Waaaaaaaaaaaaar! Warlock: Master of the Arcane – The Verdict

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Warlock

Warlock: Master of the Arcane is very upfront about what type of game it is. The first word tells you everything you need to know. Warlock – person who uses magic; this part is readily apparent. Add a hyphen, and a second meaning emerges. War-lock – a game where you are, essentially, locked into perpetual war until a lone victor stands atop a pile of skulls.

 

Warlock bears a much-remarked upon resemblance to Civilization V, and is described by its own marketing as a 4X game. The Xs comprise: explore, expand, exploit, exterminate. These factors combine to create a certain expectation in the player, and I do not think that serves Warlock particularly well. Compared to more traditional 4X games, such as the Civilization series or Master of Orion, Warlock has a narrower, deeper focus. If you enter the game with the wrong expectations, it is easy to be disappointed by what it does not offer. Let’s get those factors out of the way right at the beginning, so we can focus on what Warlock does offer. There are not many peacetime options, and peace acts as a chance to prepare for the next bout of fighting. Diplomacy is very poor indeed. Whilst it is possible to form alliances, and a few other diplomatic staples, the AI is generally reluctant to play along. City management is quite lightweight. Terrain has no influence on city production outside of special resource hexes, and impassable hexes like mountains. Terrain is very important when it comes to unit movement and combat calculations, however. Constructing as many cities as possible is the best strategy; there is no equivalent to other game’s happiness or corruption to hold back the sprawl, and no advantage gained from remaining small.

 

If the player is doing particularly well in a war, the AI may sue for peace and sweeten the offer with tribute.

 

What does Warlock do well? Creative, flexible, occasionally deranged warfare. It’s a game where open-minded players will thrive. Magic allows the game to offer additional solutions to age-old strategic questions such as, “How can I break through this choke point?” To answer that question with Warlock‘s toolset, you can:

 

1) Use strong units to assault the choke point head on, grinding your way through in a battle of attrition.

2) Use ranged units and magic attacks to weaken the defending units before sending in your heavies.

3) Use a ship to bombard the enemy from the sea, if terrain permits.

4) Use a teleport spell to send individual units behind enemy lines.

5) Summon units like imps or ghost wolves behind enemy lines

6) Use a spell such as “water walking” or “levitation” to flank and/or bypass the choke point.

7) Use a unit which can naturally fly to flank and/or bypass the choke point.

8) Use debuff spells like “weakness” to reduce the defenders to pitiful shadows of their former selves.

9) If the enemy unit is using a particular damage type, cast defensive spells of the appropriate type to make your unit partially immune to the enemy’s attacks.

10) Use magic to resurrect dead units and send them right back in for another go.

11) Dragons. Nobody likes being burped on by a dragon.

 

That’s quite a range of options! Sometimes the detail is as important as the outline. Yes, you can send in a unit of flying swordsmen. You can also send in a unit of knights riding flying donkeys, or water-walking tophat-wearing werewolves! Hence the aforementioned “occasionally deranged”. Warlock does not always take itself seriously.

 

Some of the special resources are more … special than others.

 

While there are only three playable races, they are well individualised. In addition to having unique graphics, buildings, and units, each race is tailored to utilise – and produce – one of the three main resources more heavily than the others. The undead are geared towards mana, humans gold, and monsters food. In the early game, playing towards these strengths is important. By the mid-game, a diligent player will have captured at least one city of each race. At this point specialisation pays dividends; the racial production bonuses and unit recruitment apply no matter who owns the city. Thus, an undead city owned by humans will still produce more mana, still consume mana instead of food to support its populace, and still have the potential to recruit various types of skeleton warriors. There will, however, be a 20% penalty on resource production if the owner is not of the same race.

 

Unit variety is not as limited as the small number of playable races might imply. In addition to the three playable races, the game features numerous minor races. Enterprising warlocks can recruit units from races including elves, dwarves, dragons, and minotaurs. These units are not casual re-skins of the major races’ units; they have their own building requirements, strengths and weaknesses. As you might expect, you can also summon magical creatures to serve in your army, from ghostly wolves to greater elementals. The hostile “wild” unit spawns feature a diverse array of units. In total, the game offers a very generous range of units. Units acquire experience during combat and over time, and will level up at set amounts. Each time they level up, they can choose one of three perks. The game features a wide range of unit upgrades, such as masterwork armour or enchanted weaponry. There is no limit to how many of these upgrades a unit can possess. Once available, upgrades can be purchased for any eligible unit. Lower tier units can also be upgraded into more advanced forms once the necessary buildings have been constructed. This means three things: units never become obsolete, units become highly personalised, and veteran units become powerhouses.

