Eyes on Death’s Gambit

You know Dark Souls, right?  It’s a great game.  Absolutely phenomenal.  Honestly one of the best I’ve played.  We’ve spent some time on it.  Well, let’s imagine you’re a game designer.  And you look at Dark Souls.  And you see how fantastic it is.  And you’re like “Aww, I wish I made that.”  You find your craft at the top of its form and wish you could be there, making something of that level.

Well, Death’s Gambit is what you would get if you just went ahead and made Dark Souls again anyway, and put your stamp on it and called it yours.

Honestly, that describes the game really well.  This is 2d indie action-platformer Dark Souls.  Everything about the game, from its structure, to its set up, to its atmosphere, to its means of storytelling, absolutely everything was incredibly clearly inspired by Dark Souls.  Even the unique things it does were built on a Dark Souls base, rather than truly standing on their own.  For a while, I wasn’t sure what I thought about it.  The game is good.  No doubt about that.  This is a team that was just making Dark Souls in a different form, sure, but also a team that truly understood what makes Dark Souls great, way more than most of the game’s imitators.  But the thought I struggled with was whether or not there was a place for a game like this.  Like, why would I play a Dark Souls imitator if I could just play the original?  

It took a while, but eventually, the unique bits about Death’s Gambit won me over.  Particularly, it was the more compact nature of Death’s Gambit that did it for me.  I love Dark Souls.  It is a hugely dense, long-form game.  The run we did here took me over 70 hours of game time, and there are plenty of those hours I didn’t make any real progress in, just trying and failing and learning and trying again over and over.  Dark Souls is a huge, multi-layered cake.  Death’s Gambit is a cupcake.  And sometimes, you just want a cupcake.  You get the complete experience in around ten hours game time.  Even though the bosses required a similar mechanically complex means of handling, and had the same scale of tension as Dark Souls, they were far more achievable and it doesn’t take quite as much an investment in time to achieve them.  The levels have less back and forth, better placed checkpoints, and it doesn’t take as long to traverse them.  So yeah, here, you get a lot of what you probably love about Dark Souls, but you’re able to do it with less of an investment of time.  And I ended up finding that really valuable.  Snack size Dark Souls is really meaningful as well, especially when you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to do the “Try, Die, Learn, Repeat” for hours on end that Dark Souls requires before you complete any particular challenge.


And I do rather like a lot of the unique things it does here, some of which wouldn’t work out in OG Dark Souls.  In addition to your starting class being a selection of stats and starting equipment, they also come with their own abilities and skill trees.  You can still spec any class however you want and gear them with whatever they have the stats for, but your unique abilities and your skill trees are different for every class, and both give more replayability as well as more impact.  I wouldn’t want that in Dark Souls, the ability to design anything however you want there is really powerful to the game’s structure, but it works a lot better in a quicker game.  So does the way they’ll sometimes interrupt your deaths to give you a bit of story before they revive you.  Your character here is a defined personality with a bit of backstory, which I wouldn’t want in Dark Souls but I feel they were able to make work here.  I also have to give particular props to the way this game handles death.  Normally, in Dark Souls and all the games that copied it thinking this was why Dark Souls was good without understanding the other factors around this, when you die, you lose all your money/experience points unless you can get to where you were and grab those back.  Here, you leave behind one use of your standard recovery item.  Which you can choose to pay out the nose with via money/experience if you can’t get those back yourself, so that option is there, but it’s not by default.  It still keeps death feeling like it has consequence and impact, but it’s not as punitive and time-sinky as losing your combined cash/development resource.  That’s something I’d absolutely like to see more Souls-likes picking up on.  Between that and the better-placed checkpoints, you can bounce back from failure with a lot less frustration, which is fantastic in a game that’s built around you failing a whole lot.  Honestly, the walk back after Death in Dark Souls was always my least favorite part of the game, and it almost absolutely ruined both Demon Souls and Bloodborne for me.  You have a game here that mitigates it very well, while still using the same structure, so… yeah.  Good going.  

Combat maintains the relatively slower pace, high consquence actions, and generally more thoughtful, tactical feel of Dark Souls, although it’s slight faster.  You’ve got a couple of additional factors here, though.  Being a 2D action platformer, of course you have to worry about aerial combat and environmental threats.  Positioning becomes a lot more important, and you’ll need to know the range and arc of your weapons in a variety of different circumstances, both ground-based and in the air.  As in Dark Souls, defense is your primary consideration in most circumstances, so you’ll need to keep an eye out for how you and your enemy will move in all these circumstances as well.  In addition to your bread and butter weapon attacks, you also equip three abilities at a time, most of which will have you do a heavy attack, and will often also leave an ongoing buff, debuff, or other active factor for the next while.  There’s a fair amount of variety to them, and I found myself really relying on them a lot as the game progressed.  In fact, by the time of the endgame, my own success seemed to lie just as much as my designing equipment and abilities in effective combination as it did with my in-the-moment twitch reflexes and decision making.


Presentation in this game is a bit weird.  The art is absolutely gorgeous.  All over.  It looks really fantastic in screenshots.  The animation is horrible.  The game makes heavy use of rotoscoping, even for basic animations, and with the complexity of the sprites, it looks particularly unnatural to see them wholly shifted into angles.  You get stray pixels and mismatched components everywhere.  Which is a shame.  Because the art design is so good, and the pixel art, generally, so fitting, this game could have been a visual treat, but that ends up just making the poor animations stand out.  Music is pretty great, though.  Definitely worth a listen.  

