Monday, January 8, 2018

Quick Thoughts on Star Trek Discovery Ep 10

Despite Yourself

And we're back! I really thought this episode would be called Mirror, Mirror after seeing it, because that is essentially the episode we got. It started off a bit slow but the second half got increasingly interesting.

Even though I quite liked the previous episode and thought the first half of the season was fairly entertaining, I realized as this episode aired that I hadn't really missed it. Oh-oh, bad sign. I think that might also be why I thought the episode started a bit slow, because I wasn't really into it. That, and I recently started watching The Expanse (I'm only at episode 5 yet though) and that got my attention way more than this series has so far. Storywise they're not really comparable as they play out completely differently, but storytelling-wise I feel like ST has some to learn when it comes to character build-up and pacing. Anyway, let's get on to today's episode.

In the last episode we left off at a real cliffhanger - Discovery made a faulty jump and ended up only Kahless knows where. Seeing that I speculated whether they were doing a Voyager, although I didn't find it very likely as it would change the style of the story too much.

I miss these Klingons actually...

First thing that happens is that a Vulcan spaceship shows up and fires at them. Everyone is confused. Me too, why would such a tiny little ship even dare to bother what is among the best ships in the Federation army? It quickly turns out that Discovery didn't get lost in space, but in dimensions. Welcome to the Mirror, Mirror episode where everyone is really, really evil and the Vulcans have apparently teamed up with the Klingons (and the Andorians). We can all assume it is the same parallell universe that Kirk & Co stumbles upon in their episode that started it all. Not only is the Federation an Empire that pretty much kills everything and everyone, including themselves, on sight and opportunity - people seem to have swapped personalities as well. So it is that Tilly, the least likely candidate in our universe, is actually the ruthless murder machine known as Captain Killy (yes, for real) in our alternate universe, and captain of the Discovery. Michael and Lorca are presumed dead.

Tyler continues to struggle with his PTSD and gets some much needed character development. I have really not found him particularly interesting so far, but in this episode everything is leaning towards that he is in fact an actual Klingon, changed to look like a meek human. This is interesting, too bad so many things surrounding the reveal just seem weird.

Firstly, Tyler spends a lot of time talking to and agonizing over L'Rell by her prison cell. He even lets her out at one point although it is not entirely clear whether he just dreams this or not. I just keep wondering where the security is? This is presumably your only threat on the ship, and there is no guard, no cameras, no nothing to keep track of what is going on in there? I'd assume you'd even log every entry into that room just to make sure you know why anyone would visit your only, and quite important, prisoner. Especially when it seems to happen as often as with Tyler.

Secondly, Tyler goes to talk to the Doctor whose name I can never recall (so he'll just be Doctor with a capital D) and ask him to help him with his PTSD. Eventually the Doctor finds out that Tyler is sufficiently weird to point to the fact that he is in fact not Tyler at all. Tyler quickly goes on to kill the doctor (a move that quite surprised me actually). Why did these massive changes to Tylers body not raise question marks to begin with? And does no system on the ship react when someone is killed? Isn't that a function of the badges, to keep track of life signs? I'm pretty sure they've been used to track life signs in other ST episodes (can't remember exactly where though) but either way it seems odd that there is no reaction whatsoever.

Or is it just made of cloth?

Thirdly, they go on to find out who everyones counterpart is and what they're up to in this universe. That is how they find out that Lorca and Michael have a history and are presumed dead and that Tilly is Killy. But nothing on Tyler? Considering how important it is that he doesn't bump into himself for the upcoming mission (read further down) you'd think they'd do this. But if they did they'd find out he doesn't actually exist. So I guess that reveal is left for another episode for plot reasons (namely bringing him on said mission). Which also makes me wonder if they mentioned that his records don't exist in the Federation database? Do they? I can't remember!

Also there is a scene where Lorca tells the Doctor he'll give the case of Stamets (who, by the way, seems to know who Tyler really is in his delusional state) to another doctor. This scene only seems to be there to throw further fuel on the case of Lorca's dubiousness, because this other doctor is never seen and not present in the room with Stamets when the Doctor is killed.

