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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Child of Light: Beautiful and challenging

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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Clippings: Tropico-ld War

Hope everyone has been well! I’m back home now; while I was away, E3 came and went, while we also saw the launch of several strategy games: Distant Worlds: Universe, Tropico 5, and Xenonauts.

After completing my first game of Tropico 5, I must say I’m a little disappointed — I found Tropico 4 both funnier (I realise this is a very subjective complaint) and, in some ways, a sharper satire: the building options in T4 allowed players to brainwash schoolkids or back specific factions, and T5 seems to have fewer of those inspired little touches. From a mechanical standpoint, the new era system seems better on paper than in practice — it does produce more organic city development, as the initial colonial town gradually sprouts new factory districts, but the problem is that there just isn’t much to do in the early eras.

On the other hand, T5 seems better at capturing a dictator’s mindset — there is now a larger incentive to invest in one’s military, since (a) rebellions seem more frequent and (b) being invaded by a foreign power is no longer an automatic Game Over. (In fact, foreign invasions are now a semi-regular occurrence.) At one point, “soldier” was the second most common occupation on my island, after “farmer”! That said, I’m still learning the game, so my conclusions aren’t yet set in stone.

Speaking of the Cold War, GMT Games is Kickstarting a digital version of well-rated board game Twilight Struggle. The asking price is $10 for an Android copy, $25 for a PC copy, or $30 for one of each. Personally, I’ve wanted to play Twilight Struggle for a long time, but that PC price strikes me as a little expensive — for $25 I could buy Xenonauts. Has anyone tried the board version?

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From the archives: A game that could have been: Emperor of the Fading Suns

Emperor of the Fading Suns was a mid-1990s PC strategy game from the days before the space 4X genre calcified into Master of Orion 2 wannabes. It was ambitious, sprawling, buggy, flawed — yet I remember it fondly. In 2011, I set out to explain why.

 

If I had a penny for every game set in outer space, I’d be writing this post from somewhere sunnier and sandier. How many first-person shooters have cast us as Angry McShootsalot, the space marine? And how many RPGs and 4X games have treated us to  “classic space opera” universes, the sort familiar to anyone who’s seen Star Trek or Star Wars, or read a Larry Niven novel? This extends to gameplay conventions. If you’ve played Master of Orion, Sword of the Stars, Galactic Civilizations, or Space Empires, you know the formula – players start with a single world at the dawn of the age of interstellar travel, then colonise virgin territory until eventually the whole galaxy is claimed. Technology progresses in a smooth upward line. The real fighting is all done in space; ground combat is abstracted to ‘bring troop transports and roll the dice’. Everything is clean and crisp and futuristic.

 

If I had a penny for every game set in an original version of outer space… well, at least I’d have one cent, courtesy of Emperor of the Fading Suns (EFS), the 1996 turn-based strategy game from Holistic Design, Inc (HDI). Set in the same universe as Fading Suns, HDI’s pen-and-paper RPG,  EFS falls into the broad 4X genre defined by classics such as Civilization and the games I listed above, but carved out a space all its own. In EFS, the main conflict was human against human, though there was an alien menace in the background. And there was nothing crisp or clean or futuristic about its universe, filled with princes, priests, psionics and peasants in what’s usually described as “a cross between Dune and Warhammer 40,000”.

 

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Musical Monday: “War Situation” (Tactics Ogre), composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto

This week’s song I’ve known and loved for years — it plays between chapters of Tactics Ogre, as the narration explains how the characters’ actions have affected the broader war raging around them. Quite simple, but catchy and effective. Enjoy!

 

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From the archives: Conquest, Plunder and Tyranny: Explaining Dubious Morality in Strategy Games

I originally wrote this post around the time Civilization V came out, and it’s interesting to look back in light of subsequent releases such as Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis IV. One of my arguments was that 4X games depersonalise victims, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped players from being just as vicious in Crusader Kings 2!   On the other hand, I tried to play EU4 in as “enlightened” a manner as possible – abolishing slavery, instituting a constitutional monarchy, etc. No developer encouraged me to do that; that was just my self-imposed goal. In any case, enjoy!

