Gaming on a Timer

Attack of the Backlog! – November 2018 Round-Up

In Attack of the Backlog!, I’ll be discussing my attempts at tackling an ever-growing backlog of games, from both a campaign/story and an achievements completion point of view. For the sake of keeping track of things, I’m only going to mention games I’ve actually finished and/or completed that month.

So, another month, another bit skimmed off of the old backlog’s top – November saw slightly less activity than previous months, mostly due to a combination of workload and some general clean-up efforts in longer games, but overall I can happily say that most of the goals I set up on September were reached.

Without further ado, let’s have a look at some numbers for November – this time, with extra multiplatform goodness:

  • 64,38% average Steam achievement completion
  • 236 Steam games in progress (with achievements)
  • 1170 Steam games unplayed, 471 of which come with no achievements
  • 203 Steam games at 100%
  • Games added to account
    • TSIOQUE
    • Monster Hunter World
    • Sunless Skies
  • Steam games completed
    • Shank
    • Uncanny Valley
    • We Were Here
  • 37,84% average PSN trophy completion
  • 46 PSN games played overall
  • 848 unearned trophies
  • 2 PSN games completed
    • Exile’s End (PS Vita)
    • Grim Fandango Remastered (PS4) 
  • 1 3DS game completed
    • Radiohammer

Steam tracking courtesy of completionist.me , PSN tracking courtesy of PSNProfiles.com.

Right off the bat, you’ll noticed that we’ve finally started making some progress on platforms other than PC – this mainly came as a result of weekend play, where consoles were a much “easier” alternative to booting up the PC (especially the handheld stuff, 3DS and Vita). Comparatively, this month saw the completion of six games and the acquisition of three, two of which (TSIOQUE and Sunless Skies) were respectively Kickstarter and Keymailer rewards (Keymailer is a streamer tool that allows developers to provide games for streaming purposes), leaving Monster Hunter World as the sole purchase of the month.

Uncanny Valley, a quite promising horror title – but as with the genre itself, all is not what it seems.

Thus, 3 games completed at minimum – check. Ratio of six-to-one for finished/purchased games – check. Focus on multiple platforms – check. All goals met for November, the first month I managed to do so since starting this challenge in September. Needless to say, I was very pleased with how November turned out.

From the games completed, a few were interesting or enjoyable enough to sit through (Grim Fandango Remastered and We Were Here, the former of which indirectly inspired the “Fun With Remakes” post from a few weeks back, the latter being the focus of the “Asymmetrical Design” post).

The rest, however, were a bit less enjoyable for a variety of reasons. Radiohammer, a short rhythm game on the 3DS, lacked an interesting enough soundtrack – something that more often than not is the result of budgetary constraints but which is especially noticeable in this genre. Shank, a side-scrolling beat-em-up with a focus on visceral action, didn’t quite work for me (despite it being a quite well-made game) mainly due to a few design decisions regarding enemy and level design (especially in the highest difficulty, where dying means you’ll need to replay the entire level from the beginning. Finally, Exile’s End is an unremarkable side-scrolling exploration game (in the vein of Metroid or most post-SotN Castlevania games) with a somewhat interesting premise but let down by some control issues and a general lack of polish. As for Uncanny Valley…

Let’s have a closer look, as it allows for a very interesting look into horror game design.


Uncanny Valley is, in essence, a short horror game with a very old-school aesthetic and design. You control Tom, a recent hire as a security guard at a seeming-abandoned facility, who slowly comes to the realization that not all is as it seems with his surroundings. As the game progresses, the player is tasked with figuring out the facility’s dark past, as well as how to escape or otherwise reach one of several endings available.

If the above description seems a bit… lacking, it’s because a lot of the game’s effectiveness comes from exploration and discovery – though I ultimately didn’t enjoy it due to a few design decisions (more on that below), the overall experience is worth looking into, going in blind and putting up with its flaws –  thus, it is quite hard to describe without spoiling the reader.

Some parts are visually less interesting but at least it helps the pacing.

Aesthetically, the game is competently made, if perhaps a bit too low-fidelity to fully realize the setting’s potential. Visual design is always a big factor in horror, being the primary source of the player’s stimulus and in Uncanny Valley, it might perhaps have been better to go for a design that included more expressive faces (in the vein of fellow low-res horror games Distraint and Lone Survivor) – the impact of a few scenes involving character interactions often feels mild or flat, mainly due to the game relying solely on text to convey emotion.

Conversely, the environmental design is quite good, with the game’s handful of locations providing a great backdrop for all the events and happenings. A series of small touches, such as the clever use of light and dark areas; the juxtaposition of the rural, primitive forests surrounding the much more high-tech facility and living quarters; and the claustrophobic feel of the second half of the game – these are all very well done and invoke a feeling of dread and unease that is often missing from its contemporaries. The game’s side-scrolling nature is also used to great effect, with a lot of the level design exploiting and being enhanced by the player’s limited viewpoint, which in a way reminded me of the much-beloved SNES horror game, Clock Tower (albeit being much slower paced).

Similarly, the audio design is (mostly) implemented very well – from the game’s (admittedly limited) soundtrack to the sound effects and ambient noises, there is little left to be desired from it all. While there are not a lot of audio cue variants, they are very effectively used in conveying whatever mood the current scene requires (such as a certain chase sequence you’ll expect to hear a lot in the final parts of the game, and which never ceased to startle me even when I was expecting it). 

However, there is one major problem with Uncanny Valley that utterly destroyed the whole experience for me – its pacing. Pacing is, I’ve always felt, the most important part of a horror game. Proper pacing is what allows for the unease to build up, the incongruities  to start adding up, the tension to mount – humans are, for the most part, designed to tense up and feel less and less at ease as time passes, while also acclimating to it if exposed for long enough. Therefore, a badly-paced game is one that fails to find the proper balance of exposure – it either delivers the horror “payoff” too soon or too late. In the former case, tension will not have built up sufficiently, leading to a much less potent horror payoff. In the latter case, the unease slowly becomes familiar to the player and thus destroys all tension as they eventually grow accustomed to their surroundings.

Use of light and darkness is often used in a very clever way in this game (even if it leads to problems while taking screenshots)

In Uncanny Valley’s case, the pace tends to be all over the place. The first half of the game is one long session of build-up with not payoff – by itself, way too long and failing to actually induce any lasting tension or unease. The latter half, on the other hand, is a continuous sequence of non-stop action and stealth set-pieces, which results in the player quickly “getting used” to the danger and ruining the tension potential for the most part. Exacerbating the issue further, Tom’s movement speed is way too slow (and while a sprint ability is included, it lasts for way too long to be actually useful), making any mistakes on the player’s part often their last and, owing to a perma-death mechanic tied to the game’s endings and which is only apparent at the game’s end areas, often leading to frustration and repetition.

On a separate subject, achievements:  the game is mostly remarkable in that it requires a lot of playthroughs to complete, as most of them are tied to reaching specific endings – as mentioned above, the quasi-perma-death system used can complicate things, as the game is designed to delete the save file once any ending is reached (and with a few endings being tied to Tom dying, deaths often lead to a wiped save file and a need for starting from the very beginning). Thankfully the average playthrough will take less than a couple of hours (assuming a general familiarity with the game’s levels), but the aforementioned slow walking pace can make early parts feel like a chore to power through. The rest of the list is at least rounded out by more inventive achievements, such as discovering specific events or optional interactions – though the game seems to be a bit dodgy with achievement triggers, which once again only serves to highlight the problematic design choice of deleting a player’s save (something that I’m generally against, outside of specific genres such as roguelikes).

I feel that Uncanny Valley has a lot of untapped potential – the ideas, the mechanics, the audio designs are all solid, it’s mostly a matter of pacing and some specific design choices that make it all fall apart. Which is ultimately a shame – with a few more tweaks to the pacing, movement limitations and save game management, this could have been a quite memorable game. As it stands, it at least becomes an interesting example of how much influence pacing has over horror experiences – an example to avoid, perhaps, but still valuable as a postmortem.

Which games did you play in November? Got any backlog-related horror stories to share? Tips and tricks for keeping it in check? Share below in the comments section!

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A Casual Glance – Achievements Vs. Gameplay


In A Casual Glance we’ll be having a look at various aspects of game design from the perspective of a casual observer (i.e. no hands-on experience in the games industry or professionally working on covering them, just as a player experiencing them) – this week  we’ll be looking into various cases of achievement implementation and how they interact with the gameplay aspect of a game, whether successfully or not. with examples from speedrun and no-death/low-death achievements.

As a subset of game design, achievements can be both a versatile and intriguing tool to use for guiding a player’s experience – from hinting at possible alternative or hidden actions (such as Dishonored‘s “Clean Hands” achievement, awarded for completing the game with no enemies or story targets killed) to providing incentives to engage more with specific parts of the game (i.e. any variation on the “Kill x number of enemies” ever), if implemented correctly, they can greatly boost the enjoyment and entertainment value of a given product.

LIMBO is a great  example of trial-and-error design….

What happens when achievements are not implemented correctly though? In a recent discussion I participated in at the 100Pals Achievement Discord server, the subject of speedrunning and no-death/low-death achievements was discussed, giving rise to some very interesting observations on the subject of poorly-implemented achievement design.


Firstly, let’s examine what a “speedrunning” and what a “no-death” achievement actually is, just to establish a baseline for our examples:

As the names suggest, a speedrun achievement is one that requires a distinct segment of the game to be completed within a rigid time limit – such achievements might revolve around a specific mini-game (such as Warframe‘s “Counter Intelligence” achievement, for completing any Cipher mini-game in under 5 seconds), a full level or extended set-piece (Legend of Grimrock‘s “Dungeon Runner”, granted for completing the dungeon’s first floor in under 4 minutes) or even the entire game (DLC Quest‘s “Man That’s Fast!” achievement, which unlocks upon completing the entire original campaign within 12 minutes).

…especially in some instant-death situations, where it becomes extremely punishing to newcomers.

No-Death or Low-Death achievements on the other hand (also colloquially called “hardcore mode”, “perma-death” or “deathless” achievements by the community) are achievements that are – predictably – awarded for completing certain segments of a game without the player character dying (or otherwise reaching the equivalent of that fail state). Good examples of these achievements are LIMBO‘s “No Point in Dying” (complete the game with five or less deaths in one sitting); or Hard Reset‘s “Resistant” (complete any level other than the first without dying (Normal difficulty)”. Note that, in this case, merely reaching a fail state wouldn’t be considered a “death” unless it requires either restoring a previous world state or otherwise significantly invalidates a player’s progress (which is why we don’t see deathless achievements in games with instant player respawns).


With that out of the way, let’s return to the actual discussion that prompted this post – the conversation began with the mention of LIMBO’s aforementioned “No Point in Dying” achievement and quickly went through a variety of other games containing no-death achievements, eventually proceeding to include speedrunning achievements as well, all with one major theme: Are these achievements fun to accomplish?

The people in favor of these achievement types argued that their major appeal lies within the challenge they offer – a way to show mastery over the game, skillful play and intimate knowledge of the game’s inner workings which would then be rewarded with an achievement. Meanwhile, people arguing against their use would focus on one common thread – it made a previously-enjoyable game “not fun” or similarly feeling more like a chore or a bore to play through. Both sides seemed to raise valid points and it got me thinking – as I might have mentioned in previous blog posts, one of the indicators I use in defining a badly-implemented achievement is the “fun” factor, i.e. does this make an otherwise fun game lose its appeal? 

