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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I should preface this with three comments. First, I can’t opine on XCOM‘s maligned keyboard+mouse interface, as I played with an Xbox 360 controller. Second, I edited the game’s configuration files to dial the difficulty up to “Classic” — this is how — so I also can’t comment on the demo’s default difficulty (which was apparently set to the lowest level). Lastly, as the demo only comprises two battles (the tutorial and one “proper” mission), it didn’t give me the chance to assess the game’s strategic layer, or the progression of tactical battles over time.
With that out of the way, I had a great time in the demo. Combat felt tense, fluid and atmospheric. I played slowly and very carefully, and for most of the mission, this worked — I didn’t take a single hit. Then suddenly, it didn’t. The last alien — the last alien! — on the map one-shot-killed my poor support trooper with a lucky critical. As Jake Solomon would say, “that’s XCOM!” Neither did I experience technical problems. Using the 360 controller, I found the UI fine, and after setting the graphics to “medium”, the game ran comfortably on my 2010-vintage notebook (Core i7, 8GB RAM, Mobility Radeon HD 5730).
All in all, what I saw has only heightened my anticipation for the full game — due out in two weeks’ time. Stay tuned for my Let’s Play! Until then, you can watch my gameplay video of the demo mission below:
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).
Yoko Kanno is justly famed for her beautiful anime music (I previously spotlighted one of her compositions, “Inner Universe” from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex). Less well known is the lovely music she previously did for KOEI’s strategy franchises, such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga’s Ambition. I’ve attached an orchestral performance of one song below. Enjoy!
From the blog of Vic Davis, of Armageddon Empires, Solium Infernum and Six-Gun Saga fame:
Ok I’m in the home stretch on The Occult Chronicles. The famous last 10% that feels like the final turn on the 400 meter sprint. The bad news is that I won’t be making the October 31st release date that I had hoped for. Right now I’m shooting for January or February. So I’m having a sale to raise some funds to finish off the art for the project. Kickstarter seems a bit too much for something like this and I’d like to save it for a TBS or maybe a mega expansion pack for this game. I’d like to ask any longtime supporters to spread the sales news around in any way that they can. Tell your forum buddies, post on your blog or get a soap box out and stand on it at a street corner etc. You can get 50% off any games that I sell for the next 10 days. Just enter the coupon code OCCULT when you go to check out. The deal doesn’t apply to the SI & AE bundle but you will get a better price by adding them to the cart separately and then using the code.
When we left off, I was debating which piece of equipment to leave behind in order to pick up a shiny new hull-smasher laser. In the end, I ditch my unused anti-ship drone. I have only limited power available for the drone control unit, and I want to focus on the life-saving defensive drone.
We make it to the end of Sector Seven without incident.
Sector Eight: The Last Stand
This is it, the cusp of the final showdown. This is what the sector looks like. The Rebel flagship is the ominous red shape just visible at the far left:
On the way to fight the flagship, we come to the rescue of a beleaguered Federation squadron under attack by the Rebel:
This time I remember to turn on the defence drone at the start! The Rebel does little damage as a result, and the grateful Federal survivors hand me some supplies. I back up my save again, and carry on. A second Rebel is just a speed bump, and then it’s onto the flagship.
Here we go.
The fight is long (my Dxtory recording comes to over 30 minutes!) and, to be frank, a bit tedious once I’ve destroyed most of the flagship’s weapons. At this point, I just have to wait for my weapons to do enough damage. However, the tipping point comes once I use my Mantis boarders to whittle down the flagship’s crew, at the same time I use the fire bomb I purchased back in sector 6 to set the flagship’s med bay alight. This prevents the crew from simply running away from the Mantes, healing up in the med bay, and running back to pick off my weakened boarders. Even then, it’s chancy – I lose my second crewmember this game, Mansvik the Mantis – but his sacrifice isn’t in vain. Eventually, most of the flagship’s crew is dead, save for one gunner in the forward compartment. Mopping up is easy after that.
At the end of the fight, the battered flagship jumps away. I back up my save yet again, and prepare to give chase.
… and die horribly when my cloaking device – the key to my survival! – gets knocked out by an unlucky hit. This is why I backed up the save, because I’m not starting this LP (or playing that half-hour flagship battle) again.
Let’s try that one again.
This time it goes much better. A quick barrage of firebombs, and Sem the surviving Mantis, take care of most of the flagship’s remaining weapons. I dust off my anti-boarder drone, and that takes care of the boarding drones the flagship sends my way. The cloaking device stays intact, and I can survive the worst the flagship throws at me. Soon the battle is over. I back up my save once more, spend the last of my scrap, and head off to fight the third and final phase of the flagship.
I have to reload twice – this time, the flagship carries Zoltan shields that prevent me from quickly disabling its most dangerous weapon, a triple missile launcher, with my boarders/firebombs. In the time it takes me to lase the shield down, the flagship pulverises me. Cloaking barely helps, as using the cloak against the missiles meant it wouldn’t be available against the flagship’s special attack, and vice-versa. But on my third attempt, I pull it off! Eventually I bring down the flagship’s shields, and soon after, the missile launcher. Once the launcher is out of commission, it’s smooth sailing.
The high score table looks like this. The duplicates are the result of my savescumming (somewhat disappointingly, winning the game doesn’t confer extra points; oh well):
And that’s it for this playthrough! For players who want to try saving the Federation again, beating the flagship unlocks a new ship type, the Federation Cruiser. (There are nine ships, plus variants, in the game – so there is room for completionism.) But for now, I think I can rest on my laurels and proclaim myself done with FTL. Thank you for following along, and I hope you had as much fun as I did!
