelling up will grant a choice of new abilities. These abilities can be used on their own, or combined to produce a single, upgraded ability. For example, Crash() is a short-ranged attack that stuns enemies, and Breach() is a long-ranged beam attack. Using Breach() to upgrade Crash() will extend Crash()’s range, while using Crash() to upgrade Breach() will produce a long-ranged beam that stuns targets. There are sixteen different abilities in the game, which produces a lot of possible combinations — “interesting decisions” in a nutshell.

 

In a further incentive to experiment, Transistor reveals a little bit of backstory with each new ability equipped. This is indicative of its overall approach to story. Very little is spelled out: you are in a futuristic city, robots are attacking, and that’s about all the setup there is. Neither is there much of a plot. Instead, Transistor gradually reveals bits and pieces of its setting and backstory, and much of the fun lies in piecing together what’s going on. This minimalism would probably outlast its welcome in a longer game, but it works in Transistor, which I finished in five or six hours. I do have one minor complaint — since the player chooses the order in which abilities are unlocked, I never picked up certain abilities, and hence I never saw their blurbs. Upon looking them up online, they turned out to be important to the backstory. Perhaps those particular abilities should have been mandatory.

 

The bigger problem is Transistor’s ending, where I disagree — sharply — with the creators’ decisions. To explain why, I have to resort to spoilers:

 

Spoiler Inside SelectShow

 

Compare this to Bastion, where a particular sequence near the end has stuck with me for years (spoilers):

 

Spoiler Inside SelectShow

 

Exclude the ending, and Transistor is pretty good. It and Bastion share much of their appeal: art and an interesting world. Transistor is more innovative, mechanically. The decisive factor is that I like Bastion’s message far more, and to me, that makes it better both as a story and overall.

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Clippings: Acts of an Aggressive Dragon

I’m working on a write-up of Transistor, which I finished over the weekend. I still like the game – but not as much as I did at first, courtesy of a disappointing ending. Mechanically, it’s impressively original — but storywise, I’ll stick to Bastion.

In this week’s news:

  1. Eugen Systems, of Wargame fame, has formally unveiled its next project — Act of Aggression. The press release describes AoA as “a return to the 90’s Golden Era of real time strategy games, delivering… base building, resource management, [and] unit production”. After the brilliant, innovative Wargame, this strikes me as the video game equivalent of a master chef deciding to make French fries and a hamburger. On the other hand, Eugen’s track record with Wargame suggests that will be be one tasty hamburger!
  2. King of Dragon Pass will come to Android next week, reports Pocket Tactics. Still no confirmation of the previously mulled Vita port; I have to suspect the Vita’s screen is a little small for such a text-heavy game.
  3. Finally, for sheer uniqueness, check out this interview at Space Game Junkie about Imperia — billed as an attempt to create “Crusader Kings 2 in space”.
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Musical Monday: “Main Theme” (Ni no Kuni), composed by Joe Hisaishi

With speculation swirling about the fate of Studio Ghibli, I’ve chosen to celebrate their work by presenting the main theme of Ni no Kuni. The world map theme, which I highlighted last year, is a variant. Enjoy!

 

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Transistor: 33% off on Steam for one more day

Very quick heads-up; Transistor, the latest game from the studio behind Bastion, is 33% off on Steam ($13.39, down from $20) for another 30 hours. I started Transistor tonight and after a couple of hours, I’m impressed. Transistor offers gorgeous art (it goes well with Steam Big Picture!), a unique combat system – the closest analogy would be an isometric version of Fallout 3/New Vegas‘ VATS – and an intriguing “mix and match” approach to special powers, layered over a subtly horrific world. I’ll post a more detailed write-up once I’ve spent more time with the game, but for now, I think <$14 is a steal. Check it out!

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A random battle draws near! Command?

In theory, JRPG random battles are an attrition mechanism. The resulting drain on resources (usually consumables and MP) should, and very occasionally does, produce tension. In practice, JRPG (and Western RPG) designers are usually generous with resources, and few battles are tough enough to threaten a Game Over. This makes them filler. At best, a well-designed battle system can make them enjoyable filler (Final Fantasy X). At worst, they are a waste of the player’s time. Modern JRPGs have largely abandoned them, for which I’m thankful — I find them one of the greatest annoyances in the genre.