 

Spell research is quite simple. You begin the game with a set amount of research coming in. To increase it you must build certain city improvements on special resource tiles, e.g. an excavation on some ancient ruins. Research does not increase with city quantity, nor with population growth, gold income, or any of the other genre staples. The game will present 5 spells, each chosen randomly. Select one, research it, and you will be offered another 5. The spells which you passed over last time will remain, and the one you researched will be replaced by a new random selection. This randomness can, on rare occasions, be rather frustrating. Gaps will be left in your repertoire until you have played long enough to perform a lot of research. If you lack a favourite attack or buffing spell, you can usually improvise with another. This is a welcome prompt to player creativity. However, if you lack a more specialised spell, such as the one which allows you to banish curses like the “mana drain” spell, you may need to soldier on under the penalty until the research screen finally offers the correct option.

 

On higher difficulties, the AI is not shy about building a large army.

 

Warlock‘s AI is best described as competent. Unless it finds itself hemmed in by other factions, poor terrain, or very strong wild monsters, it can be relied upon to expand. It’s smart enough to pack its cities in densely but not to the point where it over-crowds, thus ensuring maximum usage of space and making defence easier. On the default difficulty the AI does not seem to recruit large armies; however, it is happy to do so on higher difficulties. It recruits a mixed force, using melee, ranged and magical units. Happily, it uses the units correctly! Warlock will not hide its melee units behind its mages, and will attempt to skirmish its ranged units back to safety whilst shooting. The AI is definitely better on the defensive. It is capable of complex movements such as surrounding an isolated unit, swapping damaged units for fresh ones, and using multiple attacks on a single target. It will gleefully use magic against you, with the area of effect fireball spell being a particular favourite. The AI will always use cities and defensive towers to attack when an enemy unit is within their range. Sadly, the AI fares less well when it goes on the offensive. It fails to send sufficient units to get the job done, trickling in two or three units at a time for the player to kill. It will only send more units when the first wave is dead. It attacks the same locations repeatedly, predictably, futilely. The main problem lies with the AI’s unit selection: it insists on using basic and mid-tier units to the exclusion of all else. It will apply some upgrades and magical buffs to its units, but will not take it as far as the player. This means that in a unit-to-unit comparison the AI is badly out-classed from the mid-game onwards. It doesn’t matter how many units it fields in home defence if the player’s units are killing them in a maximum of three hits, with one or two hits being very much the norm.

 

The game’s stiffer challenge lies in exploring the alternate dimensions. Accessed via set portals, these separate maps are packed with Warlock‘s strongest units. Tempting rewards lure the player in. Certain resources do not exist in the normal world, and can only be found inside these alternate dimensions. Other resources are exceptionally rare in the normal world yet abundant in the alternates. Should a beachhead be established, cities can be built, and this provides a measure of back-up should matters go pear-shaped in the normal world.

 

The game setup screen is confusing at first glance, but the elaborate design manages to keep most of the options on a single screen and eliminates drop-down menus.

 

The interface is clean and easy to get on with. Most important information is available at a glance, and breakdowns of global resource income are accessed via tooltips. Combat predictions are accurate and detailed, although the occasional critical hit sees a unit doing more damage than predicted. Hotkeys are present, if sparse. I do feel that the developers missed an opportunity when it comes to scoring. There isn’t any! It would be nice to gauge the relative strength of each warlock. A Civilization IV-style post-game breakdown would also be appreciated. In a game which places such importance on individual units, it’s a little strange that there’s no way to track how many kills you have made, how many units you have lost, how many kills each unit has, and so on. The lack of a proper in-game encyclopaedia is keenly felt. Right-clicking a unit or spell will bring up a little encyclopaedia entry, complete with stats and lightly comical descriptive blurb. But if you do not have the item available to right-click you have no way to access the entry.

 

Right-clicking on a unit will bring up a detailed information box. Tooltips provide further breakdowns of stats, including resistances, active spell buffs, and unit upgrades.

 

Warlock does not feature a campaign, and currently lacks multiplayer. It does have a fully-featured random game generator. There’s a variety of map sizes and types, and you can control the number of AIs and extra dimensions. If you do not wish to use a pre-set warlock, you can create your own using a small yet significant selection of perks. Sadly, it is not possible to tinker with advanced settings, such as wild monster spawn frequency, starting resources, or available victory conditions. The map generator does throw out the occasional nasty starting position. Some players may enjoy this as a challenge; others will want to re-roll. Replay value is moderate to high.