Everyone is eager to get back to their own universe, so they think up a totally crazy mission involving getting on the Shenzhou (the ship that Michael was on in the beginning of the series that was destroyed, it still exists in the parallell universe) to get to information about the Defiant, which is a ship that apparently managed to make the jump between parallell universes without the spore-drive. (EDIT: After a short brain-lapse I realized it of course has to refer to THE Defiant from many other Star Trek series. That is a very nice touch.) Also apparently that information is classified and hidden on the Shenzhou.

Again I am not entirely sure why no one but Stamets can use the spore-drive? This is a point I brought up in another post, but I don't know how Stamets was uniquely qualified except for the fact that he came up with the idea. I still don't think that would in any way help him for the experience that is the spore-drive. Since he managed over 100 jumps before succumbing to whatever illness he has, surely someone could give it a go for a couple of jumps just to see if that would work? I still think that is less of a gamble than the plan they settle on.

Back to that plan - Michael gets on the Shenzhou with Lorca as a prisoner, because in this universe that is how things are, and while Lorca gets tortured Michael is getting comfortable in the captain's chair. For some reason they still apparently have no one more qualified to join than a clearly less than able PTSD:d and probably Klingon agent Tyler. I also find that really hard to believe, since just a couple of scenes earlier Tyler nearly botches a simple job because he gets too stressed out. Really, this is the guy you want to bring on this highly important and extremely risky operation?

So everything surrounding Tylers secret nature isn't handled well and full of plotholes, which is really unfortunate because the premise is interesting and could turn out cool.

Again, overall an ok episode which at least makes me want to see the next one and to be fair that is more than can be said about a lot of TV-series for me, so I guess that is pretty good.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Witcher 2 - Thoughts and Review

There are most definitely spoilers ahead.

I finished The Witcher 2 the other day and I was shocked. I didn't expect it to end there, not like that! Ok, I had expected it to end with a showdown between Geralt and Letho but as the cutscene before the fight was playing out I even turned to my bf and said "well, I really thought Letho would be the final boss of the game but since I'm only half-way I guess I was wrong". The fact that you can choose to spare him further threw me off. Turns out I was wrong, the encounter with Letho is indeed the end of the game (unless it does a Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and only pretends to be done when it's actually at the half-way mark?). But it left me feeling like I hadn't actually accomplished anything yet, like all the plot threads were still hanging in the air waiting for me to get to their end. The Witcher 2 felt more like a prequel than a stand-alone game and I can only hope The Witcher 3 will give me the closure I so badly need now.

Otherwise The Witcher 2 improved on the first game in the series in many ways but also changed a couple of things that did grate on me quite a bit. So they made it so that you could craft potions anywhere and not just by a campfire as in The Witcher, also you didn't need to meditate to remove the toxic effect like in the first game. Finding herbs for said potions was also easier, although I didn't find any of the above a big issue in the first game. But a couple of Quality of Life changes worthy of a sequel, that's great. But who the heck decided that Geralt would only be able to scoff potions out of combat? This must be one of the most annoying gameplay decisions I've encountered in a post-2000 game since ever.

While you can't meditate everywhere, Geralt is surprisingly ok with sitting down in some weird stuff.

I can imagine the idea was probably to add a bit of challenge and maybe tactical thinking, and in reality potions weren't super-necessary in normal mode (except for the healing one) - but in practicality this turned out one of two ways; you're stingy and don't want to waste potions when you're just running around gathering herbs and not doing anything special... BAM! Surprise attack by five endregas that you weren't expecting and you're dead. Reload and now you know they're coming so you can prepare, yay! Or you're stingy with your time and don't like the trial and error attitude of the game because it's not 1989 anymore and decide to run around with the most essential potions active pretty much all the time. Add to the problem that potions only last around 10 minutes (you can add a couple of precious minutes with talents) and you spend a lot of time preparing for fights you're never going to have. Or dying in fights you never thought you were going to have. Either way, as you may understand from my rant, bad design choice.