 

What makes random battles particularly bad is that they deprive players of choice and control. At any moment in a RPG, I will have an objective — follow the plot, grind, explore, backtrack, and so on. If I’m grinding, I want to fight lots of battles — ideally against XP-rich foes. Random battles may not occur when I want them, and when they do pop up, they may pit me against the “wrong” foe. Conversely, if I’m exploring or backtracking, I usually don’t want to be interrupted, and that makes random battles a chore. If I’m following the plot, I may not mind fighting a certain number of battles, but eventually I want to find out what happens next, and at that point, further random battles may become a drag.

 

The usual solution is simple: allow players to see – and, importantly, avoid – monsters on the world or dungeon map. If you want to fight, you charge the monsters, and if you don’t, you go around. This was the system used by Chrono Trigger in 1995, at the tail end of the SNES era, although it took inexplicably long to catch on. (Ni no Kuni is an example of how not to implement this; NNK’s monsters are visible, but in the early game, move so fast they can’t be avoided. They are also numerous. This produces the same effect as random battles with a high encounter rate.)

 

Once monsters become visible, designers can refine the system in several ways. They can give the player choices beyond “bump into monster/avoid monster”; for instance, in Valkyrie Profile, Valkyrie Profile 2, and Child of Light, paralysing monsters on the dungeon map allows you to safely pass by. In Persona 3 and 4, sneaking up on monsters from behind will grant the first move in combat. Games can also reveal the composition of monster groups before battle, as in Xenoblade Chronicles and Final Fantasy XII. This allows players to make informed decisions about risk versus reward, and also makes it much easier to farm specific monsters.

 

The common thread is the importance of player agency – something nonexistent under a system of random battles. I can see random battles working as part of an overall emphasis on tension and resource scarcity — FTL uses randomness to great effect. Given that most JRPGs have very different design goals, this is one mechanic they can do without.

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Clippings: Releases and Re-releases

Several interesting titles have popped up on PC:

  1. Unrest, an indie RPG with a unique setting (a fantasy land based on ancient India) and a focus on social, not physical conflict — one reviewer only encountered a single battle during the whole game. Check out some of the reviews — it sounds as though this is short on budget, abrupt in the way it resolves its plot, but long on originality. If you try it, I’d love to hear what you think.
  2. Commander: The Great War, a strategic-level World War 1 title from the developers (and publishers) of Panzer Corps, is now on Steam with a 33% discount until 2 August. It seems well-regarded, and after messing around for a few minutes, strikes me as quite approachable – closer in complexity to Panzer General than Hearts of Iron III.
  3. Lastly, another JRPG has made it to PC – Trails in the Sky is now available on GOG, Gamersgate, and Steam. It’s decent, unremarkable comfort food for genre fans – I wrote about the PSP version a couple of years ago. If you’re in the target market, the early-bird price of $17 strikes me as fair.
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Valiant Hearts: concluding thoughts

Valiant Hearts wants to tell the truth about war. To do so, it uses puzzles, humour, and a goofy villain. That is the language of adventure games, but it is not the language of war, and the resulting contradiction has divided reviewers. My response was mixed – I appreciated the first half of the game, but found it “frustratingly inconsistent”.

After finishing Valiant Hearts, I’m a bit more positive – its second half features better puzzles and is truer to its themes. In the first half of the game, battle is sometimes terrifying, but just as often turns into pulling levers and carrying gears. The second half is cleverer. It reserves its baroque puzzles for sequences away from the front, where they feel much more appropriate. The second half also evokes a wider and, I think, more accurate range of emotions. Combat in the first half is uniformly negative. Combat in the second half is mostly negative – and sometimes thrilling.

Overall, Valiant Hearts receives my qualified endorsement: the less you mind the contradiction, the more you will like the game. Sometimes, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. Sometimes, it’s exhilarating. Sometimes, it’s nerve-wracking. Ultimately, it says, the war was monstrous and unjust. It strikes me as a sincere attempt to convey the emotions of World War 1, and if you can forgive its flaws, I think it’s worth a look.

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Musical Monday: “Tabi no Tochuu” (Spice and Wolf)

This week’s song is the opening theme to Spice and Wolf, a low-fantasy anime about the travels of a merchant and his unexpected companion — a pagan wolf goddess. It’s a gentle song for a gentle show (the franchise would make a great, non-combat-oriented game); enjoy!

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Child of Light: concluding thoughts

Child of Light is many things. It is a mechanical and aesthetic triumph – “beautiful and challenging”, with nail-biting boss battles and a gorgeous fantasy world. It is a “greatest hits” tribute to JRPGs that borrows from the classics (Valkyrie Profile, Final Fantasy X, and no doubt more), yet has an identity all its own. It is an atypically “arty” release from a large publisher, and an obvious labour of love.