 

Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a game which set out to meet specific goals, and it has succeeded in that. Within its narrow focus, it offers a generous toolkit and gives the player room to experiment. It is not a game for everyone. Peaceniks need not apply! Other strategy gamers should at least download the demo and search for the fabled cheese caves.

 

We hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and our other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

Resources

 

Beginners’guide

 

The basis of my review

 

Length of time spent with the game: 4 completed games, approx 38 hours of play (including time spent with the demo).

 

What I have played: Normal and challenging difficulties; small, normal and large map sizes; continents and super-continent map types.

 

What I have not played: Impossible difficulty, and those rated below normal; two remaining map types; the largest map size.

 

Rachel McFadden (aka frogbeastegg) has been gaming since she discovered the original Prince of Persia on the IBM 286sx PC. Whilst strategy and RPGs are her preferred genres, she is a multiplatform gamer who will play almost anything provided it isn’t sport, car racing, or multiplayer only. Under the frogbeastegg name Rachel has written guides for many of the Total War series, various AARs for strategy games, and a few pieces of fiction. When not engaged in reminding various virtual populaces that she is in fact the Supreme Ruler of the Universe and the One True Hero, Rachel can typically be found with her nose in a book.

 

Note: the above comments are based on a review copy supplied by the game’s publisher, Paradox Interactive.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky: The Verdict

 

After a heyday spanning the Playstation and Playstation 2 eras, Japanese RPGs (at least, those translated into English) have retreated from home consoles: the Playstation 3 offers nowhere near the riches that its predecessors did. To some extent, portable consoles such as the PSP have picked up the slack with excellent tactical RPGs such as Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics, as well as pure JRPGs such as Persona 3: Portable. How does another contestant in the PSP camp, pure RPG The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (Falcom 2006, released in the US by Xseed in 2011), measure up?

 

The answer is, “It’s a trick question.” From its roots up, I found Trails to be a very different beast to many other RPGs, including those I named above. This is not because it’s groundbreaking. It’s not: the story is linear and combat is turn/party/menu-based. Rather, where other games are built to challenge – for example, P3:P offers challenging gameplay, while FFT and Tactics Ogre also challenge the genre’s storytelling conventions Trails seems built for relaxation.

 

For example, Trails’ story and characters are a mishmash of familiar archetypes. Its young heroes – a cheerful hothead and her calmer brother – rove the land Fighting Evil and Righting Wrongs. The plot twists are guessable, the other party members out of central casting. But it works. The heroes are likeable, and their dialogue often witty – witty enough to make me laugh out loud a couple of times. The villains are dastardly, but never disturbing. The music is cheery, the towns and landscapes detailed. The net effect: a mood that’s nice and pleasant, and a world conducive to wandering around and seeing the sights.

 

(A quick story aside: Trails is the first game in a trilogy, and also the only one, so far, to be officially released in English. However, its plot mostly stands alone – there is a sequel hook, but it feels like the first act of a new story rather than a loose end. As such, this shouldn’t be an obstacle for potential buyers.)

 

Trails’ gameplay produces a similar effect. For starters, it avoids the single most annoying genre convention: random battles. Instead, you can dodge monsters a la Chrono Trigger and Persona, which saves a lot of aggravation. And there’s precious little need to grind – I did almost every sidequest in the game and that was plenty. Character management is reasonably complex: I had to put some thought into juggling different party members’ specialties, and mixing and matching the “orbments” that determine available magic spells. But I found the actual battles pretty easy: most enemies, and even most bosses, just didn’t hit hard enough to be dangerous. True, combat needed some mental involvement – I couldn’t just mash X to attack. But once I equipped a sensible choice of orbments, I’d just bring out the appropriate elemental spells, then heal as needed. The outcome was rarely in doubt: I could count on the fingers of one hand all the times I Game Overed. (Even when I did, no big deal; you can instantly replay a lost battle, and the game allows saving anywhere.) No hair-tearing moments here, just an agreeable way to while away time.

 

And that is how I’d sum up my Trails experience: “an agreeable way to while away time”. If you’re not already a JRPG fan, I don’t think this will bring you on board – it adds nothing radically new to the recipe. But if you do enjoy JRPGs, Trails is like comfort food: low-stress and easygoing. For genre buffs in the mood for old-fashioned home cooking, Trails might just be worth a look.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

Resources

 

Buy from Amazon (US)

 

The basis of my review

 

Length of time spent with the game: ~50 hours.

 

What I have played: Finished the game.

 

What I haven’t played: n/a

Anime’s reclusive cousin: what happened to light novels?