Why do we play strategy games in ways that, in real life, would land us in the dock for crimes against humanity?

 

Three Moves Ahead, Troy Goodfellow’s strategy game podcast, recently discussed the ethics of wargames, but to me, wargames have a largely innocuous focus on how to manoeuvre troops within an already-existing war. However, the question remains for the broader strategy game genre – in particular, 4X games in which you decide whether and why to go to war, and how to govern your nation: Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Master of Orion, Master of Magic, Galactic Civilizations, Space Empires, etc. Indeed, the very name of the sub-genre makes it clear that there’s an issue: “4X” is short for “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate”.

 

There is, of course, the historical/human nature explanation. I do not think any empire through history – regardless of religion, skin colour, or geographic origin – ever arose except through conquest. Why should a game that casts you as an emperor be any different? When I send out my Roman legions in Civilization to claim the land of the fellow unlucky enough to start the game next to me, I’m just doing what Caesar and his countrymen did in real life. This explains why brutality makes thematic sense, but we have to look at other factors to explain why it pays off and why it doesn’t repel players in the first place. I can think of three such reasons: the zoomed-out, distant scale of most strategy (including 4X) games; the zero-sum nature of most games; and the economic model used by most 4X games.

 

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From the archives: Storytelling in Star Control II: Playing space detective

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 hit article, 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.

 

Read on…

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Musical Monday: “Aurora’s Theme” (Child of Light), composed by Coeur de Pirate

This week’s song is the lovely main menu music of Child of Light, one of this year’s notable RPGs.  It does double duty as the main character’s theme, and its motifs recur thoughout the game. Enjoy!

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Warlock 2: Mage Versus World

2014-05-21_00003

 

My first scout killed some cockroaches and some wolves, then was mauled by a giant bear.

My second scout found some demonic trees and was turned into fertilizer before he could retreat.

My third scout killed some wolves and some weak spiders, reached level 3, and was immediately eaten by the giant killer spider lurking behind the weak spiders.

My fourth scout was diverted to help clean up a rogue infestation near my second city. After that he headed out into the fog and had dinner with some angry zombies. He was the main course.

My fifth scout killed the bear that killed my first scout, and discovered ogres. This was not a fortuitous discovery.

My sixth scout survived until the end of the game despite some hairy moments involving fire elementals, imps, vampire lords, sand golems…

My seventh scout found a trio of polar bearmen.

 

As the sequel to 2012’s Warlock: Master of the Arcane, Warlock 2 builds on that foundation and manages to make its predecessor all but obsolete. Warlock 2 offers most of 1‘s content, along with a bevy of new features, systems, modes, options and content. Unfortunately it also inherited the first game’s biggest flaw: weak AI opponents. As such, the game’s world is your main opponent, and what a hostile, merciless opponent it can be! The list above is a fairly standard record of the first 20 turns of my Warlock 2 games.

 

When I reviewed Warlock 1 at release I found it to be enjoyable, and a little unusual. It looked like Civilisation V, a similarity which only ran skin-deep. Far from being a 4X empire builder, it was a tactical wargame powered by copious magic, a hostile world, and unhinged comedy. Warlock 2 is no different, and in the crowded turn-based fantasy strategy game market of 2014 that’s all the more important. Warlock 2 is not directly comparable to Age of Wonders III, Endless Legend, Elemental, Eador, or any of the other releases which we’ve seen in the last year.

 

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On holiday

Just a quick note that I’ll be on holiday for a few weeks, starting this Friday. The site won’t be dead in that time — I’ll schedule several Musical Mondays, along with links to a few old articles I’m still quite proud of. Two notable games are also scheduled to come out:

  1. Tropico 5 – I’ve just placed my pre-order!
  2. Distant Worlds: Universe – the final expansion pack to one of the most unique strategy games in existence. I really liked DW (as of several expansions ago), and I’m glad it will finally reach a wider audience on Steam.

Have fun while I’m away, and I’ll see you all soon!

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I choose you! Combat in Final Fantasy X

FFX Valefor in action

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.