Storywise, it does have a lot of the opaque storytelling that Dark Souls did so well, giving hints and pieces in item descriptions and bits of dialogue and whatnot, and having a lot of features you come across that are only hinted at, while also having a more clear throughline than Dark Souls had.  You’ve got a defined character, Sorun, a soldier of a nation that’s been locked in a decades’ long war with a nation of lizardfolk that had uncovered the secret to immortality.  The rulers want the secret of immortality themselves, while Sorun’s looking for his mother, who was drafted into this same war when he was a child and never returned.  Sorun, is killed in battle early on, but Death appears before him, and offers him a deal.  Death, understandably, isn’t a fan of immortality being out there, and if Sorun is willing to slay all the immortals of the land, Death will grant him eternal life himself.  However, he warns that immortality has costs of its own.  Sorun agrees, and a contract is signed, although Sorun’s more concerned with his own aims, and uses the quest against the immortals as a means to an end.

The world of Siradon here is also rather interesting as well, and it does some nifty things of its own.  As Death warned, immortality has not been kind to its residents, and although everyone else wants it, as you venture inward you find that it has caused this civilization to tear itself apart.  You’ll run across high magic establishments.  You’ll run across unique takes on standard fantasy settings.  You’ll get hints that things aren’t quite as clear as expected, through some enemies and locations that seem way out of place.  You’ll end up in absolutely freaky locations that seem straight out of the depths of your fears.  And through it all, you’ll get these hints, leading you along to greater places.  The locations are phenomenal, both from a soulsian level design perspective as well as from a lore/backstory one.

Also, I’ve got to give good props to the boss fights here.  The bosses are the best parts of the game, and all of them deliver a great amount of tension.  Some of them used mechanics I hadn’t seen before in a game like this.  And almost all of them hit that fantastic Souls level of skill ceilings, where they seem completely impossible at first, but you try, and fail, and learn and grow as you’re doing so, until you earn the ability to overcome them and feel absolutely phenomenal doing so.  It doesn’t take as long as Dark Souls did, as I previously mentioned, and they’re not as complicated, but they’re still thrilling fights nonetheless.

So yeah, it took me a while to warm up to Death’s Gambit, but I ended up really enjoying my time with it.  This is a game that copies Dark Souls so closely it’s not possible for it to be anything more, but it does feature enough smart changes and care in the design that it does create something different.  I could definitely see myself diving back into it, and its more compact design makes it easier to do so when I’m jonesing for some Souls goodness but not ready to make a huge commitment for it.

Eyes on Judgement

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If you know anything about me, you know this world is a far better and sexier place with me around.  But that’s not super relevant to this post.  You might also know that I’m a big Yakuza fan.  Like, the series, not the organized crime bastards.  I love the games.  The extreme manly drama, the pitting of the romanticized noble criminal ideal against the wicked pragmatic crimelords that exist in the same sphere, the excellent and fast-paced action, the city district we’ve gotten to know so well that it’s almost a character in itself, the placing of dark story beats right alongside impossible to take serious goofiness, it fills a very warm place in my cold, dark heart.

However, the series is in a place of big transition right now.  Yakuza 6 broke the mold in a lot of ways.  The biggest, after 20 some years in meat-time and with us watching through Kiryu’s eyes over an in-universe time period from the late 80s up until the end of the new 10s, and the developers decided it was time to close the book on him.  They closed the book in a way that they can and almost certainly will open it up again, but for the time being, the developers are serious that whatever Kiryu’s future involvement, he’s not going to be the center of the story anymore.  Which, honestly, has been a long time coming.  With the series kind of trying to hold onto at least something of a realistic sense in its conflicts, they’ve long had troubles with managing Kiryu’s in-universe power level.  Yakuza 1 started with him being feared, and saw him, with some complicating factors on his side, just rampage through the strongest yakuza family in his area.  Yakuza 2 had him as an absolute legend, and saw him as the muscle of a small group that conquered like four crime families.  Yakuza 3 had to have an absolutely ridiculous plot bringing in the CIA just to up the stakes enough to where his power standings at this point was.  Yakuzas 4 and 5 had to sidestep the issues by having Kiryu as the member of a team of player characters with the least direct involvement in the plot just to keep things feeling threatening, and even then 5 still had Kiryu end a gang war single-handedly take on every single member of another crime family. At the same time.  And win.  At the end of the first act.  So yeah, his power level was a big in-story issue, and there was only so long they could stave it off with prequels and side games.  So it makes sense that they’d see him retire from his main character role at the end of 6.

But we still need our Yakuza fix.  And sure, there’s Yakuza 7 coming out, but what if that’s not good enough for you?  What if you want a completely new perspective of the Yakuza series?  What if you were really curious about what a Yakuza game would be like as seen through the lens of Phoenix Wright?

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Judgement is a Yakuza game through and through.  And it manages to be something different at the same time.  The gameplay is familiar.  The setting, which has been so integral to the series, is familiar.  The spirit behind the game is familiar.  But now, we’re looking at it through a new lens, and in a game that’s willing to break the traditional franchise rules.  Let’s jump into that.

