I Will Figure Out Dark Souls If It’s The Last Thing I Do

Quite some time back I tried to figure out the infamous game Dark Souls. I really did. I dumped hours into it, trying to like it. But I didn’t. I found it to be very puzzle-game-esque, which isn’t exactly bad in and of itself, but trying to figure out the puzzle every time you want to beat a sequence just grew tiring to me– especially when you’ve been stuck in the same sequence forever.

However, several months later people are still telling me how wonderful and amazing this game is and so I’ve decided it deserves another shot. I’ve reinstalled it and having put a half hour into it so far I… uh… well my opinion hasn’t changed much from last time. But I refuse to give up for at least another few hours! Eventually I am going to figure out this game!

This is actually occurring in game right now because I'm alt-tabbed out to write this.
This is actually occurring in game right now because I’m alt-tabbed out to write this.

So that is what I am going to do. I am going to play this game, dagnabit, until I like it. Or at least until I remember that I’ve got a great Victoria 2 save going on right now. Probably the latter.

…yeah, let’s face it, the latter is going to happen. Hey, it really is a great Vicky 2 save though. I’ll tell you guys about it later.

Atari Breakout!

Hello friends! Of course, when Pike and I resolve to get the blog going again, we both fall deathly ill and can barely rouse ourselves from bed that exact week! Still, I have largely recovered so here we go with a little blog post!

Here’s what you do: Go to Google Images and type in “atari breakout”. As you will soon see the screen will morph into that precise game, using the images for the blocks! Breakout is one of my very favorite classic games, one I’ve always adored, and it provides a really useful launching off point to show how very very simple systems can still make a very engaging and deep game. If you’re not familiar with Breakout, well, here’s your chance to get acquainted with it – though you might want to hold off if you’re in the middle of an important project ;)

Awwwwwwwwww yisssss dat 2600 goodness
Awwwwwwwwww yisssss dat 2600 goodness

That’s what Breakout looked like in the beginning and very little has changed. Those colored bars across the top consisted of a number of ‘bricks’, and you use the paddle to hit the ball up towards them, with the objective of breaking every brick. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well it is. But marrying such a simple concept with such a sense of satisfaction is the genius that makes Breakout such a great game – all you’re doing is breaking bricks to clear the screen. You’re not fighting wars like in Hearts of Iron, you’re not shooting mans like in Call of Duty, you’re not going fast like Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed – you’re just breaking some bricks. You’d wonder how it can be so fun and addictive. But that simplicity might be the very reason for it. Anyone can figure out the conceit of Breakout within a few seconds of watching or playing. There’s nothing extraneous to it, not even graphically in the beginning, it’s what you might call a very ‘pure’ game. And when you managed to breakthrough the bricks and get your ball to bounce along the ceiling and the top row? Well, that’s one of the more satisfying experiences in gaming, simple as it might be.

Breakout is a stellar example not just of how videogames began but of what makes them special. With a very simple premise, controls that are simply “left” and “right”, and almost nothing in the way of aesthetics, it’s not something that modern gamers, used to all kinds of razzmatazz and particles and trillions of polygons on Lara Croft’s breasts, might immediately see the value in, but it’s about as pure as a game gets. You’ve got your objective and the means to achieve it, and the only enemy is your own mistakes. It’s pure gameplay, nothing else. That’s something maybe some developers could do with a gentle reminder of in this day and age.

Assassin’s Creed IV, or Pirates!: Murderbowl Edition

I, too, am now making a triumphant return to blogging. As Caesar once crushed Vercingetorix and rode through the great boulevards of Rome, the Votive Games beginning, his conquest of Gaul complete, so I crushed sheer bone idleness and ride through the great cables of the Internet, the Video Games beginning. And I would like to get started by talking to you about the recently released Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

Assassin’s Creed, or AssCreed as it’s affectionately called, is a series with a rather interesting history. Back before the first game came out it was quite a curious beast – a game where you play as a member of the Hashshashin order at the time of the Third Crusade, where the Christians have invaded the Holy Land and the Kingdom of Jerusalem exists. This setting comes up now and then in strategy games (Crusader Kings 2 being the obvious example) but an action-adventure game? Much rarer. Also of interest was the fact that the game apparently had a lot of weird futuristic stuff going on. That conceit was well handled by their marketing department because in actuality the framing device of the Animus is revealed in the first few minutes of play.

