Arcadian Atlas is an upcoming indie tactical RPG inspired by two of the greats – Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. Read on for a Q&A with Taylor Bair, one half of the brother-and-sister team behind the game:
Hello, and welcome to the site! Please introduce us to yourselves and Twin Otter Studios.
I’m Taylor, the one typically found at the computer or walking my dog as I think of story details or gameplay tweaks for the game.
And Becca is the one with her graphic tablet working feverishly on art assets for our game.
We’re brother and sister living in Dallas and Austin, TX respectively, and we make up Twin Otter Studios.
Your current project, Arcadian Atlas, is a tactical RPG inspired by Yasumi Matsuno’s 1990s classics, Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. (The art and narrative themes — ”the choices people make in pursuit of the things they love, and the havoc it wreaks on a kingdom” — give me a particularly strong Tactics Ogre vibe.) What drew you to these titles? Were there any other notable inspirations?
We have a lot of inspirations, probably too many to count, though we definitely played Final Fantasy Tactics like crazy growing up. As kids we were pretty steeped in video games, particularly classic RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire, and Super Mario RPG.
Something about investing in a character is probably what drew us to RPGs most. We love characters, and our story in Arcadian Atlas is very character centered – about how people become saints or monsters because of the choices they make and the ripple effect that has on Arcadia.
Hello, and welcome to the site! Please introduce yourself and The Secret Games Company.
Hi, I’m Jeremy Hogan, I’m a game designer from London, where I’ve worked in the games industry for the last 8 years. I founded The Secret Games Company to release two indie projects, board game Dreaming Spires and video game Rise: Battle Lines. A year ago, I left my job to work on indie projects full-time so I could start the development of our latest game, Kim, which has been Greenlit on Steam and is now on Kickstarter.
Please tell us about your adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Based on the gameplay trailer, it looks like you’re translating Kim’s adventures into an open-world game reminiscent of Sid Meier’s Pirates or Space Rangers 2. Is this a fair reflection of what players can expect?
Yes those are fair comparisons; it’s a mix of genres so get ready for a long description… An RPG with branching dialogues, simple survival mechanics and light combat and stealth action in pause-able real time. I loved reading Kim and learning about colonial India and when I found out that Kipling’s work was in the public domain, I thought it was a unique opportunity to put such great writing into a game. Our gameplay was inspired by Expeditions Conquistador, FTL and Don’t Starve, another game it has a lot in common with is Sunless Sea.
The deal was done. The merchant would trade me a stimpak; I would trade junk and a handful of cash. We agreed. The goods changed hands. And moments later, gunfire ripped through the night sky.
Something flared red. Was that a rocket? Whatever it was, as the merchant yelled, instinct took over. I ran for cover. When I reached safety, I stopped. Regained my cool. Looked for the raiders. Fought back.
When I combed through the bodies afterward, I realised the raiders had been armed with nothing better than home-made pipe guns. In the surprise and confusion of the ambush, I’d assumed far worse. In that unscripted moment, Fallout 4 brought its world alive.
A minute later, I approached the merchant, as well as another group of civilians that had blundered past. They reacted as though nothing had happened. And understandable though that was — should I have expected an unscripted response from characters in a video game? — it yanked me back out of the game’s world.
That episode sums up my experience so far with Fallout 4, about five hours in. As a moment-to-moment experience, it’s very good. Creeping through a underground raider camp, going room-to-room in a building harbouring raiders and incongruous Revolutionary War mannequins, and scavenging building material from rubble felt natural and immersive. In addition to the unscripted moments, scripted set-pieces seem fairly common so far. I can already feel the lure of crafting and settlement-building, although it’s too early to tell how much depth the settlement system has, and I have some concerns about the UI for settlement management. Is there some way of assigning settlers to tasks from a central screen, or do I have to walk around town and assign them one by one?
While I’m pretty happy with Fallout 4’s mechanics, I do have a couple of concerns about the writing. I loved Fallout 3’s opening (growing up in the Vault), and I loved Fallout: New Vegas’ opening, “reverse Western” setting, and plot hook. I liked Fallout 4’s opening — but this was followed by a moment of mood whiplash, and an early plot hook that felt contrived. To give due credit, Fallout 4’s protagonist benefits from being voiced, which allows him/her to respond to the environment in a believable and, at one point, sympathetic way.
A few more quick points: Character appearances have improved from previous games, although people still look odd when they run. I like the balance between VATS and ordinary actions — it looks like it’s better to use VATS up-close or against fast-moving enemies. And I like the diegetic interface that appears when you wear power armour. EDIT: Oh, and the UI seems to have been designed around a gamepad rather than a keyboard & mouse.
My tentative impression is that Fallout 4’s combat is at least as good as that in Fallout: New Vegas, while crafting and settlements are promising. Conversely, in terms of writing, New Vegas appears to have the edge. Overall, I like what I’ve played of Fallout 4 and I suspect it will come in as, at least, “good” to “very good”. Time will tell if it can pip its great predecessors.
