Back in 2009, Valkyria Chronicles was the game that made me buy a PS3. It was innovative, beautiful, and grossly under-appreciated by consumers – the sequels moved to the PSP, and the third game never even came out in English. Now the original game is coming to PC, and for fans of tactical RPGs who missed it the first time, it’s well worth a look. Yes, there were balance issues. Yes, the plot was disappointing. But I can forgive that, because at VC‘s heart rested an insight: squad-based tactical TBS can have the spectacle and excitement of shooters. You can see that idea recur in XCOM, and I believe the Xenonauts developers will follow suit with their next game.
Here’s some gameplay footage of Valkyria Chronicles on the PS3. Skip to 3:00 to see the actual battle. Note that whenever you see the player taking a shot, whether it hits is determined by the soldier’s accuracy (as in an RPG or strategy game) rather than the player’s skill:
(Edit to add: USGamer has a good overview of the Valkyria Chronicles series’ history.)
In other news:
Something I forgot to mention last week – I tried on an Oculus Rift for the first time (in a non-gaming context). The technology isn’t quite there yet… and all the same, it was impressively realistic. The obvious gaming applications are first-person shooters, space sims, and the like; I think it could also work well for an adventure game such as Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments. I’d love to see how it looks in a year or two.
This week, I present two variations on the same theme. The main title theme of Gabriel Knight is forty seconds of tension, followed by two minutes of intensity. It pops up again, this time a gentle guitar piece, as the ambient music in Gabriel’s bookstore. It’s stuck in my mind all these years, and below, I’ve linked the remastered versions from the new remake. Enjoy!
I’ve just won my first game of Civilization: Beyond Earth1, and I have to say, I’m a little disappointed.
The problem is not that this is “Civilization V in space” – in fact, it’s missing some of the features I liked in Civ V (on which more below). The problem is that my first game contained too much busywork for too little payoff. I can tell you cool stories about Beyond Earth’s progenitors, Civilization V and Alpha Centauri. In fact, I could probably tell you cool stories about every Civ game from I to V. I’d be hard-pressed to do the same for my Beyond Earth run.
The Milkweed Triptych, by Ian Tregillis, comprises three novels: Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, and Necessary Evils. Together, they form proof that a good author can outshine the most hackneyed premise.
The trilogy takes place in a world where Nazi Germany fields superpowered warriors and a desperate Britain responds with forbidden magic. In the hands of 99% of authors, the result would have been pulpy, campy, trashy. Not here. While the three books are quite different (in tone and even in genre1) from one another, they nonetheless form a clever, often dark, and surprisingly restrained story – and it is a single story; each book is one part of the greater whole, not a standalone.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to explain what’s so clever about the series without getting into at least mild spoilers. Here’s the spoiler-free version: the action, which is spectacular in both senses of the word, is just the tip of the iceberg. The world is well-drawn – I have seen utterly unconvincing works where the author dumped superpowers, or magic, or the paranormal into a real-world setting without the least bit of thought about how this would have affected history 2. Tregillis doesn’t make the same mistake – it helps that his prose and research are both generally good 3. And his characters are vivid. When one managed to find happiness after a lifetime of misery, I wanted to cheer. When a particularly unlikeable soul found himself the butt of the author’s black humour, I laughed. When the tension mounted, I was almost afraid to find out what would happen next.
The third book is more of a conventional action/adventure story than the earlier two, right down to the generic “angry man with a gun” cover art. This has earned it a number of lukewarm reader reviews; I think it’s still pretty good, and it derives emotional heft from the first two books. ↩
The most egregious culprit I can think of, offhand, would be Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook. ↩
Based on other reviews, I understand that the author messed up several details of daily life in Britain. I also found the worldbuilding more convincing in book 1 than in book 2. Other than that, I thought the research in the first book, in particular, was excellent. The author nailed a very minor detail that I only picked up because I read some crunchy, specialist WW2 histories earlier this year. ↩
Heads up! Civilization: Beyond Earth pre-loads are now available – the game will unlock on the 24th (Friday), just in time for the weekend. The download is 2.7GB.
Not much to report otherwise. I’m pecking at XCOM: Enemy Within and Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments on the PC, both of which I enjoy – in fact, I fired up XCOM so I could compare something with Xenonauts, and after rediscovering the joys of Firaxis’ game, I can’t go back. On PS3, I’m playing Okami HD, the port of one of my favourite games of all time. And on Vita, I’m slowly progressing through the marathon that is Persona 4: Golden.
In this week’s links:
Previews are poppingup for Ardennes Assault, the upcoming single-player expand-alone for Company of Heroes 2.
… 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.
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? ↩
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is now out, and emboldened by generallyfavourablereviews, 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.
Below is a teaser for Vane, whose devs are ex-Team Ico. I can see the resemblance — it shares a dreamlike, fairy-tale atmosphere with Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. One to watch!
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.
And speaking of premises, check out SWAP, a capture-the-flag FPS minus the shooting, and upcoming indie tycoon game Big Pharma.
The newlyannouncedZodiac 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.
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!
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!
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.