Going back on previous experiences, I realized something: speedrun and deathless achievements aren’t inherently boring or bad, but rather they are not a good fit for all game types. Consider a game like Braid – slow, ponderous at times, requiring a critical eye and some amount of lateral thinking in interpreting the designer’s puzzles in each level. In other words, a slow experience. Looking back on my time playing Braid, the only achievement I remember distinctly not liking was “Speed Run”, completing the entire game in under 45 minutes – mainly because it didn’t mesh well with the core design of the game (even if I hadn’t quite realized this at the time). In contrast, achievements in Mirror’s Edge I found to be a lot more enjoyable, even though a big part of the list is comprises of speedrunning achievements.

Braid’s slow pace runs contrary to any achievement design requiring speedrunning strategies.

Why was that? Because Mirror’s Edge, unlike Braid, is built to encourage and promote a “must go fast” mentality in the player – everything in that game, from the conservation of momentum in Faith’s movements to the level design which promotes vertical over lateral traversal, the entire game is designed to facilitate speed – something integral and expected in the process of speedrunning. Therefore, any achievements that do require completion of content under time constraints work with the game’s design and systems rather than against or despite it.

Similarly, no-death achievements are a lot less effective and enjoyable if the game in question relies on what is usually referred to trial-and-error design, in which the player is expected to have some form of prior knowledge of the game in order to complete it (most frequently through dying or retrying to learn the “proper” steps in traversing the game). A good example of this is the aforementioned LIMBO, where a few sections have nearly unavoidable deaths (not factoring the player’s luck in positioning correctly), which mean that a no-deaths (or in this case, five or fewer) achievement assumes the player has already gone through (and remembers) the game at least once in order to reliably be able to earn it.

This is a major issue with achievement implementation in general – a lot of examples can be made within games, in which achievement systems and  gameplay do not mesh well. Anything from having to kill a large amount of enemies in a game with limited enemy supply and/or long respawn timers, to collecting items that provide no actual gameplay enhancement, to performing in-game actions with no bearing or consequence during regular play (what I’d call meaningless actions, aside from unlocking an achievement) – all of these are generic examples that can be found in most any game with achievements or trophies.


As to why this keeps happening, I believe the reason is two-fold. Primarily, achievement systems are in a weird place at the moment – they are recent enough to not have been fully studied and explored, but established enough that they are one of the systems expected by players, i.e. a developer’s customers. Thus, from a developer’s point of view, games must include achievements (since their customers expect and even ask for them, and in all likelihood their competition already provides the same service) while still not having the proper “know-how” and experience to fully realize their potential as engagement tools.

Perhaps, one day all achievements will feel as good as this… sans the meatball-hair, of course.

At a lesser degree, I believe that the current fragmentation of the gaming community has contributed in the players themselves not having a clear idea of what they want out of an achievements system. This becomes apparent when considering that there are a multitude of different services and digital distribution platforms currently operating – Steam, Origin, GOG, uPlay, Playstation Network, Xbox Live, and so on and so forth, all of them vying for customer exclusivity and, more importantly for this topic, all of them coming with their own proprietary achievement/trophy systems. As a result, multiple communities – each with different goals and expectations – have formed around most of these platforms’ achievement systems which I suspect have made it extremely difficult to provide consistent and focused feedback towards designers and developers.

In writing this, I realize that a certain subset of the gaming community (or perhaps even the majority) will loudly proclaim that achievements are “useless” or “tacked-on” – in a sense, they are correct. However, I feel that this is more a problem of how they’re implemented, rather than an inherent flaw of the system itself. Achievements have the potential to engage and enrich an experience – a lot of recent advancements in gamification have shown that their real-life counterparts can and do offer tangible benefits when implemented correctly – as long as they are implemented in a thoughtful and precise manner, while complementing a game’s core design philosophy.

Unfortunately, aside from a few broad observations and recommendations, I don’t think this is a “problem” that can be easily solved. The fragmentation certainly cannot (although some communities have recently started branching out, with help of multi-platform tracker sites such as MetaGamerScore, which make it easier to track progress across various platforms), and the developer side is one of those things that needs to just run its course, so to speak. Certainly, as time passes and the achievement hunting community grows, the need for research into achievement systems and design will grow as well and, with it, a greater understanding into how to better engage and entertain a player. In the meantime, direct developer feedback is probably the best solution (where applicable) – telling developers how and why achievements work (or don’t) is more than likely the best approach to improving these systems for everyone.


As an afterword, I’d like to mention that I am by no means an expert in this field. Most, if not all of my experience is based on personal engagement in the subject and thus might be skewed or insufficient. Even so, I feel that it provides at minimum a good starting point for discussion, much like the Discord channel debate that sparked this article in the first place – perhaps, with a large enough pool of differing opinions, achievement implementation can reach its full potential and truly enrich a game’s experience.

Do you have any examples of properly-implemented achievements? Achievement design that clashes with the gameplay? Drop a comment below!

Fun With Friends – Asymmetrical Design (We Were Here)

In Fun With Friends, we’ll be taking a look at various co-op experiences, from action-packed sidescrolling shoot-em-ups to calmer, more methodical puzzle-solving games. This week, let’s have a look at how asymmetrical design improves upon a co-op experience with help from We Were Here.

Playing co-op games has always been one of my favorite multiplayer activities ever since my formative years, from Contra and Golden Axe‘s side-scrolling mayhem action to more methodical, slow burners such as Lost Vikings and (once co-op moved on from the realm of the side-scroller to other genres) several Infinity Engine games like Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale. For me, it was always much more than just the thrill of playing with other people – it was a sense of camaraderie, or perhaps knowing  that someone else just experienced the game in the same way as I just had, a joint sense of accomplishment.

Needless to say that, to this day, I always savor my co-op sessions – doubly so since nowadays tight schedules and real-life obligations limit said sessions more than ever.

The second puzzle in the game, from the librarian’s perspective…

Before diving into asymmetrical co-op design, let’s set a baseline for a what constitutes a co-op experience. As with most gaming-related terms (which have always been a bit nebulous and subjective) the “co-op” tag can be stretched to fit a lot of diverse examples. However, for the purpose of this discussion I’m considering a game as having co-op if it fulfills the following:

  1. The co-op portion of the game is played with two or more players (obviously)
  2. These players need to work within the game’s intended design to accomplish objectives, which in turn move the game forward (co-op must be implemented by design explicitly – as an example of incidental co-op, consider a PVP server in WoW where players of opposing factions help each other out instead of attacking, thus an unintended by-product of the players’ choosing).
  3. For this post, I’m also not considering games such as Dead By Daylight, since those are combinations of co-op (the survivor team needs to work together to escape) and player-versus-player (since as a team, they’re actively working against the killer player) and thus, while  excellent examples of asymmetrical design, are beyond the scope of this post.

Further to the above, we’ll also be looking specifically at asymmetrical co-op design – while asymmetry in games takes many forms, from map design to team balance and a multitude of other variables, we’ll be looking specifically at the two-player puzzle variant, which in essence works by limiting each player’s access to specific and exclusive sets of information and interactions, then making both sets necessary for completing the game.

With the above in mind, let’s have a look at a game I recently had the pleasure of going through – We Were Here, the free-to-play first entry of the titular series, with two games currently released and a third one slated for a 2019 release (We Were Here Too and We Were Here Together, respectively). 

In We Were Here, two players take the role of a pair of explorers taking refuge in an ominous castle during a snowstorm. Separated upon entry, players are tasked with navigating the castle’s various traps and puzzles, armed with only their wits and a walkie-talkie tuned into their companion’s frequency. From there, both players must communicate with one another, providing a back-and-forth of clues, questions and panicked exclamations while they try to guide one another to the exit.

…and the explorer’s side as well.

Upon creating a session, each player is assigned one of the two available  roles – explorer or librarian. These are more than fancy titles, though, as they determine which part of the castle each player will start in and are unique (meaning that you can’t have two explorers or librarians in the same session). As the librarian, the game is mostly limited to a single room, filled with a multitude of interactive props such as maps, books and valves, while the explorer has access to more extensive levels, with a large variety of indoors and outdoors locales, including mazes, gardens and crypts.

This is where the “asymmetrical” part of the design really kicks in – for the majority of the game, the librarian’s role is to rummage their limited surroundings for clues to feed to the explorer, who is doing the bulk of the legwork. As an example, in one of the early puzzles the explorer is tasked with navigating a maze of rooms and passages while finding a series of color-coded switches that toggle gate sets in said maze, of which the librarian has a map of. Thus, the librarian takes the role of navigator, trying to direct the explorer (always via walkie-talkie) towards the correct sequence of switches, while the explorer attempts to follow the instructions and provide accurate feedback.

What I find most interesting in this approach to asymmetry is the way the developers have given the game a sense of urgency, mainly by limiting player communication to the walkie-talkie system (essentially VOIP via Steam’s API) – a lot of the puzzles in We Were Here are built around the players’ ability to quickly and accurately provide information to one another. A good example of this is a flooding room encountered early in the explorer’s route – the librarian must be quickly provided with the correct color combination of valves to shut off, in order to halt the water flow to the explorer’s side. With just voice communication, this becomes inherently more stressful and (since it’s done correctly, i.e. a generous time limit is given for new players to realize what to do) incredibly fun, in an edge-of-your-seat kind of way.

While asymmetrical design isn’t a new thing in gaming (with games such as Unreal Tournament experimenting with asymmetrical modes like Assault as early as 1999 or games with character stats eventually evolving into the class-based MP FPS sub-genre, Team Fortress being a good example), it is interesting to note that the puzzle co-op variant is relatively new in mainstream appeal – in fact, aside from We Were Here and its sequel(s), I can only thing of one more example in this genre, Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes which, in the same vein has one player defusing elaborate bomb setups while the other guides them through the process by providing specific info from a bomb-disposal manual.

So, what makes a goo asymmetrical co-op puzzle game? Using We Were Here as an example (as I’d consider it an excellent, if slightly too short game) we can extract a few good examples:

The game’s visual design is interesting, but not to the point of distracting from the puzzle design.
  1. Communication between players must be facilitated in a precise, functional manner. In our sessions, we found this to be of the utmost importance, as the explorer would often need to convey concise information to the librarian as they would often be in immediate danger of dying (and would thus need info on how to escape fast.)
  2. Puzzle design must be simple enough to describe over the communication channel, yet complex enough to feel like an accomplishment once the puzzle is solved. In We Were Here, this is mostly achieved by using modular puzzle design, where each puzzle is made up of smaller individual segments that are simple in design (and thus easy to communicate to the other player). In doing so, the developers allow players to easily and precisely describe each element to their companion (see point #1), while also building said elements into a larger, more complex (and therefore more satisfying) puzzle.
  3. If possible, recycle as few puzzle assets as possible and vary segment design. A lot of the puzzles in We Were Here feel “fresh”, mainly because the developers take enough care to provide variety in their design. While the puzzles are few in number (around five or so “main” puzzle rooms to get through), there are significant changes in what each puzzle’s solution calls on (be it spatial awareness, lateral thinking, logic, riddle-solving, and so on) which helps each room feel unique and interesting to work through.
  4. Allow for moments of tension, as well as moments of calm – use the two to keep the pacing interesting and variable. We Were Here performs admirably in this, with pacing alternating between tense, life-or-death moments and calm, logical ones. I feel that, had it leaned towards either one of the two more heavily, it would have suffered by either becoming too tense (and taxing to play through) or too slow (and boring or annoying to experience).
  5. Make sure that each player’s role is sufficiently different to the other’s. Again, the game is quite good at conveying this from the get-go, as it’s made very clear by the level design of the initial rooms that each player’s role is distinctly different – the explorer does most of the legwork and faces most of the danger, while the librarian handles the information-gathering and guidance aspects.