I originally wrote this post in 2012 during the lead-up to Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, proposing a classification system for squad-based games and tactical RPGs across PC and consoles. Since then, to my delight, the genre has gone from strength to strength. XCOM: Enemy Unknown turned out to be superb – it was definitely a hybrid, by the way, combining the lethality and dynamic campaign of Type 1 games, the Type 2 emphasis on careful movement and not triggering too many enemies, and the soldier customisation of Type 3. XCOM 2 is due out next year for PC. The Fire Emblem series is posting strong sales on 3DS, and Valkyria Chronicles has been ported to PC. Indie titles such as Expeditions: Conquistador have added spice. Welcome back, old friends – we missed you.
This is a good time to be a fan – as Iam – of games that mix squad-level strategy and RPG mechanics. Last year saw the PSP release of the excellent Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, a labour of love that blended fine-crafted gameplay, a mature story, and gorgeous production values. This year won’t lack in quantity: it’s already seen a Jagged Alliance remake for PC and the recent PSP launch of Gungnir. Two more titles are due out in a few months (Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown for PC, and Atlus’ Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time for PSP) and we may well see a third soon, Goldhawk’s Xenonauts (PC).
The above names suggest this is a pretty broad genre, and in fact, I don’t think there is a single squad-level strategy/RPG genre so much as there are several distinct subgenres, spread across PCs and home and portable consoles. As such, this is also a good time to review each subgenre – which games it contains, what makes it distinctive, how it compares to the others, and how it’s faring.
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.
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.
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.
Star Control 2 is a classic of the early 1990s, with a great sense of humour, robust gameplay, and unique, non-linear story progression — the player had to gather clues and do his or her own footwork in order to work out where to go next. That last was the subject of this piece, which I wrote back in December 2010. It became the site’s first hitarticle, with almost 7,000 views in one month, and I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. Enjoy!
If you were a hero, tasked with saving the world from an overwhelming menace, how would you go about it? You would gather information about your foe. You would arm yourself with the best weapons possible. You would recruit allies to your banner. And while you might wish for these things on a platter, in order to find them, you would have to explore the world. You would seek out clues and piece them together, one hint leading you to the next, until you found what you were searching for.
No game captures this experience as well as Star Control II (SC2), the 1994 game from Toys for Bob (rereleased for free as The Ur-Quan Masters). SC2 cast you as a starship captain from a long-lost settlement, given command of a rediscovered ancient wonder weapon. As far as you know at the start of the game, your objective is simple: journey to Earth with your starship, rejoin the fleet, and help defend humanity against the alien Ur-Quan. And after one of the best opening plot hooks I have seen in a game, the stage is set for you to explore the galaxy in pursuit of that goal. Along the way, expect a fantastic storytelling experience, delivered through a combination of (a) top-notch writing and (b) gameplay mechanics that place the responsibility for uncovering that story in your hands.
In my last piece about Final Fantasy X, I wrote about its biggest draw: its world, its story, and the way the two interact. What makes FFX a good game, not just a good worldbuilding exercise, is the second thing it does well: combat.
The principles behind the combat system are straightforward, but implemented well:
1. It’s turn-based, with turn order depending on speed – zippy characters move more often than slower ones.
2. The active party comprises three characters (out of a total of seven playable), and in one of FFX’s most distinctive features, you can freely switch characters during battle.
3. Each character begins with a distinct role and a unique progression upon level-up (they can eventually mix and match, while an alternate game mode allows customisation from the outset).
The net effect is the best battle system I can remember in a numbered Final Fantasy. Battles are fast to play (which is important, given how frequent they are) and not very difficult – I think the only game over screen I’ve seen was the result of a boss fight. At the same time, they require the player to do more than simply mash “attack”, an area where all too many JRPGs fall down. At its simplest, this is due to the need to target the right enemy with the right character (compare Persona). For instance, veteran swordsman Auron hits hard but has difficulty connecting against flying enemies, so I use him against armoured, ground-bound enemies instead. If the only enemies left are fliers, or resist physical attacks, then out goes Auron and in comes the black mage. In a more complex fight, I might open by using a support character to buff the party, swap him out in favour of a debuff specialist (1), and finally swap in the damage dealers.
Imagine being flung into an alien world, a thousand years hence. Imagine navigating a new society, with nothing left of your home but a few hauntingly familiar notes.
That is the premise of Final Fantasy X, whose Vita re-release (Final Fantasy X HD) is probably my favourite game this year. Imaginative and believable, the world of FFX stands head and shoulders over many other RPGs – its Final Fantasy siblings included. In fact, after 20 hours, I’d argue it outdoes the majority of games! Our window onto the story is Tidus: athlete, likeable if not especially bright goofball (1), and fish out of water. One day, he’s a champion blitzball player – think fantasy underwater soccer. The next, a monstrous fiend has levelled his city, and when he wakes, his home is no more than a myth.