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Marvel’s Spider-Man’s Unique Take on Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony is where a work will let you in on some sort of information that the characters therein are not privy to.  So it’s when you know something that the characters don’t know.  When your game cuts away from the PC party to show you the bad guy’s meetings where they talk about their future plans in strangely vague terms, that’s dramatic irony.  When the horror movie lets you see hatchet killer lurking around the abandoned house before the soon-to-be victims head inside, that’s dramatic irony.  When your novel is switching between characters who each have a piece of the mystery told to them, that’s dramatic irony.  So yeah, it’s super common, in most every storytelling media.

Why is it used so much?  It’s a really effective way of generating tension, and it’s relatively easy to direct that tension into whatever emotion the creator is trying to instill while you’re driving for that tension to be resolved.  If you know the character is about to get got but the character doesn’t, you’re going to feel it.  You’ll get that tension that then turns into anticipation, or fear, or worry, or what have you.  Or it works for positive emotions as well.  You may get excited waiting for a character to get a fun surprise that you know is coming to him or her.  Or hell, just think of how much comedy is based on misunderstandings.  Guess where that’s coming from.  Dramatic irony.  Awww yeah.

I’ve been playing Marvel’s Spider-Man lately.  And it’s been making me happier than any game has for a good long while.  But you don’t need me to talk about that.  There’s words about it all over the internet.  Hell, I picked it up after a very solid review from Red Metal, so you can head there if you want to find out why the game is great.

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What I’m wanting to talk about today is Spider-Man’s use of dramatic irony, because it comes from a very unique source that I find rather interesting.  So, much like Batman, Spider-Man’s rogues gallery is one of the most notable parts of the IP.  Spider-Man is awesome, but he’d only go so far if he didn’t have awesome villains to oppose him.  And if you asked people on the street who the prototypical, the most notable Spider-Man villain was, you’d get one of three different answers: The Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, and of course, the most legendary, trail-blazing, dominating villain in superhero comics history, the Kangaroo.  To all of our disappointments, the Kangaroo is not in this game, probably being saved up to be the central figure in the sequel.  However, Doc Ock and the Green Goblin are both in there.  Well, sort of.  And that’s where things get beautiful.

As Red Metal had reported in his review, the developers of Marvel’s Spider-Man were given carte blanche to play around with the canon as they saw fit.  And they used it.  So you get your marquee villians.  But not in the way you know them from pretty much every other Spider-Man thing out there.  To wit, you don’t get Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin.  You get Otto Octavius and Norman Osborn.  The game is clear that Spider-Man is a well established hero with 8 years of activity behind him by the time the game starts, but unlike in… basically anything else Spider-Man, Doc Ock and Green Goblin weren’t a part of any of that.  Instead, you get their normie guises, just the humans that they are.  Brilliant humans, powerful humans, but humans none the less.  Not the supervillians you know them to be.

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Do you get it?  Do you get what was just so fascinating to me?  You know things are going to go wrong there.  Origin stories are so common in superhero media, you know you’re stepping into one the moment you see either of these guys and they’re not already killing Gwen Stacy or marrying your aunt.  You know.  Spider-Man doesn’t.  That’s dramatic irony.  Thing is, the game itself gives you absolutely zero indication of this.  The game does not show you early on that they’re planning turns into supervillainy.  The only reason you know, the only reason that dramatic irony is there at all, is because of the rest of the IP.  You know they’ll be Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin and make Spider-Man’s life hell, but only because this game is adapted from a very well known property but given these weird twists here.

And yeah, this is a minor thing, but this is something that’s really unique to this type of work, an adaptation of a very well-known property.  You want to make something from scratch, you couldn’t pull this off.  And I’ve never seen it before.  They play with it nicely, too.  You know you’re seeing the origin stories there.  Except, only kind of.  They play this straight, but they also subvert it.  They take your expectations, that, again, you only have because you already know Spider-Man, and they use it to lead you in the wrong direction.  Again, that’s something that only this kind of creation can do, and, as far as I know, only Marvel’s Spider-Man has done.  And the storytelling nerd in me really wants to celebrate that.

Eyes on Duet

Man, it’s been a while.  My apologies for that.  I’ve been finding myself pretty over-committed to a whole bunch of things lately, and I just haven’t had the time for this blog.  Which hurts me to say.  In my line of work, you learn to recognize “I don’t have time for this” as being, whether the person realizes it or not, code for “this is not a priority for me”.  Which hurts.  I love this blog, I love getting my thoughts out for the small group of people who enjoy reading all this, and I love the whole sharing of ideas thing on this corner of the internet.  But unfortunately, there’s a bunch of higher priorities in my life right now that have been taking up most of the time that I’d been using to create content here.

Not all of it, however, hence why I’m getting this piece off.  Next in the prestigious ‘Eyes on’ series.  But this is a special one.  This isn’t just a game I’ve been playing for entertainment.  This is a game I’ve been playing for my health.

Seriously, I’ve been prescribed video games by physical therapist as part of treating this weird medical thing I’ve been dealing with that’s thrown my life for a loop.  Specifically, I’m supposed to be spending some time with optokinetics, rebalance the whole visual-motion system.  However, optokinetic videos are boring as hell, so it’s been recommended I spend time with video games.  Not just any game though.  Need games where everything on the screen is constantly moving.  We want nothing to be visually stable.  Which is exactly what brought me to Duet.

