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11/25/2014

Spoony Plays Soul Blazer, Part 3

The underwater city of St. Elles is delivered from evil.

11/23/2014

Spoony Plays Ultima VI: The False Prophet, Part 2

We do some more traveling and free some more shrines to weaken the Gargoyles' hold on Britannia.



I may do a bit of grinding off-camera to get my party better equipped, because those gargoyles are pretty brutal.  To say nothing of when I get to go venturing around the world and through dungeons later...

11/20/2014

Cold Gaming: Sudeki

A JRPG-modeled cult classic for the original Xbox that failed to sell because, well, it was on the Xbox.  But it later got a PC port and enjoyed some moderate success there, then got a release on GOG where I picked it up for less than $2.  So was it worth the purchase?  Let's find out!



My answer is "no".  It's a mediocre action-RPG in every respect that, like most highly acclaimed Xbox games, only seemed to attract praise because there was simply no better example of the genre on the system to compare it to.  But hey, at least it's not as juvenile as Fable...

11/18/2014

Bravely Default in a nutshell

I really didn't want to play this one, especially after I'd unambiguously stated that I was done with Final Fantasy and the disgusting totalitarian hate-cult that's arisen around it.  And quite frankly, given the choice between propagating that disease by giving Square more money and eating the corn out of a pile of pig shit, I'd happily dig right into the latter and not even ask for a fork.  But on the other hand, I do pride myself on at least giving games a chance before I pan them (no matter how bad they may be) and it was said to be modeled on Final Fantasy 5, one of the few games in the franchise I did derive some legitimate enjoyment from.  So you can see my dilemma.

Thankfully a solution soon presented itself, as Target was holding a buy-two-get-one-free deal on their entire video game stock one week.  So to the store I went, picking up copies of Fantasy Life, Evil Within and, as my freebie game, Bravely Default.  That way if it really was a piece of trash, at least I didn't spend any money on it.

So did I regret my purchase?  ...Of course I did.  If I didn't, I wouldn't be writing another bitchy nutshell article about it.  But just for the sake of integrity, let's go through the motions and see exactly why I think BD is the video game equivalent of genital herpes.

(Incidentally, I will be referring to it as "BD" for the rest of the review, because honestly, what the fuck kind of shitty Engrish word-salad name is "Bravely Default"?  It sounds like a backhanded insult against someone who welches on a debt...)

Well, we're not even ten seconds in and already this game annoys me by having some creepy doe-eyed fairy fly out of the uncanny valley and shriek some shrill nonsense in my ear about how "I always see things through to the end".  No, I see games I like through to the end, not bland, retreaded garbage pumped out at the whim of a terrible company for a quick buck.  Nice try though.

Once that's over, we get a, no bullshit, four minute FMV introducing our four characters and giving us all of the character development they will ever get.  How do I know this?  Because it's a throwback game, and that means going back to the era when giving a character a pretentious non-name and having them wear a stupid costume with forty belts and zippers while spouting sappy purple prose was apparently good enough to count as a "personality."  Oh, and they're all rendered in an obnoxious uber-animu style designed to pander to lolicon-worshipping perverts.  Thanks for that.

Speaking of pandering, guess what?  The crystals are becoming corrupted by evil and only Agnes Oblige (played by Erin Fitzgerald, slumming hard for a paycheck) can stop it!  And only three stock characters with equally stupid, umlaut-ridden names can help her!

Spoony: I won't be putting diacritics in anyone's names either, because I'm not stooping to this game's level and using Character Map in a desperate attempt to sound more cultured than I really am.  Fuck you and fuck your pathetic attempt at sounding smart, BD.

Oh, and what's our main character's name?  Tiz Arrior.  Tiz.  Fucking.  Arrior.  That is not a name, it's a bad Scrabble hand.  He's the requisite hero with a tragic past since we see him fleeing as the ground opens up and swallows his village whole, with him just "barely" escaping through a nearby cave, across a mile of monster-laden plains and ending up in a castle-town inn completely off-camera.  Well, to the game's (very) slight credit they don't also play the amnesia card here...

Anyway, since the game is 100% linear and completely devoid of imagination, we now have exactly one place to go, and that's the same nearby cave leading back to Tiz's home so he can confirm that his village is, in fact, gone.  So away we go across the plains populated by pathetic goblin monsters that fail to ever do more than a single point of damage to my stock of 150+ HP.  That I am playing on the highest difficulty seems to have no bearing on this fact whatsoever.