Surprise mothafakka!

They also overhauled combat quite a lot, and since I didn't have any problem with it the first time around this took me some time both to get used to and to accept. I died a lot in the beginning before I realized I could take a page from Dark Souls and run in-stab-stab-dodge-stab-dodge-stun-stab-etc. Basically, don't get greedy and think you can go in like it's some hack-and-slash. It also feels like you fight a lot less types of enemies in this game compared to the first. The first introduced you to a lovely plethora of monsters, but here I found myself mostly fighting Rotfiends and Harpies (and of course, humanoids). Just as in the first game though, only two of the signs are useful - fire and stun. I did use the shield one for some fights so I guess that one is alright but I literally never touched the hex and trap sign. I didn't use traps at all in fact. Maybe they're more needed on the higher difficulties.

Gone are stances, which I actually missed, but at least they kept the fact that you need to use different swords for different enemies. I guess that one was too rooted in lore to remove entirely. Just as with The Witcher however, once you had gotten the hang of the combat I rarely found the game difficult. There was a boss guarding a chest that gave me a headache, and an ambush by a couple of dwarves and elves, other than that I found the game to be well balanced difficulty-wise.

Graphically it's a massive improvement to the first game, but it's an unfair comparison because pretty much anything would've been an improvement. While the Witcher 2 still reuses some character models it comes nowhere near the level of the first game, and I played the enhanced edition for that so apparently it's even worse in its original make up. That being said though, I somehow still found the first game to be more immersive and inviting than the sequel. There was something about the sequel and the places I visited (I only did one of supposedly two different ways of playing it through) that didn't make them seem as open and "real" as they were in the first game. This probably added to the feeling of the game ending at the half-way point, I was always expecting to get to that one big area to run around in but was mostly cramped up in cities.

It aint pretty.

While the story in The Witcher 2 takes a turn for the very political and talkative, I overall enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Personally, yet again, I preferred the first game where Geralt was more of a free spirit and less entangled in the machinations of kings and sorceresses (or rather, the way that game made you believe you were less entangled). The Witcher 2 puts you smack in the middle, for better or worse, and I think I would've enjoyed it more for Geralt to be the joker, out-of-nowhere-player that he was in the first game. I also felt that this game had a lot less of the extremely well-designed choices that the first game had, where I genuinely wracked my brain about which way to go and often just had to choose what felt like the lesser evil. This game gave me a couple of choices but they rarely felt anywhere near as difficult. Do I save Triss or Philippa? Well considering Triss is my long-time friend (and lover) and Philippa just betrayed me...

I thought we were friends!

Though I enjoyed most of the characters, I also felt they got less build-up than in the first game. Zoltan Chivay makes a return but the game assumes you know everything about him from the first game (which you probably do, but still) because this game adds practically nothing to his character. Same thing with Triss, who spends most of the game being kidnapped anyway. Gone are the way side-characters got a lot more love like in the first game, like Shani, Thaler, Raymond and Vincent to name a few. We get an option to befriend either Iorveth or Roche. I chose Iorveth to make up for my sins of siding with Siegfried in the first game (while I really liked Siegfried, I didn't like the way they killed a lot of non-humans). Iorveth is one of the few characters that is well realized, even the main antagonist Letho feels too anonymous when you finally fight him in the end.

Overall I really liked The Witcher 2, although it might sound like I was just annoyed it wasn't as good as the first one. While I do think the first one was more fun, there were a couple of things the second did that I felt moved the series forward rather than making it feel like a step backwards. Most importantly, it made Geralt feel more personal and real and not just like a really cool game protagonist but like a really cool person that I want to know more about and experience more of. He has a lot of the sassy, gritty persona showing through already in the first game but through all the political intrigues and dialogues of The Witcher 2, you get an even better idea of what kind of person he is and in the end it is definitely someone I'm happy I spent all that time with. Also it is pretty telling when I think a game is too short, rather than thinking it's a blessing it finally ended. If you enjoyed the first game I would still definitely recommend this, with the caveat that you shouldn't expect them to be much alike.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Top 10 Best Games I've Played the Last 5 Years (Part 2)

And here is part 2 of my Top 10 list that you probably thought I had forgotten about by now! You can find the first part here.