The Kestrel’s exploration of Sector Four continues, with mixed results.
The good news: beefing up my weapons, and being willing to fire off a missile at the start of combat, have paid off. The next enemy I encounter goes down in flames.
The not quite so good news: the next shop I find is a re-run of the previous one. It has a drone control and crew teleporter for sale, but I don’t have enough scrap to buy anything without selling my spare equipment. This time I grit my teeth, sell a spare missile launcher, and buy the drone control unit. At least I can get some immediate use out of it. Hopefully I’ll find a crew teleporter – and some crew to actually teleport! – later in the game.
I make it to the exit with the Rebel hot on my heels, and head into Sector Five.
Sector Five: Rebel-Controlled Sector
The drone control unit promptly pays off, when I answer a distress beacon:
Sending in the drone leads to a little bit of hull damage, but I earn 42 scrap as a reward. At the next beacon, I take on a quest that requires me to travel to the far top-right corner of the sector:
Along the way, I deal with a Rebel scout before it can jump out to warn the fleet of my presence, fight off a boarding party with a big helping hand from my anti-boarder drone (good thing I bought that control unit!), and find a shop with both a crew teleporter and recruitable crew! I hawk an unused repair drone to pay for the teleporter and a Mantis of my own, name of Sem. Remember, Mantes are the hand-to-hand specialists of the game, so this should give me a big edge in boarding actions.
I take the time to play around with the Kestrel’s loadout:
The weapon on the far right is a healing bomb, which I can deploy (at the cost of 1 missile ammo) to either my own ship or to an enemy ship to heal friendly crew in the vicinity. That means I can send over, say, Sem the Mantis and King the Rockman to slaughter the enemy crew, teleport in healing bombs as necessary to keep Sem and King alive, and then earn more scrap from capturing the enemy ships alive!
Completing the quest lets me offload some drone parts for scrap, and defeating another Rebel gives me enough scrap to return to the shop and hire an Engi crewman named Maradine:
On my way to the exit, I run into a Rebel who gives me a taste of my own planned medicine and boards me. Sem, King, and my drone deal with the boarders, then Sem and King head over for some payback.
The first try does not go as planned, thanks to a certain Captain forgetting to actually charge the healing bomb before sending Sem and King over. I quickly teleport the two almost-dead crewmen back, heal them up in the medbay, then send them back. The enemy ship has no medbay, and the enemy crew has had no chance to heal. The second trip goes much better. The scrap I earn from the intact, lifeless Rebel ship (60+) is about double what I’d have previously earned.
I make it to the exit, and onto Sector Six.
Sector Six: Rebel-Controlled Sector (another one)
The first few Rebel ships I encounter are AI-controlled, and hence pointless to board (as well as dangerous; they have no oxygen!). My luck turns when I run into a Rebel whom I can board. Killing the enemy crew (one of whom, I notice, is named Geryk) lets me liberate a Mantis prisoner named Monsvik, who joins my growing team. This is good – it lets me form a dedicated away team of two Mantes, while King the Rockman can stay back and man the Kestrel’s shields.
At the next shop I encounter, I pick up a fire bomb in preparation for a certain battle later in the game. I also sell my venerable heavy laser and pick up a level 1 burst laser instead – the heavy laser does 2 damage to hulls but only 1 to shields, whereas the burst laser fires twice, dealing 1 damage per shot and granting a second chance to hit. The Artemis missile launcher goes into storage:
The new configuration seems to work well, letting me chew through enemy shields while preserving precious missile/bomb ammo. With my newfound love for boarding actions, I upgrade my sensors so I’ll be able to map out the enemy crew. Sector Six ends without incident, as I again just barely beat the Rebel fleet to the exit. I’m getting better at this!
Sector Seven: Zoltan Homeworlds
We’re almost there. Just this, and then the gauntlet in Sector Eight. Stay on target. Stay on target…
Our first encounter is hostile, as a Zoltan ship shoots first and asks questions later. Luckily, its defences are poor. My pre-ignited lasers make short work of its shields and weapons, and injure the crew. Then, since Zoltan are lousy in boarding actions, my Mantes teleport over to finish the job. When the dust settles, I have more scrap than I’ve ever seen in one place. And luckily, there’s a shop right next door:
I refuel, and buy a level 1 defence – i.e. anti-missile –drone. Seeing another shop right after that, I head over… and see a level 2 defence drone. Oops. The level 2 requires more power, but is also more useful, meaning I wasted the scrap on the level 1 drone. Oh well. I trade it the level 1 and buy the level 2. I then promptly forget to upgrade my drone control unit, leaving me unable to use my new toy.
One battle later, it ceases to matter. After killing the enemy boarders, setting their spaceship on fire, and lasing the surviving crew to death, I’m swimming in scrap again (240 scrap). So much so that when I get the option to pick up a new augment, a “reverse ion field” that gives me a 20% chance to shrug off incoming ion fire, I ditch my scrap recovery arm (+10% to collected scrap). This close to the end, I want maximum survivability.
The next fight chews me up badly – the enemy is strongly shielded and armed to the teeth, with a missile launcher and assorted lasers. My defence drone II would have protected me– had I remembered about it. Eventually I do turn it on, resulting in a much easier fight… only for the enemy to flee before I can administer the coup de grace. No reward.
