Gaming on a Timer

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!

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!

In The Spotlight – The Pacing of Persona 5

Ever played a game where a particular aspect drew your attention? Some specific minutiae you felt like talking about, to the exclusion of all else? In The Spotlight aims to discuss just that! This week, we’ll be checking out how the pacing of 2017’s JRPG smash hit, Persona 5, works.

In case you’ve never experienced a Persona game, here’s a brief breakdown: Persona 5 is the latest in the long-standing Persona series of JRPGs (naturally), best known for their use of urban contemporary settings (as opposed to the genre “defaults” of fantasy or sci-fi), with underlying themes based in Jungian psychology, as well as a focus on character-driven narrative.

In addition, main series games from Persona 3 onward have their game structured upon two main elements – dungeon delving (where the game follows the more traditional JRPG recipe of turn-based combat, stat-building and exploration) and in-between sections centered on the protagonist’s daily life (which borrows heavily from the visual novel genre and is where most of the dialogue and character development takes place).

These two elements are compounded by a calendar mechanic; the story takes place over the course of a single year, with each event or dungeon visit expending a certain amount of time. In Persona 5, this calendar is further broken down into individual days, which are usually split into three segments – morning (with scripted sequences where the protagonist attends school) and afternoons/ evenings (where the player gets to choose to spend either by visiting dungeons or focusing on social life aspect of the game).

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The calendar system, stylish as any other part of Persona 5.

With this baseline established, let me get on with the actual topic of the post: in my opinion, Persona 5 has some of the best pacing I’ve seen in a game lately. Over the course of 87 hours (which, with my current work schedule took around 3 months), the game rarely felt like it was struggling or rushing with its story and event flow; a major accomplishment considering how much there is to do and see (currently, gameplay length aggregate site HowLongToBeat clocks the 100% completion rate to around 160 hours – that’s a lot of content).

I believe there’s two reasons the pacing works so well.

First, the contrast created between the high-action, often frenetic combat in the dungeon segments and the mellow, almost relaxing day-to-day encounters with the protagonist’s friends and social circle (appropriately for a game themed around heists, each one of these is called a Confidant) ensures that game’s pace is kept in check, with quiet moments used to great effect in building up to the eventual action segments and those in turn allowing the player to appreciate the lulls in activity all the better (this, of course, is also aided in part by the game’s excellent soundtrack, a mixture of acid jazz and J-Pop that pack a serious aural punch).

Second, and as I’d argue more important, is the amount of agency  Persona 5 gives the player in moderating their own pace throughout the game. Utilizing the aforementioned calendar system the game is structured upon, players are left to decide their own timetable for each day – be it spending time with Confidants, exploring dungeons to strengthen their party, partaking in social activities such as fishing or working a part-time shift at the florist’s, the game lets them experience its content at their own pace (and yes, there are some time limitations, especially during unskippable events or deadlines for completing each story dungeon, but those are few and lenient enough to not cause particular annoyance).

 

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Combat is only half of the game.

This is especially noticeable for players with less free time to devote to a game – evident in my case, where I could only afford maybe half an hour per session, two or three times a week plus one or two hour-long ones during the weekend – as it allows them to tailor their experience to their needs.

Second, and as I’d argue more important, is the amount of agency  Persona 5 gives the player in moderating their own pace throughout the game. Utilizing the aforementioned calendar system the game is structured upon, players are left to decide their own timetable for each day – be it spending time with Confidants, exploring dungeons to strengthen their party, partaking in social activities such as fishing or working a part-time shift at the florist’s, the game lets them experience its content at their own pace (and yes, there are some time limitations, especially during unskippable events or deadlines for completing each story dungeon, but those are few and lenient enough to not cause particular annoyance).

This is especially noticeable for players with less free time to devote to a game – evident in my case, where I could only afford maybe half an hour per session, two or three times a week plus one or two hour-long ones during the weekend – as it allows them to tailor their experience to their needs.

Only have half an hour to spare before calling it a night? You can go explore the city for a while, maybe get to know your allies a bit better or work a shift or two at the local grocery to build up your cash reserves. Got an afternoon free for gaming? Might as well delve into that dungeon, grab some new gear and experiment with the game’s fusion system (a complex function where you can combine your summoned allies – Personae – into more powerful forms).

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Social interactions are the other half.

From my own experience with the game, however much time you can spare, there’s always something meaningful to do or see in Persona 5’s version of Tokyo.

So what is the key takeaway from all this? I believe it’s a high rate of modularity in the game’s writing and structuring. This is evident in the way that Confidants, activities and main story elements work so well together, but without depending on one another to a great degree – letting the player choose their own actions in the game without feeling like they’re missing out on part of the experience or being punished for not planning out their time efficiently enough.