The game itself was interesting and generally enjoyable but not quite as good as it could have been. Enter AssCreed 2, with the now famous Ezio as the lead. The Ezio Trilogy, including the Revolutions and Brotherhood games, took everything good about I and polished it while taking everything bad and removing or overhauling it. Renaissance Italy is similarly far from a commonplace setting for a videogame of any stripe, let alone an action-adventure game. The step from AC I to II is perhaps one of the seminal examples of how to make a worthwhile sequel that meaningfully improves upon the original. And the same is now true of the step from AC III to IV.


Well… baby steps.

See, the thing with III was this: It was a shiny new engine that allowed all kinds of neat new acrobatics. It included hunting and crafting and the exploration of the American frontier around the time of the Revolutionary War. A fascinating setting and, although perhaps a touch less unusual than the previous ones, still very far from a boring well-worn setting. On the other hand it felt like something of a regression in many ways. The exploration wasn’t tremendously interesting and the story failed to engage. The protagonist Ratonhnhaké:ton, or Connor seemed a promising character but soon felt too cliched and too typically “videogame lead”, a brooding sort without a sense of humor. In comparison to Haytham Kenway, Connor’s father and the protagonist of the opening chapters of the game, Connor felt uninteresting and uninspired. Kenway, by contrast, wasn’t exactly a beacon of joviality but he was an extremely refined and strong man who projected the utmost confidence and direction. This is not to say that III was a bad game – it was a decent one and I didn’t regret the money or time I spent on it. Nonetheless it lost something that Ezio’s adventures possessed and felt consistently like something was missing.

That something is back with a vengeance. AC IV sees you in the role of Edward Kenway, father of Haytham and grandfather of Connor, and a man of low character who plunders the High Seas of the West Indies. His only real motivation is money and it is deeply enjoyable to see him brush off all this nonsense of Assassins and Templars because he gives no shits, he just wants dosh. I admire that sort of single-mindedness and after Connor’s extreme seriousness it’s quite refreshing to play as someone who barely comprehends morality, let alone cares about it.

But as important as I’ve come to feel a good protagonist is for this series – the lighthearted Ezio, the amoral Edward Kenway, the serious but extremely driven Haytham all outstrip the pride of Altair and the anger of Connor by miles – the game itself has seen meaningful changes. As befits the protagonist the game takes place in the West Indies during the Golden Age of Piracy, in the aftermath of the War of the Spanish Succession. A whole lot of sailors were left with not much to do when the war ended and a good number of them turned to piracy to get by. So although a large part of the game revolves around the typical AC play of clambering up walls, hopping from rooftop to rooftop, and stabbing dudes in the back/front/face/neck/spine/kidney/liver/stomach/guts/eyes, a huge part of the game also revolves around sailing the seas aboard your ship, the Jackdaw, and getting into a variety of japes with her crew. Most fun of all is fighting naval battles, as you can use a good number of weapons to cripple an enemy ship and then draw alongside her to board her and fight the crew. Upon their defeat you seize her cargo and, well, off you go for more piracy. Now, to be clear, the general sailing and naval battle stuff existed in III and was widely praised as perhaps the game’s strongest element, but it’s still a pleasant surprise to see a late addition to a series be integrated so expertly and given the care it needs. There are gameplay reasons to commit piracy, sure, but I’ve fought a whole lot of Spanish ships just because it’s fun to do rather that for booty and I think that is the mark of a damn sound piece of game design and implementation.

As this article’s title suggests I can feel something of a parallel between this game’s naval aspect and Sid Meier’s Pirates!, which is one of the few games out there to have the same general setting and theme. Obviously they’re rather different games but AC IV definitely feels, to me, like something of a successor to that game – one with a different emphasis and different flavor, true, but still a game which captures what was fun about its spiritual predecessor. Roaming the Spanish Main, singing sea shanties (good luck not singing along IRL when your crew starts bellowing something out!), seeking plunder, and upgrading your ship; although there’s a lot of differences there’s a thread of the same feeling from Pirates! to AC IV and it’s an unexpected and very welcome thing. Combined with the refinements to the on-foot parts of the game and the fact that just running around collecting things is a huge amount of fun, we’re looking at a pretty solid title right here.

Plus, oh my god, forget what I said about Connor that one time – Edward Kenway is the sexiest man in videogames.

Bravely Default Is Looking Super Fun So Far

So let’s talk about Bravely Default, aka Final Fantasy But Without The Name For Some Reason.

I haven't seen any chocobos yet either, come to think of it.
I haven’t seen any chocobos yet either, come to think of it.

Now this is a bit of a backwards case where the rest of the known universe managed to get this game before us Yanks did, much to our chagrin and to the rest of the world’s amusement. There is a free demo on the Nintendo eShop, however, and I recently downloaded it and then proceeded to spend the next four hours playing it nonstop.