Crushing the next enemy, and harvesting plenty of scrap from a random distress beacon, provide some solace. One jump away from the exit to the final sector, I get into another tough scrap, but walk away with a new piece of loot: a level 2 hull smasher laser, a more powerful, less energy-efficient cousin to my starting burst laser. I’ll have to drop something to pick up the hull smasher laser, but what?
On that note, as I mull which piece of kit would be most useful against the final boss, it’s time for me to wrap up this instalment of the LP. And to hedge my bets, I finish by backing up my saved game (aka save-scumming). This goes against the intent of the designers – FTL only allows you a single, automatically overwritten save slot – but this close to the final boss, I’d like the ability to retry different tactics, and different loadouts, without starting again from scratch.
When we left off, the Kestrel was in good form: decently armed and shielded, with enough fuel and supplies and scrap to last a while. I decide to make the most of it by looking for trouble. It’s time to head into the nebula.
After steeling myself that way, the rest of Sector Two ends up as an anti-climax. I fight off two separate boarding parties in the nebula by the simple expedient of rushing my crew into the med-bay, where they heal faster than the boarders can hurt them. The only hostile ship I meet lacks the firepower to pierce my upgraded shield, resulting in a decidedly one-sided fight. Buying a scrap recovery arm (which gives me +10% to all future scrap income!) rounds off my time in the sector. With the Rebel hot on my heels, I briefly debate looking around a little more, but eventually decide to play it safe. Off to Sector Three we go!
Sector Three: Engi-Controlled Sector
The aptly named Engi are a race of sentient machines, lousy in hand-to-hand combat but great with repairs. They’re also friendly to the Federation, which makes Engi space that much more pleasant to traverse.
Right off the bat, I hit the jackpot. An Engi ship, thinking I’m a pirate, hastily offers up its cargo of scrap. I demur, telling them I’m friendly:
But the Engi go ahead and offer me the scrap anyway, to help me on my long voyage.
Thanks, Engi! And it’s a good thing, too – I’m perilously low on fuel. The red-highlighted “2” in the top-left means I only have enough fuel for two more jumps! One jump away there’s a shop… and there, I find a cloaking device for sale. I want that cloaking device, but buying it would consume most of my scrap, leaving precious little for fuel.
I roll the dice and buy the cloaking device anyway. And a couple of jumps later, my gamble pays off when I first hoover up some more scrap, then – just as I was about to run out of fuel – find another shop. The whole crew probably heard my sigh of relief!
The rest of the sector proceeds smoothly enough, with the Kestrel able to easily defeat foe after foe. It goes so smoothly, in fact, that I get a bit cocky and end up taking too much time to explore. When I finally make it to the exit, the Rebel is waiting for me. And for the first time during this playthrough, I run from a fight. The Artemis missile launcher comes into play just long enough to disable the Rebel’s weapons, and then once the jump drive is charged, it’s off to Sector Four.
Sector Four: Engi Homeworlds
On my first three runs, I spent scrap as fast as it came in to upgrade the Kestrel. This time I’ve been saving up, and now it pays off. Right off the bat, I find a shop, and this time I hit the jackpot. Specifically, the shop sells a weapon pre-igniter, which will allow me to begin a battle with fully charged weapons, and an ion blaster, which will allow me to efficiently disable enemy systems. Combined with my burst laser, I should be able to start a fight by taking down the enemy shields with my pre-ignited arsenal, then ripping apart the enemy’s weapons. After that, all I should have to do is mop up. Should.
Then the next few enemies I meet teach me about the dangers of assumption:
Specifically, “starting a fight by taking down the enemy shields with my pre-ignited arsenal” only works if I actually have the firepower to take down the enemy shields. But as of Sector Four, the enemy ships are all now sporting 2 points of shields – on a par with my own. With a burst laser 2, a heavy laser, and an ion blaster, I could punch through level 2 shields if I fired every weapon at once, and hit. But at first, I lack the power to actually fire all these weapons, and I can’t count on guaranteed hits! The bottom line: the enemies have more time to hurt me, often with newer and scarier weapons, before I can silence them.
By the time I make it to the next shop, several jumps later, the Kestrel looks like this:
Not only am I almost out of fuel again, but the “Hull” bar in the top-left is now yellow, less than half-full. If that reaches zero, it’s curtains for the Kestrel. That I owe to a Rebel with a missile launcher, which ignores my precious 2-point shields! It took my own last-ditch missile – not the starting Artemis, but a hulking breach launcher I picked up along the way – to save the day.
With the Kestrel in for some much needed refuelling and repair, this is a good time to ponder battle tactics. I have a whopping 25 missiles – perhaps I should actually use them, say as part of my pre-ignited opening salvo? Buying a couple of new missiles is cheaper, and safer, than fixing a hull that’s been turned into Swiss cheese.
The shop, welcome as it is, also poses its own frustrations. Specifically, I have 112 scrap available. My priorities are repairs (38 scrap) and fuel (I want to buy the station’s whole stock, which will cost 18 scrap), totalling 56 scrap. The shop also stocks a drone control (80 scrap), which would be nice but isn’t essential, and a crew teleporter (75 scrap), which I lack the manpower to use right now, but will be essential later on. I would love to buy the drone control, the teleporter, or both, but – I – don’t – have – the – scrap! I do have some spare equipment – a couple of different missile launchers, a presently unusable anti-boarder drone – I could sell, but I don’t know if I’ll need them in the future.
