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:

The Beginner’s Guide to Wargame

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Wargame: European Escalation/AirLand Battle/Red Dragon

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.

Continue reading “The Beginner’s Guide to Wargame”

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.

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.

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!


Continue reading “Musical Monday: “Cyan’s Theme” (Final Fantasy VI), composed by Nobuo Uematsu”

Transistor: concluding thoughts

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Transistor

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.

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”.

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!


Continue reading “Musical Monday: “Main Theme” (Ni no Kuni), composed by Joe Hisaishi”

Transistor: 33% off on Steam for one more day

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Transistor

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!

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.