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Duet is one of those games that is all centered around an incredibly simple premise.  You control two balls fixed to opposite sides of a circle’s border.  You can rotate them around the circle, but you can’t otherwise change their position on the screen or relative to each other.  Blocks fall down from the top of the screen, and you have to rotate the balls to avoid them.

And…. that’s it.  Post over.  See you guys next time.

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Okay, there’s a bit more to say than that.  The game’s pretty good, even with as simple a premise at that one, at really mixing up the challenges there.  It starts out really basic, to get you accustomed to it.  But then you get the blocks that rotate, and you have to match your rotation to theirs.  Or the blocks that switch sides as they’re coming down at you.  Or the blocks that change their pace as they’re coming down.  It’s actually a rather challenging experience.  It’s one that can drive you into a sort of zen mode, where you’re not so much thinking about what you’re doing, just purely reacting.  The game puts too much pressure on you to allow you to think too much, and thinking’s not typically that useful to you anyways.  Much like it is in life.  In any case, it quickly gets to be rather challenging, requiring snap decisions, perfect timing, and smooth movements to get through a given challenge successfully.  The purest form of what most would consider a skill-based game in all.

It’s really great at instilling a tactile sense into the game.  Fittingly enough given what I’ve been using it for, you can almost physically feel what’s going on.  It has a driving thumping soundtrack combined with a background that pulses along with it.  When you screw up, your ball hits a block with a solid pop, leaving a stain on it as the whole structure streams back upwards to start raining down on you again. It all injects a very real sense of energy into the proceedings, and really serves to elevate it above its base, simple concept.

And… that’s it.  For real, this time.  It’s an incredibly simple game at it’s core, so I can’t really wax on too long about it.  But hey, if you, like me, now need to play video games for your health, Duet could be a good, interesting way of getting you what you need.

Eyes on Antihero

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So, in general terms, an antihero is a bad person who’s really a good person.  It turns out, an Antihero is also a video game.  Who knew?!

Me.  I knew.  Man, I rule.  And now you do too, because I’m telling you about it!

So, Antihero is a turn-based strategy game in which you run a thieves guild.  In said guild, you manage a team of units to help you yank, gank, and shank, all in the name of robbing the rich to give to… yourself.  You’re like half of Robin Hood, here.  To be honest, the ‘hero’ part of Antihero doesn’t really show up in the game.

Antihero is one of those games that’s simple in concept but really solid in execution.  It plays a lot like a board game, honestly.  Except it’s a video game.  It’s a video board game.  Yes.  You play in a semi-randomized section of one of the three types of Englands that show up in fiction (it’s the Sherlock Holmes-type, for reference) and they have you and a CPU or other player facing off against each other, racing to collect enough victory points to win the game before your opponent does.

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One of the things that I really like about Antihero is the way that your strategy has to evolve as you go along with the game.  Each game moves really quickly, and is over in about 15-20 minutes at most, yet there’s a really clear progression in strategy there.  In the early game, you might be able to make a really strong showing of it by denying your opponent access to resources and blocking them from scouting into your side of the board, while you snatch up and burglarize as much as you can.  If you just stick with that, though, you won’t be able to keep up as they start being able to move units through more territory and the places you’re stealing from run out of stuff to steal, so you’d better have built up a solid base of resource generation to keep you going by the mid-game.  And then in the end game, it becomes very difficult to keep units on the board but both sides should usually have enough to keep pumping more out, so it turns into a very aggressive war of attrition, and the guessing game of where to hit them hardest and where to place your own traps ends up ruling the day.

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There’s two major resources to secure; lanterns, which buy you upgrades, and coins, which buy you units.  Upgrades give you access to more units, improve on their capabilities, and boost your resource generation.  You’re not typically limited as far as how much you can get per turn, but every upgrade makes additional upgrades that turn more expenses, and buying units increases the price of other units of the same type.  Another layer of strategy there, sometimes you’re going to be best served by spending your wealth on a number of units, while other times you should spread them out between turns.

I particularly like the way units are designed to deal with the way strategies change throughout the course of the game.  To start with, you’ve got your master thief, who’s basically the queen of the chess board.  This guy/gal is the lynchpin of everything you’ve got going on.  They’re in charge of scouting, stabbing, and stealing.  One of the big strategic keys of the game is working out just when to upgrade their capabilities over the capabilities of the guild as a whole.  Your units can only operate in the locations you’ve scouted, burglarizing is your man source of resources in the early/mid game, and your attack capabilities without the master thief’s contributions has a strict application limit, so a lot of your momentum swings on how you use your master thief.  This unit gets the most upgrades, as well, and you’re able to increase the amount of moves you can make in a turn, the damage they do, the amount of coins you get activities, the types of places you can steal from, etc.  They’ll get progressively more powerful as the game goes on.  And, they retreat back to your hideout at the end of every turn, making it impossible for the opponent to attack them directly.

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Then you’ve got your urchins.  Urchins are pretty much the worker units of other strategy games.  Have them invade businesses, and they’ll get you benefits for it.  Usually that’ll be resources you get every turn, but sometimes it can be upgrades to your units, reduced costs, or even victory points.  They’ve usually only got one application, but it’s one that’s useful the whole game through.