With a rueful sigh, I pay for the fuel and repairs. Since I don’t want to sell anything, that leaves me with 56 scrap, enough to upgrade my ship’s reactors in lieu of buying anything else at the shop. Maybe that “first strike” tactic will work if I can throw an even bigger first volley…
With the Kestrel ready to head into the unknown again, this is also probably a good time to wrap up this instalment of the LP. After the relative ease of the first few sectors, things are getting hairy for Han, Leia and King. Will they survive their journey?! Tune in to the next part of the LP to find out!
It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships have overrun most of the Galactic Federation. During the battle, Federation spies managed to steal secret plans to the Rebel’s ultimate weapon, the REBEL FLAGSHIP, an armoured behemoth with enough power to obliterate an unwary player. Pursued by the Rebel armada, Captain Peter races home aboard his starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can bring victory in this game…
Captain’s log, starship Kestrel
Three times I’ve attempted this journey. Three times I’ve failed, the Kestrel – the game’s starting ship – turned into so much space junk. Now, by the grace of the alien artefact known as the “New Game” button, I can make a fourth attempt.
For this try, I’ll use the Kestrel again. There are other ships available in the game, and I’ve unlocked one (the Torus), but I want to try to see this through with the Kestrel first. The Kestrel packs a well-rounded punch, mounting a powerful burst laser and an ammo-chewing but potentially devastating missile launcher. Once I upgrade its energy shield, it should see me easily through the first few of the game’s eight sectors (each sector is progressively harder). Its starting crew of three is too small, especially when considering there are four systems (helm, engines, weapons, shields) to be manned, but c’est la vie.
After naming my initial crewmembers “Han”, “Luke”, and “Leia”, and ensuring the difficulty is set to “Easy”, it’s time to begin this journey.
Sector One: Civilian Space
The first sector begins uneventfully. The Kestrel skirts an asteroid field, buys fuel at a space station, and ignores a distress beacon (our mission comes first!). On our fourth jump, we meet our first Rebel.
Several barrages of the burst laser neutralise his weaponry before he can do too much harm, and when he tries to flee, another barrage does the same for his jump drive. Beaten, the Rebel tries to surrender. We refuse. We need the scrap metal from his hull: scrap is the game’s currency, used for purchasing weapons, upgrading components, recruiting crew, and paying for fuel and repairs. Upgrades are life. Scrap is life. And soon enough, we have more of it. The scrap quickly goes into upgrading our shielding system, and onto the next beacon we go.
This time it’s another Rebel, a small transport. I demand surrender. The Rebel refuses, and manages to flee in one piece. I growl, and jump away to the next beacon. Upon consulting the star map, I see the Rebel fleet has now arrived in sector! The Rebel main fleet begins each sector several jumps behind the player, and it’s not a wise idea to let it catch up – running into fleet forces a high-risk, practically zero-return battle. However, I’m still well ahead, giving me the luxury of exploring the sector a bit more. A hidden Federation outpost gives me a bit of scrap and a quest to rescue a Federation base in the next sector, but my luck doesn’t hold up at the next location.
While boarding a space station to look for survivors, Luke is struck down by a fatal illness. The measly scrap I pick up seems a lousy compensation for losing one of my scarce crew.
I roll the dice again. One more look around before I head off to the next sector… and what should I run into but an enemy, a Mantis fighter.
The Mantes are vicious if they can teleport over to your ship, but luckily for me, the fighter is too small to have a teleporter. I won’t have to worry about Mantes slaughtering my diminished crew in melee! Our first salvo takes out the Mantis weapon battery, our second hits the shields, and the third reduces the Mantis to scrap. I hightail it to the sector exit one step ahead of the Rebels.
For this sector, I had a choice of heading into either pirate or rebel space. The pirates seemed like easier foes, so off that way I went!
Along the way, I stop off to rescue the Federation base I heard about in the last sector. The Rebel ship attacking the base turns out to be just a scout – no match for the Kestrel – and soon I have not only more scrap, but a quest reward! After saving the base, I acquire a new crewman – a Rockman alien named King – and a new weapon, a heavy laser. The laser doesn’t seem too shabby, but the really big prize is the Rockman. Not only was I dangerously short-handed with only Han and Leia left, but Rockmen are great in their own right. They’re tough and immune to fire, which makes them perfect for repairing burning compartments or fighting hand-to-hand.
Soon enough, I deal with another Rebel – this one lurking inside an asteroid field – and pour some scrap into upgrading the ship’s power supply, so I can actually use the new laser. Then I investigate another distress beacon, and this time things go my way. It turns out to be a burning space station, and the Rockman promptly earns his pay:
The grateful scientists on board the station give me a new long-range sensor, and I scope out the sector:
As with Sector One, I have some time before the Rebel (the red line at the left) reaches me, so I should make the most of it. I’m in a decent position: I have an adequately armed and shielded (for the early game) ship, and a nice pool of scrap to play with. Where to next? With the sensor, I can see that the yellow triangles represent spaceships. Jumping to those locations will likely lead to battle, but the rewards (read: scrap) could be worth it. On the other hand, I could simply head into the nebula (the pink blob to the right). In the nebula my sensors would be blinded – carrying its own dangers – but the Rebel’s pursuit would also be slowed. In either case, things could go south in a hurry – or I could stumble across a remarkable find that would turn the Kestrel into a killing machine.