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Clippings: Random Battles

I’m taking a break from strategy to progress through Final Fantasy X and Child of Light, and it strikes me that I really like both their battle systems. They manage to combine simplicity, speed, and enough depth to satisfy — I never feel as though I could coast through by hitting “attack” over and over again. I’m planning to write a couple of short articles examining them in more detail; for now, here is Siliconera’s take on what designers should avoid in their battle systems.

In other news:

  1. Veteran games writer Bruce Geryk now has his own site, and if you enjoy his specialties (strategy, military history, and wargames), it’s worth checking out! Bruce’s dissection of Master of Orion 3, from many years back, is still one of my favourite pieces of games writing — ever since I’ve read it I’ve wished for a “Crusader Kings 2 in space”.
  2. Several years back I wrote about Conquest of Elysium 3, a “3x” strategy game from the creators of Dominions, and the developers have now announced an Android tablet port, due out at the end of the month. This has promise, although the key question will be how well the interface will work on a tablet.
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Musical Monday: “Frog’s Theme” (Chrono Trigger), composed by Yasunori Mitsuda

Chrono Trigger is another 16-bit classic whose soundtrack remains a delight, two decades on. It’s been remixed and fan-covered many times, and this week, I present Taylor Davis’ violin rendition of “Frog’s Theme” — Frog being one of your first party members, a knight who’s been transformed into a giant, bipedal… well, frog. Enjoy!

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Final Fantasy X HD: The magic returns

FFX Landscape Moonflow

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.

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Clippings: It’s Pretty!

 

How’s that for a striking visual style? The above trailer is for Apotheon, an upcoming side-scroller for PS4 and PC. I’m not very familiar with the game, but I applaud the developers’ decision to depict the world of Greek mythology world with art inspired by Greek vases.

Speaking of gorgeous games, you have to see Child of Light in motion — still screenshots don’t do it justice. I’ve just started the game on PS3, and so far it’s promising — stay tuned for more.

In this week’s links:

  1. Here is a preview of This War of Mine, an upcoming game that puts the player in charge of a group of civilians trying to survive in a war-torn city. I hope the developers will handle the subject respectfully and well; it’s a big break from gaming’s s typical power fantasies.
  2. Soren Johnson, the designer of Civ IV, speaks to Rock, Paper, Shotgun about his upcoming strategy game.
  3. Have you noticed that game protagonists are ageing in line with their creators? (Note the link contains spoilers for Final Fantasy X).
  4. An argument why we shouldn’t write off the Vita. And here is a look at some upcoming Vita indies. Looking at my own experience, I’ve used my Vita for JRPG re-releases (Persona 4 Golden, Final Fantasy X HD), exclusives (Gravity Rush, Tearaway) and one indie (the cute, charming Thomas was Alone). Do I wish there were more games for Vita? Certainly. But the combination of “core” titles, portability, and instant suspend/resume makes it ideal for busy gamers, and if a Vita port exists, then I will make that my version of choice.
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If your Wargame ain’t broke…

WRD Gunboat

The US Marines came ashore to find their enemy in disarray.

 

Before the first marine set foot on land, their escorting frigate swept the skies clear. Naval gunfire and wave after wave of Marine helicopters established a safe zone around the shore. Now, as the helicopters darted inland to cut off enemy reinforcements, the first Marine tanks lumbered off the beach, while their officers set up a command post behind them.

 

Everything was going to plan – better than planned. There was just one question: what were Swedish Navy gunboats doing in the Marine task force?

 

Welcome to Wargame: Red Dragon, the follow-up to my favourite game of last year, Wargame: AirLand Battle. Whereas AirLand Battle represented a huge upgrade from the first game in the series, European Escalation, Red Dragon is much more incremental, arguably closer to a stand-alone expansion than a whole new game. It offers plenty of new toys for the toy box, as well as some quality of life improvements (more details below), but the core mechanics are little changed from AirLand Battle.