Unfortunately, CoL also represents a missed opportunity. Its narrative is a fizzle: characters and events pop up from nowhere, the plot lacks an impetus beyond MacGuffin hunts, and the ending feels rushed. The pity is that there is a genuinely interesting backstory, which could have provided structure, character motivation, and emotional heft. Instead, it’s treated almost as an afterthought.

I don’t know if I could call Child of Light a great game. With a better story, it very well might be. I do think it’s brave, original, and very good. I would like to see more games along these lines – both in the sense that they synthesise the best of a genre, and in the sense that they represent a creative risk. And I would definitely like to see a sequel.

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Valiant Hearts: half full

Valiant Hearts - Wasteland

I’m halfway through Valiant Hearts: The Great War, Ubisoft Montpellier’s adventure game set during World War 1.  Billed as a “story of crossed destinies and a broken love in a world torn apart”, VH‘s heart is in the right place — but its execution can be frustratingly inconsistent.

As with Ubisoft sibling Child of Light, VH‘s most noticeable strength is its presentation. The art is as lovely as its subject is grim: in eight hours, I’ve already taken 286 screenshots (several are at the bottom of this post). Environments are packed with detail, from the lights of pre-war Paris to a lonely skeleton buried beneath a trench, not far from a rusty shovel. Since that sequence calls for you to tunnel under the same trench, the shovel is a sobering touch. Who was that luckless sapper? We will never know — and that, I think, was the developers’ point.

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Clippings: Perspectives on Strategy

 

The above is IncGamers’ video preview of Legions of Ashworld, an indie strategy game with an almost unique twist: you move around the overworld in first person, switching between generals as you rally the free lands against an invading horde. (I say “almost” unique as the game is inspired by a 1980s title, Lords of Midnight.) The idea intrigues me… but I’m not sure how well it would work in practice. If you have to switch between multiple generals , surely it would be simpler to use a traditional, map-driven interface? The first-person idea seems as though it would be a better fit for a game where you play one, and only one, character, a la Mount & Blade or Romance of the Three Kingdoms X. I’d like to hear your impressions .

In other news, below is a gameplay trailer for Civilization: Beyond Earth:

 

 

On the surface, the resemblance to Civ V is clear — but then again, Alpha Centauri felt unique and marvellous despite sharing so much gameplay DNA with Civ II. For further reading, Civilization V Analyst has a good round-up of information that’s been released.

Lastly, speaking of Civ, here is an interesting piece in Eurogamer in which Firaxis staff talk about the lessons to be learned from board games.

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Musical Monday: Unreleased Serpent Boss Theme (Child of Light), composed by Coeur de Pirate

This week’s song is another piece from Child of Light, but it’s very different to the last one I linked. Last time, I highlighted CoL‘s sad, lovely main theme; but for this week, I’ve chosen a soaring, powerful boss theme, my favourite out of the battle themes in the game.  (I can’t understand why the boss themes aren’t available on the official soundtrack – they are excellent both in their own right and as part of the overall experience.) Enjoy!

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Warlock 2 and the 4X

A few years ago, I linked to an alternate genre classification system for games, as proposed by Russ Pitts and Steve Butts in The Escapist magazine. I paraphrased their system as follows:

  • Action vs Strategy deals with how you play the game. Action games emphasise the player’s physical skill at controlling his/her on-screen avatar. Strategy games, on the other hand, are about planning, analysis, and working out how to get the most out of the avatar(s), rather than about direct control.
  • Exploration vs Conflict, meanwhile, focuses on what you have to overcome. Does the challenge in the game come from defeating opponents who are playing the same game you are, with the same objectives? Or does it come from discovering  and overcoming the environment? The former, what Soren Johnson might call a “symmetrical” game, is Conflict. The latter is Exploration.

You can see this in the following chart from the Escapist article: games that require reflexes (such as shooters, racing games, and platformers) are at the top of the circle, while those that don’t are at the bottom. Citybuilders, which pit the player against an impersonal environment or ruleset, are on the left; Civilization is on the right.

 

 

I thought of this while playing Warlock 2: The Exiled, a game that looks like fantasy Civilization V but is really — to quote Rachel’s guest review — about “mage versus world”. The AI players in my game have been passive, content to march their armies back and forth and beg me for alliances; in Civ, this would have been a recipe for boredom, but in Warlock 2 the slack is taken up by wave after wave of wandering monsters, all the way up to dragons!

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