Suikoden is a classic RPG franchise that I remember very fondly. At its best, its worldbuilding combined mythic power with believable societies, while Suikoden III (PS2) still stands out as one of the few video games to make interesting use of multiple perspectives.
Most of the Suikoden games are now out of print, except for the first and IMHO weakest game, available on PSN. The highly-regarded Suikoden II (PS1) is particularly rare (and north of $100 on Amazon), but this may be about to change — Siliconera has spotted a PS3 listing for Suikoden II, suggesting a PSN re-release is imminent.
Personally, I hope this turns out to be the case. I looked up plot spoilers on Wikipedia, back when I thought there was no way I’d ever play the game, and even in that highly diluted form, I was impressed by its twists and turns. This is one I’d like on my the Vita!
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Final Fantasy VI‘s Japanese release, and despite the game’s age (and the technical limitations of its platform, the SNES), I still think its soundtrack is one of the best in video game history. I’ve also been meaning to get back into practice with the piano! So it was a thrill to find, and be able to import, Final Fantasy VI: Original Sound Version Piano Solo Sheet Music via Amazon. You can see my recently arrived copy on the left, and if you’d like to peek inside, I’ve posted the book’s version of Terra’s theme at the bottom of this page.
The book itself is a 197-page collection of what I believe is every single song on FF6‘s OST, from opening to ending (1). According to the Final Fantasy Wiki, it’s aimed at beginner to intermediate pianists, and this sounds about right — after so many years of disuse my skills have atrophied all the way back to “beginner”, but with a bit of work I can still play recognisable, if mangled, character themes.
On this note, the book’s arrangements (by Asako Niwa) hew quite closely to the in-game music, perhaps a little too closely — many songs loop rather than tapering to a “natural” close. Still, I think the book’s literal approach works — it preserves the strength, clarity, and simplicity of Nobuo Uematsu’s original soundtrack, and since I know the game music quite well, this also makes it a bit easier for me to learn.
Overall, I am very happy with my purchase so far. While it’s still early days — I haven’t even touched the left-hand part of each song — I feel that the book sits in the happy intersection between “easy on the ears” and “not too hard to learn”. It’s also succeeded at motivating me to pick up the piano again — I think I’ve played more in the last couple of weeks than I have in the last few years. Book in hand, I plan to keep practicing hard, and (with the proviso that it is a bit expensive) I’d recommend it to anyone else who might be interested.
Do you play music? If so, what do you like to play, and have you tried your hand at soundtracks? Drop a note in the comments!
(1) Note that there is another, separate book called Final Fantasy VI Piano Collections, which contains fewer songs, is a bit more ornate in its arrangement, and is aimed at more advanced pianists.
If the necromancer hits me with one more fireball, I’m toast.
He’s the toughest boss I’ve faced so far, and the good news is, I’ve whittled him down to his last chunk of health. The bad news is, I’m on my last life, my AI teammates aren’t doing much better, and the next fireball that hits will probably finish me off. If I can close in with my sword, before the necromancer’s spell timer counts down, the battle will be over. The trick is lasting that long.
There he is! The necromancer has spent the fight teleporting around the room, but I see him now. I fumble with my bow, spray a few Wizard Slayer arrows his way. If I hit, I’ll interrupt his spell, buying myself a few precious seconds. And I hit. The timer disappears. I charge in, ignore the skeleton bodyguards, raise my sword…
… and the screen erupts in flame.
But this fireball comes from the party sorcerer, controlled by the AI, and it could not have come at a better time. The fireball took the necromancer to his last sliver of health. One last slash, and it’s over. I’ve won. More accurately, to give full credit to my AI-controlled teammates: we’ve won.
Welcome to The Last Story, a 2012 Wii action-RPG from Japanese developer Mistwalker (1). TLS never managed to replicate fellow Wii RPG Xenoblade’s jump to cult classic – but if you ask me, TLS is both the better of the two, and one of the most underrated games in years.
Ostensibly, PS3 RPG Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is about the adventures of Oliver (pictured, right), an ordinary boy who becomes the wizard-saviour of another world. But it’s not, not really. Meet one of Ni no Kuni’s real heroes (on the left): Mar Mite, melee fighter, bane of enemies from the Winter Isles in the west to Teeheeti in the east, and utterly adorable. Together, Mar Mite and friends represent what is best about Ni no Kuni – and what is worst.
After finishing The Banner Saga, I thought I’d expand on the conclusions I reached last week. I’m still happy with the game and its tactical battles, which become deeper and richer with each new character introduced. I do want to revisit story, an area where Banner Saga is ambitious, inconsistent, but ultimately successful, notwithstanding flaws in its narrative structure – specifically, its use of two distinct stories told from two main points of view.