 

As such, most of what I said about AirLand Battle still applies – this is a “beer and pretzels” Cold War military tactics game, comparable to a real-time Panzer General in the way it bridges the gap between traditional RTS (such as Company of Heroes) and dedicated simulations. Visually, it’s more spectacular than ever – see my above screenshot. Mechanically, it’s still the best RTS on the market, albeit weighed down by a steep learning curve and poor documentation (1). At this stage, AirLand Battle is more polished, and if you already own ALB, you can safely wait for a sale unless you are a series devotee like me. But taken in its own right, Red Dragon is a fantastic game that’s already given me many hours of enjoyment, whether in skirmish mode, the campaign, multiplayer (co-op or PVP), or simply theory-crafting in the armoury.

 

(1) The developers try their best, and they have made advances from game to game, but after three Wargame titles I feel safe saying this is not one of their strengths.

 

For series veterans, I elaborate below on what’s new:

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Musical Monday: “To Zanarkand” (Final Fantasy X), composed by Nobuo Uematsu

This week’s song is one of those beautiful, melancholy pieces I like so much — I’ve loved it for years, long before I touched the actual game. It’s another recurring fixture of Final Fantasy arranged concerts, and below, I’ve embedded both an orchestral version and a piano version that’s closer to the simplicity of the in-game song. Enjoy!

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Reminiscence: Suikoden II to come to PSN?

Suikoden II coverSuikoden 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!

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Clippings: New, Upcoming, and Popular

So far, I’m quite happy with my newest and shiniest games, Wargame: Red Dragon and the Vita re-release of Final Fantasy X. Red Dragon is the sequel to my favourite game of 2013, Wargame: AirLand Battle, and it’s pretty much more of the same — not an urgent buy unless you are devoted to the series, but for me, worth what I paid.

Meanwhile, Final Fantasy X pleasantly surprised me — I adore Final Fantasy Tactics but my relationship with the numbered games is far more hit and miss. I love their music, their production values, and often their set-pieces and imagery and characters, but their gameplay, specifically the profusion of random encounters, tends to drive me batty. This, so far, is different  — the turn-based battle system involves clear and interesting trade-offs, while I find the main character surprisingly engaging (despite all the ire he draws from the fanbase). I look forward to playing more!

There’s one more impending release I plan to grab — Child of Light, due out at the end of April/ This week’s links mostly concern other new and upcoming games:

  1. Did you know that Dota 2 is the most popular Steam game (as measured by total hours played since March 2009), Skyrim is #6, and Civilization V is #8? For me, the real surprise was that Empire: Total War came in at #12, ahead of Terraria, Borderlands 2, and Fallout: New Vegas! But looking at hours per user changes things; here Football Manager 2014 takes the crown, while Skyrim rises to #2. Here is the original analysis by Ars Technica, and here is the follow-up. (Hat tip to frogbeastegg.)
  2. The sequel to Half-Minute Hero has now launched on Steam; here are USGamer’s impressions. I liked the PSP original, a clever little game with a unique conceit — each level was an 8-bit RPG distilled down to 30 seconds!
  3. The good news is that King of Dragon Pass, the ’90s PC classic that combined strategy and interactive fiction into a unique package, is coming to Android. KoDP was well-received on iOS, and I think its interface and content make it perfect for touchscreens. The bad news is that a Vita port – something I’d looked forward to – is still 0nly a “maybe”.
  4. And speaking of the Vita, Sony has announced another three games will make their way from Japan to the West: Soul Sacrifice Delta, Freedom Wars, and the most interesting to me, Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines. Sony describes Oreshika as:

an RPG in which you take charge of an ancient Japanese clan that have been cursed with a maximum lifespan of just 2 years. Your task is to lead the clan on their quest to lift the curse and enlist the help of gods inspired by Japanese mythology to make sure each new generation of the clan is more powerful than the last.

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Music for Matchsticks: The piano sheet music of Final Fantasy VI

FFVI sheet music coverHappy Easter, everyone!

 

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.

 

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Musical Monday: “The Lazy Detective Agency” (Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs the Soulless Army), composed by Shoji Meguro

Since I recently highlighted Raidou Kuzunoha‘s re-release on PSN, for this week I’ve chosen the bright, jazzy song that plays when you return to the main character’s office. The game is set in an alternate 1931 Japan, home to both flappers and kimono-clad passersby, and as you listen to the saxophone, imagine that mix of eras and cultures captured in the setting. Enjoy!

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