Gaming on a Timer

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!

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3 thoughts on “Attack of the Backlog! – Intro and September 2018 Round-Up”

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