Gaming on a Timer

Attack of the Backlog! – December 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.

There’s an unspoken expectation associated with holiday periods – spend time at home, eat lots of food and, in gaming circles, get in as much play time as possible (which would be good, from a backlog-reducing perspective) and get stuck into as many sales as possible (which would conversely be very bad). Naturally, this leads into some very interesting times for the old backlog (what with a certain reduction challenge going on), so let’s see how that went:

  • 65,25% average Steam achievement completion (+0,87% from November)
  • 231 Steam games in progress (with achievements)
  • 1180 Steam games unplayed, 471 of which come with no achievements
  • 207 Steam games at 100%
  • games added to account
    • FORCED Showdown
    • STARWHAL
    • Sunset Overdrive
    • Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth – Rising Tide
    • Access Denied
    • Finding Paradise
    • Songbringer
  • Steam games completed
    • Another World 20th Anniversary Edition
    • Who’s That Flying?!
    • Before the Echo
    • Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon
    • Shadows of the Vatican Act 1: Greed
  • 39,10% average PSN trophy completion (+1,26% from November)
  • 48 PSN games played overall
  • 864 unearned trophies
  • 3 PSN games completed
    • Zero Time Dilemma (PS Vita)
    • Another World (PS Vita)
    • Burly Men At Sea (PS Vita) 

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

Bloodstained, an excellent throwback to NES-era Castlevania games, intended as a prequel to Ritual of the Night.

First thing you’ll notice is numbers going up, a good thing overall – more games finished than November, higher completion %’s, good stuff overall. On the “adding new games” front, things didn’t quite work out as intended. While I hadn’t actively gone out and bought much during the sales (in fact, during Steam sales I had only picked up Access Denied, which looks to be a very interesting / affordable puzzle game), between several secret Santa events (FORCED, STARWHAL), an impulse buy (Sunset Overdrive which finally hit Steam earlier in December), some giveaway wins (Beyond Earth DLC) and some very unexpected gifts (Finding Paradise and Songbringer), we still end up with more games in than out, so I guess the second goal of the challenge didn’t quite pan out for December.

Console-wise, it was mostly a Vita-only month (with some small progress in a couple of Wii-U games, which I’ll probably discuss in future posts), as last month’s Exile’s End 100% got me playing more stuff on the old handheld. Unfortunately, not much to talk about in general – Zero Time Dilemma I’ve extensively discussed a while ago in July 2017 when I first played it on PC, and it’s really one of those experiences that can’t be freely discussed as their narrative hinges on lot of spoilers and dramatic reveals. Suffice it to say, if you like good mystery, decent puzzles and complex narrative structures, you need to get some Zero Escape (the series’ overarching title) in your life yesterday.

Second time round, Zero Time Dilemma took a lot less to complete (but the story was so worth it).

Burly Men At Sea is similarly a weird cookie, narrative-wise – the game follows the adventure of the titular burly, bearded men through a looping series of multiple-choice events which, when strung together, form a series of mini-adventures. There’s a lot of charm to be found here, especially in the writing and sound design, but (for trophy purposes) the whole system kind of loses its novelty at around the third or fourth time you have to go through the same events, in order to make different choices to unlock alternate “endings”. Thankfully, it’s at least a quite short game, with each story sequence taking roughly 5-15 minutes to read through and the entire thing lasting around 2-3 hours at most.

On the other hand, Another World (being a re-release of the 1991 Eric Chahi classic of the same name), rarely bothers with narrative, save for a few short, vague cutscenes – in its case, gameplay mostly revolves around dying. A lot. Another World is a good example of the trial-and-error design that was prevalent in the early days of the medium – the game itself can be completed in roughly an hour, but only if you know the exact sequence of steps needed to reach the end screen. If not, then be prepared for a few hours’ worth of restarts, with each death bringing much-needed insight into what the “safe” places and actions are in each screen. Disappointingly, the achievement/trophy list takes inspiration from this, with a “Die 50 times” achievement included – something that’d make some sense superficially (as the game relies on dying/restarting as a mechanic) but which ultimately penalizes better or more experienced players (which presumably died a lot less than 50 times during the game) with grinding deaths post-ending to earn this.

Which brings us to the PC games finished in December – a bit broader and more varied selection, although similarly to the Vita games I’ve finished, there’s very little to talk about in-depth. Aside from Another World (again), most of my time was taken up between Who’s That Flying?!, a somewhat… unique take on the sidescrolling shoot-em-up genre, and Before the Echo, which some might know better as Sequence (renamed due to some legal mumbo-jumbo back in 2015), an excellent RPG-rhythm game fusion which, unfortunately, gets rather marred by its over-reliance on grind to (presumably) pad out its runtime. Bringing up the rear were Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon – an 8bit platform throwback to Castlevania, meant as a tie-in to the upcoming Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night – and Shadows of the Vatican – Act 1: Greed, a rather basic point-and-click adventure game which I found wholly unremarkable (in fact, its most remarkable feature is that development of its most current act, 3, has been in production limbo for a few years now).

Before the Echo’s combat system is quite unique and a refreshing take on the genre.

Let’s have a closer look at Before the Echo though – aside from being a unique blend of rhythm-game mechanics and RPG progression systems, it’s also an excellent example of how to badly implement grind and randomness.