As an overall experience, We Were Here is interesting and highly enjoyable – perhaps a bit shorter than it should be (though I suspect this is intentional, as this first game is free to play and probably intended as a “demo” or introduction to the series, meant to draw players in) but still quite substantial and efficient in how it spends the players’ time.  If nothing else, it certainly made me and my co-op partner interested in the series as a whole.

For the record, a full playthrough (in which each player experiences both sides of the team) takes around 2 to 3 hours – I find this to be an excellent length of time for what the game sets out to do, being long enough to provide ample opportunity for observation but short enough to allow both players to fully experience it in a single session.

Have you played any co-op games recently? Any good examples of asymmetrical design you’d like to see discussed in this blog or with other readers? Drop us a line in the comments section!

A Casual Glance – Backtracking in Gaming

In A Casual Glance we’ll be having a look at various aspects of game design from the perspective of a casual observer (i.e. no hands-on experience in the games industry or professionally working on covering them, just as a player experiencing them) – this week we’ll be talking about how games implement backtracking with a few examples of how to best incorporate it and/or work around it.

For anyone that has been in gaming for any significant amount of time, the following scenario should be familiar: you have reached the end of an area (often a dungeon or military base or similar self-contained environment) and it is finally time to complete your objective – activate the self-destruct sequence, collect the Thing of Ultimate Power®, kill that pesky boss that’s been terrorizing the village… it doesn’t quite matter what the goal du jour is, just that you’re about to complete it. Once you do, a little popup appears – “Quest Updated: Return to town”.

And this is what backtracking usually boils down to.

Put simply, backtracking is what happens when a game asks the player to traverse previously-explored territory to return to its entrance point – often as soon as they have reached the other end. Trekking back to those quest-givers in World of Warcraft’s Barrens Crossroads to let them know you’ve killed 10 kobolds? That’s backtracking. Escaping the Ceres Space Colony after the self-destruct sequence is initiated in Super Metroid? Also backtracking. All that business with the shape memory alloy cards in Metal Gear Solid? Backtracking and more backtracking (and a very special example of what I call “Kojima Design”, but I digress).

It’s important to note that backtracking is a term (almost) exclusive to linear design (since open-world/non-linear content is by definition designed to allow for multiple options in traversing it) – so while the player might, for example, have to pass by the same settlement in Just Cause 2‘s Panau Island multiple times, the game flow is not specifically designed to force or encourage that and thus it would not be considered backtracking.

PREVIEW_SCREENSHOT3_71772
One of my most fondly-remembered games of its time, and one where backtracking is readily apparent.

Backtracking is a useful design in a some cases: implemented correctly, it gives a sense of structure and verisimilitude (since it “makes sense” that, for example, buildings have the same opening act as both entrance and exit in most cases) while it also doubles down as a time-saver in regards to content (since it effectively doubles any given game real estate in size by having the player traverse it twice). Unfortunately, this is also where care must be taken, as any failure in masking its existence often leads to player fatigue and, in extreme cases, boredom.

I recently replayed Grim Fandango in its most recent, remastered iteration – it being one of my favorite games of its day, I had played it enough times in the past to remember all of the steps needed to solve the majority of puzzles in the game. This in turn led to a mostly linear experience – I was already familiar with what needed to be done to progress at any given point and thus could effectively avoid the illusion of open-ended design that first-time players would experience.

Unsurprisingly, when played as a linear experience, it quickly becomes apparent just how much Grim Fandango’s design relies on backtracking to increase the game’s run time. Before we proceed, I should clarify that I don’t consider backtracking to be inherently bad or even implemented solely as a padding mechanism – as stated, it’s a great way to keep up the illusion of a more believable game world and I’m sure the team behind Grim Fandango intended it as such, at least partially (adventure games of that era were notoriously short on actual content, so it’s easy to assume that padding was in part a developer goal).

That being said, Grim Fandango is a very good example of backtracking overload. Playing it with a clear idea of where I was headed and what I needed to do, I would still be forced to traverse the same scenes three or more times over the course of puzzles. An early example of this (spoilers, beware) can be seen in Year 2: Rubacava, where one of the main objectives is to gain the Sea Bee “Official” tools for Glottis, which in turn allows you to board the last ship out of town. This involves inciting the Sea Bees to riot, which in turn requires getting their leader out of jail, which ultimately involves a city-wide hunt for a missing photograph.

Untitled
Visual aid for the below mental exercise.

Sound straightforward? In theory, it is – distilled to its simplest, it’s a case of going from Point A to Point B to Point C, or rather, get clue 1 > get clue 2 > locate photograph > blackmail lawyer > get Sea Bee leader released > get tools from now-on-strike Sea Bees. The problem is that, due to how these objectives have been placed, a lot of back-and-forth is involved. In this example, you need to:

  1. Talk to Nick, the lawyer, until you can distract him and steal his cigar case. (VIP Lounge)
  2. Go to Carla and have the cigar case blown open to get the key to the lighthouse. (Security Checkpoint)
  3. Head to the Lighthouse and witness Lola’s death, get clue #1 – a tile. (Lighthouse)
  4. Head to Calavera Cafe and get the coat with the tile you found at the Lighthouse. (Calavera Cafe)
  5. Using the coat to gain clue #2 – a tattoo catalog design, head to the tattoo parlor (and solve a small puzzle) to check the specific design (Tattoo Parlor).
  6. Head to the Cat Tracks, solve a puzzle using clues obtained during the quest and produce a fake ticket stub, which can then be traded for an incriminating picture of Nick. (Cat Tracks)
  7. Head back to Nick, who agrees to help you free Terry, the Sea Bee leader, in return for the picture. (VIP Lounge)

Using the chart above, try following these steps and you’ll quickly notice that a lot of the time, due to how areas are linked, you’ll be traversing the same areas over and over and over again.

The problem is that, aside from becoming annoying busywork for older players, this also causes disorientation (in Grim Fandango’s case, also partially due to the badly-implemented combination of “tank” controls and fixed camera angles, although the remaster at least included a more traditional mouse control scheme) and in a few cases destroys any pacing the game had – after all, it doesn’t really feel like you’re racing against time when you are forced to go through the same crossroads five times in a row, right?

One of the ways this could’ve been fixed was dynamic actor placement, a fancy term for teleporting the protagonist closer to their objective once certain conditions are met (usually via cutscene or even just a plain fade to black). Amusingly, Grim Fandango already does this in certain places – the above example of a puzzle ends with game protagonist Manny Calavera and lawyer Nick being spawned outside the police station where Terry’s being kept, through a cutscene – which reinforces the belief that the rest of the backtrack-heavy sequences were indeed left in as a means of increasing gametime artificially.

So, how can a game “properly” implement backtracking, as I mentioned at the start of this post? Let’s have a look at some examples:

Dark Souls: Prepare to… unlock a shortcut?

The Souls series is a very good first example of how backtracking can be a positive inclusion if accounted for during initial design. From Software’s breakout meta-series has always relied on retreading old ground, whether it is a result of player deaths or general level layout. As far as I can see, this works for one simple reason: the level design takes the backtracking aspect into consideration on a very fundamental level.

Put simply, the levels are built from the ground up to allow for interesting traversal with multiple options even if the path itself is somewhat linear. In addition, the combat system itself accounts for this, offering a variety of options and encounters to keep things interesting over multiple runs through the same area. Finally, special care has been taken with shortcuts, special paths that can be unlocked once the player has progressed far enough into an area and which, once activated, provide an easy way to skip content that the player has already mastered (by virtue of managing to reach the shortcut in the first place).

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Of course, there are several reward mechanics other than shortcuts in Dark Souls…

The interesting thing here is that, as the level design and combat systems support the design choice to include backtracking, so does it in turn support the risk vs. reward mechanics – reaching one of the aforementioned shortcuts is designed to feel immensely rewarding, as they often provide immediate access to safe areas such as bonfires or vendor shops and act as a sort of impromptu checkpoint from where progress can be regained in the event of death.

But then, not all games are (or should be) built around the idea of dying all the time, so how would a more “traditional” experience handle backtracking? Enter… Skyrim.

Dungeons and Dragonborn

At the start of this post, I noted that backtracking is a design aspect that is mostly, if not exclusively, found in linear games, so how can Skyrim, one of the poster children for open-world design, possibly have any? Easily, as it turns out – while non-linearity forms the majority of Skyrim’s design, there is one exception: dungeons.

Dungeons in Skyrim (especially optional ones) are primarily linear affairs – one entrance/exit, a long trek from start to finish with some traps/monsters/treasure to interact with, an objective at the very end – and due to their level design, should require a large amount of backtracking to exit once fully cleared. Whether it’s a nefarious vampire lord hiding out in the deepest part of his lair, a Dragon Wall built at the very far end of a temple or a Dwemer ruin hidden at the bottom of a sprawling cave system, you should invariably be heading through it all in the opposite direction once you’ve completed them.

With a reported 340+ locations to discover and explore in Skyrim’s mountainous landscape, it seem like backtracking would become a big problem and yet it doesn’t – mostly because, once again, special care is taken to properly incorporate and even take advantage of it in level design.

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Quite amusing how an open-world game does linear content (and manages backtracking) better than many of its peers.

In this case, the game’s developers have made sure to include a “return path” to the majority of the game’s non-story dungeons – in essence, an extra bit of the level which bridges the end-point to the entrance and, more importantly, is only accessible once the player has reached the end of the dungeon. A barely-hidden path behind a movable wall; a door that can only be unlocked from the endpoint of the dungeon; a jump-off point which deposits you in the lake at the base base of a waterfall once you’re done climbing – no matter how, there’s almost always a way to quickly return to the entrance of a dungeon (and by proxy, the overworld and the rest of your sandbox adventures).

As with the Dark Souls example, Skyrim’s solution to backtracking allows it to extend the experience but counteracts the inherent annoyance and eliminates the tedium associated with it, as these return paths are previously-unexplored content that might also contain rewards of their own, as well as feeling a lot more natural than a forced teleport cutscene. An elegant solution overall, though in this case it comes at the cost of diminishing the verisimilitude of the world – after all, after finding the 20th or so return path you’re starting to wonder just how uncannily lucky the Dragonborn seems to be, if they’re discovering so many shortcuts everywhere they explore.

Even so, I find this to be an acceptable sacrifice – perhaps a more elegant solution can be reached in a more linear or less content-heavy game, but at least this method is a good starting point and an excellent example for future games.

Have you ever played any games that require excessive backtracking? Got any examples of your favorite games handling it in an interesting way? Share below in the comments!

 

Idle Thoughts – Fun With Remakes

Up until a few months ago, I’ve never really been a fan of podcasts for various reasons (mostly a lack of investment and interest in most “traditional” topics covered). Lately, though, I’ve taken to listening to the Retronauts one – headed by Jeremy Parish and Bob Mackey and featuring a variety of co-hosts in each episode, it’s billed as an “exploration of the history of video games” (with a specific focus on retro gaming). Needless to say, it’s a series I’d recommend wholeheartedly.

One of their most recent episodes revolved around a discussion on remastered/rebooted/remade games – including some very handy definitions of each – and it got me thinking. Looking back at the last six or so months, I realized that a lot of what I’ve been playing comes under one of these three categories – surprisingly in some cases, it’s also games that I never got to experience during their prime (i.e. the remake or remaster would be my very first direct contact with said game).