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Your gangs are another one of your backbones.  These are the things that make people hurt.  Got some goons blocking your way?  Give them a good drubbing.  An assassination target?  Send the gangs after them.  They can kick urchins out of buildings, too, paving the way for you to take hold of it yourself.  You get to upgrade them every time they succeed at doing something, building up the damage they do, the amount of urchins they can remove at once, or the amount of money they make when they succeed at something.  These guys are kind of funny, so absolutely vital in the early game, but they end up dying by the droves in the late game, so it’s hard to build them up much then.  Even so, the ability to remove urchins from locations is vital to managing your opponent, and even when they can only do one before dying, it’s still the most cost-effective way of doing so.

Thugs can block off areas.  Neutral thugs will pop up randomly or around assassination targets over the course of the game, but if you want to keep your opponent from scouting out a certain area or reaching a certain resource, you can send a thug of your own to block it off.  They don’t have any offensive capabilities of their own, but you can make your opponent waste some moves in dealing with them, which is crazy effective in the early game.  As your opponent scouts more and more territory, their usefulness starts to wane, but you can always also add them to a gang to boost its health.

Saboteurs are one time use units that are pretty cheap.  They’re the only other unit other than the master thief that can scout, so if you need to extend your reach but the head honcho is busy, they can at least reveal some more street for your other units to prowl.  Their true utility, however, comes in the traps they lay.  Got a business where you just need to make sure your urchins are unmolested?  This guy can plant a bomb there.  It’ll last for a couple turns, and the first unit that tries to mess with that building will be stunned.  It makes the master thief lose all their remaining moves, and it leaves gangs and truant officers helpless in the streets, waiting to be picked off, all while your happy urchins are still there, unfettered.

And then you have truant officers and assassins.  Both one time use units, the best at what they do.  Both the most expensive units available.  Truant officers will roll up, and in the creepiest way possible, remove all the urchins from a building.  Assassins will strike for a whopping six damage, more than any other unit in the game and enough to slay almost anything except for the later assassination targets, before vanishing.  Both are only available by the time you reach the late game, and the economy on them isn’t great, as given enough time you could have a gang do the same work for much less cost, but smart use of them can really turn the tide for you.

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To win the game, you usually need to secure six victory points.  There’s a bunch of ways to do that, but there’s three that’s available on every map.  You can spend lanterns on bribing someone to get a victory point, although the cost of doing so increases each time you do.  You can fulfill contracts for assassination, taking out random targets with more health than you typically have available at that point, although again, the amount of health they have will increase every time one of them falls.  And you can fill a church with urchins, learning enough from confessions to secure blackmail, but this is the only type of victory point you can lose, so you’ll have to defend those urchins until the game is won.  Scenarios may also present you with other means of scoring victory points, such as by stealing a ship’s cargo, sneaking into a masquerade, or overcoming a palaces security and burglarizing its jewels.

The game has a campaign mode that’ll take you through all of these, as it tells the story of master thief Lightfinger as he ousts all the other thieves guilds from NOT LONDON and establishes his control over the city.  It also has an exhibition mode that I spent a fair bit of time in, and a multiplayer mode that might mean something to me if I ever played these things with anyone else.

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All in all, I want to call back to what I said earlier.  It’s a really simple concept with a very solid execution.  I had a lot of fun with it.  There’s not a whole lot of meat there, though.  The campaign mode will take you maybe 3 hours, and when you’re done with that, you’ve seen pretty much all the game has.  Short games don’t bother me at all, and it’s really good for a quick bit of fun, but if you’re expecting something with staying power, this is not it.  It is really satisfying to get a good strategy going, and although you will probably use the same basic model throughout, the different scenarios and actions of your enemies will require a fair bit of variation to that.  It’s good for my thinking cap, is what I’m saying.

Analyzing Games the Aether Way

If you’ve read some of my older posts, you probably know that I just love to put too much thought to many of the games I play.  Explore the themes.  Read into the little features.  Even when the developers didn’t intend that to be there.  Especially when the developers didn’t intend that to be there.  You probably also know that I am an amazing human being, and every living human either desires me or desires to be me.  You wouldn’t think that would be related to my tendencies for over-analysis, but to be honest, I don’t know how I make my magic work, so it very well could be.

Maybe you want to be amazing just like me.  You shouldn’t.  You should want to be amazing in your own way.  But if that way involves analyzing video games and other creative works, maybe I can help you with that.  Let’s take a case study, and go over the sort of unconscious method I use to dig into the plots, the settings, the themes, the meanings, the hidden little features of things in a way that makes experiencing them so much more meaningful to me.

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To play along, I ask that you give Loved by Alex Ocias a go.  It’s a quick little platformer, minimalistic, not really heavy on the mind, but it has a lot of features that we’ll be able to apply the following lessons to.  So please, if you have 10 minutes to spare, give that a quick playthrough before continuing on with the rest of this post.

Anyways, let’s get going.  You want to analyze a game?  Here’s how I do it.

1: Understand Your Filters

We’re all on our own lives here.  Every single one of us has our own backgrounds, morals, beliefs, values, set of experiences, and whatnot.  Your family, your friends, your work, all of them will have their own, different cultures.  Every one of us has our own path through life, and have absorbed so many little unique bits into ourselves that make up a huge chunk of who we are today.  And that impacts the way we view our media.