Before getting started, keep in mind that I loved this game. From a mechanical standpoint it is quite well-made, boasting a unique three-field note track (more on that below) instead of the usual one-field approach that other well-known rhythm games (such as Guitar Hero) have taken, which gives it a much more “tactical” or priority-based approach. Its story is functional, in a good way – not dense enough to distract from the game’s core focus but neither sparse enough to feel unsatisfying (although I’d love to see a game that explores this universe in more depth).

The song list is also excellent (especially considering that this is by no means a high-budget project), boasting quality over quantity (admittedly, the genre selection is limited to mostly electronica and rock but it works in this context), with a small handful of songs used throughout the game’s seven levels. Which, in turn, brings us to what is easily my favorite part of this game – the note track combat system. As mentioned previously, there are actually three distinct note fields which the player can rotate into at will. The three fields correspond to attack, defense and mana – red, green and blue respectively.

In Before The Echo, each song represents a fight against an enemy monster or boss and with each note matched in whichever field the player has active at the time, different actions are taken. Matching notes in the red attack field will cause damage to the enemy, while matching them in the green defense field will negate damage towards the player. Meanwhile, the blue mana field acts as a sort of in-between buffer zone, where players can accumulate resources for their attacks when attacking or defending isn’t an option.

Unfortunately, its’ RPG mechanics depend way too much on RNG and grinding…

Thus, with this simple RPG-esque variation on the standard rhythm game formula, the game immediately becomes centered more around planning and anticipation, rather than just reacting to note drops.

Unfortunately, this is also where the aforementioned problems appear – the RPG elements in Before the Echo also include a crafting and spell learning system (spells being the attacks you can launch via the red field, crafted items being equipment that increases the player’s damage and defense), which would be fine except that it depends on luck and grinding for experience. In order to learn spells and craft items, experience points must be expended (and therefore the player must grind experience in order to progress their level and acquire new abilities or items).

Meanwhile, the item crafting system works concurrently on a percentage system, where the base chance of succeeding in creating an item (50%) can be increased by further spending even more experience. This ends up forcing players into repeating fights to accumulate enough experience to craft items they need or new abilities (and keep in mind, some crafted items are required in order to progress through the story).

…as evidenced by the absurdly low chances (which force huge XP expenditures).

I’d assume this was done in order to increase the game’s length (as mentioned before, the selection of songs is limited and similarly, the story is quite short if all the grind is disregarded) but even so, I’d much rather have had half of the current runtime in order to reduce or even eliminate the tiresome repetition – but even so, I’d still recommend this game in a heartbeat, just for its unique take on the rhythm genre.

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

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!

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.

20181105013751_1
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.

20181105013557_1
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!

 

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!

Insanity in Horror Games – Eternal Darkness Retrospect

Eternal Darkness box art.

I’ve never been a fan of horror games as a whole. Oh, I’ve played around with the Resident Evil series (long before it was reincarnated into it’s trigger-happy fourth installment) and even tried the Silent Hill games on the PSX, but I’ve never been able to stomach the truly visceral horrors of, say, Amnesia or Fatal Frame.


One particular exception to this rule, however, was Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem by Silicon Knights, released way back in 2002 on the GCN. Here was a game that, at first glance, was a cheap grab at the Cthulhu mythos with eldritch abominations, forgotten gods and Lovecraftian settings (such as the Rhode Island manor, or the underground city of Ehn’gha), which nonetheless manages to stand out for it’s original, multi-perspective narrative, interesting combat system and, ultimately, the Sanity system.

Note the sanity bar, color-coded green.

The sanity system in Eternal Darkness, while by no means original (effectively a second health bar), was implemented in such a way that caught most gamers off-balance. Aside from the more mundane camera tilts and eerie whispers, as your sanity dwindled and dropped further, paintings’ vistas warp from serene to infernal settings, walls start bleeding and stone busts turn to face your character as you walk past. And eventually, one of the more intense insanity effects would trigger: Your character’s limbs might explode, or they might shrink down to a fifth of their size, or possibly the next room you entered would be upside-down. Finally, one of the real heavy-hitters would jump in: the TV volume would seemingly lower itself down to zero, or a BSOD would kick in, informing you that the game was corrupt and had to be restarted. Talk about a real mind screw.

Blur-o-vision, how predictible.

What surprises me nowadays, though, is that in an industry that thrives on “borrowing” successful ideas, I have yet to see another game that implements these ideas (even the mildest of them). Take in comparison Amnesia: The Dark Descent (a visceral, haunting take on the “survival” part of the whole survival horror genre ~ *highly* recommended if you’re into horror). In Amnesia, there’s also an implementation of the sanity meter, however it only manifests as a blur filter over your vision. Underwhelming to say the least, it feels like a missed opportunity.


How about blood instead of water
when your sanity drops?

What’s weird is how well an Eternal Darkness-esque set of effects would translate into Amnesia. Agreed, maybe the whole “corrupt memory card” thing would feel out of place, but what about the other stuff? Statues animating or portraits weeping blood, this would capitalize on the sanity system in a better way than some overdone and overexploited vision filter. Maybe have a piece of furniture move in a conspicuous way, only to find it back in it’s place once you return to the scene? Again, a missed opportunity that was presumably ignored in favour of blur, the industry’s new favourite gimmick (abysmal motion controls not withstanding).


That being said, Amnesia is one of the best examples of horror-provoking, cleverly thought out game ideas of the past few years, but that’s a discussion for another time.


Resources:
=========
* Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem Wikipedia entry
* Amnesia: The Dark Descent Wikipedia entry
* Silicon Knights official website
* Amnesia: The Dark Descent official website