With that being said, let’s have a look at some examples, specifically of remakes, that I’ve played recently, either from a newcomer or an old timer’s perspective (depending on whether I’ve played a particular game’s previous iterations).

Striking Gold – Persona 4: The Golden

One of my biggest regrets in gaming is never having owned a Playstation 2 – partly due to low availability of units locally as well as a lack of funds at the time, I somehow managed to miss one of the biggest (and most influential) video game libraries of its time, much to my dismay. Although I eventually got an XBox and a Gamecube (the former second-hand and the latter at a severely discounted price) and was thus covered where multiplatform games were concerned, a PS2 and its huge list of exclusives would elude me for years.

That is, until the present culture of remakes/remasters emerged.

Among the many titles I had missed, one of my most wanted was the latter incarnations of the Persona series – Persona 3 and 4. Widely considered as some of the top JRPG’s of their time, mainly due to the unique blend of traditional JRPG systems and combat with a school life simulator, these two games were high on my list of “must-haves” – and with good reason.

Persona 3 initially received a remake for the PSP, titled Persona 3: Portable – a cut-down version of the original 2007 release (rather than the improved FES version from 2008) that removed exploration of the non-dungeon parts due to the limitations of the PSP, but with additional options, such as an option to play as a female protagonist and more direct combat control (where the original only allowed direct control of the protagonist in combat, where allies were AI-driven).

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Image courtesy of Playstation Store US.

This set the stage for Persona 4: The Golden, which released for the PSVita in 2013, this time a fully realized and improved upon version of the original 2009 release. Needless to say, I was very excited about P4G – to the point that it was the reason I got a PSVita in the first place (and that decision was totally worth it, by the way).

While I’m no newcomer to the series, having played the first three games in various PSN re-releases during the PS3/PSP’s lifetime, I was definitely feeling like one for P4G – the first three games (Persona, Persona 2: Innocent Sin, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment) are quite different in terms of structure, systems and focus, taking on a more traditional JRPG form (albeit still within the series’ distinct “contemporary Japanese teen” theme), while from Persona 3 onwards we begin to see the now-familiar addition of everyday life simulation elements being added and slowly refined.

This made Persona 4: The Golden a very different experience for me. While I can’t really comment or compare the differences between versions (not having played the original PS2 title), I can wholeheartedly say that P4G was one of my standout JRPG experiences of the last few years – one that was only edged out by the even more amazing Persona 5 (which built and iterated on its predecessor’s already-refined formula). From the lovable cast of high school misfits to the lighthearted tone (which admittedly sometimes dives a bit deeper into darker places) to the excellent soundtrack, the deep and engaging combat and persona systems, the amazing voice acting (something that a lot of JRPG localizations often struggle with) – P4G was an exemplary experience in almost every aspect.

In Persona 4, as is typical of the series post-Persona 3, you take the role of a high-school student recently transferred to an unfamiliar town – Inaba, a small rural Japanese town, in this game’s case – where you are given one in-game year in order to resolve the game’s conflict. During the first couple of  weeks, a series of bizarre murders forces you to recruit your fellow students into a ragtag bunch dubbed the Investigation Team, with the goal of solving the mystery behind these crimes.

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Image courtesy of Playstation Store US.

While I could go on for several paragraphs extolling P4G’s virtues (and there are a lot of those), in the interest of brevity (and covering other games as well) I’ll just limit myself to this: while most of the game’s design ranges from great to stellar, special mention must be given to the character development and design. It’s a rare game that makes me feel like I’m invested in (and maybe bonded with) any characters, and an even rarer one that does so with the entire cast. Indeed, around 90 hours of playtime later, I can easily name most, if not all, of the game’s main cast, as well as several of the supporting cast (dubbed Social Links), as well as their backstories, character traits, speech patterns and mannerisms and so on and so forth.

Persona 4 Golden is an incredible accomplishment, a must-play JRPG that, going by fan reactions, managed to improve upon an already excellent base – with many additions, improvements and streamlined content, an excellent example of a remake done right.

On the very flip-side of Persona 4: Golden, let’s have a look at a game I’ve played the original release but had never managed to experience the remake of, until modern re-releases enabled me to do thus…

Travels in Time – Journeyman Project: Pegasus Prime

The Journeyman Project (subtitled Turbo, after several performance-enhancing fixes were made) is a first-person point-n-click adventure game in the vein of Myst, but with a decidedly more sci-fi feel to it. First released in 1994 (with original, non-Turbo version launching a year prior), it was one of the first 3D games I ever played – even if said 3D consisted primarily of pre-rendered objects and backgrounds with chroma-keyed actors overlaid – and one I immediately fell in love with.

I’ve always attributed my wide love of gaming genres to my initial experiences – in close succession, I had been exposed at a very young age to the faster-paced platform action of Super Mario Land (on a friend’s Gameboy before getting one of my own), as well as the more logic-oriented slow pace of text adventures such as Zork and Enchanter (well past their prime but part of the very small pool of available games for a 486 running DOS). In Journeyman Project Turbo, I probably found for the first time a meeting of the two worlds, with the urgency of an action game conveyed by the game’s story, fused expertly with the slow, methodical mechanics of an adventure game – which is presumably why I was so taken in by it.

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Hints, a major addition to Pegasus Prime and one that is essential in introducing the game to new audiences.

You take the role of Gage Blackwood and it’s the near future – a future where time travel is not only available but also heavily regulated. Gage is part of the TSA, the Temporal Security Annex, a government organization tasked with policing time itself… until everything goes wrong. Narrowly managing to escape temporal catastrophe, Gage must now locate where (and more importantly, when) it all went wrong, then travel back in time in order to change the past and save the future.

As far as game mechanics go, Journeyman Project is a more or less standard adventure game – solve puzzles and collect items to access new areas, repeat until end of game. As with many of its time, where it shines is in atmosphere, presentation and story beats. The time-travel angle is explored in sufficient depth – not too jargon-laden, but not glossed over either – and the whole “choose which order to play the levels/locations in” approach was unique for adventure games at the time (even if in actuality it’s a fairly linear game) and further worked to reinforce the temporal themes.

As mentioned before, I had only played the original (Turbo) release back when I was younger – the 1997 remake was a Mac-exclusive title up until a few years ago, where it made a surprising appearance on PC’s via GOG and Steam – so going into Pegasus Prime was quite the interesting experience.

The first thing that drew my attention was the redesigned UI. While both the Turbo and Pegasus Prime versions have comparatively tiny viewports from which players can see the world, PP’s one is decidedly less intrusive, enlarged and higher resolution. Adding to that a much more smoothly animated inventory/chip system meant that the game as a whole felt smoother and slicker than I had remembered.

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Hard to believe but the view-port was even smaller in the original release.

Additionally, with Pegasus Prime, the developers would go on and re-film actors and locations, giving the visuals a much-needed upgrade with protagonist Gage Blackwood in particular now having a fully-animated (filmed) presence in-game, as opposed to static portrait photos in the original. Additionally, where in the original Gage was pretty much the only person to be seen physically in the world, Pegasus Prime adds a couple new actors to the mix, one of which ties to later games in the series – which made a small nod to continuity possible and got a chuckle out of series fans such as myself.

The improvements didn’t stop there, though. Several systems were revamped, with movement in particular being smoother and feeling more animated – no doubt thanks to higher resolution imagery used – while the score system was now more descriptive and comprehensive (as with many adventure games of the time, there is a score system – see further examples in any Sierra game of that time, where a completed game did not necessarily award full points unless optional actions and interactions were found).

Finally, the biggest change was the expansion and, in some cases, total overhaul of certain areas in the game – mostly quality-of-life improvements such as shortcuts being added and areas being rendered with slightly different layouts to better indicate interactions, but also changes in some puzzles to eliminate a kind of “leap in logic” style of gameplay that was sadly prevalent in adventure games of the time (which is not to say that Journeyman Project is totally free of those puzzles, but it fares a lot better than most of its contemporaries).

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Note the score system, now categorized by area and bonus type (something not present in the original release).

While the game (in both incarnations) has aged poorly – understandably so, since Turbo came out in ’93 and Pegasus Prime in ’97 – I’d still hold it as one of the best examples of how to remake a game: adding functionality, accenting strengths and correcting weaknesses in the design, with the aim of bringing the product up to spec for a more modern audience and more capable hardware. Indeed, where most other games would try to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, Journeyman Project took the much better route of refining what was already there – thus making it a memorable experience and one of the more refined first-person adventure games of its time that I’ve ever played.

In Conclusion…

Looking back at this article, I haven’t even began to scratch the surface of  all my favorite remakes and when also considering remasters and reboots, the topic seems to stretch infinitely – between ensemble collections like Kingdom Hearts, former genre juggernauts such as Baldur’s Gate and oddball remakes like Chronicles of Riddick, there is just so much more to discuss. Perhaps, in time, we’ll take another look…

Do you enjoy remakes and remasters? Ever played one? Have a story to share about your most or least favorite remakes of old classics? Perhaps you hate the entire idea of them and want to talk about it? Drop a line in the comments and let me know!

Midweek Musings – The “Clear My Backlog” Challenge

Midweek Musings is a series of one-off posts where we’ll be taking a look at topics that don’t merit or can’t carry a full-length post on their own. This week I’ll be discussing a neat little way to clear your backlog a bit faster by making a meta-game out of it.

As everyone who’s ever heard me talk about my backlog knows, I have an extremely bad habit of starting games, getting bored or annoyed and more or less giving up. Maybe the game in question is a slow burner (i.e. extremely slow pacing for the first few hours – looking at you Tales of Zestiria); perhaps some minor design flaw made it tedious to play through (excessive menu usage is a good – and common – example here); or even just because of not being in the mood for that particular genre (but only realized after a few minutes of playing).

No matter why, it slowly becomes a vicious cycle which ends with an overly bloated backlog of “I need to get round to playing these” games – and if (like me) you’re also interested in achievement completion, this often leads to a mountain of stuff that needs doing and no damn idea of where to even start from.

Well, I’ve been trying out a way to make a sort of meta-game out of it the last few months, and…. it seems to be working?

Method to the madness

Given my general involvement in achievement “hunting”, I am no stranger to meta-gaming (in this context, making a game out of a process, which also overlaps with the concept of gamification) – indeed, the achievement hunting community often makes a game out of keeping track of metrics, such as average percentage ratio of completed achievements or completing “sets” (for example, “All of the Batman games on Steam” or “Every game made by Wadjet Eye Studios”).

Quite often, these “meta” accomplishments are done in a competitive manner, which led me to the idea of using a sort of co-op implementation to help me out in combating my ever-growing backlog. Followers of this blog might remember that, in my very first Attack of the Backlog post, I put out a few guidelines to help me out:

  1. Complete at least three games per month – “completion” in this context being either “seeing all main story content” or “completing that platform’s achievement list” – there are certain games where the time commitment is too big for a realistic 100% achievements completion, so in those cases I’ll count completing the main story as sufficient.
  2. Only buy games at a ratio of one new game per six completed ones. This was chosen to limit my backlog growth, help me prioritize my purchases and still allow me to get any games I truly felt were must-haves.
  3. Work on as many platforms as possible. This goal was more loosely defined as, at time of writing, my backlog spreads across multiple consoles – the PS3, PS4 and Vita; XBox 360; Nintendo 3DS and Wii U; and of course, PC (which is divided between several digital retailers such as Steam, GOG etc.).