There is a lot of luck in this game, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing . That chanciness helps create a sense of exploration, a sense that I really am a starship captain racing through the unknown. And it often throws up interesting decisions – even if they’re as simple as, “do I roll the dice?” (see: the asteroid belt and space station back in Sector One).
But for now, I’ll have to leave those decisions for another day. “Get out while you’re ahead,” they say, and it looks like a pretty good time for me to close this episode of the LP. Stay tuned for the continuing adventures of the Kestrel, and I’ll see you next time!
This week’s song is another Bethesda opening title theme, this time from post-apocalyptic extravaganza Fallout 3. I’ve linked both the in-game version (ab0ve), which you can also download from the game’s official site, and the orchestral version from the Greatest Video Game Music album. Enjoy!
Now that I’ve finished Jeanne d’Arc (PSP, 2007), I can give my verdict!
This post is really an addendum to Monday’s discussion of Jeanne’s gameplay. There’s not much more I can say on that subject! It’s “lighter” – easier, less complex, less time-consuming and grindy – than the typical tactical RPG, but that’s an observation rather than a criticism. From a mechanical perspective, Jeanne is well-designed and largely well-executed (although it does seem a bit laggy compared to its peers), and that forms its main draw.
I do want to talk a bit about story, which is what so often elevates tactical RPGs from “good” to “great”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do that for Jeanne. The plot is a mishmash of competing and often incoherent plot elements, populated by characters who wander on- and off-stage with little rhyme or reason. What partly redeems it is that, after a slow start, some bits of that mishmash become much better than others. There are some clever twists on history, some very striking individual moments, and one subplot steals the show with its character development (both in the sense that the characters involved change over time, and in the sense that they make painful decisions that reveal their true selves). The net effect is that while the story as a whole is not good, enough of it was for me to stay interested.
At the end of the day, then, Jeanne is a good game rather than a great one. It doesn’t quite match the genre’s two pinnacles, Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre, which coupled great gameplay with powerful, meaningful stories. But its gameplay riffs effectively off the greats, and there are enough worthwhile ideas buried in the story to offer a nice bonus on top of that. A worthy “honourable mention” in genre history.
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.
This week’s song is another great battle theme from Tactics Ogre, “Fight It Out!” I love the little discordant clash at the start of the song — it makes me envision everyone pulling steel before (at 0:15) the battle is joined. Enjoy!
I often praise the PSP as a mecca for turn-based tactical RPGs – Disgaea! Final Fantasy Tactics! Tactics Ogre! – and over the past few months, I’ve pencilled another name onto that list: Jeanne d’Arc, a 2007 title from Level 5 (very!) loosely inspired by the historical Saint Joan. It starts off rather generically, but now that I’m close to the end, I’m glad I gave it a second chance.
By way of introduction, Jeanne plays out like a cross between Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics. You command a squad of characters, each of whom belongs to a set class and has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Notably, characters cannot permanently die! Between missions, you assign equipment and special skills (the two work a bit alike; a finite number of skills are available at any one time, and you acquire new skills via crafting and enemy drops). Some skills are class-specific, while others can be assigned at will. For example, Jeanne and her friend Liane both wield swords, so they have access to the same pool of class-specific skills. However, Liane trades off durability in exchange for stronger magic, suggesting players should assign melee boosters to Jeanne and magic spells to Liane. Combat plays out similarly to other tactical RPGs: park sturdier sorts at the front and mages/archers at the back, advance methodically, and heal as needed. So long as the party is adequately levelled, the game is reasonably easy, and since it’s also not very grindy, that’s not a hard condition to meet.
Jeanne’s appeal stems largely from how it gets the basics right.. The levels are creative, both in their layout (the maps are a nice mix of wide, narrow, flat, and steep) and in their objectives: most are simple sweeps, but some require you to make it to an escape point, or defend a key location. One, notably, is an imaginative riff on a certain infamous boss battle from FFT. The pacing is just right: combatants hit hard enough to keep the pace brisk, but (a single annoying escort mission aside) not so hard that the game turns into an exercise in luck-driven one-hit KOs. And while it’s easy in the sense that I’ve rarely seen the game over screen, that doesn’t mean it’s boring: I still reach for the grey matter in every battle.
This by itself would be enough to make me recommend Jeanne to genre fans in need of a fix, but on top of that, Jeanne adds several interesting little gameplay mechanics. While they aren’t hugely significant, they do keep the game feeling fresh. One is positioning: keeping characters next to each other gives them a defensive bonus, and the bigger the clump, the bigger the bonus. Striking an enemy will “power up” the tile on the victim’s other side (visible in the above screenshot – note the glowy yellow rings at the upper left and at the far right), but someone standing on the powered-up tile might be away from the group and hence vulnerable. (One tactic I like: run a hard-to-hit character, say the nimble thief Colet, around the back of the enemy line to power up a tile on the front. My slow-moving characters approach the front in a clump, and one stands on the powered-up tile; Colet, meanwhile, can happily look after himself.)
The game’s signature mechanic, however, is that Jeanne and several of her allies wear magic armlets that let them temporarily transform into super-soldiers – and if they kill an enemy while transformed, they get another turn. If they score another kill, they get another turn. And another. And another. The video below (starting at about 1:15) shows this in action:
This has a couple of implications. It changes the ideal tactics: while most games encourage players to focus fire so as to completely eliminate enemies and reduce incoming damage, in Jeanne it’s often preferable to bring a whole host of enemies down to low health (leaving them vulnerable to a single transformation rampage) instead. As with positioning, this isn’t a revolutionary feature in and of itself, but it is a nice point of differentiation relative to Jeanne’s peers.