Now, I should stress that the problem is not with multiple storylines or multiple POVs. The idea itself is great, one I’d like more RPGs to adopt – it works in other media, it works in books and TV, it works in the handful of other games to use it. The problem is Banner Saga’s implementation: one is clearly the main story, with the other being a sideshow. The former is a video game example of an epic, a term wonderfully defined by the Encyclopedia of Fantasy:
An epic is a long narrative poem which tells large tales, often incorporating a mixture of legend, myth and folk history, and featuring heroes whose acts have a significance transcending their own individual happiness or woe. The classic epic tells the story of the founding or triumph of a folk or nation…
This gives the main story a purpose, escalating tension, an arc. The side story lacks these, and isn’t even well integrated into the larger tale. From a mechanical perspective, I like the side story – it was there that I got the hang of the battle system. But it drags on narrative pacing, and should have been either plotted better or else cut down to brief interludes.
As for the main story itself, it’s good. It is clearly part 1 of an intended trilogy, all but screaming TO BE CONTINUED, and suffers from several niggles. At times, characters will say something jarringly modern (1), or Abruptly Drop Proper Nouns. The characters themselves are tersely introduced, with the non-plot characters only receiving a single conversation to flesh them out. But Banner Saga redeems itself with moments of emotional power – desperate, heroic, poignantly beautiful.
It’s those moments that stick in my mind as I write, moments that made me breathe “wow”, and “this is awesome”, and “that was perfect”, and my complaints pale next to that. Taken together with the very good battle system, The Banner Saga is an impressive outing by Stoic Studio, and I look forward to the next in the series.
The basis of my comments: I finished the game after 17 hours, per Steam.
So opens Stoic Studio’s The Banner Saga, a low-fantasy tactical RPG with a cool and unique combat system. It’s so different as to be divisive; but the more I play it, the more I like it.
By way of overview, Banner Saga follows two separate groups as they trek across a land ravaged by shadowy, armoured monsters called dredge (second from the right). Between battles, the current group’s caravan rolls through the countryside (see below), banner streaming behind, and gameplay consists of text events: how do you respond to stubborn villagers, or a troublemaking drunk, or a fire in the distance? These choices affect caravan morale and hence stats in combat, but more importantly, party members can join, leave, or permanently die in these events. And clearly, the developers meant decisions to have consequences, a la XCOM ironman – there is only one quicksave slot, and save ‘checkpoints’ are widely spaced. This is perhaps too effective: I’ve started looking up guides after discovering that I neither enjoy character loss, nor have the time or patience to reload. The actual writing is clunky at first (why are quasi-Vikings saying “OK”?), but picks up steam. As at the 60% mark, I find the story interesting, albeit not the main draw.
Paradox has announced two new games and two new expansions, all of which will come from Paradox Development Studio, its first-party arm. The games are Hearts of Iron IV and a new IP — Runemaster, an RPG set in a world inspired by Norse myth. The expansions are Rajas of India, which will expand Crusader Kings II‘s map all the way to the subcontinent, and Wealth of Nations, which will flesh out EU4‘s trade system and — it seems — add chartered companies such as the British and Dutch East India Companies. Detail is scant at this stage, but I can speculate…
Of the four, I’m most interested in Rajas. It should be reasonably likely to pan out: Paradox has plenty of experience producing expansions for Crusader Kings II, a game that has been out for two years. It’ll be unique: other than Champion of the Raj, have there been any other historical strategy games set in India? And I can’t wait to see the alternate histories that’ll arise from the collision of Norse, Indians, and Mongols. (It makes me wonder if anyone at Paradox has read a delightful book named GURPS Alternate Earths 2, which contains a timeline in which super-Vikings made it all the way to Southeast Asia.) I’m also interested in Wealth of Nations, which promises to cover one of my favourite aspects of the period, but I’d have to see more specifics.
The new games are more of a wild card. Hearts of Iron 3 was an interesting but unsuccessful design experiment, and IV could be very good or very disappointing, depending on the extent to which Paradox learns from past mistakes. About the only thing we know is that “battle plans”, a HOI3 feature allowing players to doodle arrows on the map, can now be used to give orders; this suggests that automation, HOI3‘s central (and most unique) concept, will return in hopefully improved form. I’d guess HOI4 will improve over 3 — Crusader Kings 2 and EU4 marked a clear upturn in the quality of Paradox games — but for now, it’s too early to tell.
Meanwhile, Runemaster will be Paradox’s first in-house RPG. (This surprised me, incidentally — I was expecting a strategy game in that setting, along the lines of Holistic Design’s Hammer of the Gods.) Paradox describes it as follows:
Runemaster is an RPG set in a fantasy realm based in the rich, majestic traditions of Norse mythology, casting each player in the role of a unique champion in a time of chaotic upheaval. Procedural maps and quests will ensure that no two playthroughs are identical, allowing players to tell a saga that is uniquely their own. Explore vast vistas through the six worlds of Norse myth, command troops in tactical combat, and define your champion through the choices they make.
