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.

Valiant Hearts: concluding thoughts

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Valiant Hearts

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.

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

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Child of Light

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.

Valiant Hearts: half full

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Valiant Hearts

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.

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

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Warlock

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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Child of Light: Beautiful and challenging

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Child of Light

My decision to buy was right; I very much like Child of Light.

 

I think much of the consensus about CoL is correct: the game is good, almost unique — a side-scrolling homage to classic JRPGs, set in a fairy-tale world — and an aesthetic feast. I would also argue that CoL‘s combat system deserves more credit than it receives, but for now, let’s start with visuals.  The trailer below comes close to doing CoL justice (skip to 0:35 to see in-game footage), but the actual game looks even better:

 

 

As much as I love my Vita, I don’t regret buying CoL for PS3 – those graphics and my TV are the perfect match. At the game’s best, those graphics and the excellent music combine to produce moments that are epic — an over-used word, but nothing else describes watching the camera focus on an enormous, three-headed hydra while the choir roars out a boss battle theme.

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