As I said at the beginning of the post, it’s basically Final Fantasy, right down to most of the jobs and their roles as well as item names. If you’ve played any old-school Final Fantasy game before, you will jump right into Bravely Default with zero issues. Specifically, Bravely Default is a lot like Final Fantasies III, V, or in a way Tactics, because the focus is on jobs and doing fun things with job combinations. Then you go around and beat on things with a dragoon (“valkyrie”, but it’s the same thing) dual-wielding lances just because you can.

Cooler than you.  And everyone else, for that matter.
Cooler than you. And everyone else, for that matter.

There are a couple of new twists thrown in that are rather unlike previous Final Fantasy games. For starters, the first random battle I encountered included a cat in a wizard hat who promptly one-shotted one of my guys. (This resulted in me immediately exclaiming to Mister Adequate that “You need this game because it is the Dark Souls of JRPGs.”) Secondly you have a nifty little mechanic where you can either “Default” – hunker down, defend, and earn a sort of combo point – or “Brave”, where you spend those combo points to attack/cast something/heal/whatever multiple times. Timing these right can be part of your battle tactics, or alternatively you can just have your dragoon use up all his Braves and then destroy everything at the start of the fight. You know, it’s up to you.

It all sounds so simple, and yet it’s somehow very addictive, and anytime I’ve picked it up recently I’ve wound up playing for a lot longer than I expected I would. In short, if you like grindy JRPGs and giving your nondescript Heroes of Light all sorts of fun class combinations then this might be the game for you. Give the demo a try and see what you think. As for me, I think I’m picking this up when it comes out next month.

You guys need to play Guacamelee

So somewhere between the super catchy Mexican-flavored soundtrack, the gorgeous visuals and animation, the simple fun of beating up skeletons and a super clever mechanic which involves switching between the worlds of the living and the dead in order to get around obstacles (or ruse your opponents), I’ve decided that everyone needs to play Guacamelee.

Everyone.

Here’s the Steam link.

Here’s the non-Steam link.

And here’s a picture of a Nahua pony.

Would worship.
Would worship.

By the way, two-player co-op seems to be a thing. I think it’s only local, though, but I can only imagine how fun this must be with some couch co-op. SteamBox here I come!

Guest Post!: Valkyria Chronicles

Because Mister Adequate is busy being sick, and Pike is busy working on a writing project, we are proud to present you with a guest post from one of our very good friends. Enjoy!

I met Mister Adequate last year, and one of the first conversations we had was about the true definitions of the terms “strategy” and “tactical.” These were both terms he was intimately familiar with, and terms which I have no doubt I will use incorrectly throughout the rest of this article.

Title card

Valkyria Chronicles is the first installment in the series of the same name. Categorising this game is a challenge, as it seems to blend elements from JRPG, turn-based strategy and third-person shooter. The resulting mix is an enjoyable, anime-styled tale of a misfit group of soldiers who turn the tide in a war. For a game that is almost 5-years-old, Valkyria Chronicles has not only aged gracefully, but is also an example of how to innovate in an industry that, at times, feels very “samey.”

Plot-wise, Valkyria Chronicles is just a colourful reimagining of World War II. Set in the supposedly-fictional-but-way-too-obviously-inspired Europa, the game concerns a massive conflict (the Second Great War, would you believe?) between the East Europan Imperial Alliance and the Atlantic Federation, a coalition of allied democracies.

The similarities are painfully obvious, but Valkyira Chronicles makes up for it in other areas. Our heroes are from peaceful and independent Gallia, a little nation rich in “Ragnite,” a material highly prized for its uses in medicine, technology and armaments. The Empire invades and Gallia struggles against them – I’m sure most people can figure the plot based on tropes. It’s presented through a history book, a concept I enjoy quite strongly.

Battles and cutscenes are all played out from this menu. It would be perfect if it didn’t ask you to reconfirm your action every freaking time you try to start a scene or battle.
Battles and cutscenes are all played out from this menu. It would be perfect if it didn’t ask you to reconfirm your action every freaking time you try to start a scene or battle.

The cast is mostly comprised of stereotypes, all the way from protagonist Welkin Gunther (idyllic country boy rises to the challenge) to the minor squadmate Marina Wulfstan, whose lone-wolf sniper personality is textbook – and the allusion in her name doesn’t go amiss either. The characters are fun and light-hearted, and Valkyria Chronicles goes out of its way to develop the backstories of the squadmates you can recruit in an attempt to get you to care whether they live or die. Some of the racism-related discourse is actually decent quality too, but it tends on the didactic side and it’s almost too in-your-face at times.