Like every bad RPG I've ever played in my life, the dungeon design in BD is pathetic and lazy in the extreme; every single path that isn't the way forward leads to a dead end with a treasure chest, and 90% of the time they're so short that you don't even have to walk down them to figure out that it is a dead end.  Also like every bad RPG I've ever played in my life, combat has no strategy whatsoever.  In fact, I literally won every single battle from this moment until I stopped playing by thoughtlessly jabbing the A button over and over again while playing Minesweeper on my computer with my other hand.  Guys, if you're not even going to try to make your game mentally engaging, then why should I even care enough to play it, let alone devote my full attention to it?

Around here, we're told that the game's title apparently refers to its single combat gimmick; namely that you can defend and store turns for later (by choosing "Default") and then use several of your stored turns in a row (by choosing "Brave").  You can also put the system on sleep mode for eight hours (yes, eight fucking hours) to get a "Bravely Second"; this allows you to instantly take a turn after the current one at any time, effectively interrupting the enemy's action to sneak in one of your own.  Which admittedly was a cool idea that added quite a bit of strategy to the game... when Xenosaga did it.  Better.  Eleven years ago.  And again, I fail to see the point because I saw an enemy inflict double digit damage to my character exactly once in the entire hour I played, and even then he had to get a critical hit to do it.  On a game in which I am playing on the highest difficulty level.  Unless there's a massive upswing in challenge later on, this mechanic is an utter joke and adds nothing to the game.

It's also been pointed out to me that you can literally turn off random encounters at any time, with absolutely no cost or penalty for doing so.  So even if the game's combat were decently designed, it does not punish you in any way for failing to adequately prepare for an upcoming dungeon.  The fact that the game auto-saves every time you leave a screen also means that there's no penalty for failing to employ any mental involvement whatsoever.   So not only is this game slipshod and lazily designed, it's hand-holdy too.  The absolute worst of both worlds.

Anyhow, after what feels like forty minutes of jabbing the same two goblins over and over again with a tiny pocket knife, we finally come to the end of the cave and learn what we already knew - that Tiz's homeland is gone and he's the only survivor.

Spoony: And what's our hero's response to the confirmation that everything he ever knew or loved is now at the bottom of an enormous smoldering crater?  ...Utter indifference.  What, did you expect some actual human emotion in a Final Fantasy game?  You naive fool.

But lucky fucky ducky, he arrives at the same time as Ms. Oblige (still played by a very, very slumming Erin Fitzgerald) and before they've even exchanged five words some villains straight out of a corny Saturday morning cartoon arrive to try and capture her.  By shooting at her with a cannon from the air and sending soldiers out to attack us one by one, each time punctuated by some grating dialog that wouldn't sound out of place in an episode of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.  I do so love when games treat me like I'm retarded.

Spoony: You know, a first grader could tell you that the villains would have a far better chance of stopping their target if they'd all attack at once.  Strength in numbers and all that.  So why don't they?  ...Oh, right, so we can pad this shit out even longer.  Because that's what modern games need more of - endless fucking filler on top of an already shallow, unfulfilling gameplay experience!

Also, I know I've harped on this point a lot, but it bears repeating once more: Square fans allegedly identify themselves as such because of their games' "mature themes" and "adult storytelling" while shunning games like Disgaea or Mario and Luigi for being openly silly and irreverent (but never their beloved Mario RPG, no sir - that one's gets a free pass because SQUARE made it!).  A rejected Saban villain mugging to the camera and emitting some of the hammiest, most insipid voice acting ever committed to the digital medium while sending one mookish soldier after another to get mowed down in seconds is world-class acting and storytelling on par with Shakespeare in their eyes, but only as long as Square's name is on the box.  On the other hand, if any other company's game attempts to have a spot of self-aware humor or a line of jokey dialog or even deviate from Square's storytelling formula in any way, regardless of quality, it immediately gets cast aside and called "immature shit".  Just let that sink in.

While we're still on the topic of voiceovers, it amazes me how Square consistently manages to get absolutely wretched performances out of otherwise decent voice actors.  Their directors well and truly do not give a shit, to the point that they might as well just save themselves some money and have Microsoft Sam voice every character.  Why not?  They'd widen their profit margins and spare some talented people their dignity.  Surely they know that their fans are such brainwashed zealots that they'll defend it to the death as some kind of brilliant "artistic choice" regardless...

But I digress; let's get through this already.  Do we get to flee through the pathway Agnes used to reach this area and tread some new ground in the process?  Why, of course not; instead, we just have to retreat back out the same uninspired cave level Tiz already went through so the developers don't have to put any effort into designing a new dungeon.  With more cringeworthy voice acting every ten steps or so as they send another generic mob out to attack us, none of whom ever do more than single digit damage and who all die in two hits apiece.  But I'm sure if the game were any harder than this, Square's fans would cry and scream that it's "too hard" in the same way they seem to think that Earthbound and Shining Force and Phantasy Star IV are way too difficult.  Because those games require more thought than just "buy a turbo controller and hold down the confirm button"...