It’ll be interesting to see how Paradox, a strategy developer, adapts to the new genre. Perhaps as a newcomer, it’ll be more innovative — compare Dragon Commander, a genre-blending strategy game from a RPG studio. Like HOI4, I can see this going either way, but it may be one to watch regardless.
Above is my new PlayStation Vita, running Persona 4: Golden! After a bit over a week, I think the hardware and the software were made for each other: the Vita is a fine machine, sleek and sharp-screened, while P4:G is one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. P4:G is also long and deep (I clocked in at >90 hours on its predecessor, Persona 3: Portable), the kind of game I’d normally find difficult to finish — I frequently stall out on RPGs at the ~30 hour mark, such as Fallout: New Vegas, Xenoblade Chronicles, Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and even the PS2 version of Persona 4. But the Vita’s portability is a blessing: I can carry it around the house, play when I have a few minutes to spare, put it to sleep at the push of a button, and awaken it in seconds. That makes it perhaps the most convenient way to play long, intricate games such as P4:G — definitely more convenient than being chained to a PC/console. Vita, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship…
As an aside, so far, the Vita’s library isn’t huge, but I have several more games to chew through once I (eventually) finish P4:G: action RPG Soul Sacrifice came bundled with the Vita, and over several PSN sales, I built up a decent backlog of PSP RPGs (Gungnir, Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time). As for future releases, Final Fantasy X and X-2 are due out for Vita eventually, and who knows what other RPGs might come after that? After all, the PSP eventually bloomed into an RPG powerhouse, with the likes of FFT, Tactics Ogre, and Persona 3.
I am very pleased to publish an email interview with Vic Davis, the indie game designer behind Armageddon Empires (one of my favourite strategy games), Solium Infernum, and Six-Gun Saga. Read on for our conversation about Vic’s latest title, roguelike/board game hybrid Occult Chronicles, in which we discuss his inspirations, his lessons learned, the challenges of indie development, and more.
Peter Sahui: Hello Vic – welcome to the site! Occult Chronicles is your fourth game, after Armageddon Empires, Solium Infernum, and Six-Gun Saga. What lessons from your previous games came in handy for this project?
Vic Davis: Well from a technical standpoint I have over a decade of experience with the development environment that I use (Adobe Director). I’ve also got a huge library of code for doing everything from creating drop down menus to path finding for any AI. On the design side it has helped a lot to have shipped previous games. Even though attempting a rogue like is a new direction for me, I was able to draw upon the experience that I had gained while designing turn based strategy games. In the end my new game is really just an adventure strategy game so it shares a lot of the same elements.
Peter: Compared to Armageddon Empires, random chance seems to play a much bigger role in Occult Chronicles. What made you emphasise luck, and how did you balance it?
Vic: Yeah, without any of the map or positional elements that most TBS games offer, the conflict resolution elements really pop out to the fore. And Occult Chronicles has a lot of rpg baggage so you have this paradigm of stats/abilities being used to influence some probabilistic outcome matrix. Calling it luck though is something of a misnomer in my opinion. Chance plays a big part but I tried to craft a system of mechanics where smart playing could nudge the scales in your direction. In the Occult Chronicles you need to weigh risk versus reward when you encounter various “challenges” in the game. You are usually given various options that key off of your attributes so it might be better to talk to an encounter rather than attack it. Similarly, sometimes it’s better to run away or postpone a choice. I do admit that the way I designed the results phase for the game where you basically pick random cards to determine your rewards or penalties for an encounter, does serve to really accentuate the idea that the game is really random. And I’m not sure random is really bad especially in a rogue like. It’s something that is demanded for the map generation and figures prominently in many other aspects like what you encounter on a level or whether you hit it. Coping with the random elements is really supposed to be part of the fun. But then so is dying a lot so go figure.
I’m long overdue to post my impressions of two recent, interesting games, Occult Chronicles (still officially in “buy-in beta”) and Expeditions Conquistador. While they are very different, they have enough in common to be worth discussing in the same post, so let’s take a look:
Occult Chronicles is the latest project from Vic Davis (of Armageddon Empires fame); it is inspired by roguelikes and “haunted house” board games. The player controls a single investigator who wanders around a haunted mansion, uncovering tiles with each step. Most tiles are blank, but some contain encounters, which are represented as a series of randomly selected cards (e.g. a three of Wands, a Knight of Cups) that the player’s own random cards must beat. The player character gradually levels up or acquires new goodies from beating these encounters; and ultimately, s/he must descend into the basement of the house for the final encounter. Strategy is a matter of resource allocation and balancing risk/reward: Do I use my finite pool of items to modify this card draw, or do I save them for a rainy day? How do I allot my skill points? How much time can I afford to spend levelling upstairs before the – luckily customisable – in-game timer (1) pressures me to head into the basement? My biggest reservation is that there is still a lotof chance involved, especially visible (a) on higher difficulty levels (I’ve never won on anything above the easiest setting!), (b) early on, as low-level characters have few ways to influence the cards, and (c) in the occasional bouts of random sadism (2).