Ultimately, I think there’s a lesson to take away from Persona 5 – with a bit of planning, there are ways to let the player decide the game’s pace, allowing them to enjoy the experience on their own terms by utilizing a modular approach during the design phase. If I had to make an assumption, I’d say that while it would increase pre-production time (in order to design the systems needed for such functionality), it should conversely save time during testing (i.e. tuning and tweaking the experience based on player feedback, as this seems to be a self-correcting system, provided it was planned correctly).

Addendum: If you’re interested in a more in-depth explanation on pacing in games, I would recommend this Extra Credits video, titled “Pacing – How Games Keep Things Exciting” (and in general, if you’re interested in seeing what makes games “tick”, Extra Credits is a very good channel to subscribe to).

What are your experiences with pacing in games? Got any interesting examples to share from favorites? Tales of pacing done badly? Share them in the comments section below!

Games I’ve Been Playing: Legend of Grimrock

After careful deliberation, I’ve decided to try a less formal mode of writing for the next few posts, which will also coincide with a recap of my gaming life in the past year. So, in short:

In these next few blog posts I’ll be describing the few games that kept me company during last year’s absence (which I’ve already talked about in a previous post). Starting things off is Legend of Grimrock, a retro-inspired dungeon crawler made by  newcomers Almost Human Games.

It’s not hard to see why Legend of Grimrock would appeal so strongly to my demographic (aged 30-ish and above), as we’ve been practically raised on this kind of game – first person dungeon crawlers where you must fight tooth and claw against not only monsters but the environment itself and the cleverly-built traps the dungeon’s makers have devised. Such examples that still evoke a smile and pleasant memories include Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, Ultima Underworld and a multitude of similar games that had but one premise: survive the traps, gear up your characters, slay monsters and maybe, just maybe, you will live long enough to escape captivity.
Legend of Grimrock aims to bring all this to the present, wrapping up the core gameplay ideas of the genre in a new engine (which, as of this writing, has just been upgraded with a great, easy-to-use dungeon creation toolkit), bringing it more in line with modern releases. For the most part, it succeeds.
The dungeon creator: More games should come with tools like these.

The game’s story is (predictably) simple: your group of four (custom or pre-made) prisoners has been thrown into Mount Grimrock for unspecified crimes. Mount Grimrock is a vast network of underground dungeons and caves, infested with monsters and riddled with traps; thus it has become a standard means of disposing prisoners in the game’s world. From there, there is precious little in the way of a plot – aside from some notes left behind by Toorum, a previous prisoner and a series of (mostly) incomprehensible “dreams” your characters have at set intervals, the story never proceeds past the general “escape Grimrock” premise.
I feel that Almost Human missed the opportunity to incorporate a few cosmology-establishing facts, like how Mount Grimrock came to be, where did the builders of the dungeons disappear to and a lot of other questions could have been answered via environmental storytelling (the aforementioned Toorum notes could have been expanded in this regard).
The character generator, in all its glory.
However, what Grimrock lacks in a solid story it more than makes up for in gameplay. At the start of the game, the player is given the choice to create a new party from scratch (there is also a choice for a pre-made party, which I haven’t tried); the standard trinity of fighter, mage, rogue are present – as is the usual quartet of strength, dexterity, vitality and wisdom, which in turn affect a series of secondary statistics such as attack power, accuracy and health. There’s also a choice of races between humans (all-round characters with no particular benefits), minotaurs (extremely strong but require more food than other races), insectoids (which are frail, but make excellent spellcasters) and lizardmen (the most agile of the bunch). Finally, there are choices for skills (which give benefits at certain thresholds) and two perks, which serve mostly as fine-tuning options for boosting secondary statistics.
Skill points are one of the few ways to strengthen your characters.

My only gripe with the character creator is that, for all the choices available, there are certain builds that are highly favorable and advantageous, while the rest underperform – thus forcing the player into building “what works best” in order to avoid difficulties in the later stages of the game.
Simple mechanics such as weighing down pressure plates…

The level design also merits specific mention, as Almost Human has shown themselves to be masters of the discipline; the game does a great job of introducing the (relatively few) puzzle parts in the early levels, such as pressure plates, teleporters and torch sconces – in lower floors these simple components are combined into ingenious puzzles, often leaving me stumped for a good deal of time before figuring the deceptively simple solutions and walking away with a lovely feeling of accomplishment.
…are later combined in clever ways to hinder the player’s progress.