The true value in Valkyria Chronicles, the thing that really sets it apart from its rivals, is in the battle-system. Blending turn-based strategy and real-time shooting sounds confusing (explaining it is going to be an absolute bitch), and while it is hardly perfect, it works.

This is the command map. Pick your unit and send them alone into the firing line, you monsters.
This is the command map. Pick your unit and send them alone into the firing line, you monsters.

You’re given a set number of units (of varying skills and abilities) as well as a set number of moves. Moving units involves a transition into third-person and real-time, where enemy units will open fire, you can move (up to the extent of your movement points), take fire and attack. Multiple units can be moved on your turn, or you can move the same one multiple times.

After your turn, the enemy follows the same process, giving your units the chance to automatically return fire as the enemy approaches. Battles are simple “capture the flag” type affairs for the most part. It invokes feelings of Fire Emblem and Advance Wars, if Fire Emblem had guns and heavy-handed allusions to World War II and Advance Wars had units you were meant to give a shit about. It really is one of those things you have to see to understand.

Conveniently, I have a link. And yes, it takes 2 minutes for the battle to begin; Valkyria Chronicles isn’t for those who love fast-paced action.

It is far from perfect, however. Of the five classes, you only really need one – the Scout – with occasional assistance from the anti-tank Lancer units. After each battle you’re given a ranking. The only way to achieve a decent rating is to throw strategy to the wind and simply rush the objective, hardly an exercise in effective tactical warfare and one that punishes the careful commander.

At the end of the day, Valkyria Chronicles tries something new and half-succeeds. Even though it was far from a commercial hit, it isn’t a surprise two sequels have been made – though Sega really dropped the ball by releasing both on PSP and only one outside of Japan. Valkyria Chronicles is not only decent, it is a shining example of an attempt at something creative. While most innovation in the current day centres around narrative (as if injecting narrative into any game automatically improves it), it’s nice to see that some people are trying to do interesting things with gameplay too.

Today’s post was brought to you by the immensely talented and lovely Dakota “Jiro” Barker, who can also be seen at his own gaming news blog. Don’t forget to imagine everything in an Aussie accent when you read!

Sonic After The Sequel

The clever guy behind Sonic Before the Sequel (one LakeFeperd) has recently released another Sonic the Hedgehog fangame, Sonic After the Sequel. Set between Sonic 2 and 3 this game follows the oppressor Sonic and the heroic liberator of the proletariat Dr. Robotnik in the aftermath of the Death Egg’s destruction and as they notice Floating Island’s appearance. But the storyline is always tertiary at best in going fast games so that’s all I’ll say on that front. Let’s get down to brass tacks:

This is the best Sonic game since Sonic 3 and Knuckles. This is a genuine, bona-fide, old-school 2D Sonic game. If you took someone who had never heard of Sonic, had them play through the series, and inserted this between 2 and 3, I’d honestly be surprised if they could tell this is not a canonical Sonic Team game. The most important things to know are that Sonic handles near-perfectly and that the levels are extremely well designed. In a series which is famed for extremely tight controls this is obviously vital. The only handling flaw I can point to is that the spin-dash feels a little weak at times, but it’s a minor quibble and never actually causes any problems.

This is how I look when I play this game.
This is how I look when I play this game.

The levels are many and have the typical Sonic variety, with the twist that there’s no annoying Carnival Night-esque levels that make you pull your hair out. No, every single level is interesting and fun, and often (as in Cocaine Coast Sugar Blast Zone) have gimmicks that are actually neat and fun to play with.cks that are actually neat and fun to play with. What’s more each of the Zones hides a special star which, upon collection, opens up a fourth, bonus act in that zone. The actual amount of content is pretty nuts and there’s a lot to do. Oh, and the special stages where you collect the Chaos Emeralds? I’d rank them as the best special stages in Sonic history. They’re perfect. The only objective is to Go Fast and it’s massively fun when you do so.

Special mention also has to go to the soundtrack, which was provided by a number of composers who clearly understand their videogame music. There are tracks here that rank among classics from the series and it’s just another example of how solid this game is. Basically if you want free Sonic of high quality, then download and play this game.

Get it here. And get it soon in case SEGA sends a C&D

Grim Dawn

Grim Dawn is an ARPG made by Crate Entertainment – largely refugees from Iron Lore, who made Titan Quest – which I have previously mentioned being excited for. Now that the game has reached Alpha stage it has been available to various backers and such, and having spent a decent amount of time with it now I’m ready to share some thoughts on the game. Do remember it’s still an alpha so nothing I say should be taken as absolute.