Assuming most of us here are human adults, our brains don’t experience most things in a vacuum.  Rather, our brains will process stimulus by comparing it to what we’ve experienced in the past and basing it on that.  Our past experience color and change the way we have our current experiences.  We have lens.  Biases.  Filters.

Usually, this is not a bad thing.  These lens can become overpowering, to the point where you’re primed to see something based on almost no indication and you ignore the contrary and deeper points and you end up having big, dumb, easily refuted rants about the deeply offensive targeted political statements of Princess Tutu or something, but most of the time, they’re just a thing to be aware of.  They can be helpful to you, in fact, giving you an interesting and unique way of looking at the media you’re going through.  And these change with time as well, as we all go through life.  Our understanding of the world evolves, and with it, the way we enjoy our fiction.  To make the most use of them, however, you need to know what they are and where they’re coming from.  Knowing what you connect with and why, what’s going to make the most impact on you and how it gets there, is really the prime step in going for a deeper understanding.

So, in the case of Loved, it starts of strong with just its title.  For those of you who aren’t playing along, a) c’mon, seriously? and b) Loved is a simple platformer where the narrator is continuously putting you down and ordering you to do things which are commonly not in your best interest.  Obeying the narrator adds more details to the environment and gives the interactable objects distinct shapes, but leaves the world black and white.  Disobeying adds color to the world, but leaves things as indistinct squares.  There’s only two characters in the game, you and that narrator, and you’re given very little details on either.  Because of the title, you know it involves love of some sort, and it’s clearly an unbalanced sort of love, with the way the narrator treats you, but other than that, the specific impression of the relationship between the two, that all comes from you.  So who were they?  A romantic couple?  Parent and child?  Owner and pet?  The game gives little indication.  Your sense of their relationship is going to come from your filters.

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Eyes on >observer_

Between Amazon’s Twitch Prime and the various Humble Bundle stuff I’ve been a part of, I own a ton of games I’ve never even heard of.  I decided to start running my way through them.  First on the list, because I organized it alphabetically, was the oddly titled >observer_.  Looking at its Playstation Store page, I see the game bills itself as a ‘Cyberpunk Horror’, with the tagline “What would you do if your fears were hacked” which is not quite accurate to what actually goes on in the game.  But looking at the guts of the game, what really is >observer_?

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It’s cyberpunk as hell, is what it is.  Ugly technomodifications are commonplace, corporations act more like government, a high degree of enforced social stratification, Rutger Hauer is there, you get the whole cyberpunk shebang.  You play as Daniel Lazarski, one of the titular Observers, members of the corporate-owned police force who jack into the chips in people’s heads to experience their memories in abstract form.  He gets a call from his estranged son in which he seems to be needing help, which he tracks back to the most run down future apartment building you’ve ever seen.  Tracking things down there, he finds a headless corpse in his son’s room, with plenty of evidence of foul play around.  Shortly afterwards, the system detects the technoplague in that building, and locks the whole place down in quarantine.

>observer_ was made by Bloober Team, the same folk who made Layers of Fear, a game I actually own twice but likewise have never played.  From what I understand, though, it’s somewhat similar in gameplay.  It hews close to the whole Environmental Narrative/Walking Simulator thing.  When you’re not forcing your way into people’s memories, you’re pretty much just exploring the apartment building you find yourself locked in, searching out clues to lead you to the killer.  It wouldn’t be cyberpunk if you didn’t have technology to help you on that, and true to form, you’ve got three types of visions to work in there.  Night-vision is the obvious one, but you have a filter that highlights and gives extra information on all the technological objects in your view, and a filter for the biological objects as well.  Using these, you can pick up traces that are otherwise invisible to the eye, autopsy the other bodies you find, get a small degree of specified X-ray vision, and more.  The core of the gameplay is largely linear, you’re just moving along the path, seeing the sights, and picking up bits of information here and there that lead you to the next place to go.

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Things get shaken up quite a bit when you’re breaking into people’s heads.  At least in terms of tone.  They’re still crazy linear, and there’s usually much less for you to figure out and more just walking from place to place, but really that’s where this game shines.  You get into people’s heads and you can see their memories.  But it’s not clear, and it’s not direct, and it’s beautifully abstracted.  It’s where the game gets into the whole spooky freaky stuff it trades on.  The imagery it gets into is rather disturbing in the best of times, even when it’s delivering the more mundane moments in these people’s lives.  Early on in the story, our dear Lazarski, cut off from backup and with his son at risk, jacks into someone under situations that are supposed to be dangerous and harmful, and he actually has to disengage the safeties on his system to do so.  This has horrible effects on him, and those same effects he sees in other people’s minds start showing up in reality as well, as the lines between reality and his own mind start breaking down.  The visual glitches and imagery you see as this state takes hold forms some of the more interesting parts of the game.

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>observer_ does explore a lot of the ramifications of the cyberpunk setting it’s using in interesting, albeit generally shallow, ways.  You see the effects of people getting addicted to VR, what happens as body modification gets more extensive, the idea of people choosing to go without implants and being thought of as fringe for it.  Most of it is explored in brief conversations, so again, you don’t get to go super deep into it, but you do get some really interesting ideas coming through there.