More importantly, it helps give Jeanne a particular kind of fun. The joy of strategy games lies in reading the situation, crafting a plan, and finally seeing it come together (and generally, the deeper the game, the more profound the delight – anyone who’s played Dominions 3 will know what I mean). The drawback is that it can take a lot of time and effort for that plan to pay off! Puzzle games compress that into a single “aha!” moment and are quicker to play, but typically just have One True Solution. The transformation mechanic gives Jeanne a bit of the best of both worlds. Working out how to bring down a mass of enemies down to low health, then actually doing so, is quick and relatively simple – far simpler than orchestrating victory in Civilization or Dominions! But the basic skills – analysis of a fluid situation, thinking ahead, allocation of scarce resources – are the same. And the moment of triumph, when Jeanne carves her way through four or five enemies in one round, is real.
That, in fact, is almost a metaphor for the gameplay as a whole. By genre standards, Jeanne is relatively short (I’m at 38 hours and could probably finish before 40), simple, and easy. But that doesn’t make it mindless – either on the developers’ part, or on the player’s – or boring. Jeanne’s designers clearly put love and thought into their work, and it shows. This is one title genre fans should check out.
Sometimes you can trace when you fall in love with a creative work to a single moment, of joy or wit or creativity. And so it was with Sleeping Dogs, video games’ answer to Hong Kong gangster flicks.
Our story begins with our hero, undercover cop Wei Shen, between missions — quite literally, as his next objective was some ways off. On foot, too far from his motorbike and too far from his destination, it looked like Wei was about to add a touch of verisimilitude — namely, vehicle theft — to his criminal disguise. Then I saw a taxi. Salvation! I sent Wei jogging over. The game popped up a message: “Hold Y to enter the taxi”. Y! Wei opened the door. Threw the driver out. And climbed behind the wheel himself.
Oops. What happened was, I had missed the “hold” part and tapped “Y” instead. So much for “not stealing a vehicle”, but oh well. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. When Sleeping Dogs gives you an ill-gotten taxi, you drive off (and luckily for me, there were no police officers nearby to object). But just because I had turned Wei into an unwitting car thief didn’t mean other cars on the road would disappear. In due course I ended up in the queue at a red light, patiently waiting my turn to go. So imagine my surprise when a passerby climbed into the taxi — only to open the door again and run for her life when Wei said, mildly, “Do I look like a cab driver to you?”
That made me laugh. It was the perfectly logical thing to happen in that situation — the taxi was stopped, Wei wasn’t carrying anyone, and there was no way the would-be passenger could have known he was not a real taxi driver. And yet, it was so delightedly unexpected — how often do games obey real-world logic, instead of their own? That bit of clever thinking by the developers sealed the deal for me. I can’t wait to see what else they may have in store.
This week’s tracks are cousins: both are effectively variations on the main musical refrain of Princess Mononoke, one of my favourite movies (animated or otherwise). “Legend of Ashitaka” is the conventionally heroic version, strong but a bit wistful; “Journey to the West” is the more upbeat and adventurous of the two. The versions I’ve attached below are from the “A Night in Fantasia 2004” orchestral concert, which I was fortunate enough to attend. Enjoy!
What can you do when you desperately want to talk about a game, yet cannot do so without spoiling most of what made it such a memorable experience? I have been attempting to find an answer to that question for weeks now. Game of Thrones the RPG is that rare thing: a game with a story which would genuinely be lessened if, when starting, you knew what lay ahead. There are moments of genuine surprise, moments of emotion, moments where the pieces snap together and where I was left in admiration of the storytelling. As much as I would love to link to a youtube video of my favourite speech in the game, I cannot. As much as I’d love to discuss the interplay during a certain rainy scene, I cannot. As much as I am dying to discuss the way a specific relationship is developed, I cannot!
There came a point where, with a good deal of surprise, I realised that I wished I had not read the books by George R R Martin because they were spoiling the game’s plot. Honestly. Hand on heart. When the game laid out certain facts, my mind feverishly examined them, twisted them about to fit them into the ever-expanding plot — and then I realised I knew the rough direction certain aspects must take because of what is — and is not — present in the books. If I hadn’t possessed that book-based knowledge, then particular aspects of the plot would have been all the more effective — but I cannot elaborate without risking indirect spoilers.
For reader reference, I am not a big fan of the Ice & Fire series. I have read all of the main series, along with two of the Dunk & Egg novellas. I started reading back when book 3 was released in paperback. Whilst I really enjoyed the first three books, I found Feast for the Crows and Dance with Dragons to be deeply disappointing. The novellas were OK, the first being superior to the second in my opinion. Series 1 of the HBO adaptation was generally excellent, but I haven’t yet seen series 2. Thus, I would say you do not need to be a fan in order to enjoy the game. You only need to have the right gaming tastes. Make no mistake: however much I liked it, I do not recommend Game of Thrones the RPG to any but a specific sub-set of gamers. More on that later. First I shall attempt to pick my way through the minefield and explain why I enjoyed the story so much.