Japan is best known in western geekdom for her video games, anime, and manga, but from time to time, we see the novels (often illustrated YA “light novels”) that inspired some of these works. These usually come out in the West under the auspices of manga publishers: transhuman space opera Crest of the Stars, coming-of-age fantasy The Twelve Kingdoms, and high-fantasy spoof Slayers were released by the now-defunct Tokyopop, while economic fantasy Spice and Wolf (my review here) is published by Hachette’s manga/graphic novels imprint, Yen Press. (One exception is Moribito, published by Scholastic.) Yet in the West, these are nowhere near so well known as their adaptations – it’s reasonably common for science fiction, fantasy, and video game geeks to watch anime; rather rarer for them to read the source novels. Why?

 

I can think of several potential explanations:

 

Poor quality? At first glance, this is an unlikely culprit – the respective anime adaptations of Crest, Twelve Kingdoms, and Moribito are all excellent, at least as good as any live-action Western competition. If there’s a problem, it must be peculiar to the books – such as prose. The only one I’ve read, Spice, suffers from a weak localisation, and one Amazon review suggests that so does  Crest, but without further data I couldn’t say if the problem is more widespread. Still, a possibility.

 

Lack of Kindle availability? Ebooks have been a boon for mid-tier fiction, yet none of the books I mentioned above is available for Kindle! (At least in the case of Spice, its few illustrations are no excuse; they’re mostly black-and-white, which the Kindle screen can handle.)  I don’t think this is individually decisive, and certainly there are light novels that buck the trend by appearing on Kindle, but it surely can’t help.

 

Poor market positioning? I have not seen these books marketed at all beyond the manga crowd, despite their potential appeal to science fiction and fantasy buffs! The closest they’ve come has been the Spice novels, which use photorealistic dust jackets to conceal manga-style covers. This seems the most likely suspect to me – if sf/fantasy communities aren’t even discussing these books, even to say “they’re bad!”, that suggests the problem is awareness.

 

For whatever reason(s) it occurs, this phenomenon is too bad – not only do some of these works deserve to be better known, but I’d like to see the fruits of creative cross-pollination. And if any readers are familiar with these markets, I’d love to hear your insights. Either the problem is not so easy as I’ve made it sound – or else there is an opportunity here, waiting for somebody to grab it…

X-Com 1.5? Xenonauts Alpha Preview

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Xenonauts

I’ve previously written about Xenonauts, the indie strategy game inspired by UFO: Enemy Unknown/X-Com: UFO Defence. Developer Goldhawk Interactive has taken pre-orders for a long time, but now it’s launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise US$50,000, and released a public, alpha demo of the game. Is it worth your attention?

 

After spending some time with a preview build (a recent predecessor of the public demo), I can say this: as promised, Xenonauts is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Its concept, mechanics, and feel are straight out of the original game; however, Goldhawk’s clear intent is to make it more user-friendly; iron out some of the original’s annoyances; cut down on busywork and no-brainer decisions, and replace them with interesting choices. Here are the details of what I saw:

 

Geoscape (world map)

 

The Xenonauts’ base: Earth’s last, best hope

 

  • As with the original X-Com, your first sight of the game will be its world map – black, stark and crisp, but still recognisably the good old Geoscape. Zooming down to an individual base reveals management has been tidied up. One general store will now hold all your goods. Conventional Earth weapons are now available in unlimited supply – not only does this make sense thematically, it cuts down on the workload at the start of the game. Unusable loot (e.g. duplicates of a widget you’ve already researched) is automatically sold or destroyed. Soldiers’ stats – and their encumbrance! – are now visible on the inventory screen. All in all, the emphasis here seems clearly on reducing tedious maintenance in between the good parts.

 

  • Air battles are much more involved than in the original game. Instead of hitting one button to engage, your aircraft and the UFOs now manoeuvre in pausable real-time – a little like a real-time Steambirds. And unlike the original game, where two air-to-air weapons were hands-down optimal (Avalanche missiles at the start of the game, then plasma beams once they became available), Xenonauts’ air combat is closer to rock-paper-scissors. You now have two fighters available early on, and each fills a different role: F-17 Condors armed with cannon and light missiles are good against small, agile UFOs, while lumbering MiG-32s with Avalanche torpedoes are good against bigger foes. So far this is a nice change, though it’s possible it could eventually become repetitive.

 

Air combat

 

Ground battles

  • Xenonauts’ clean UI and aesthetic are also evident in its battles. There are fewer buttons to worry about; the art style is simple but clear; and a faint dark outline helps you pick out soldiers and aliens. The controls feel like Jagged Alliance 2’s: left-clicking on a destination square will show a soldier’s projected path and how many APs will remain; right-clicking on a target determines how long a soldier will aim his shot; burst fire is toggled by hitting a button. Unsurprisingly, this is a big improvement over the original.