5. Planescape Torment
Although I am a big fan of old CRPGs I often find that while they hold up storywise, they don't always gameplaywise. Because of that I can often be quite wary when trying them out, knowing that I am going to need a fair amount of patience (and sometimes googling) for the initial couple of hours to get acquainted with the somewhat outdated and sometimes unintuitive systems.

Those late 90's graphics *heart*

I barely even remember if that was an issue with Planescape Torment. Sure I had some minor gripes with some design choices - the fact that you had to rest to be able to gain back your spells for instance - but they all drowned out in the experience that was the Planescape. As "The Nameless One", aptly not only amnesiac but also immortal (which sounds like it would break the game, but it is very cleverly implemented), you wake up into a world that just barely makes sense to you, yet manages to keep you interested and invested throughout. You'll meet crazy and broken people along the way as you try to uncover more about yourself (sounds like The Witcher took a page from this). I hate the cliché "you have to experience it to understand it" but that is ultimately the kind of game Planescape Torment is. Words just don't do it justice and anything I could tell you about the stories or characters you encounter would spoil the experience. 

This game really has it all - great characters, great gameplay and a world you won't find anywhere else.

4. Deus Ex
Back when I was barely even playing PC games, my dad brought home a game for me and my brother he had received from a co-worker who had told him it was "really, really good". I took one look at the cover and decided it was not for me. It looked dark and kind of scary. Surely it would be too hard for me anyway.

The game was Deus Ex and years later I decided it was time to give this all-time classic a go. I was hooked from the very first mission. As JC Denton (who I keep misremembering as Fenton in my head) I absolutely loved to sneak, shoot and blast my way through the levels. I was amazed at the possibility to try out different solutions, allowing me to avoid danger or go in guns-a-blazing as it suited me. My jaw completely dropped to the floor when I was able to completely avoid a boss-fight by choosing the appropriate dialogue options. To me, this game was pure genius.

More beautiful graphics

It hardly made matters worse that the story was interesting but the amazing gameplay is what I would return for. I didn't love every level, I remember being quite creeped out by the huge water stage (I don't like swimming in water in games, don't ask me why) but I loved how clever this game made me feel (this is something in common with a lot of other entries on this list). The level design is nothing but brilliant and manages to make you feel like a master puzzle-solver without any big signboards displaying how and where you should do something. The game smartly leads you to find alternative routes if you are interested in looking for them and to give you the feeling you have outsmarted the game and its inhabitants. Few games adapt themselves as much to the player as Deus Ex and I think no two players will play it the same way.

3. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
I can hardly say much more about this game than hasn't already been said. It not only started a genre, the Metroidvanias, but is probably without argument the best entry in said genre. I knew of this game long before I ever decided to play it, and it wasn't even my first foray into the Castlevania series (see Circle of the Moon in my previous post).

I think my only real reason it took me so long to get around to playing SotN, other than it being quite tricky for me to get hold of without having to live off bread and water for a month, was that I had heard so many good things about it that it started to intimidate me. I wasn't even really worried that I'd be disappointed with the game, I sort of knew that it was going to rock my world just like it had pretty much everyone elses, but I knew that once I had played it that was it. You only get one first playthrough of a game, and I wanted it to be special. I wanted to be able to get it all the attention it deserved, so I bided my time.

Maybe awesome graphics is what all the games have in common?

Then, it was finally time. I played it through (and recorded it here)* and yes - it is amazing. The gameplay, the setting, the MUSIC! I wasn't disappointed for a second (not even the clunky handling of items could sour my gleeful mood). Even the voice acting has become a classic. Not only was it a game so full of new ideas convened into an amazing package, it also showed game designers high on 3D graphics that pixel art and 2D games were nowhere near done being awesome and that some games needed to be in 2D to be at their best.