Lastly, combat. I found this part to be a mixed bag, as it keeps an aspect of the old-school dungeon crawling mindset I’ve never been fond of: circle-strafing. More specifically, the enemies in the game are mainly hard but not impossible; even early enemies such as giant snails and the mushroom-themed myconids can pose a challenge to a careless player but more often than not a fight’s difficulty is more dependent on the level design itself – narrow corridors proved to be the bane of my party on more than one occasion as there was no space in which to strafe around my enemies, thus preventing them from attacking altogether if I was sufficiently fast on the movement keys. For this reason, several of the battles (especially in lower floors) felt very mechanical and stiff in nature, as I merely kept side-stepping around enemies before their “turn” animations could finish playing, then chipping away at their health – repeating as necessary until I won.
Combat: An affair of side-stepping more than anything else.
In conclusion, Legend of Grimrock is a very enjoyable game if you can “get” into the mindset of the genre; for older gamers it feels like a highly-polished revival of one of the prime genres of the 80’s, while also being a great introduction for younger gamers that might otherwise be put off by the graphics of these oldies.
Resources
========

*Legend of Grimrock Official Site

Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Impressions

Disclaimer: This opinion piece is based on the “Give me Deus Ex” difficulty (i.e. highest difficulty) – while the article notes which parts are likely to differ in gameplay due to difficulty, a few discrepancies might occur.

Additionally, this article contains copious amount of spoilers; read at your discretion.

The Deus Ex brand (derived from the “deus ex machina” literary technique) has become a household name among PC gaming circles ever since the first game’s release in 2000; presenting a rare degree of coherent and involving storytelling, intelligent design, a gripping narrative and – above all – the hitherto unseen ability of multiple paths across any of the game’s levels.

The game is generous with its flavor text, ranging
from emails and public announcements…

Now, after eleven years (and a surprisingly mediocre sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War), the franchise returns with Human Revolution. The game is styled as a prequel to the original, featuring a dystopian society that has begun to witness the next degree of human advancement; bio-mechanical augmentation of the human body, ranging from minor prosthesis (such as cognitive aids) to full body-part replacement.

The game spends a great deal of energy to develop a believable world; the environments are designed in such a way as to reflect the recent technological advancements, the various overheard conversations hint at the side-effects of such breakthroughs, even discarded newspapers and compromised mail accounts color the world with a pessimistic, dystopian hue – this also presents one of the title’s minor problems, as most of the “flavor” text is easy to miss for a player not in the appropriate frame of mind, rewarding careful exploration and a slower pace while “penalizing” faster, all-guns-blazing approaches (something which the developer fails to communicate to the player properly).

…to overheard conversations in the streets of
any of the major city hubs.

In fact, the entire game seems to be favoring the stealthier approach to any given problem; neutralizing opponents without killing them, hacking doors and security systems (even when having the correct login credentials), finding side-passages (almost always ventilation shafts) and completing objectives without being detected will always award more experience than their more combat-heavy parallels.

This would not be a problem normally, except that the game has been marketed heavily as a “suit all styles” game – rewarding one play style while penalizing the other (by withholding said rewards) seems like a bad design choice, especially when with some tweaking it would have made a more (apparently) fair and even system (for example, while there is a “No Detection” bonus, there could also be a “Clear All Enemies” bonus to accommodate players of a more aggressive mindset).

DX: HR sadly rewards stealth far better than
aggressive playing, despite previous indications.

The game begins with protagonist Adam Jensen getting a tour of Sarif Industries (one of the game’s major factions), where he works as a chief of security; it is worth noting that at the onset, Adam is not augmented – the game does a great job of highlighting his vulnerability, with large groups of enemies proving to be vastly difficult challenges (as one would expect realistically), although the final fire-fight might be a bit too hard (on the highest difficulty setting – I assume lower difficulties have an easier time of the encounter).

At the tutorial’s end, in which Sarif Industries is invaded by a mercenary army which massacres the on-site personnel, Adam sustains heavy injuries; this allows the game to introduce the augmentation mechanic, which has been used in an effort to save Jensen’s life. The developers opted for a free-form upgrade system; each of the possible augmentations (corresponding to various body parts) can be acquired by spending Praxis points (earned via in-game items and at specific experience point thresholds) – there is no preset path of upgrades; every upgrade is available at any point in the game, provided the player has the required Praxis to unlock it.

The inventory system is highly intuitive; note the
ability to rotate any item to fit.

This offers a wide variety of approaches and play-styles throughout the early levels – sadly this does not persist, as by mid-game a particularly stealth-oriented character can gain enough exp. and Praxis kits to unlock nearly every augmentation (though upgrading them all takes a good deal more time). This eventually robs the game of replayability – from a certain point onwards Adam reaches a “default” level of power, diminishing the upgrade mechanic to a mere point-sink.

The augmentations themselves are interesting for the most part, offering a wide variety of tools to suit each play-style: from the stealthier “Glass Shield Cloaking System” augmentation that renders Adam near-invisible for a limited amount of time, to the more aggressive “Typhoon Explosive System” augmentation that blasts nearby enemies, to the more exploration-centric “Icarus Landing System” which allows Jensen to fall off great heights with no injury.

The augmentation mechanic feels highly rewarding,
even if a lot of the augmentations feel useless.