To begin with, the game alternates between two protagonists, Mors and Alester. You play chapter 1 as Mors, chapter 2 as Alester, and so on, back and forth, until eventually they meet. At the outset the two stories feel completely disassociated. Mors is up at the Wall doing his duty as a brother of the Night’s Watch; Alester is down south taking up the reins in his family home. Alester’s story begins months prior to Mors’; you’re playing the recent past. Gradually, a tentative link appears between the two strands. It’s at this point the game begins to get interesting. Yes, the game suffers from a slow beginning. I found Mors’ story reasonable from the first, if nothing special or particularly engaging. Alester had some interesting moments, but it took several of his chapters before his half of the tale began to engage me.
When that tentative link appears, Mors’ story started to take a rapid uphill climb. His relationship with a certain character began to develop from typical videogame material to something better, something portrayed with a certain touch of sensitivity — this lent it a humanity frequently lacking from similar relationships in other games. It’s at this point Mors’ voice actor began to improve, as though he’d realised there was more to this script than the typical fantasy game guff. I began to look forward to scenes featuring the two characters, and equally to desire answers to questions which were beginning to form.
Then, Things Happen(TM). Well golly! Yes, I’d seen some of that coming but execution certainly kept my attention riveted — and immediately, freshly hungry for answers, we are snatched away to Alester’s next chapter. It’s a lengthy chapter and slowly, slowly a few pieces of the jigsaw are doled out, fitted together. Right around the point where I felt the chapter was over-long, More Things Happened(TM). And did not stop happening. For the rest of the game. Twists, turns, revelations, shocks, neat snatches of dialogue, and always that hunger to find out what happens next — the story hit its stride and did not falter. Suddenly, those slow opening chapters made a lot more sense when viewed as part of an overall story. They established the cast of characters and the world they inhabit: the type of detailed set-up material so common in books and rare in games. Mors and Alester, in particular, had more to them than typical game characters. Added dimensions and familiarity upped the impact of those aforementioned Things Happening(TM). Events I would have watched dispassionately in another game — have watched dispassionately in other games! — hit me in the gut this time around. Things which feel cheesy or silly in other game plots worked smoothly in this one because the time had been taken to set them up, embroider them into the fabric of the universe. Character motivations made sense as human motivations rather than plot devices. Mors and Alester developed shades of grey, revealing themselves as gloriously human characters. Predictable events often had unpredictable spins to them, happening at the ‘wrong’ time, or with added aspects which were not expected. At the end, the very end, after one final roller-coaster of emotion, I found myself in the happy position of not being able to say which of two conflicting viewpoints was the right one. Honour or duty? A vital, thematic question. The very last scene of the game was one resulting from my choices; it reflected the decisions I had made and left me with a mixture of sorrow, hope, pride, and worry. I believed I had done the right thing by my favourite character, yet I wondered if perhaps the cost would, in the end, prove too high.
The game has five different endings. There’s a major choice at the clearly flagged point of no return. This determines which ‘side’ of the ending you will play out. After that, you make another choice on which direction you want the ending to take. The fifth ending is for dying during a certain battle. I reloaded to watch the others — I needed to know! The first ending I saw, the one I regard as my ‘true’ ending, was the most fitting for the path I had taken through the story and I’m glad I arrived at that one naturally.
Yes, “path through the game” and “choices”. Whilst the characters are pre-written and are confined by the limitations of the plot, there’s a reasonable bit of wriggle-room for the player to shape their own versions of Mors and Alester. My Mors was an honourable, upstanding, occasionally downright scary fellow. He could have been a blood-thirsty psychopath, or an unbending, harsh veteran. My Alester tried to strike a balance between the demands of family, honour, religion and crown. In another playthrough he could have been a religious zealot, an oppressor of his people, or a wannabe-liberator. When Mors and Alester unite, the player retains control over both. Conversations will frequently have the option of a response from each character. This ensures there are few personality swerves, and that neither character is relegated to subordinate place. Mors and Alester are equals throughout. The story is theirs: it belongs to both and is told by both. Sub-events can be influenced as well, and the choices you make will often come back in later chapters. To give a spoiler-free example, if you save a certain person in one chapter you can meet him again later and could talk him into assisting you.
Interestingly, Mors and Alester are both older men. Mors is completely grey, Alester heading that way. One could pithily sum this up with “Mature characters for a mature story”. Life imparts experience, and both characters are richer for having decades of life behind them. They reference, and draw upon, this experience throughout the game.
So why wouldn’t I recommend the game to all RPG gamers? It’s very simple: the gameplay and the production values. This is a game which relies very heavily on its plot, and so gamers who prize gameplay above all else will struggle to see much attraction.
In terms of production values, Game of Thrones the RPG is clearly not a triple-A title with a many-millions budget; it is unfair to demand it match a Bioware or Bethesda game in that department. The game cannot compete on those grounds and there is no point in trying to claim otherwise.
Game of Thrones the RPG is not a pretty game. I’d say that it’s not as ugly as some critics have made out; it’s about on a par with Dragon Age: Origins’ console versions. If Dragon Age has occasionally better texture work, Game of Thrones has better character models with nary a spindly-twig-arm in sight. Locations are easy to recognise by sight, and character models have a good range of variety. Whilst there’s plenty of unrealistic fantasy armour, there’s also a higher than typical amount of armour based on real historical designs. Generally, I felt that the common foot soldiers had the best ‘outfits’. The game’s major set-back in presentation occurs in larger areas, King’s Landing in particular. The game engine (and doubtless budget) cannot host large, complex areas filled with plenty of active NPCs. Thus, the two bustling urban areas felt decidedly boxy and emptier than they aught. There’s also a strange obsession with closing off the easiest route from A to B in King’s Landing, meaning that the player is forced to take the long route around outside of specific set-pieces which temporarily open up the doors. Castle Black fares better due to being a quieter and more straightforward location; however, the sense of scale is missing from the wall. It’s the old graphics versus gameplay versus experience debate – some people are better able to overlook shortcomings like this, others find they unacceptably damage the atmosphere of the game. That’s a decision best made by the individual gamer.