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Some places call >observer_ a horror game.  Some stick with thriller.  I find it a little hard to place.  The game wants to be scary.  If it was a movie, what it does might have succeeded.  Not so much as a game thought.  Part of it might be how limited it is in scope.  It feels a lot like it was built under limitations, like a game jam or a NaNo thing.  They had a set amount of time and/or resources they were wanting to keep this within, and they stuck with that.  There’s not a whole lot of assets here.  In fact, there’s only two NPCs that you see outside of cutscenes, two enemy types (of which one is only in one scene), with nearly all your interactions taking place through communicators or beyond doors so you don’t actually interact with much more than voices.  You have to stealth by the enemies, but the main enemy is incredibly simple to get by once you learn the rules it operates with, and it becomes clear some time after they’re introduced that there’s nothing that’s going to happen to you outside of those enemies.  Granted, game overs are really bad for maintaining a horror environment, because they completely ruin immersion, but there has to at least be the threat that the bad things are going to do bad things to you, and the monsters here are so disconnected with anything that they don’t do it.  It ends up being a scary game without much in the way of threat to it.  It can get very tense, but that lack of threat keeps it from being very frightening.

It’s also not a very clean game.  Your eyes are robotic, which gives it an excuse to be throwing a lot of visual glitches at you, many of which can be somewhat headache inducing, to be honest.  Problems come in when there’s plenty of actual glitches as well.  And it’s hard to tell what’s a real glitch and what’s an in-story glitch.  There was a point in time where I used up all the ‘stop freaking my eyes out’ medicine I had to no effect, then continued on, frustrated at the designer’s choice, only to find out later that it was something that wasn’t really supposed to be happening.  Some time later, I spent a good ten minutes in a completely black room trying to figure out what to do, before checking out a walkthrough and figuring out that the game just failed to load.  Kind of put a damper on the whole thing.

Overall, I’d say I had a decent time with it.  Especially knowing nothing about the game going into it, it was a very interesting experience, and you see some real bursts of creativity there.  It’s probably worth saying that, judging by online reviews, the people who like this game really like this game.  I didn’t quite go that far, but if you’re into cyberpunk and environmental narrative spookiness, maybe it’s your cuppa.

The Tabletop Critique-Ticket to Ride: First Journey

I’m not positive, but I’ve heard that some people out there have these things called “children”. From what I’ve been told, they’re a type of parasite. They hatch out of eggs inside people’s bodies, then progress to devour their hosts’ time and money as they grow. Oddly enough, people seem to like having these children around. And so they purchase products specially made to appease them.

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Our subject today is one of them. Ticket to Ride: First Journey. As you might guess from the name, it’s based off of a larger, slightly more complicated game that’s made for grown ups, which is what I’ve been told children become when they exit their larval stage and develop muscles and body hair. Now, I’ve never played the original Ticket to Ride, but I’m guessing that this is something of a simpler version of the original. Less rules, less pieces, and some more colors and happy faces.

But in any case, let’s take a look at how the game stands on its own.

So, Ticket to Ride: First Journey is a competitive game about trains. You’re in control of a train company, trying to outperform your competitors by buying and establishing transportation routes between key cities. Specifically, each player is given specific cities to connect with each other. If your routes can take someone from one city to another, you get a ticket. First player to six tickets win.

I’ve heard a lot of very positive reports about the original Ticket to Ride. Apparently it’s the height of easy to pick up hard to master-ness, featuring some simple gameplay with some deceptively complex resource management and predictive strategizing behind it. Ticket to Ride: First Edition definitely maintains that simplicity. The game is pretty easy to work through. So easy, it feels like you just go on automatic, sometimes. It does not seem to have much depth or complexity to it, though. It does have some element of strategy to it, particularly when you have more than two players there and the board starts getting crowded. So skill does make a bit of play. But it doesn’t seem that you have much room to exercise it. Which, you know, you’re playing a kid’s game here, so you shouldn’t be going into it expecting a masterful hardcore tabletop gaming deal, but you know, just saying. It strikes a really good balance, though. It’s enough thinking that your engaged, so you’re having a good time, but not so much that you really have to be planning things out, if you’re not up for plumbing the limited depths there are here.

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One thing I really have to give the game credit for, it is snappy as nothing else. The game moves fast. Even when you’re playing with kids, it is a swift game. It helps that you only do one thing each turn, and you’ve only really got two options. You either get more resources, or use your resources to buy a route. It’s pretty easy to choose what you’re going to do. Even if you’re one of those kid things. This makes it feel super active. It’s not one of those games where you have to wait like ten minutes for the other player to figure out their move because the game never bothered putting in a time limit and your fellow players don’t care about anyone else having a good time. Man, freakin’ scrabble. No, here, you’ve barely finished your turn and it’s your turn again. Same thing for everyone else. It moves fast. Like, cheetah speed in SimCity or something.

The game is pretty rife for abuse, as well. Making plays that, although perfectly legal, are not exactly sporting. For example buying up routes for the express purpose of denying other people easy access between Chicago and Washington DC, or buying worthless routes solely to run out of trains so you can end the game early when you’re ahead on tickets but behind on resources. The rulebook says that you shouldn’t do that, but what is it going to do? Give you a paper-cut when you’re tasting the sweet, delicious, brutal victory? This might be taken as a flaw in the game, a gap in the design. Really, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. This opens up the opportunity to reveal to this ‘children’ the valuable lesson that the world is a horrible place and everyone you trust will take advantage of you if given a moment’s chance. Sure, they may cry in the moment, but think of how better they’re going to be set up to move forward in life.