Oh, and Tiz is now cracking awful jokes every step of the way, because that's exactly what I'd expect from a grieving young man who suddenly finds himself being chased by an airship and bombarded by cannon fire.  At least I assume they're supposed to be jokes, because I don't see how a cry of "Clingier than Ticks!" is something that would readily come to mind when in that scenario.  Chalk up another instance of great writing and consistency by the Hack-o-Tron Plot Assembler 3000.

After what feels like another hour of awful, vomit inducing villain dialog, we then fight two more of the turd soldiers and then the airship-people just get bored and fuck off.  No really, they don't even come down themselves to try and stop us or anything - once we reach the far end of the cave, they just say it's a lost cause and then pack up and leave.  Well, unless you count fighting two more redshirt soldiers to serve as a "boss fight", which I don't.

Anyway, we now get some blunt exposition about how the world's caving in because the Crystals have been poisoned and Agnes is the only one who can stop it and Tiz begs to come with her because arbitrary reasons and bla bla bla who cares fucking end it already.

Spoony: BD is yet another mediocre, phoned-in RPG cranked out by apathetic wage-slaves to put a few more dollars in Square Enix's bank account.  What a surprise.  But honestly, is there even any point in me complaining about this fact?  Everyone who's going to buy it already has, and I'm sure they're all predisposed to unconditionally love it more than their own families and ascribe some deep religious significance to every single word of its vapid dialog, its braindead mash-A-to-win gameplay and its inane, cliched characters and story.  I'm also sure they're already waging bile-spewing harassment campaigns around the clock against anyone who dares to imply that BD and Square Enix are anything less than God's gift to humanity, screaming every step of the way that ever playing any other company's games is "treason" and grounds for being burned alive in the inevitable holy war.

Square Enix's staff are perfectly content to just sit back and let this shit happen too, because what do they care what kind of stupid, destructive behavior their fans take part in?  While that shit's going on in the trenches, they're laughing all the way to the bank!  With a clear conscience, no less; after all, they didn't instruct these people to destroy themselves and corrupt everyone around them in the name of the almighty Square; their paid shills at IGN, Gamespot, Game Informer and any other hack publication they can throw advertising money and "exclusive opportunities" at did!  As long as they can absolve themselves of all responsibility for their fans' actions and present themselves as family-friendly entertainment in order to continue raking in money from the umpteenth Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts sequel, it's all perfectly hunky-dory to them.

So instead of trying to bring shame to the shameless and humility to the infinitely vain, I'm going to take a different approach and point the blame finger at the other player in this farce, Nintendo.  Why?  Because they had the option to buy Atlus and, between them and Monolith, would have had a virtual monopoly on quality JRPGs for years to come.  They had more than enough money and incentive to do this despite their finances being in the red for the last couple years.  But why do something smart like "make good games to draw in new audiences" when you can turn a profit by pandering to the absolute worst element that gaming has to offer?  Bring the cultists back to your system en masse and watch as they throw money into your coffers... and for every $1 they bring in, drive away at least $10 worth of business with their bullshit gatekeeper tactics and mindless hatred for everyone that hasn't been sucking Square's flaccid cock since 1994.  Disgusting.

Well, I may ultimately have no power to stop this cycle of self-devouring stupidity before it reaches its inevitable end, but I can make sure that there's at least one copy of BD that will never be responsible for inducting another innocent soul into the Square Enix cult:

 

Thank you and good night.

11/17/2014

Spoony Plays Soul Blazer, Part 2

We restore Greenwood to its former glory by smiting evil.



Ah yes, and I didn't show it on camera, but there was one layer I missed and spent an inordinate amount of time searching for.  Turns out it was the last room in the first temple:


Two of these statues are actually teleporting statue enemies and can be killed.  I missed it because the darkness of the room makes it difficult to tell them apart from the inanimate ones...



This easily-missed lair is essential to restoring the third mole hole and getting both the Ice Armor and the Shield Bracelet (the latter of which is one of the best items in the game), so be sure not to miss it!

DOS Dungeon: Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness

Blizzard Entertainment is a name well-known to any PC gamer; after all, they are the company that brought us the legendary franchises Starcraft, Diablo and World of Warcraft, each of which has sold millions of copies and are widely regarded as the top of their field in their respective genres, and they each continue to spawn dozens of competitors trying to copy their format and gameplay style.

Arguably their first big hit, though, was a humble DOS title called Warcraft II.


While it was not the earliest example of the real time strategy genre by a long stretch (the genre having its origins in early 80s titles like Utopia), Warcraft II and its rival franchise Command and Conquer were among the earliest games to popularize it.  Warcraft 2 managed to introduce a few unique elements to the genre, though, as we will see.