That was step one – stopping the excessive bloat in its tracks.

As for step two, actually getting me to actively reduce it…

Playing the meta-game

With the help of friend and fellow achievement hunter Rooks, I set out to make a small event out of finishing backlogged games. The initial idea was this: “If I can’t decide on which to play, I’ll just have someone else do it for me“. You see, I’d already have seen the concept of playing achievements H-O-R-S-E in action and figured that a co-operative version of that would work nicely in a non-competitive environment.

(In essence, H-O-R-S-E is a competitive challenge where one player earns a specific achievement and then all the other participants must also do the same; if any participant fails to do so in a specific time limit, they earn a letter from the word “HORSE”, starting with H and ending with E; once that is done, the second player in a pre-defined order earns another achievement and the rest of the players once again try to also earn it in the specified time limit; and so on and so forth. Any players that complete the word HORSE – and thus have failed to follow the achievement-setting player 5 times – are eliminated and this goes on until only one player remains as the winner.It’s quite fun with 4 or more participants, so try it! If you don’t have enough players, a shorter version using the word P-I-G instead of H-O-R-S-E can be used, or even any other word of the players’ choosing.)

After a bit of discussion and back-and-forth of ideas, we ended up with the following guidelines:

(Note: This is best done with just two players, as it becomes harder to track with multiple participants. For the sake of accuracy, I’ll call these imaginary participants and B)

  1. Participant A should select 1-3 games from Participant B’s backlog.  Participant B has one month from the date of selection to complete at least one of these games at the 100% mark.
  2. Participant A can only select games (from B’s backlog) that fulfill these conditions:
    • Must be a game in which at least one achievement was already earned by B.
    • Must be a game that is under 20-25 hours in overall duration (tracker sites are useful for providing such estimates).
    • Must be a game that can be completed solo (so you don’t need to rely on other players for co-op/multiplayer achievements).
    • Must be a game that can be reasonably completed in that given month (so that seasonal achievements, such as “Play this game on Christmas day” etc. do not limit completion).
    • (Optional) Should be a game that A has at least some vague idea about and/or have played themselves.
  3. At the end of the 30-day period from day of selecting, B should have completed at least one of the three proposed games.
  4. Participant B follows the exact same guidelines to provide 1-3 games from Participant A’s backlog for them to attempt completing.

Naturally, a lot of variation can be added to make the game more interesting / challenging / competitive – adding a score for each game completed (based on time needed to complete); upping the selection to 5 games per month or lowering it to 1 but selecting one that requires at least 50 hours to complete; or even changing the time window from one month to more/less, as needed.

Results, results, results

We began this experiment on October 1st, with my selections for the month being Castle of Illusion and Toki Tori and I am very pleased to say that it worked out wonderfully as a motivating factor – one month later, Castle of Illusion sits at a cool 100% completion rate and Toki Tori is being worked on in small steps (we went for two  games per month, of which we should complete at least one, just to keep things simple). November’s selection for me includes Shank and Organ Trail which, thus far, seem to be progressing nicely. Stay tuned for November’s Backlog Cleanup for my impressions.

Overall, I found this an interesting way to stop backlog clearing from feeling like a chore – if you like this method, please use it and drop us a line in the comments, as I’d be very interested in seeing how it performs!

Attack of the Backlog! – October 2018 Round-Up

In Attack of the Backlog!, I’ll be discussing my attempts at tackling an ever-growing backlog of games, from both a campaign/story and an achievements completion point of view. For the sake of keeping track of things, I’m only going to mention games I’ve actually finished and/or completed that month.

This month’s backlog adventures were quite interesting, to say the least. Aside from a lengthy dive into The Bard’s Tale IV (of which you can find my impressions in the aptly named First Impressions and Last Impressions posts, respectively) the majority of the games I played and finished were quite old in terms of having entered my backlog, as well as (truth be told) not particularly challenging for the most part.

As it stands, my “statistics” at the close of October now stand at:

  • 63,79% average Steam achievement completion
  • 236 Steam games in progress (with achievements)
  • 1163 Steam games unplayed, 466 of which come with no achievements
  • 198 Steam games at 100%
  • Games added to account
    • Robin Hood
    • Hidden Folks
    • Gremlins, Inc.
    • We Were Here Too
    • Old Man’s Journey
    • Yakuza 0
    • 140
    • The Sexy Brutale
    • Lucidity
  • Steam games completed
    • Dwarfs!?
    • Dwarfs!? Free-to-Play
    • Highlands
    • Half-Life: A Place in the West
    • The Bard’s Tale IV
    • AdVenture Capitalist
    • Castle of Illusion

Above statistics courtesy of Completionist.me

So, as the numbers show, I’ve pushed a mere 7 games to 100% completion since October 1st, and even worse, one of them is really a double-dip (Dwarfs!?), while another is a silly visual novel/comic book deal (Half-Life). Even worse than that, I seem to have also gone and added another new games to the huge pile of backlogged games I own on Steam. Awful, right?

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Dwarfs!? in all its “glory”.

Well… not quite. You see, in actuality only of the new additions were actual purchases of mine – Yakuza 0 (which I’m planning to stream as soon as my other streaming obligations clear up a bit) and We Were Here Too (which I’ll be playing with a friend in co-op, and for which I’m very excited) – the rest were mostly sourced by friends and viewers, such as 140 coming from long-time follower and all-around nice guy to have around TuhmaTiikeri (hai!), as well as from various bundle leftovers that I’m given every once in a while and find as too much of an opportunity to miss (I believe Hidden Folks came from the most recent – as of writing – Humble Monthly bundle).

So, the actual end-tally for October should be around 5 games completed and 2 new games bought. Sadly, this still didn’t quite line up with my goal of 6-to-1 completed:purchased ratio (see the “rules” in last month’s round-up), but I’m not too worried – if only because there’s actual effort being put in to complete stuff, on which I can build and improve upon. Baby steps and all that.

So, with the recap thus concluded, let’s have a look at two of the above-mentioned titles, Castle of Illusion and Dwarfs!? (as well as its F2P counterpart):

Castle of Illusion (starring Mickey Mouse)

A short trip down nostalgia lane, Castle of Illusion is actually a remake of the 1990’s Sega Genesis classic with the same name. Players take on the role of Mickey Mouse, on a quest to find seven colored gems and defeat the evil witch Mizrabel, saving his fiancee Minnie (who has been kidnapped so that Mizrabel can… steal her youth and beauty, apparently). The game is purely a platform game – there is very little else in the way of gameplay than jumping, avoiding or killing enemies and collecting various items – and thus very hard to talk about in any length.

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Cutscenes have a certain charm to them.

The House of Mouse

As a platform game, Castle of Illusion is very short – even someone like me, who’s not particularly adept at the genre, still only took approximately 5 hours to fully complete the game. Personally, I consider this one of the game’s strengths, as there is just enough content and variety in its mechanics to not outstay its’ welcome while still feeling complete as an experience. The majority of the game is spent traversing the game’s five worlds, spread over fifteen levels (two “main” levels and one boss level per world), offering a variety of environments to explore – such as a giant library; a land made of sweets and candy; and a haunted forest – each with its own enemies, collectibles and power-ups to collect.

The variety in visuals is quite endearing, with most worlds having a vibrant and colorful look which is quite reminiscent of Disney’s golden age of animation (while not directly using settings from any actual material produced at that time). This vibrancy gives the game a joyful, almost playful tone, further reinforced by the narration and overall sound design – indeed, the game looks, feels and sounds cheerful during those five or so hours it takes to complete, which I feel also helps it stay “fresh” and not tire the player out.

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Castle Of Illusion’s in-game collectibles tracker is a feature I’d like to see in more games.

As a brief aside, the quality of a platform game is often dependent on its control scheme – the overall “feel” of controlling the player’s character (which is affected by a multitude of factors, such as player velocity, gravity, friction and so on), which can make or break the experience.

In Castle of Illusion the control feel is, for the most part, functional – you’ll not find any excessive sliding or imprecision when platforming and neither any problems with hitbox detection or collision detection (which govern the player’s model reaction towards enemies and platforms/solid objects respectively). There is a slight delay with certain jumps, especially in areas that are visually overloaded (such as certain setpieces in the candy-themed world) but for the most part it is not noticeable.

Steamboat Trophy

The game’s achievements are closely tied to its various collectibles – the game boasts around 400 “Magic Diamonds” spread throughout its levels, as well as a series of rarer items such as Donald’s chili peppers or magic playing cards. I’d like to note here that the developers handled these collectibles quite well, as they’ve included a tracking system which indicates at all times how many of  each collectible were found in a level, as well as model changes for already-collected items (such as magic diamonds becoming transparent in subsequent playthroughs if the player has collected them already).

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A sample of one of the game’s few unique 3D setpieces.

There are a few more unique challenges on the way to 100% completion, such as jumping on 7 enemies without touching the ground, but those gave me little to no trouble, as the level design often complements and indicates very clearly where and how these challenges can be done.

As a game, I’d highly recommend it for anyone that wants a short-but-sweet experience to fill in the gaps between longer or more difficult games, anyone that feels fatigued by the grim, “realistic” look of most games nowadays or just as a Disney fan.

Speaking of more difficulty…

Dwarfs!?

Dwarfs!? is a weird game to classify, as it shares elements between rogue-lites, sim, management and strategy genres, with a healthy dose of randomness injected to keep things fresh. In essence, it’s very reminiscent of 2006’s Dwarf Fortress, sharing a lot of its traits – indirect control of the player’s units; randomly generated worlds; the theme of building a dwarven colony and trying to survive against a variety of hazards; and a generally high degree of difficulty (brought on mainly by how random chance affects most of the game’s core systems).

Regarding Randomness

In the game, the player starts with a newly-established dwarven outpost in a huge underground area littered randomly with caves, lakes and lava. From this outpost a constant stream of digger dwarfs is generated in fixed intervals – these dwarfs cannot be controlled directly by the player and will constantly dig out tunnels in random directions. Further, the player can create warrior dwarfs, which will usually orbit the colony’s perimeter (and, later on, outposts that the player can build on tunneled soil) – these act mainly as a form of defense against monsters that the diggers unwittingly unleash from the randomly-generated and placed caves strewn throughout the underground playing field.

Thankfully, the player isn’t left entirely helpless against the randomness. A series of tools and options allow you to indirectly affect how the diggers behave – among others, you’ll have access to guidance arrows (which can force a dwarf to travel to a specific direction for a few minutes); dynamite (used to blow up dwarfs and spawning lava- or water-blocking holes in their place); reinforced cave walls (which the diggers cannot tunnel through); and barricades (which can be used to temporarily stymie the flow of water, lava and hostiles. These tools, however, come at a cost: gold, which can only be gained by tunneling, locating mineral veins and looting caves.

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Letting things go too far might get you an early (and watery) grave.

Thus, the game becomes a sort of balancing act, constantly requiring the player to balance the cost vs. usefulness of using any of the tools at their disposal – for example, would you blow up this dwarf that just opened a cave full of water, in order to prevent it from flooding the entire cave system, or do you just plop a wall in its path and steer other diggers clear of that area until you have enough gold to seal the whole damn thing? These micro-decisions end up making the bulk of the player’s input in the game and, owing to the randomly-generated maps, make the game feel like a hectic race against time, in order to survive the elements long enough for the colony to flourish.