 

The Xenonauts (bottom left) prepare to engage an alien (top right)

 

  • The “interesting choices” extend to your soldiers’ weapons, which feel nicely differentiated. Take the small arms. Assault rifles are jacks of all trade, masters of none. Shotguns are hideously short-ranged, but take relatively few action points to shoot, meaning a Xenonaut can still fire after moving long distances. At this stage, however, it looks like the squad’s real killing power is in its support weapons. These are heavy, take an accuracy penalty if their bearer moves and shoots in the same turn – and hit like a ton of bricks. Machine guns can unleash whole volleys at a time. Even unaimed, precision rifles take plenty of AP to fire, but investing just a few more APs pushes their accuracy into the stratosphere. And rocket launchers, just as they did in the original, will level anything near their target.

 

All in all, if the early game is any indication, Goldhawk knows what it’s doing at the design level.  It has plenty of work yet to do, and it’s too soon to tell how balance, pacing, and the other ingredients of “fun” will eventually come together. However, if Goldhawk can (A) sustain the quality of its ideas through the mid-to-late game; and (B) get the nuts and bolts right, this would bode very well for the final product. In the meantime, yes, Xenonauts is definitely worth your attention.

 

Resources

 

Public alpha demo, mirror, and official torrent.

Xenonauts’ Kickstarter page.

Official website.

 

Note: the above comments were based on a preview build supplied by the game’s developer, Goldhawk Interactive.

Stacking – The Verdict

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Stacking
A journey with dolls

 

Double Fine Productions’ adventure game, Stacking, has an illustrious pedigree: Double Fine founder Tim Schafer’s resume is littered with genre pillars, from Monkey Island to Grim Fandango. Born out of an internal Double Fine game jam, Stacking debuted on consoles in 2011, and has now reached the PC. How does it stack (sorry) up? Pretty well, thanks to two distinct strengths.

 

The first is its original premise: the residents of Stacking’s world aren’t humans, they’re Russian matryoshka dolls. Your character is the tiniest of all, but “stacking” into a small doll will allow you to jump into a medium-sized doll, which will allow you to jump into a large doll, and so on. Each doll has its own ability, which you can use while stacked into it. As such, instead of the usual “fiddling with every item in your inventory”, solving puzzles is a matter of working out which doll’s power to use – or, sometimes, which dolls’ powers, as some puzzles require the combined use of more than one. (Using multiple dolls is Stacking’s equivalent of “use every item with every other item”, but thankfully, the puzzles are more sensibly designed than that!) It’s fresh, it’s quirky, and at first, it’s a delight to stack into every doll in sight, in search of the next new ability.

 

Yes, you can stack into all those bicyclists

 

The second is how neatly it avoids the traditional sin of adventure games: the ease of getting stuck. Normally, adventure game puzzles have one solution, and if you can’t guess it, tough luck (short of resorting to GameFAQs). This is especially bad when the game expects you to, say, make a moustache out of cat hair. While Stacking does offer an in-game hint system, it also addresses the root of the problem: in this game, puzzles have anywhere from three to five solutions. One or two will usually be obvious… but the challenge comes from trying to work out the rest. This is a much better way of designing an adventure game: it lets you set your own pace (do I want to blast through, or tick off every solution?) and gives a good reason to be completionist (some of the solutions are laugh-out-loud funny).

 

Stacking’s greatest limitation is that its characters and plot aren’t very deep – not deep enough to carry the game. Without the compelling stories of, say, The Longest Journey or Gabriel Knight, Stacking relies on novelty value. And eventually, the novelty wears off: by the time I finished, I found the game less amusing and enjoyable than when I began. (I also stopped bothering with every solution: I just wanted to wrap up!) But Stacking is short enough for this not to be a serious problem – I finished it in ~8 hours, before it outstayed its welcome.

 

At the  end of the day, Stacking isn’t a great game, but it is a good one: the video game equivalent of a healthy snack. Cute, imaginative, and sometimes hilarious, it’s especially well suited for quick breaks – if you’re tired or short on time, you can dip in, solve a puzzle or two, and call it a day. Worth a look for genre fans.

 

You can buy Stacking (PC) from Amazon US.

 

We hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and our other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

The basis of my review

 

Time spent with the game: Around 8 hours.

 

What I have played: The main game.

 

What I haven’t played: The DLC adventure (“The Lost Hobo King”) included free with the PC version.

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