The first few missions of the game are pretty standard fare, generally just intended to introduce you to the game's basic mechanics and units, as well as the "tech tree" structure of the game's buildings.  So you'll be doing basic things like establishing bases or building shipyards to capture oil patches on the sea.


Of course, being an early RTS also has its drawbacks.  Things like unit controls (assigning groups of units to a hotkey for quick access later) and queuing up unit contructions weren't introduced yet.  Nor were things like automatically repairing buildings or healing units through spells - the player must always do these things by hand.


Another drawback comes in the form of the "attack" command being somewhat unwieldy.  If the player clicks directly on an enemy unit, all of the units they currently have selected will attack that one particular unit.  However, choosing to attack an empty piece of ground, rather than causing all units to engage nearby enemies, will just cause each unit to pair off with another enemy unit and attack, with the rest simply standing idle.  Not a very efficient way to do battle.  Thankfully this is corrected in the Battle.net edition.


Unlike many other strategy titles of the time, the player also has multiple resources to manage in order to maintain their army, rather than just one.  Gold and lumber are use to construct units and buildings (with only the most basic units not requiring the latter), while oil is used to build ships for naval combat - an integral part of many battles in the game.

Establish dominance of the sea or get curb-stomped is usually the name of the game in Warcraft 2

Later on other units begin to be introduced, including the Knights (faster and stronger footmen), Ballistas (long-distance siege weapons) and of course Mages, units which, while slow and weak in combat, can cast powerful spells that can lay waste to the battlefield, whether slowing down units, launching fireballs to damage groups of enemies, or simply laying waste to large portions of cities with a well-placed Blizzard spell.  An especially tricky unit also comes in the form of the Submarine, a unit which is relatively fragile but invisible unless viewed with an air unit or another submarine.  Used properly, they can sneak in and wreak havoc on unsuspecting targets and then vanish again while taking no damage themselves.


As any RTS player knows, one of the main concerns of the game's developers is maintaining balance between each of the playable factions; after all, if one team is far more powerful than the other, then there's no reason to pick anyone else.  Warcraft 2 is no exception, though the way it does this is somewhat basic.  Simply put, both sides are nearly identical in abilities.  Orc grunts are functionally identical to Human footmen, having identical stats in every respect.  The same is also true of Elven Archers versus Troll Axethrowers, Elven Destroyers versus Troll Destroyers, and so on.  Functionally, the only real difference between the two races are some slightly different spells and upgrades - Elven archers get an extra damage upgrade while Trolls get health regeneration, for example.  Ogre Mages can also cast Berserk (halving a unit's sustained damage while increasing their damage output) while Paladins can heal units and can quickly destroy undead units.  Having clans that are essentially 95% identical may not be an ideal way to strike a balance, but it does its job fairly well.

(Of course, the player is also free to change this via the included map/unit editor to customize units to their liking...)

In conclusion, while Warcraft II's gameplay may be somewhat dated, it is a solid early example of the genre, introducing many of the key elements of Blizzard's RTS franchises.  It may not hold up as well as Starcraft, but its simple yet charming aesthetics and gameplay make it an enjoyable experience nevertheless, and the fact that it was one of the earliest games of its kind to include a map editor (complete with customizable unit stats) lent it some considerable replay value.

If you want to give the game a go today, I'd recommend tracking down a copy of the Battle.Net edition, which not only introduces some gameplay and interface improvements (including fixing the peculiarities of the Attack command, adding quick unit selection via hotkeys and showing a counter for the food resource on the HUD), but it also includes both the original missions and those of the game's expansion pack, giving you a lot more value for your buck.  The game also did have the advantage of having online play over Battle.net, though I don't believe the servers for it are active anymore.  Thankfully, there is a fan-run server up that still allows online play via a custom client.



As a little bonus, I also decided to check out the original Warcraft, which I'd never played before.  It definitely has't aged as well as its sequel, as I'll explain momentarily.


For one thing, the game is extraordinarily slow to the point of being torturous; even on the fastest setting, the characters move across the map at a snail's pace and even mundane tasks like building a single farm seem to take ages.


For another, the interface leaves quite a lot to be desired.  There is no context-sensitive right clicking here; right-clicking simply recenters the camera on the point you've clicked.  To do things, you must painstakingly utilize the keyboard or mouse to select a command each time you want a unit to carry out an action.  There is also no click-and-drag mass selecting; instead, you must hold shift and click each individual unit, and even then only four units can be selected at a time.  The game also lacks the polish of the later game, with all units on a team utilizing the same pool of voice clips.

In short, Warcraft 1 just isn't much fun to play.  Go for Warcraft II instead; it holds up a lot better.