Modal Mayhem

All of the hectic action is compounded by the game’s general design – in the basic “Survival” mode, you are limited by a timer of your choosing, from between 5 to 60 minutes, in which time you are tasked with earning as much score as possible. Score is given for a variety of tasks, mainly by the overall distance covered by your tunnels at the game’s end, as well as for certain milestones (such as “Dig 100 squares” or “Dwarf Digger level 20”) – a leaderboard system is in place to give players a way to compete and show off their scores.

As for available modes, the game boasts no less than eight, from the aforementioned Survival, to modified versions such as Endless (no time limit) or Dark (caves are invisible until tunneled into), to unique challenges in the Scenarios mode, to various mini-games in Carnival mode. This helped the game stay interesting, even after I was long done with the Survival mode (which is to say, once the achievements were completed). My personal favorite is Rush mode, where digger production rate is upped significantly, leading to a frenzied scrabble as your tunnel system is expanded at insanely fast rates.

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A sample of the multiple modes on offer.

Achievement Architect

The achievements in Dwarfs!? are quite interesting for the most part. Aside from a few token “Reach X score in Survival Easy/Medium/Hard” ones, there’s a series of grind-based ones (mainly collecting/digging/killing certain amounts of ore/dirt/enemies), a few tied to the game’s alternate modes (mostly Carnival mode), as well as a couple of more innovative ones such as managing to destroy your colony within 15 seconds of starting a new game or getting an enemy to fall into a hole left by an exploded digger.

Generally, these achievements seem to have been designed to accrue progress as you play the game casually – there are no grinds that require specific actions to be taken, while the few mastery-based achievements (score, hitting specific level milestones as digger or warrior dwarf) are difficult mainly due to randomness rather than actual mechanical difficulty (though, mastery of the game’s tools and behaviors goes a long way towards offsetting the random factor).

Overall, I found Dwarfs!? quite an enjoyable experience – indeed, even after completing the achievement set for this and its free-to-play counterpart (which feature a save transfer system, meaning that any progress and achievements earned in the paid version can automatically be transferred to the free-to-play one, and vice-versa), I often found myself returning for “just one more game”. I feel that its combination of random-based behaviors (level generation and dwarf behavior) with reliance on mechanical mastery (the player’s tools), in the context of its short per-playthrough time, makes for a highly addictive game and so could easily recommend it to those looking for replay value and short, fun game sessions.

Which games did you play in October? Got any backlog-related horror stories to share? Tips and tricks for keeping it in check? Share below in the comments section!

 

Last Impressions – The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep

This Friday saw the end of my Bard’s Tale IV playthrough, taking more than two weeks’ worth of streaming to see it through with 100% completion (approximately 40 hours or so, with some minor content skipped due to accidentally progressing past the “point of no return”). It’s been quite the experience, to put it mildly.

First things first: you can find the VOD’s of the entire thing by visiting my YouTube channel (arranged in handy playlist form for your convenience) – there are 8 VOD’s, one for each stream, unedited and running the full duration of each session (so around 4-6 hours apiece). Everything that is described below can be seen directly in those VOD’s, so feel free to check them out as companion material to this post, if you’re curious to see what I’m talking about in action.

Additionally, this post follows up from my “First Impressions” post from two weeks ago, which you can find on this very blog – I’d recommend giving it a quick look as I’ll mostly be building up on it for this post, as well as referencing it occasionally.

With that out of the way, let’s talk bards.

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Cabbage Knight, Onion Knight’s distant (and lesser-known) cousin.

As I mentioned numerous times while chatting with viewers on-stream and in the 100Pals Achievements Discord server, Bard’s Tale IV has all the “right stuff” to be considered for my favorite game of 2018. Over the course of my streams, several elements stood out for me, such as the clever puzzle design; an amazing soundtrack; nuanced combat that encourages experimentation and forward planning; interesting exploration elements; and the general use of Gaelic/Scottish themes, which I’ve always felt are under-represented in gaming.

In no particular order, let’s have a closer look…

Elegy of Exploration

Getting around Skara Brae and the world of Caith is one of the major aspects and probably the lengthiest activity you’ll be doing in Bard’s Tale IV. Exploration is done in first-person view with semi-open map design, which borrows certain elements from the Metroidvania sub-genre. The player steadily gains access to several “Exploration Songs” used during exploration to access previously-blocked areas, such as Grandfather Sky Sees All which removes brambles and vine walls or The Stone Remembers, used to rebuild broken stone structures such as bridges and pillars.

The environments themselves are more or less decent in variety and size, with the game being broken up into three major semi-linear “hub” areas, each with its own distinct visual design, and a plethora of puzzles, enemies and challenges to overcome. The almost-open-ended level design makes exploration quite enjoyable for me – especially when returning to previous hubs and noticing that I could now access new parts of the map that I had previously thought inaccessible (and which usually housed secrets or elements that tied into that area’s more complex puzzles).

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Beautiful vistas await your fearless party to explore and plunder.

On a side-note, I noted in my First Impressions posts that a fast-travel system might have been a good addition to the game and perhaps I should elaborate a bit on that since the game does eventually unlock such a feature. However, I still feel that it perhaps not sufficient as it not only becomes available after the first ten or so hours in the game (which are spent mostly backtracking in the same area to access different main story quests) but it also only serves realistically as a level transition between the game’s three hub areas.

I would still have loved to see something geared more towards in-area transportation (such as being able to return to an area’s tavern or inn from your current location), as maps do not repopulate enemy groups once cleared, making backtracking (in the course of progressing quests rather than when exploring newly-available paths) a mostly lifeless and boring affair.

Speaking of which, how does the combat stack up?

The Battle Ballad

The combat system in this game is quite unique for a CRPG, in that it relies just as heavily on positioning and skill selection as on raw stats and equipment. For any given character, you are allowed to equip a maximum of four active skills (learned via equipment and spending your level up currency, skill points, in the game’s talent trees), which you can then use in combat.

The field itself is split into a 4×4 grid, with the bottom half containing your party and the top half containing the enemy party. Combat itself is carried out in turns, with whoever initiated combat getting the first go. Where the game deviates from traditional turn-based fare is that each team is further limited in what they can do by three factors – opportunity points; positioning; and cooldowns. Each one of a character’s equipped abilities has an opportunity cost, a specific area of effect (thus being affected by its user’s position on the grid) and a cooldown coming into effect both at the start of combat and after each successful use of said skill.

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Exploration Songs and the party’s half of the combat grid.

Rather than the usual “one-move-per-character” fare, this system allows you to customize each turn exactly as you need to – want your warrior to use three abilities in the same turn, while your other party members just take a time out? Assuming you have enough opportunity points and your positioning is correct, you can! Want to set up chain reactions with the Falkentyne’s Fury song (adds a mark on all enemies, which explodes when taking damage) and then blow up the entire enemy party with a mage’s Flame Breath? Go for it! Given the amount of skills, both active and passive, and the varying areas of effect each one uses, the whole system seems built around figuring out as many fun combinations as possible with whatever characters you have available at the time.

In fact, it often felt extremely satisfying to figure out a “line” which would allow me to emerge victorious and relatively unscathed, clearing an entire enemy party in one or two turns. In some ways, this was not wholly unlike solving a puzzle (something I’ve again mentioned constantly on stream), which segues nicely into…

The Rhyme of Riddles

Puzzle design is yet another aspect of this game that I adored – Bard’s Tale IV is positively loaded with all manners of puzzles, from simple logic problems to spatial awareness puzzles to code ciphers and so, so many more. Often used as both gating mechanics and optional content, you’ll seldom go for more than twenty minutes without encountering one.

Special mention should also be given to a specific puzzle category in the game, puzzle weapons. This is a very cool idea where certain elven weapons have puzzles built into them, usually in order of pommel, handle and hilt and which, once solved, imbue that weapon with additional properties. I found this mechanic to be interesting as a whole, since puzzles are usually cycled between two or three different variations per weapon part, which is enough to keep things fresh – while at the same time, the incentive for solving these puzzles feels more immediate and substantial (since you’re actively improving your weapons by being good at solving puzzles).

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Cog-moving puzzles are one of the most common in Bard’s Tale IV.

What I found most interesting about puzzles is that, for the most part, the designers manage to strike a balance between quality and quantity. You’ll seldom feel that any of the puzzles outstays its welcome (with the possible exception of one or two “end-of-dungeon” mega-puzzles that become tedious to solve), which is often hard to design for in games. Even more impressive to me, after getting some way into the game, I was actually beginning to feel excitement at encountering a fresh puzzle, rather than my usual reaction of exasperation and dread which lesser games have trained me to have over the years.

Finally, allow me to geek out for a moment with some miscellaneous favorites of mine.

“Fun”fare

Indeed, there’s a lot of little touches that made me love this game, a multitude of minor cool moments such as realizing that the player-made characters’ voice presets all have custom interactions with one another and with the “named” party members, or the tons of references to previous games in the series (which somehow never quite manage to get into shameless nostalgia-exploiting territory, thankfully), or how certain combat animations (especially movement) are different depending on what armor or passives you have equipped, or so many other minor features that are too numerous to list here.

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Invisible NPC’s aren’t even the worst of it…

As a final aside, I’d like to mention in passing the crafting system in this game, which is more or less functional but not fleshed out enough to merit much discussion. It’s mostly standard fare: collect materials from the game world, combine them into useful items, ranging from curatives/foods to utility items to puzzle weapons – not a very interesting system but to be honest, it doesn’t need to be.

So, if Bard’s Tale IV has so many things going for it, why did I introduce it in such a lukewarm manner? Well, about that…

The Troubled Troubadour

The unfortunate thing about Bard’s Tale IV is that, despite all of the design effort and thought put into it, it ultimately left me with a kind of bittersweet mixed feeling – not because of having an abrupt, “rocks fall, everyone dies” ending (I’m looking at you, KotOR 2), but rather because of a series of bugs, glitches and errors which, during the entire 40-hour-long playthrough, slowly became increasingly annoying and disheartening.

Make no mistake, this is a great game (perhaps my game of the year, even), but in its current state I would be very hesitant to recommend it without the additional qualifier that it takes a lot of patience.

First and foremost of these problems is the performance – even on an i7-6700 running on an nVidia GTX 1060 6GB, the game couldn’t run smoothly at anything above Low settings (and even then, in certain effects-heavy sequences, it would choke up numerous times). While this by itself wouldn’t be too much of an issue – and to inXile’s credit, they’ve already put out numerous patches to try and address the issues, even if they still haven’t quite managed to get everything sorted – there is also an inordinate amount of loading going on with each area transition, often taking as much as a minute of loading (and keep in mind that you are expected and sometimes asked to go through multiple level loads for some quests).

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…though invisible area transitions probably are.

Compounding this are a number of glitches, from disappearing NPC’s to event triggers not activating properly and even the occasional crash or three (and my personal pet peeve where, as of writing this post, the game does not have an option to select which monitor it displays on for multi-monitor setups, which means that resizing/repositioning the game’s window manually must be done every single time the game launches).

The worst of these, however, happened during the penultimate quest – requiring that I locate a level exit in the first hub area, which would take me to the final area and the game’s ending. The problem was that, as it turned out, the ladder I was meant to use to trigger that level change had popped out of existence, meaning I had no clue or idea of where I needed to go to actually finish the game. Eventually I got lucky and noticed that doing a mouse-over where the ladder was supposed to have been (and which I had no idea was even there), the level change prompt appeared.