The energy system for these abilities has been balanced against overuse; every single activated ability (including silent takedowns, stealth, breaking down walls and running silently) shares a common energy pool – while it depletes in a rapid fashion, the final “cell” recharges over time, ensuring both that players are less likely to get irrevocably stuck and are rewarded for conservative use.

The combat itself is weirdly balanced; as mentioned above, stealthy characters are rewarded over their action-oriented counterparts, which is itself the result of both the level design and experience system – the levels favor stealth, with multiple side-routes built into nearly all combat areas, while experience awarded for stealth/non-lethal methods outweighs its more direct/lethal analogues.

Boss fights, the game’s second-worst element, was
apparently outsourced to a different studio.

Sadly, while the general combat and navigation is well-executed (if a bit stealth-oriented), the boss fights are a different story. At specific points in the game, certain characters will challenge Adam to one-on-one combat (usually after a cutscene); these NPC’s are badly characterized, with no apparent motivation nor reason for wanting to hinder the player’s progress – these fights are also very combat-oriented, presenting an unfair disadvantage to players who (up to that point) had to rely on stealth and hacking skills to advance.

This shift in pacing is also apparent in the game’s finale, which has Adam literally decide on the ending by activating the corresponding console, thus invalidating (in a certain degree) the choices the player has taken up to that point – all while being spoon-fed a good deal of exposition by one of the game’s NPC’s. The endings themselves are also highly disappointing: each consisting of a short collection of still images coupled with Adam’s narration, who justifies his choice – no mention is made of the fates of the game’s major factions or characters, thus denying closure to the player.

Ultimately, while the game succeeds in building a consistent, believable world with an intriguing narrative and an interesting combat implementation, its shifts in focus (boss fights), unfairly balanced experience/augmentation system (stealth vs. combat) and disappointing endings rob it of the all-time classic status.

Resources
=======
* Deus Ex: Human Revolution Official Site (requires age check)
* Deus Ex Series – Wikipedia Entry
* Deus Ex Wiki
* “Deus ex machina” – Wikipedia Entry

Thoughts – Building Consistency and DLC, Fallout: New Vegas

This article explores the various narrative links contained in Fallout: New Vegas and its’ three DLC: Dead Money, Honest Hearts and Old World Blues. As these links have been implemented with verisimilitude in mind, certain spoilers about all three DLC, as well as the upcoming Lonesome Road DLC, cannot be avoided – read at your own risk.

Disclaimer: As this post discusses how DLC can (with a bit of forward planning) help build consistency and thematic cohesion in the game world, several examples are brought. Day-1 DLC, such as “Prisoner of Stone” (Dragon Age: Origins) or the “Gun Sonata Pack” (Bulletstorm) should not be considered as true DLC as their purpose is to serve as an incentive to steer buyers away from used game markets (since said DLC are one-use codes). Such content is usually (if not always) developed concurrent to the main game; therefore analysis towards narrative expansion is rendered inconsequential.

One of Ulysses’ markings in Old
World Blues, these are common…

Concerning DLC, the vast majority of released meta-content (consisting of narrative expansions, such as additional quests, plot lines etcetera) is usually disconnected, or at least remote, from the main world’s plot and narrative – a good example would be Mass Effect 2’s “Kasumi – Stolen Memory”; while the DLC provides an interesting narrative, it is largely unconnected to the main plot.

Fallout: New Vegas and its’ DLC, however, follow a (relatively) unexplored method of interactivity between the main game and subsequent released content: while the DLC’s themselves are mostly self-contained stories, effort has been made to “tie in” their characters, story arcs and (in some cases) lore to each other, as well as to the main game.

Though their function is, thus far
unexplained (though speculated).

A good example is the character of Christine, first appearing in Dead Money; through various dialogue paths, the player learns that Christine is possibly a romantic acquaintance of Veronica Santangelo’s, a party member from the main game and has ties to Father Elijah (Dead Money’s main antagonist) who, via Veronica’s various conversations, is revealed to have been instrumental to both characters’ story lines.

What is even more surprising, however, is that Christine is also referenced in Old World Blues, where she was captured and experimented upon (thus the scarring the player character notices when she’s first introduced), while hunting down Father Elijah; it is heavily hinted that the events in Big MT result in Elijah’s eventual discovery of Sierra Madre (as again, several mentions are made – mostly via environmental cues – about Big MT’s involvement in designing and equipping Sierra Madre).

Christine, first shown in Dead Money
is revealed to have visited Big MT.

This unusual approach is taken to its’ extremes with the character of Ulysses; the mysterious Courier mentioned in the main game as the original courier in charge of the Platinum Chip, therefore instrumental in the player character’s involvement with the events of New Vegas. Ulysses is hinted at having a grudge against the player character, a concept (presumably) resolved in the final New Vegas DLC, Lonesome Road.