Conquistadoris a bit like a cross between a tactical RPG and an Age of Discovery-themed King’s Bounty. The player character rides around the overworld map in search of quests, resolves them via dialogue or violence, and fights out battles on a hex grid using a squad of up to six. Character customisation is fairly limited, but combat is distinct and satisfying. The basic strategy (use tanky characters to slow down the enemy, while healers, ranged specialists, and fast-moving characters play to their respective strengths) comes from Tactical RPGs 101, and can safely be recycled in every battle, but the details change: I might use a barricade (3) to block off a given route on the battle map, then park an arquebusier there to snipe from safety; or use Character A to stun an enemy so the injured Character B can safely slip past. In between battles, the player must manage the camp to ensure food and medicine don’t run out, though in practice this is simple with the right party.
I’m nine episodes into Persona4: The Animation, the anime adaptation of the excellent PS2/Vita RPG; as I would like to eventually finish the game (I am “only” 30 hours in), I have paused at this point in the anime to avoid spoiling myself. The anime is a lot of fun, worth the money I spent on it… and yet, I can’t shake the feeling that it is a guilty pleasure.
The anime does a number of things right. For one, it has very strong source material, with a great premise: Persona 4 follows several teenage friends who, in the course of investigating murders in their sleepy country town, end up fighting their own literal and metaphorical demons. P4’s characters are goofy (perhaps a bit more so in the anime), amusing (I’ve laughed so hard, the other passengers on my commute probably think I’m bonkers), and yet human and relatable. The anime’s fight scenes are spectacular – the titular Personas have never looked better – and its production values are excellent; the anime’s art is vibrant and attractive, and I routinely grin when it uses music from the game’s soundtrack. So what’s the problem?
When I made my last move, I thought I’d seized an opening. The pirate had his back turned; and when I saw I could take him down with one attack from Kyril, the game’s young hero, I couldn’t resist. But now the shoe is on the other foot. In my haste to push Kyril forward, I’ve left him standing alone on the deck of the pirate ship. And before any backup can reach him, several pirates have their turns coming up…
The first pirate attacks. Kyril’s health plummets. Next pirate’s turn. I grit my teeth – only to watch, impressed, as the boy’s father leaps in to protect him from the blow. Kyril took only half damage from that hit, and the pirates’ opportunity has passed. It’s Andarc the mage’s turn next, and he opens up with a barrage from his Lightning rune, killing one pirate and wounding another. Then it’s the turn of more and more of my characters, and as they run up to join Kyril, the danger is past.
I’m several hours into Suikoden Tactics, a 2005 spinoff from one of my favourite RPG series, Suikoden. As its name suggests, it’s a grid- and turn-based tactical RPG in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, and Disgaea (in other words, in my classification scheme, it’s a Type III game). From a mechanical standpoint, it is reasonably straightforward: different characters have different strengths and weaknesses, and while characters’ classes appear to be effectively preset – for instance, Kyril will always be a melee fighter – there is some scope to customise them by choosing which skills to prioritise. The actual combat is standard TRPG fare, though with a couple of quirks: characters have elemental affinities with particular tiles on the map, and tile elements can be changed by items and spells. That said, so far this seems to be good standard TRPG fare. Combat feels intuitively fluid in the way that the best tactical RPGs do: characters go down in just the right number of hits (too many would lead to tedium; too few would be frustrating), move far enough for squishy characters to be vulnerable, but not too vulnerable; and so on. Aesthetics are a mixed bag; the in-game sprites have not aged well, but character portraits are crisp and attractive. Storywise, no spoilers, but I’m definitely intrigued.
Talisman: Prologue is a recently released Android/iOS adaptation of an old board game (which I have not played), Games Workshop’s Talisman. TP is a solitaire game in which the player controls a single high fantasy adventurer (a warrior, troll, assassin, etc), who moves around a board, attempting to solve a “quest” (kill X monsters, bring the princess to Y castle) chosen at the start of the game.
Note my choice of words: the character moves around the board, not the player. That’s because almost everything in TP – how far the adventurer moves, the monsters he/she encounters, whether s/he defeats the goblin, whether the enchantress turns him/her into a frog – is determined almost entirely by chance. Never mind strategy or making interesting decisions; in TP, there are very few decisions at all, and in mechanical terms, that makes it a lousy game.
So what’s the point of TP, then? Its theme, which I think you will enjoy to the extent that (a) your imagination can construct a story from card art and random numbers (TP‘s high production values help), and (b) you like ‘80s high fantasy. The last time I played, my assassin stumbled on a mischievous imp (drew an Imp card), who teleported him to a cave (I rolled a certain number), where he slew a serpent (drew a card, rolled a die, and compared his die roll + strength against the serpent’s) and discovered a rich hoard of gold (another die roll). There is a cool and exciting, if brief, story in there, even if I had to fill in all the details in my head.