I wish I could have given a much more glowing recommendation here, I really do. Bard’s Tale IV was one of the very few games of 2018 to get me to obsess that much over it (the only other contender being possibly Monster Hunter World) and there is a lot to love here but the truth is that, currently, the game still needs a lot of fixing. While not a dealbreaker for me (even with all the complaints I just leveled at it), I’d still wait for a few more patches to straighten things out before recommending this to anyone else.

Have you played Bard’s Tale IV? Seen it on mine or other streams? What are your thoughts on it? Share below in the comments!

Attack of the Backlog! – Intro and September 2018 Round-Up

In Attack of the Backlog!, I’ll be discussing my attempts at tackling an ever-growing backlog of games, from both a campaign/story and an achievements completion point of view. For the sake of keeping track of things, I’m only going to mention games I’ve actually finished and/or completed that month, as otherwise it will quickly become quite confusing.

As the games industry grew over the last few years, so too did the means and avenues of acquiring said games. Through a multitude of sources, there seems to be no end to all the games one can get. Be it sales, bundles, freebies, special promotions, free-to-play games and so on, the entire industry has never before reached this high of a ratio between content frequency and availability.

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One of the games we’ll be looking at today and possibly the most aesthetically pleasing of them.

Which, in turn, has led to an unprecedented growth in peoples’ backlogs. No longer do we buy a game or two per month, playing them to the exclusion of anything else until they were beaten and mastered – nowadays, thanks to the fast-paced marketing of it all (and helped along by some basic human impulses of the “get it now, while it’s cheaper” mentality), it’s not uncommon to have tens, hundreds or in some cases, even thousands of games waiting to be played on a shelf, a drawer or (more commonly) a digital storefront library.

I undertook a personal challenge at the start of 2018, following the realization that (at the time) the rate I was buying games at would effectively mean I’d be in my 70’s before managing to complete most of what I own. Thus, I would limit myself to the below rules:

  1. Complete at least three games per month – “completion” in this context being either “seeing all main story content” or “completing that platform’s achievement list” – there are certain games where the time commitment is too big for a realistic 100% achievements completion, so in those cases I’ll count completing the main story as sufficient.
  2. Only buy games at a ratio of one new game per six completed ones. This was chosen to limit my backlog growth, help me prioritize my purchases and still allow me to get any games I truly felt were must-haves.
  3. Work on as many platforms as possible. This goal was more loosely defined as, at time of writing, my backlog spreads across multiple consoles – the PS3, PS4 and Vita; XBox 360; Nintendo 3DS and Wii U; and of course, PC (which is divided between several digital retailers such as Steam, GOG etc.).

As of time of writing, this “challenge” has been successfully going for nearly ten months – a summary post will be made at the end of the year but, for now, I’ll discuss some highlights from each month, starting with September.

September saw my backlog limited substantially, with no less than seven games finally being completed:

  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Special Edition (Steam)
  • In Verbis Virtus (Steam)
  • Splice (Steam)
  • The Marvellous Miss Take (Steam)
  • Cortex Command (Steam)
  • Babel Rising (Steam)
  • Severed (PS Vita)

Of these, we’ll be having a closer look at two cases I found most interesting – In Verbis Virtus and The Marvelous Miss Take. Please note that in this context, “interesting” does not necessarily equate to “good” but rather that it can allow for in-depth analysis and discussion.

The Marvellous Miss Take

This game was simultaneously one of the most intriguing and most disappointing games I’ve played in a while – a stealth-based isometric puzzle game of sorts, which follows the titular Miss Sophia Take, heir to her aunt’s collection of art exhibits which were appropriated by the game’s antagonist, in a series of heists carried out to reclaim said art pieces. Joining her are suave gentleman thief Harry and street-wise pickpocket Daisy, with each character having unique abilities and play styles.

The initial excitement

The game is presented in a charming, slightly exaggerated art style which immediately feels fresh and cheerful, with a certain 80’s vibe being readily apparent. This is further reinforced by the game’s soundtrack, which does a good job of giving the game a heist movie feel, a la Ocean’s Eleven.

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As seen here, the randomized pathing can sometime make things too easy…

The game takes place across five chapters, for a grand total of 25 levels, where players are tasked with guiding their character of choice through multi-floor art galleries with the aim of stealing various art exhibits and making it to the exit unnoticed. As mentioned, each character has a unique ability set and specific objectives built around those abilities – for example, Daisy’s levels focus on using her abilities to pick guards’ pockets for safe keys, while Harry’s are designed around his slower movement speed and superior capability for causing distractions and manipulating guards’ patrol paths.

Initial impressions of Miss Take were very positive. The retro aesthetic feels fresh and unique, the dialogues are well-written and provide a good balance of levity and exposition to break up the heist parts of the game, the level design and its slight alterations depending on which character you’re visiting a level with keep things fresh and exciting – the list goes on with how many things the game gets right.

So, then, why did I describe it as being disappointing? Well, about that…

The game’s central mechanic, stealth, is for the most part pretty standard as far as isometric games go. As seen in other genre classics like Commandos, you can always see an enemy’s visual (and in the case of guard dogs, olfactory) range, shown as cones or circles originating from each enemy – simply put, standing in these means that their respective guards can see you. This is combined by a noise system, where running characters produce loud noise which can attract nearby guards to investigate, as well as a cover system (where you can take cover behind obstacles to avoid detection).

As a system, it works reasonably well, simple to use and easy to combine into more complex strategies (such as deliberately using running noise to re-position guards to more advantageous locations or using cover to skirt around camera placements and so on). Unfortunately this is where the game’s first big flaw, the camera, makes a mess of things.

So, what went wrong? 

Due to some weird design decision, the overhead camera is tethered to the character you’re controlling, meaning that exploration is limited to their immediate surroundings – this, coupled with an extremely zoomed-in view of the game, leads to a lot of situations where guards that are just a few steps off-screen can spot your thief before they have time to react (and yes, there are indicators for nearby guards but, lacking any information on how far away they are or what obstacles are in the way, these indicators are largely a distraction more than anything else). This camera tethering further complicates things when you need to move quickly, either to slip through guard patrol paths or to escape pursuit, since it has the annoying tendency to “bounce” when panning around too fast.

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…or quite hard, if you’re unlucky.

This is further exacerbated by the controls, which are in many cases imprecise – a fatal flaw in a game that requires timing and precision to avoid detection. In several occasions, mostly while trying to get close to walls or cover, the game would register movement commands slightly offset from the mouse pointer’s actual location. This often led to the character attempting to go around the wall or obstacle in question, and inadvertently into a guard’s cone of vision or a surveillance camera’s detection range.

Even so, by themselves these would be easily-forgiven issues. Sadly, the third (and most egregious) issue the game has is what really ruins the entire experience: randomized guard pathing AI.

Guards and NPCs in Marvellous Miss Take do not have preset walk and patrol paths (with a few exceptions for stationary guards and CCTV cameras). Instead, they are coded to move in a certain direction until they reach a wall, obstruction or door, in which case the game chooses a random new direction for them to take.

I found this to work extremely poorly in most cases, with guards often getting stuck in a path between two doorways (as their AI would randomly decide to go back the way it came from at each door) for minutes at a time, or in some cases causing multiple guards to converge from across the level into the room I was hiding in, leaving me boxed in and trapped with no way to escape (and through no fault of my own, such as drawing a guard’s attention).

This becomes even more problematic when considering that, for two of the three thieves, the game also has timed elements – there are usually three objectives in any given level level: steal all story-related loot (the only mandatory one to complete a level); steal any optional loot available; and depending on the character you control, either stay unnoticed for the entire level (Harry) or beat it under the level’s par time (Sophia and Daisy). The third objective can (and will) often go awry if you’re looking to complete it, as the random nature of the pathfinding AI often means you’ll be stuck waiting for guards to randomly get into a more advantageous position, which either costs a lot of time or several retries.

Wishful thinking

The most disappointing thing about this game is that it has so much potential – a more fluid camera system and preset guard routes would be all it took to have made it feel more like you’re planning a grand, daring heist and less like just waiting for the randomness to swing in your favor. While on the subject of changes, I also believe that the addition of a custom level editor (something that the more recent stealth offering Aragami did post-launch, much to their fans’ delight) would offer the replayability that (I assume) the developers had in mind when implementing the random factors, while also allowing for a more involved and active community to form around it.

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Distractions are a viable tactic, at least.

As it stands, while the game is still competent in its execution of the core stealth aspects, it is weighed down by a series of design choices that don’t mesh well together and therefore lead to much frustration.

On a final note – What about achievements?

The game’s achievements are, for the most part, straightforward. There are a certain few which are awarded for displaying mastery of the mechanics (such as successfully keeping a guard suspicious for a full minute, which requires clever use of the sound distraction mechanic and the level layout), but the majority center around either completing all objectives with every character and collecting all optional loot.

Like mentioned above, the frustration potential is apparent and often noticeable, but even then it’s a short game to complete – my time to 100% ran just a bit over 14 hours, a couple of which were definitely caused by randomness-induced level restarts.

And speaking of frustration potential…

In Verbis Virtus

Another of my long-overdue games, In Verbis Virtus is an interesting experience, again marred by  some really weird design decisions. The player takes on the role of a wizard exploring an ancient ruin in pursuit of hidden knowledge, with only their voice at their disposal – quite literally.

Let’s talk magic 

Design-wise, In Verbis Virtus is for the most part a typical physics-based puzzle FPS. During the game, the wizard gradually unlocks a variety of spells which can affect their environments in a variety of ways – lighting rooms; pushing and transporting heavy objects; melting ice; freezing water; and so on and so forth. Thus, puzzles have been built around using and combining said spells, ranging from simple “carry the object to its correct place” to more complex “combine spell effects to navigate treacherous environments” deals.

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Some puzzles are as simple as just lighting the way.

Unique to this game, however, is the means of activating these spells, which is solely via voice control. Each spell is activated by its component words spoken into the PC’s microphone, usually two or three words in length, with choices of English and the game’s own Maha’ki language.

For the first few hours, I found this quite interesting – the ruins are cleverly designed, with a series of interconnected rooms and puzzles, each requiring smart application of the (initially) limited toolkit of spells at the player’s disposal. Having to speak the words for each spell is novel enough to keep things interesting for a while. However…

Speaking in languages

While the core mechanic of the game – voice-recognition used to activate in-game abilities – is an interesting innovation, the majority of the game (anything past chapter 1) is not properly built to complement it.

Combat, for example, often relies on casting a series of spells in quick succession while simultaneously avoiding any incoming attacks with very precise timing, something that voice controls are not particularly suited for.Similarly, a lot of the latter puzzles often center either around precise and fast casting (such as having to navigate swinging platforms by teleporting on them while freezing them to stop their movement briefly) or by repeatedly using the same spell in quick succession (such as having to rotate several items around a room with the Telekinesis spell).

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Some weird lens flare effects, likely a problem of the engine.

These elements would not be problems when utilizing a more traditional control scheme but when every spell requires a two- or three-word phrase to be spoken out loud (and with a lot of the spells sharing words between them) it becomes very easy to mispronounce or say the wrong word or get the timing wrong while under pressure. In turn, this leads to frustration, mistakes and eventually makes the whole experience feel more like a chore to get through. Of course, similar issues also arise if you carry an accent that the game doesn’t recognize – something which I’ve thankfully not had happen to me too often, but even so, the voice recognition is not always accurate.