Several mentions are made across all DLC, as well as at certain points in the original game, that combine into an overarching story line leading into Lonesome Road; both Christine and Dog (Dead Money) reference Ulysses in the DLC’s ending slideshow, Joshua Graham (Honest Hearts) makes a passing remark during his first encounter with the player and finally, Old World Blues contains several environmental props, dialogue and audio-only cues hinting at his involvement with Big MT. and the Christine/Elijah conflict.

The Think Tank has some cryptic
info regarding Ulysses.

While using such foreshadowing techniques is not unheard of in games (good examples include the Citadel Keepers in Mass Effect and the FFVII “Holy” materia), it is a rare example of advance planning and good storytelling that DLC can not only expand, but also tie in with the existing narrative, in a display more commonly found in comic books (see continuity).

Ultimately, using said techniques serves as an example that with proper forward planning, the narrative can transcend its’ static nature and gain a more believable and quasi-dynamic feel; this, in result, helps the player immerse themselves into the game world, thus enhancing their experience considerably.

Resources
========
Fallout: New Vegas Wiki Page

Thoughts – Incorporating Clichés and DLC, Old World Blues

This article discusses how using stereotypes and genre clichés can improve the overall narrative experience, as seen in the Fallout: New Vegas DLC, Old World Blues. As describing such devices is unavoidable, there is a high degree of spoilers involved – read at your own risk.

Old World Blues is the third of
 four planned New Vegas DLC.

As of writing this post, Old World Blues is the latest (and so far, most popular) DLC for Fallout: New Vegas. The basic premise revolves around a pre-War research facility based under Big Mountain (referred to in-game as Big MT or Big Empty) which, after the onset of the nuclear holocaust, became isolated from the outside world; eventually, it developed myth-like properties as a no-man’s-land where the horrors and wonders of pre-War technology would lay claim to even the most accomplished explorer.

The entire DLC is built around the science fiction clichés of the 50’s – including mad scientists keen on making thunderous declarations of intention, semi-robotic wildlife gone mad from constant experimentation, secret underground laboratories built around (arguably) unethical goals and over-the-top contraptions that function based on quasi-scientific terminology. The initial goals, for example, revolve around retrieving the player character’s brain, spine and heart, surgically removed and replaced with cybernetic surrogates at the DLC’s onset; while never properly explained, the game’s justification remains curiously consistent with the in-universe science and provides a mindset consisting of both hilarity and drama – helped by a running b-story about the previous Courier Six (the protagonist’s predecessor), which will be the focus of a future post.

Meet the Think Tank, the greatest
collection of preserved brains…

The main cast is also steeped deep in said stereotypes; the “Think Tank”, a collection of former scientists’ brains preserved in floating mechanical constructs are a pastiche of various “mad doctor” archetypes, each developed expertly into a functioning, believable entity, consistent with the cosmology of the Fallout universe.

While the characters come across as over-the-top (understandable, as that’s consistent with the genre the developers went for), they never devolve into caricatures of their selves, as each one has certain flaws and redeeming qualities worked expertly into their backgrounds (a personal favourite is Dr. Borous); conversely, they’re all given a series of motives that fall definitively outside the good/evil spectrum of standard storytelling fare – there are no black and white motivations apparent here – while the ending is predictable to a degree, it still manages to convey logical motives for each character, helping flesh them out and give an additional layer of depth (even provoking a rare case of meta-thinking in Dr. Mobious’ case).

…and face-monitors in the post-War
scientific scene.

None of this is apparent at a first glance, however; the true triumph of Old World Blues lies in its’ ability to remain a light-hearted adventure despite the undercurrent of morally-ambiguous motivations and to the developers’ credit, it manages to do that seamlessly, without the transition becoming readily apparent.

Moments of drama are gently replaced by hilarious encounters, such as the “School” encounter: tasked with running a “Communist Detection Simulation” (consistent with the USA of the 50’s view of the world), the player runs a gauntlet constructed to resemble a school built by Dr. Borous. During the final run, the player encounters Borous’ pet dog, cybernetically modified and conditioned to be lethally aggressive. As one of the possible outcomes, the dog dies, prompting Dr. Borous to deliver a tearful speech (incidentally a great moment of character development) which is then promptly interrupted by Dr. Mobious’ robotic scorpions; in the ensuing fight the player is treated to a good deal of hilarious, over-the-top one-liners asserting Mobious’ supremacy over the rest of the scientists in true sci-fi “camp” style – the shift of tone is almost imperceptible and always remains true to the in-universe rules and behaviours.

Apparently, a psychotic toaster fits
right in with the DLC’s theme…

The secondary characters have also been infused with the same twist: The Sink, the player’s base of operations within Big MT is populated by sentient household appliances, complete with distinct and (most importantly) likeable personalities; personal favourites include the “old army veteran” medical station and the “former blues singer” jukebox – each appliance is given a very distinct and stereotypical persona, adding up to a “community” of sorts, vibrant and (thankfully) cohesive as a whole.