The game fares similarly in the audio department. The TV series’ theme music is used for the title screen. Other than that, the music is original, and unfortunately quite forgettable. The sound effect selection does the job, although without a huge range of variety. I did find that the howl of wind added a lot of atmosphere to the chapters taking place at the Wall, and contributed more to the feeling of chill than the snow and ice effects. The voice acting is a very mixed affair. Mors improves as the game progresses, starting as a gruff, growly half-hearted sort, and ending the game as a gruff, growly fellow who produced lines with such emotion I was mesmerised through a certain scene. Alester, by contrast, is voiced with consistency throughout, though sadly he never reaches the same highs even if he does avoid the initial lows. The two main characters have a lot of dialogue between them, and fortunately, even at their worst, I never found them to be less than tolerable. All of the characters who appear in the HBO series are voiced by their respective actors, including Lord Mormont, Varys and Cersei. The remainder of the cast range from acceptable to “Is something wrong with her nose?”
Some gamers associate mid-budget games with bugs and technical failings, sometimes with good reason. Game of Thrones the RPG has few such issues, at least in its Xbox 360 incarnation. The frame rate was stable and fluid, and I only encountered two bugs in my entire 30+ hour playthrough. Both were in the final chapter, and both necessitated reversion to an earlier save as they made progress impossible. In one instance I could not initiate conversation with a critical NPC, in the other I could not walk through a doorway due to an invisible wall. That’s actually fewer bugs per hour than I’ve encountered in some recent triple-A RPG titles :cough Mass Effect 3, Skyrim :cough: but it was still immensely aggravating, and cast a cloud over the game’s final hour. The standard RPG maxim should be followed: save early, save often, and save in multiple slots!
Gameplay is roughly a 40/40/20 split between conversation/plot, exploration/travel, and combat. Yes, combat is very much in the minority! Battles are less frequent than is the genre norm, and the stakes are much higher. Active player participation is required — there is no mashing X to win in this game. Difficulty is adjustable at any time, yet, as in Witcher 2, easy mode is more comparable to most games’ normal mode. You must use your characters’ skills wisely, both to set enemies up for extra damage and to prevent them from using their own skills. Using a skill costs stamina; a character can temporarily go into guard mode to catch their breath and restore most of their stamina gauge. There is a cooldown on this, however, so it cannot be spammed. Characters can apply poisons and wildfire to their weapons for extra effects, and can drink potions for bonuses. During tough battles, both will be essential. Each level gained feels precious, each upgrade to your equipment significant, because an extra 10 points of damage have a tangible effect in combat. Personally, I preferred this approach. Combat quality over combat quantity. Orders are issued in real-time and combat cannot be paused. Instead, you pull up a skill wheel and the game goes into slow motion. Queue up your commands, swap between characters and targets as necessary, then close the skill window. The game will resume normal speed and the actions play out. While there’s an element of pressure, I never felt overly harassed by the inability to pause, and I confess to being something of a pause-baby in any RPG which will let me. Conversation, exploration and travel all function as you’d expect, following genre conventions like dialogue choices and fast travel.
The game does feature the occasional stealth section. Mors is a skinchanger and can take command of his dog. Mors being Mors, the dog is called Dog and looks about as grizzled as his master. These sections are short and quite widely interspersed throughout the game. Dog will not give Solid Snake any competition-based fears as his stealth is markedly simpler than that of the serpent. You control Dog from a first-person viewpoint. You walk up behind guards and pounce on them, tearing their throat out with the aid of a simple button-bashing minigame. Done, you abandon the corpse and skulk off to locate the next hapless fellow. If the guards spot you then they will attempt to kick Dog. Should they land a blow, Mors is jolted out of Dog’s mind. It’s a mild penalty; you can immediately dive right back in and run back to the guard who foiled you to try again.
I’m hesitant to call this a review. I don’t want to write a review, although that’s what it has ended up being. I want to discuss the rain scene, and the ending, and the relationships, and all those other spoilerific aspects. I want to talk about why this story would make a decent book — note decent, not great literature or throw-away pulp reading. I want to compare it to the other games and talk about why the story worked for me where others fell flat. It is a repeat of my Divinity II dilemma. You see, I loved the original ending of Divinity II. I can’t tell anyone why without ruining the ending and thus robbing my audience of the necessary experience to fully enjoy it. Some things require a build-up, context, and immersion in order to work.
If you are interested in strong characters and plotting in video games, then you probably aught to play this game. It manages to get so many things right in those areas! Wait for a sale if you feel more comfortable with lower expenditure and hence, lower risk. Play until you reach the scene in the rain around the halfway mark. If you aren’t caught by that point, then I doubt you ever will be. Just remember: it’s a slow starter.
The basis of my … gibbering:
Time spent with the game: Somewhere around 35 hours. The storyline was completed, as were all side quests and achievements. I also saw three different endings.
The review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game. It was purchased by myself.
The images used in this piece all come from the official website at http://www.gameofthrones-rpg.com.