You know, I wonder if that’s why I don’t get asked to babysit so much. It seems parents would rather just leave their children weak.

So yeah, Ticket to Ride: First Journey. I really wouldn’t recommend that you play it with a group solely made up of ‘mature people’. I actually had a good time playing it with kids, though. It moves quickly, it’s easy for them to pick up on their own so they don’t need me planning out their moves for them, and when you’re working on that level, it’s pretty fun. I didn’t play it long enough for its lack of complexity to wear thin, although that’s a definite possibility, but hey, if you’ve got some of those childrens in your life and you’re looking for something new to do on those slow Tuesday nights, Ticket to Ride: First Journey is really solid. I had some good times with it.

The Tabletop Critique-Cards Against Humanity

I’m just going to guess you’ve heard about Cards Against Humanity by now. Because, really, chances are. It’s gotten a little bit of attention. On the interwebz. I hear some people like it.

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Right, so, if you don’t know about Cards Against Humanity, it’s basically Apples to Apples, except it’s intended to be played the way everyone really played Apples to Apples. The game is played by someone throwing out a statement card. Everyone else plays the cards in their hands that finish up the statement in the most humorous or awful way. Whoever gets the biggest laugh wins, then it all starts over again.

Also, the cards, they tend to be a little… brusque. Dirty jokes and black comedy. That’s part of the charm. Don’t play this game with your mom.

So yeah, game’s simple to play, so there’s not much analysis of the mechanics here. Let’s get down to the judgment here. Is the game good? In the right circumstances, it’s a great time. You have to enjoy this type of humor to have a good time with it, but if you do, yeah, it’s good. It’s pretty dependent on having a good-humored crew playing with you. Larger groups do seem to make it more fun, but the big key is that they have a sense of humor that aligns with yours. I played with a group that did, and had a great time. Played with a group I didn’t know so well, whose humor was more about alluding to baby murder as quickly as possible, and it was a lot more hit or miss. I played it drunk in a party, and it was like I found a new reason for living. I played with my mom, and we ended up having a long conversation about Jesus and my eternal soul.

Blazes, this is the quickest post I’ve written in a long while.

The Tabletop Critique-Magic the Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers

Despite my best intentions, Christmas happened again this year. Sorry about that. A man can only do his best, and although my best is considerable, it takes some time to efficiently bring Christmas to a close. Until then, I suppose we all have no choice but to suffer through it.

In the meantime, that means presents, from people. To me. They try their best. This year, me and mine seem to have gotten a lot of tabletop games. It’s been rather a year for that. A lesser man may simply play them, and leave it there, but I’m much more than that. Instead, I shall use this opportunity to enlighten the world! And you’re welcome.

Right. So with all my traditional self-absorbed pompousness out of the way, I got a lot of new tabletop games this holiday season. I’m going to review them. Sound good? Good.

The first game on the Tabletop Critique chopping block is this little number here.

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Magic: The Gathering holds a special place in my heart. I was super big into it as a cub. Well, as super big into it as you can get without actually owning any cards. See, I had those types of parents who thought that anything their children enjoyed was a tool of the devil, so, I had to rely on borrowing stuff from friends. Still, there was a time in my life where my thoughts were constantly on Magic. Beyond just the game itself, the stories, the world-building, and the lore had a really strong impact on me, kickstarting my imagination at a formative stage in my life in a way that little else did. It may be a little odd, but Magic was where I first started playing with storytelling, using the cards as setpieces to craft my own tales to tell myself, which built into one of those good old lifelong passions.

Eventually, I did start picking up the card game itself, then lapsed out of it, and now generally only play on special occasions. I still do have a lot of fond memories for the flavor and the world, however.

Which I suppose is where Arena of the Planeswalkers comes in. It’s a competitive miniature-based tabletop game. I know absolutely nothing about Heroclix, so I feel completely comfortable assuming this game is exactly the same but with a different flavor and a major twist to the mechanics somewhere. Each player controls one planeswalker figure and a collection of critters associated with them, then uses this squad to attempt to conquer all the other players who are doing the same.

In keeping with the source material, you’ve got five colors to work with, each with their own planeswalker, creatures, and spells. Each comes with their own strategic focuses, strengths, and weaknesses, giving you the tools you need to craft your tactics in taking the other teams down. Combat takes place on a game board that can be set up a couple of different ways, with a few obstacles and terrain features to present risks and opportunities. Each creature and planeswalker has different stats and traits, each spell card affects the battle in different ways, you get the picture.

Arena of the Planeswalkers isn’t very flavorful, but mechanically, it does carry the Magic the Gathering feel about as well as you could expect when turning the card game into a board game. The mechanics of it are quite simplified, but the functions carry over into the new format quite well. Summoning creatures plays much the same role as in the card games, and well placed spells will twist the flow of the game in exactly the same way as they can in the card game. In terms of mechanical feel, the game has built it’s similarities with the CCG with unequivocal success. Continue reading