…as does the mandatory giant
robotic scorpion boss.

In the end, what stands out the most isn’t the characters, the locales or even the narrative; the entire experience is expertly weaved from its’ components, justifying the adage “the whole is greater than the sum of its’ parts”. Such efforts should be applauded and used as an example in how even age-old stereotypes can be utilized in modern endeavours – with proper use, a cliché ceases to be a tired repetitive gimmick and instead becomes a solid foundation in the development process.

Resources
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Thoughts – Using B-Stories and DLC, Dead Money

This article discusses the sub-plots woven into the Fallout: New Vegas DLC, Dead Money, and the value of using such devices to increase immersion. While attempts have been made during writing to the contrary, certain spoilers cannot be avoided – read at your own risk.

Dead Money, the first of four DLC
for Fallout: New Vegas…
The initial premise of Dead Money is a highly formulaic “Grand Heist” plot; forced into compliance by the enigmatic Father Elijah, the player must join forces with three similarly reluctant individuals to rob the legendary Sierra Madre casino – known throughout the Mojave wasteland as both a giant repository of wealth and technology, and a giant death trap which has claimed the lives of every single treasure hunter to ever venture in its’ depths.
The aforementioned main plot is, in itself, highly enjoyable – the Sierra Madre village and casino proper are expertly designed, providing a much-needed break from the main game’s areas; meanwhile, the heist itself plays out (and eventually resolves itself) in a few manners (left to the player’s discretion) that are very satisfying and give a great sense of accomplishment. What really makes this DLC stand out, however, are the various b-stories woven into the narrative; the companions in particular have received a great deal of characterization and as a result really help the Sierra Madre legend come to life.
…starts, just like the other DLC, with a
mysterious radio signal.
What is perhaps the most unusual part of this approach is that Obsidian chose to expand  and build upon yet another b-story from the main game; namely, Veronica Santangelo’s background (one of the possible companions the player can recruit during the course of the game) – Father Elijah is made out to have been her mentor during her formative years and was part of the reason she undertook the journey to the Mojave wasteland. 
The elusive Father Elijah, menacing
the player character.
This results in a double-edged sword, narrative-wise: on the one hand it’s entirely possible to have skipped Veronica during the main game (and thus, have no prior knowledge of her relationship with Elijah), thus missing the entire background of said sub-plot; conversely, having taken the time to follow her character arc to its’ conclusion, this b-story helps increase the player’s immersion, by giving a more believable texture to the Sierra Madre tale, eventually leading into a few insights that carry over to the main game.
Which is not to say that the Elijah arc is the only one running for the duration of Dead Money; all three of the companion NPC’s are intricately developed with a good deal of character flaws and redeeming qualities. Even the least explored of the characters, Dog (a super mutant suffering from multiple-personality disorder) is given enough depth so that he comes across as a believable (albeit slightly exaggerated) entity.
Dean Domino, former celebrity turned
ghoul by the excessive radiation.
Additionally, merit is due to the actual level design and environments, as they consist of a secondary narrative device unto themselves. From the abandoned villas, littered with the remains of a two-hundred year-long decline to decrepit ruins, to the actual casino facilities, populated for the most part by the still-functional defense mechanisms, the levels tell a story of decaying splendour and lost dreams – giving the Sierra Madre resort a life of its’ own.
Christine, the mute but expressive
stealth specialist.
To this effect, the developers have used a great deal of visual cues to aid the storytelling: various warnings and threats are scrawled across the casino grounds, left either by long-dead visitors and treasure hunters or even the player’s companions; several holographic avatars of former casino staff appear to be locked in an eternal replay of their owners’ final moments; even the more mundane (and by now, industry staple) computer journals tell of a slew of stories, small snippets of their writers’ daily lives that add up to give the Sierra Madre a rich, involving history that is believable and, above all, consistent enough to immerse the player in the experience.
Ultimately, while Dead Money certainly has a few faults (such as the arbitrary need to perform dismemberment to eliminate enemies and the constant chatter of the player’s active companion, to name a few), it succeeds as a story well told, engaging and emotionally investing to the end.
Resources

Thoughts – Narrative and DLC, Honest Hearts

This article discusses the narrative delivery of the Fallout: New Vegas DLC, Honest Hearts. As such, certain spoilers cannot be avoided – read at your own risk.

In the past few years, the gaming industry has developed a new model of business, based on offering additional content for their released products for a (usually) nominal fee – downloadable content, or DLC. These often fall in one or more of the following categories:

* Level additions, such as map packs or game world extensions.
* Tool additions, such as weapon packs or unit roster extensions.
* Mechanics updates, such as increased level caps or additional skills.
* Narrative extensions, such as additional quests or “after-the-finale” scenarios.