Voicing questions

I feel that in this case, the game would have been better off by including an alternate casting scheme, where players can bind spells to the keyboard/mouse rather than have spellcasting being controlled solely by mic. Yes, it would defeat the whole purpose of the game but as an option it would be hugely beneficial to anyone with an accent; non-English speakers; people without microphones; or even just to provide players a less frustrating alternative to the oft-imprecise voice controls.

Alternatively, I would have loved to see the game do away with all the time-sensitive stuff and combat, and focus more on the puzzle aspect, preferably emphasizing multi-segment solutions (a good example of which is a sequence in chapter two, where the player is called upon to solve a few single-room puzzles that unlock elements in a third, overarching one).

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At least the work put into the environments is obvious.

As is, while the core mechanics are extremely enjoyable and novel, I would only recommend this game as a curiosity or as an interesting case study in voice-controlled mechanics.

Achievements, you say?

As an achievement game, In Verbis Virtus is more or less a run-of-the-mill affair. Aside from the “end of chapter” usual fare, it also boasts a series of collectible-specific ones (which can become unobtainable if you trigger a chapter change too soon), a few that unlock on each spell’s first use and a couple of grind-based ones (weirdest of which is one that requires that the player saves at least 50 times). Happily, there are also a few less conventional (and therefore more interesting) ones, usually awarded for creative use of certain spells or locating certain hidden interactions. Rounding up the list are also two for getting each of the game’s endings, as well as a couple linked to the game’s various enemies.

At the close, the game took around 17 hours to fully complete, including a few hours’ worth of frustration and reloading a previous save once I figured out I had missed one of the collectibles – all in all, not a particularly interesting list but, as mentioned previously, it does the job competently.

Which games did you play in September? Got any backlog-related horror stories to share? Tips and tricks for keeping it in check? Share below in the comments section!

First Impressions – The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep

Full Disclosure: I was a backer for the game discussed in this post, The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep, on Kickstarter during its initial campaign run in July 2015.

Note: A few clarifying statements should be made before this post, in the interest of avoiding misunderstandings.

Firstly – this article is being written from the point of view of a long-standing fan of both the genre in general and the Bard’s various Tales over the years in specific. While attempts have been made to keep everything as self-contained as possible,  a few comparisons to earlier games in the series were inevitably made – as such, I’ve done my best to explain said references whenever possible.

Secondly – Until time of writing, I’m only at around ten or so hours into the game (hence the First Impressions title), therefore the opinions expressed here are neither final nor representative of the entire game. I have streamed the entirety of these early sessions on Twitch, which you can find uploaded on my YouTube channel if you’re interested in seeing my time with the game “in person”, so to speak.


Nostalgia is a weird thing. In recent years, a growing subset of the gaming industry has come to the realization that certain demographics (mainly people between 20 and 40 years old) are extremely prone to nostalgia – thus, a near-constant stream of remakes, re-releases, remasters and repackaged collections have found their way into our collections and digital libraries.

It didn’t stop there, though. This heavy leaning into nostalgia eventually caught on in yet another recent trend: crowdfunding. Ever since the now-famous Broken Age Kickstarter campaign, a sizable percentage of crowdfunding campaigns (mostly on Kickstarter, more recently Fig and IndieGoGo as well) have been marketed and promoted with nostalgia in mind. This, in turn, has led to such success stories as Wasteland 2, Shovel Knight, Hyper Light Drifter and FTL (which has already been prominently featured in a multi-post Let’s Play in this very blog) – but does that success also apply to inXile Entertainment’s latest crowdfunded release, The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep?


I’ve always been a big fan of first-person dungeon crawler RPG’s. Be it turn-based or real-time, with grid-based movement or free-roaming, a good portion of my formative gaming years included the likes of Bard’s Tale, Ultima Underworld, Lands of Lore and so on and so forth.

There was something very appealing in the concept behind this sub-genre: the idea of creating a party from scratch, trying to have as many options as possible, then testing your mettle in giant multi-level areas filled with pitfalls, enemies and puzzles. Whether the whole endeavor ended in success or failure was usually only a minor, momentary consideration against “the journey“, all those steps taken up until that endpoint, all the traps avoided, all the enemies vanquished, all the mazes and puzzles navigated.

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The art direction in this game is quite well-done.

The Bard’s Tale trilogy was always a standout within its genre. Having introduced the concept of buffing your party via bardic song (the concept of persistent buffs to your statistics was not generally in use prior to the first Bard’s Tale, as far as I remember), as well as offering save transfer functionality across the series (similar to what the Quest for Glory series would also do a few years later) made this a well-regarded series at the time, as well as one of my favorite titles of that period.


How, then, does Bard’s Tale IV measure against the original trilogy? To be sure, it’s quite a different experience altogether: combat is now grid-based and gives emphasis to party member positioning, while an increased focus has been placed on exploration, dialogues and puzzle-solving. This might feel slightly alienating to old fans of the series (as is evident in a small handful of reviews on Steam and the game’s forums), but in all honesty I found it quite refreshing and enjoyable, if perhaps a little poorly-paced in the first few hours.

Bard’s Tale IV takes place in Skara Brae, as with all previous entries in the series. Set around 100 years after the events of the original trilogy, the game opens with the city (rebuilt after its destruction in Bard’s Tale III) being under occupation by a religious group called the Fatherites, who facilitate a crusade of sorts against adventurers, outsiders and non-human races. The player is tasked with resolving this crisis, relying on their wits, strength and companions in order to survive, while looking for clues as to who or what is responsible for these events.

After a short introductory cutscene, where we witness the execution of several non-humans and outsiders, we are given control of Melody, a pre-made Bard intended to be used until the character creation option becomes available. We are also introduced to Rabbie, a bard acting as leader to the now-outlawed Adventurer’s Guild and given our first quest: reach the Adventurer’s Guild.

Unfortunately, this is also where a few of the game’s issues start showing. The game suffers from extremely long loading times, as well as frequent dips in frame rates. These performance issues appear to be commonplace, as a quick browse through the game’s forums and the related Steam Discussions page will confirm. To inXile’s credit, there have already been three major performance patches released (the last of which coinciding with this post’s initial draft) and there have been noticeable improvements over each one, although the overall experience is still not entirely up to spec.

The game’s audio, on the other hand, is spot-on. A series of lore-appropriate Gaelic accents give BT4 a rustic, almost rural feeling, while the various songs and poems heard throughout Skara Brae have been thus far quite charming and well-written. I would have preferred a bit more in the way of background music (such as having your party’s Bard sing while out of combat), but apart from that and a few minor discrepancies in dialogue volume, I was quite pleased with the sound in this game.


On the subject of songs, I particularly liked how the developers implemented a sort of Metroidvania-esque system in BT4 and tied it to the Bard’s repertoire of songs. The level design follows a much more open-world philosophy, where you are expected to backtrack after acquiring certain songs and abilities in order to gain access to previously blocked paths or secret areas.

Within the first few hours the player is introduced to a series of songs that can be used for a variety of environment-altering actions, such as demolishing cracked walls; revealing hidden loot stashes; gaining the trust of fellow adventurer NPCs; and detecting enemies and secrets. In turn, this gives the game an air of exploration (as opposed to the original trilogy, where progress was much more linear) with frequent rewards for the observant player.

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One of the earlier forms of puzzles in the game, cog puzzles.

Complementing the exploration aspect is a heavier emphasis on puzzle-solving. There are various small but clever puzzles to be solved within the game’s first few hours, ranging from tests of the player’s spatial awareness (manipulating their immediate environment to create paths to otherwise inaccessible locations) to simple mechanical puzzles (such as mechanical puzzles where the player moves cogs on a board, in order to power gate mechanisms), to more difficult logic-based ones (like a series of Elven shrines, which require the player to decipher cryptic poems in order to find out what items to place on each shrine) – these provide great contrast and a much-needed “quiet time” in between the more hectic combat segments, something that the original trilogy’s combat-heavy design lacked.


Speaking of which, combat is another area where the game slightly deviates from the original designs. While it is still very much a turn-based affair, thanks to the addition of a positioning grid and character placement system, it now requires a good deal more thought put into every turn.

Within each combat scenario, both the player’s party and the enemies are placed in two opposing halves of a 4×4 placement grid. Abilities, spells and attacks all have specific ranges, depending on where each character is placed upon their side’s 2×4 grid, requiring careful consideration in placing each party member. This is compounded by the Opportunities system, a resource spent on moving, attacking or using abilities each turn.

This combination of limited actions within a rigidly-defined field leads to a lot of interesting tactical choices – especially when you gain access to abilities and passives that allow you to manipulate positioning and Opportunity costs. Even in the early stages of the game, these abilities and limitations presented some quite clever problems to be solved, almost puzzle-like in style and quality.

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The aforementioned grid-based combat system.

As an example, Fighters (built as a tanking character) gain access to the To Me! ability which, when activated, allows the rest of the party members to get refunds on used Opportunity if they moved towards the Fighter’s grid location horizontally or laterally. Similarly, the Trow Thief’s racial passive ability (which refunds Opportunity if a killing blow is made, once per turn) allows the player to neutralize weaker enemies and still keep applying pressure to their more powerful teammates.

Ultimately, this system allows for some very satisfying combat scenarios where combining abilities like the above-mentioned and pulling off advanced strategies utilizing them gives a great sense of accomplishment, not unlike solving a puzzle.


However, not all of my impressions were as positive as the above. The game sometimes has pacing problems – both due to the aforementioned backtracking* (which might have been less noticeable with a more in-depth fast travel system or a small number of respawning enemies) and the heavy reliance on dialogue trees in order to convey backstory and lore (something that might have been better relegated to an in-game journal or glossary), which tend to slow down the game noticeably.

*As a brief aside, I realize that backtracking is sort of a hallmark of the whole Metroidvania-esque design, but even the sub-genre’s granddaddy Symphony of the Night had certain systems in place (such as teleportation chambers and powers that increase mobility) to cut down on the annoyance of retreading familiar locations. As such, there’s no excuse to not have something like that in BT4 – perhaps utilizing the game’s save points as a sort of fast-travel target.

Similarly, some of the party’s voice lines become annoying over time, especially voice cues informing the player that an enemy you’re about to engage is way beyond your current power levels, which are repeated every time you face said enemies – there is an option to disable these but I would have preferred a middle-ground solution, perhaps some way to tweak the frequency these exclamations occur at.

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A sample of the constant nagging when the player so much as looks at high-level enemies.

Another, lesser complaint is also the large amount of typographic and syntax errors present in the game, with several instances of the in-game text not being capitalized properly; words being used in the wrong context (e.g. affect vs. effect); typographical errors (alter instead of altar); and so on and so forth. These, however, are easily fixed (which I fully expect to happen within the next couple of months, based on inXile’s response to the more serious performance issues displayed in the initial releases) and therefore I wouldn’t consider as more than minor annoyances.

Finally, a few minor nitpicks. The inventory system would benefit greatly from a sorting or filtering option (especially as you get multiple pages of items as early as the second major area); the save points system could use a revision, as certain areas are either too sparsely or too densely populated with them; and an option to reallocate spent skill points (perhaps at a price) would do much to encourage experimentation in building characters.


In the end, despite a few issues encountered in the first few hours of the game (both technical and otherwise), they were not enough to distract me from how clever and rewarding the combat and exploration aspects of the game feel. Assuming no major design missteps further on in the game, I can easily see myself having a very pleasant and enjoyable time with it in the foreseeable future.

What are your thoughts on this game and its genre? Did you play Bard’s Tale IV? Love or hate this genre? Feel free to discuss it in the comments section below!