If you’ve played Titan Quest then Grim Dawn will immediately feel very familiar. The engine is the same and there haven’t been truly revolutionary changes in that regard. That said they’ve not been idle either and the engine is certainly a lot more impressive than it was in TQ. At first I was a little wary and wondered if I hadn’t just booted up a reskin of TQ, but Grim Dawn soon reveals that it has made a lot of changes from that game and the engine similarities aren’t indicative of the whole experience.

There are two major things I want to praise about this game. The first is that the pacing and character advancement seems to be spot-on, even though it’s still just an alpha. Leveling is far faster than the incredibly slow experience in TQ, where it rapidly became a chore. You similarly pick from a ‘Mastery’ – a skill tree – and can pick a second after a few levels to make a hybrid character. As you advance through these trees you obviously gain more powers and abilities, both passive and active, and there’s a pretty nice big mix of different things you can choose from. You can also spread skill points thinly or focus narrowly, and I’ve not played enough different characters to say for certain yet but it does seem both are viable in different ways. I never felt really overpowered unless I went back to older zones, and challenges were commonplace without being either overbearing or unreasonably hard. Basically GD has taken any criticisms and comments about TQ and worked to address them, and it has done so very successfully. Given that TQ is one of the better examples of the genre to begin with that says something about how GD is handling things.

This is the Demolitionist tree. It's not terribly glamorous but it does the job perfectly adequately. The Demolitionist herself is, however, both effective and explosively glamorous.
This is the Demolitionist tree. It’s not terribly glamorous but it does the job perfectly adequately. The Demolitionist herself is, however, both effective and explosively glamorous.

The second, and perhaps even more impressive achievement, given the genre’s pedigree, is that loot is damn well balanced. Not just in terms of giving you appropriate items, but inasmuch as you’re not inundated with tons of useless crap and vendor trash. You pretty quickly are able to graduate into only picking up yellow or better items for sale, and for my part I never felt like I was being punished because I wanted to get on and play instead of constantly warping back to town to sell stuff. On the other hand rare drops are indeed fairly rare, but they tend to come with stats that really do make them unquestionably better than anything else you’ll find at that level. Unless you get something for a totally different class it doesn’t seem likely that you’ll very often discard a new blue item because your current green is better. There does need to be a little more tweaking of the ‘gem’ equivalents in the game, I think, but nothing terribly drastic there.

Between those two major factors already existing at this stage the game really seems to be refining the ARPG genre to a fine polish so I’m eagerly awaiting new content updates with the arrival of the beta. That all said there are a couple of things that could do with some improvement. The sounds in the game aren’t terribly inspiring and contribute to a niggling sense that your weapons and attacks lack ‘Oomph’ (the music is superb though). Guns especially feel like they fall short of this, and whilst guns in reality rarely sound like they do on the movie screen, these more subdued and realistic sounds in GD make the things feel quite weak. Similarly, although there’s not much you can do about it given the nature of the genre, attacks in general can sometimes feel rather lightweight regardless of the damage they actually do. It’s especially strange because I never really shared this feeling in Titan Quest, where combat wasn’t the most immersive ever but never felt like it fell short either in that regard. So I would say the one big area the game needs to look at improving over the coming months is that the combat needs to become more visceral, to feel like there’s more impact and power to blows, and a bigger bang with guns and bombs.

Despite those concerns the game is shaping up to be something pretty darned good, especially for still being in alpha. Due to the limited content so far I can’t really recommend the buy-in price for alpha access at this point ($50) unless you’re a huge fan of the genre and really jonesing for a fix, but if you want to hop on the beta bandwagon when that rolls around I’d be very surprised if you don’t get your money’s worth, and I’m confident that by the time release rolls around we’re gonna have a pretty damn good ARPG on our hands.

First-Person Pac-Man is 2spooky4me

Lovely readers, if you have a moment I invite you to click here and spend 10 or 15 minutes playing this gem of a game. It’s first-person Pac-Man. This sounds straightforward at first, but augmented with eerie music and ghosts that materialize out of the darkness or pop around corners when you least expect it, it quickly becomes an experience you probably weren’t expecting when you read the word “Pac-Man”.

Mister Adequate and myself couldn’t help but somewhat whimsically wonder what the gaming landscape would have been like if the first Pac-Man had been less cute and more spooky. Survival horror: survival horror everywhere!

Basically this.
Basically this.

[disgusted noise]