Honest Hearts, Fallout: New Vegas’
(chronologically) second DLC…

This article concerns itself with the narrative aspect of DLC, specifically Fallout: New Vegas’ Honest Hearts; namely, the faulty way in which the developers handled the narrative delivery.

Honest Hearts – a DLC that’s arguably the weakest of the three released so far in terms of its’ narrative delivery, mainly due to the mishandling of the character of Joshua Graham, a.k.a. the Burned Man. During New Vegas’ main game, encounters with Caesar’s Legion (a tribal-originated horde following the militant aspects of ancient Roman culture) yield the legend of the Burned Man: Caesar’s right hand man, burned alive and thrown into the Grand Canyon as a punishment for his (single, as far as the game lets on) failure – his very name forbidden to be spoken.

…features one of the least interesting
main characters in the game
.

In Honest Hearts, Joshua Graham appears as one of the major NPC’s and driving force behind the narrative, having survived (albeit terribly disfigured) and leading a small tribal band (the Dead Horses) in the remnants of Zion National Park, assuming the role of their protector against their territorial rivals, the White Legs. The main plot hook involves the player character choosing whether to assist the Dead Horses in either evacuating Zion Park or eradicating their rivals, in exchange for a way back to the Mojave desert (the main game’s play area).

Bland, two-dimensional characters
that serve only as quest fodder.

At first glance, there are a number of good storytelling opportunities here; Joshua Graham is set up as a tragic figure, having abandoned his faith (the game hints at him being a former Mormon missionary) by joining, and to a degree leading, Caesar’s Legion in their many atrocities (with great emphasis given on slavery and mass murders) and subsequently cast aside and left for dead – displayed as an example to all who would dare fail Caesar.

The problems begin to appear here, however, as the actual Joshua Graham the player meets in-game doesn’t quite live up to the hype the main game perpetuates; where there is an opportunity to present him as either repentant or unyielding, he instead comes across as being bitter and vengeful – a missed opportunity for certain, accentuated by the relatively little screen time he receives – as a result he comes across as a bland, two-dimensional character with little depth or redeeming values.

Even the tribal characters appear to
be nearly devoid of  personality.

This is a problem in general with Honest Hearts, as every major character involved in it is either killed off at the beginning, or never receives enough character development to push past the point where they are given depth and emotional investment (on the player’s part). Aside from Graham, there are a handful of characters that are integral to the story (to such a degree that if any of them die, the DLC reaches a premature “ending” of sorts) – this is never adequately explained, as the characters never appear to have anything much to actually do with the narrative aside from pointing the player to the next group of quests.

The most engrossing aspects of the
plot belong to Randall Clark…

Which is weird, seeing as there’s at least some effort in the narrative development – it’s even weirder that it’s mainly focused on one of the minor, unseen characters in the DLC; the elusive “Father in the Cave”. Scattered around Zion Park are six “survivalist caches”, sheltered and protected by traps – these constitute a series of bases that Randall Clark, a former soldier and survivor of the nuclear holocaust, used throughout his post-apocalypse life; these are masterfully crafted, with layouts that feel intuitive and believable, being consistent with what a survivalist with military training would create and use in the Fallout universe.

…an unseen character that has left
behind several journal entries.

These havens, however, consist of only half the presentation; in each one is a computer terminal, containing Clark’s journal entries – these tell a story of guilt, survival, the struggle to adapt to a rapidly-changing environment brought about by nuclear war and ultimately, self-redemption. As most of these entries correlate with the rest of the environments in Zion Park (several locations are consistent with the journals found nearby), Clark ends up being a much more compelling presence than the “main” characters – at times, piecing together Clark’s story provides such better narrative than the actual plot that I couldn’t help but wonder if he was meant to be the main focus in some early draft of the DLC, scrapped in favour of the more marketable “Burned Man”.

Ultimately, it’s interesting to note the dynamics brought about by this scenario, where secondary, “flavour” characters end up being vastly more interesting than the main characters – if only as a consideration in future development of narrative-heavy content.

Resources

Portal 2 – Impressions, Single Player

A two-part piece regarding VALVe’s latest release, Portal 2 – the first part concerns itself with the single player portion of the game and thus might contain minor to moderate spoilers. Since the game relies heavily on key plot developments, it is strongly advised to not read this article until you have completed it. You have been warned.

Portal 2 Box Art.

In Portal 2, players once again step into the (spring-heeled) boots of Chell – the protagonist of the series’ previous game – who, due to various circumstances, finds herself waking up from cryogenic sleep several years after Portal 1’s conclusion by Wheatley, an artificial intelligence construct trying to enlist her help in escaping the decaying Aperture Science facilities after a catastrophic power failure. The player navigates the environment by using a portal-generating device which can open two interconnecting portals on certain surfaces, transporting matter between them (including objects, light, fluids and of course, the player).