What really makes Symphony of the Night stand out from other games on this list is that I don't think you have to enjoy this genre to enjoy this game. It offers a more universal type of enjoyment and has a style that will always be unaffected by time, technological advances or changes in tastes.

2. System Shock 2
If there was one thing I would like to change about mysef, it's being such a scaredy-cat. Sure, I am quite capable at social situations but I am like a child when it comes to darkness and scary things like horror movies and games. One of the creepiest things I know is an illustration from Edgar Allan Poes "Masque of the Red Death" that I stupidly read as a child (if you click that link, don't say I didn't warn you).

So I scare easily and probably the most when playing games. I tend to get very invested and immersed and that doesn't help in the slighest when you think (or know) some ghoul is breathing down your neck. Unlike a movie I can't make it better by closing my eyes. Unfortunately this has kept me from fully enjoying otherwise brilliant games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill.

I am trying to change this about myself though, and one way to do it is to challenge myself to playing games that are just creepy enough to keep me on edge but not keeping me from playing. It doesn't hurt if the game is also really, really fun. System Shock 2 is definitely such a game.

Cyborg Assassin, probably the most annoying enemy in the game.

Firstly, it's not scary because it makes you feel too vulnerable or because the enemies you encounter are that freaky (compared to a game like Amnesia: The Dark Descent for instance) but because of the weird mood and atmosphere it sets. In this way System Shock 2 and the first entry on my list have a lot in common and you might find me saying similar things about them. The tension doesn't rise so much from the fact that you're pretty sure you're going to die any second, but that you just don't know what is coming around the corner. In System Shock 2 you start out on a space station, but towards the end you're in some sort of body, jumping on teeth and stuff? I don't even know and that's part of the fun. The twisted people you meet who try to kill you even shout things like "Forgive me!" as they try to bludgeon you to death.

Like I said, it definitely doesn't hurt that it has excellent gameplay with fun role-playing elements that allow you to tackle situations differently from playthrough to playthrough (that being said I've only played it through once, but I have watched LP's of it since). Good level design means you're rarely confused as to what to do and where to go, at least not long enough to leave you frustrated, and Shodan is one of the best villains in video game history of you ask me (too bad she has a pretty lackluster boss fight). It will drown you in sinister and eerie, but always keep you curious and wanting more.

1. Thief: The Dark Project
So here it is, the game that has left the most scars memories and that I keep returning to in my head over and over - Thief: The Dark Project, that is the original and not the remake that came out a couple of years ago. I mentioned that it's similar to System Shock 2, and that goes most prominently for tone and atmosphere. Gameplay wise they're not overly similar, whereas SS2 allows you to be sneaky if you want to, there is also a lot of room for going around guns-a-blazing if that is your cup of tea. In Thief however, staying in the shadows is essential and I found this game very trial-and-error heavy. Never have I played a game that made trial-and-error so much fun though. Just timing going around a corner, sneaking into a room, shooting a moss-arrow at the right time - everything has to be perfect if you want Garrett to survive the harsh world of "The City". 

Sometimes you're not entirely sure what you're fighting.

The story is ominous, it starts out light-hearted enough with you getting a mission to steal some nicknacks, but soon you find yourself trying to avoid zombies and monsters. There are factions to ally yourself with and demons to destroy. It all sounds convoluted, but Thief has some of the slickest level-designs and densest feeling worlds I've experienced. Every second is a delight and I can't ever remember feeling frustrated or cheated - every failure was my own. 

In fact the game weighed so heavy on me that it was almost like running a marathon every time I sat down to play it. I really had to mentally prepare myself for the all the concentrating and quick thinking I was going to do, to me this was far from a game you can play around in leisurely. There is a reason I have been very hesitant about getting started on the second game even though I enjoyed the first one so much. But it was all worth it because of the overwhelmingly rewarding feeling you got when you got through a mission. 

This game is pure brilliance, even though it (just like SS2) gets very weird towards the end. Overall though, it's a must-experience game in my book.