The last thing I should note is that the game’s own designers seem very aware that it lacks the depth for sustained play. The game’s quests – and hence, its play sessions – don’t last very long. However, finishing each quest unlocks both new quests and new adventurers, which is what provides the incentive to return.
Overall, I can’t recommend TP for gamers in search of a meaty ruleset, a tense challenge, or even much in the way of player agency. However, for those who don’t mind being spectators while the dice do the work, TP is worth a look as a coffee-break-length ticket to Fantasyland.
A technical note: while the game is playable on my 7” device (Nexus 7), the font is too small for my liking. People with larger screens may find the font more appropriately sized.
Of all the magic woven by storytellers, immersion has to be one of the most precious threads. How wonderful it is that we can pick up a book, or play a game, or sit in a cinema, and be transported into another world! The people who write bullet points for video game boxes know this, which is why “immersive” is one of their favourite buzzwords. So is “visceral”, which I find telling. To be immersive, it seems, a work should have us on the edge of our seats: tense, excited, ready to feel its characters’ pain as if it were our own. But there’s also another kind of immersion – think of the proverbial warm soak. An immersive world can be utterly relaxing, an invitation for us to kick back and lose ourselves for an hour or two. Nearly 20 hours into Xenoblade Chronicles, I can say it exemplifies the latter.
Xenoblade is an RPG for the Nintendo Wii – a platform exclusive, as a matter of fact. It’s a party-based JRPG that bears a striking similarity to 2006’s Final Fantasy XII, in that there are no random encounters and no distinction between an overworld, area maps, and combat screens. Rather, like a Western RPG, monsters are clearly visible – and combat takes place – in the field. Combat is real-time, and the player only controls one party member at a time, chosen before battle starts; the rest of the party is controlled by a generally competent AI. Since the chosen character will auto-attack enemies, the player’s job is to manage aggro, special abilities, and cooldowns. (Not items; there are no potions, stimpacks, antidotes, or the like in this game.) I’ve heard this compared to MMO gameplay, and it’s certainly different from what I’m used to.
(With apologies to every writer, director, and star of the Wild West)
EXT. THE MOJAVE DESERT
The one-horse town of Goodsprings bakes, silent, in the Nevada heat. One after the other, we see several POWDER GANG BANDITS approach, cradling baseball bats and crude firearms. The Powder Gangers are in high spirits, looking forward to the plunder of the town.
POWDER GANGER #1: Pardner, I do reckon that there town be as easy as liquor flowing at the saloon.
POWDER GANGER #2: Yee-haw!
The Powder Gangers laugh, twirl their moustaches. Suddenly, they hear a yell.
An armoured figure – not one of the townspeople, but our hero, THE COURIER – charges out from between two houses. The Courier winds back his arm and for a moment, time seems to freeze. When it flows again, something red and fizzing has landed at the Powder Gangers’ feet.
POWDER GANGER #1: … Is that… dynamite?
FADE TO WHITE.
I’m ten hours into Fallout: New Vegas, the most unique-feeling entry in the venerable Fallout line of RPGs. Its predecessors (#1 and #3 in particular) revelled in their post-apocalyptic setting: their mohawked raiders could have come straight out of a Mad Max movie, and their civilisation was a precarious, hardscrabble thing – ersatz Bartertowns scattered around the wastes, each surviving as best as it could.
Drox Operative is the latest title from Soldak Entertainment, an indie developer of action-RPGs (Depths of Peril, Din’s Curse) renowned for their dynamic worlds. Drox transports that concept from fantasy into space opera – its galaxy is filled with alien empires, who fight, intrigue, and negotiate amongst themselves. As one of the titular mercenaries, players accept quests from these empires, fight space monsters and rival empires, plant their patrons’ flags over unclaimed worlds – and try to make sure they’re on the winning side.
On paper, this is a wonderful concept, and it’s given me a couple of memorable moments. For example, at one point I wanted to explore a hazardous, monster-filled region of frontier space. To make my life easier, I took a quest to colonise a nearby planet, then stuck around to defend the new settlement. The result: now I had somewhere to repair, and the owner of the new colony was now both stronger and better disposed toward me. And there is a certain dark satisfaction in teaching recalcitrant alien empires why messing with a Drox operative is a bad idea! Unfortunately, these cool experiences have been the exception for me. As an overall package, Drox falls flat for me; while I can quibble with various “micro” aspects of the game’s execution (1), I think my ultimate problem lies with two key aspects of the game’s design:
For the last three days the Sydney Showground has played host to the EB Games Expo, and that was where I spent yesterday. There I met some folks from the industry, both publishers and indie developers; watched trailers and gameplay videos; observed live play; and last but not least, tried out a few titles for myself! Here are the highlights of what I saw (grouped by publisher):
Banner Saga, a Norse-themed tactical RPG trilogy from indie studio Stoic Games, was one of the early titles to ride to prominence on Kickstarter this year. Now Nathan Grayson of Rock, Paper, Shotgun has posted a monster three-part interview/preview, and it’s fascinating stuff — especially the third part, in which the developers explain how the single-player campaign will work (in summary, “it’s a bit like of King of Dragon Pass meets Oregon Trail. It’s King of Dragon Pass on the road.”) While not quite a full branching campaign a la The Witcher 2, the player’s choices will matter, both from a gameplay and a story perspective. Characters will join or leave the party based on their satisfaction with the player; the player will have to juggle the party’s endurance and morale against the need to stay ahead of an all-consuming wall of darkness (this actually put me in mind of FTL), and there will be multiple endings. If that sounds interesting, it’s well worth heading over to check out the full article.