Portal 2’s predecessor was known as a sleeper hit, originally “bonus” content featured in VALVe’s compilation, the Orange Box. Portal went on to earn critical acclaim from the press, mainly due to its quirky brand of dark humour, clever level design , puzzle dynamics and excellent characterization. VALVe’s staple ability of maintaining verisimilitude was also credited as a major factor behind the game’s success, with the Aperture Science facility offering a multitude of side-stories, both humorous and serious in tone – thus building a believable, persistent world for the game to take place.

Effort has gone into portraying the
decay due to the passage of time.

Story-wise, Portal 2 picks up at an unspecified amount of time after the first game’s conclusion, with Chell being awakened from cryogenic sleep by Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant, who delivers his lines with admirable gusto and skill), the cryogenic facility’s supervisor trying to escape the now-defunct building with the player’s help. The story is, true to VALVe standards, integrated flawlessly into the core gameplay mechanic of portals, offering a variety of main- and side-stories that flesh out the game world considerably. There is a marked improvement in the story development over the last game, provoking thought in a much better way than its predecessor; the plot twist(s) during the game’s latter half are quite well executed, if not entirely unexpected and as such merit special mention.

Redirecting lasers, one of the new
gameplay elements introduced.

The game is divided into 9 chapters, the first acting as a tutorial introducing the portal mechanics, with subsequent chapters introducing new gameplay elements ranging from the mundane pressure-activated buttons to the more exotic ones such as the Repulsion Gel, which allows the player to ‘bounce’ off any surface it covers. These gameplay elements are continually combined to form the game’s many puzzles, ranging from simple box moving exercises to complex, gravity-defying acrobatics and high-speed infinite portal loop exploitation. This simple, ramping difficulty structure ensures that the player seldom gets stuck in any single puzzle for long, while providing a both rewarding and challenging scenarios – a few of the late-game sequences in particular proved to provoke thought in interesting ways and a satisfying feeling once they were solved.

One of the many combinations of
devices the player must tackle.

Sadly, this structure is also the part of the game that I found lacking the most; a few of the challenges felt like retreads of previous rooms, giving a slight feeling of padding out the latter parts of the single-player campaign – the various gel sequences are especially guilty of this. The thought occurs that, if the seventh and eighth chapters were merged into a single one, the game could avoid this easily. In addition, a small number of rooms (those generally involving long-range jumps, better known as ‘portal flinging’) are guilty of deceptive non-solutions; namely jumps that fall about an inch short of safety, sometimes tricking the player into repeating the same actions (and failing) again, in fear of not having the required velocity to perform said jumps.

Fluid physics are particularly fun to
watch; find a Propulsion Gel pipe…

In regards to the audio/visual component, the game is built upon a heavily modified version of the Source engine and as such looks beautiful (if slightly dated in comparison to other 2011 releases). Fluids are especially well done, with the aforementioned gel variants reacting with the environment and the various in-game entities in a satisfying way (such as coating enemy turrets in Repulsion Gel, then watching them bounce off every surface until they are destroyed). The character animations are also very well done, with Wheatley’s character model taking the fore; the work gone into his character model in particular shines as an example of body language execution (no mean feat, considering he’s basically a disembodied orb).

…and coat a nearby walkway; this will
hugely accelerates Chell’s walk speed.

The game’s audio is also of high quality, with ambient sounds that blend in perfectly with the scenery and accentuate the environments the player moves through. The music consists mainly of a series of techno tracks that are mixed on the fly depending on the player’s actions; the ‘frantic’ segments in particular (the final chapter’s intro is a very good example of this) evoke particularly strong feelings of urgency and pulse-pounding danger in a way reminiscent of Deus Ex, which also featured adaptive techno tracks (though of much lower sophistication than Portal’s ones).

Voice acting warrants special merit, with the trio of Ellen McLain, Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons providing the voices for GLaDOS, Wheatley and Cave Johnson, respectively. GLaDOS is once again portrayed in a most compelling manner, while bumbling artificial intelligence Wheatley’s British accent and mannerisms and Aperture Science CEO Cave Johnson’s off-beat manner, often with dark humour overtones, are the real show-stoppers this time around; both voice actors offer a wide range of lines delivered with genuine feeling and often to hilarious results.

===================================================================
In conclusion, the single player portion of the game delivers a compelling, quirky story in tandem with intelligent gameplay mechanics, some of the most clever humour in recent games, spot-on voice acting and excellent characterization.



On the flip side, a small part of the content feels repetitive, particularly in the latter half of the game, as well as some minor complaints on the otherwise great level design concerning high-velocity jumps. While the single-player portion’s duration (averaging at about  7 to 8 hours) isn’t any worse than any other recent release, the somewhat rigid level structure and singular solutions limit the game’s replayability.


*Portal 2 Box Art pic courtesy of www.gamepron.com
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