Meanwhile, we’ll get our chance to evaluate the core gameplay next month when a spin-off F2P multiplayer game based around the battle system, Banner Saga: Factions, is due out. This is one project that I’ll keep an eye on.
The best way I can describe FTL: Faster than Light, the new indie title from Subset Games, is to say it lives up to the very simple promise on its Kickstarter page (emphasis mine):
FTL is a spaceship simulation roguelike-like. Its aim is to recreate the atmosphere of running a spaceship exploring the galaxy.
To get a sense of how the typical game of FTL plays out, I refer you to my Let’s Play series – linked at the top of this post. In summary, players start at one end of the galaxy, progress through seven increasingly dangerous sectors, and finally take on the final boss at the end of sector eight. Each sector comprises a randomised mix of encounters – shops, text-based, multiple-choice quests (think King Arthur: The Roleplaying Wargame, or maybe a much simpler Space Rangers 2), hazards such as asteroid fields, and most of all, hostile spaceships. Combat is a frenetic homage to movie and TV space battles, as you juggle power between shields and engines and weapons, order your crew to fix hull breaches and extinguish fires, target enemy subsystems, and oh god Mr Chekov will you knock out their missiles before they kill us all?! (Since the game only gives you one save slot, you cannot reload if you die unless you back up your save file, aka “savescumming”.) Afterwards, you use scrap from your enemies’ hulls to upgrade your ship and buy fuel and repairs. Ultimately, you escape to the next sector one step ahead of your foes, and begin the process again. The typical game takes about an hour or two to play, and for most of that time – specifically, for sectors one through seven – it is a delightful roller-coaster of excitement and panic and elation.
Where FTL falls down is its endgame, sector eight, which finally trips over the line between challenge and frustration. The end boss suffers from several related problems:
1) The boss isn’t merely more difficult than anything else in the game. It’s an order of magnitude more difficult.
2) The sheer length of the boss battle. Most battles are in the game are over in 2-3 minutes. However, the boss’ defences are so strong that all up, it took me something like 40 minutes to beat! The game’s combat system is built for short, sharp fights, and it bogs down when it takes that long to get through one opponent.
3) The need for luck to beat the boss. This manifests in two ways. First, since equipment, and shop catalogues are random, it’s possible for a player to reach the boss without the tools needed to win. Second, as my experience in part 4 of the Let’s Play showed, the length and difficulty of the boss fight increase the odds an unlucky hit will scupper all your work.
4) The inability to save/reload, which becomes a liability here. If things go wrong 80% of the way through the boss fight, get ready to replay aaaaaall the way from sector 1.
Net effect: I feel absolutely no shame over savescumming to beat the boss, and while I could replay the game (unlocking and then trying out different spaceships, attempting different builds, etc) – I don’t want to. There are players who feel motivated to defeat that final boss over, and over again. I am not one. And that is a real disincentive for me to spend any more time with FTL.
Still, while FTL lasted, it and I had a wonderful ride. As with 2010’s Recettear, FTL is short, sweet and clever. It’s not perfect, but the core mechanics for 80%-90% of the game are sufficiently strong to outweigh the annoyance and tedium of the remaining 10%-20%. Well worth checking out, and I look forward to seeing what its creators do next.
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Half-Minute Hero, a remarkably clever and fun Japanese indie indie-esque (correction: its imaginative concept, general feel, and price tag are all incredibly indie-ish, but I don’t think it meets the technical definition) game, has now landed on Steam!
I played the original Half-Minute Hero on the PSP last year; its conceit is that each level is an entire 8-bit RPG, boiled down to fit a 30-second time limit! In that time, you have to grind, buy better gear, recruit NPC allies, and leave enough time to make it to (and beat!) the boss. (In practice, you have a little longer than that, since you can buy increasingly expensive extensions from the Goddess of Time.)
The original game was a fast-paced, funny homage to the RPGs of yesteryear; I’m not familiar with what may have changed in the PC version apart from the title, which has expanded to Half Minute Hero: Super Mega Neo Climax Ultimate Boy. That moniker should give you a clue as to the game’s mood! However, if the gameplay has remained the same, the Steam version will be well worth $10 (and especially worth the current discounted price of $9).