Sunday, May 29, 2016

Odds and Ends - On Wolf Hall, Castlevania and Suikoden

Just a couple of bits and pieces for this post;

I just finished Hilary Mantels "Wolf Hall" today and must say I am quite underwhelmed. It has been hauled as a masterpiece by... people. I'm not really sure who says so, but she did receive the Booker Award for it so clearly there is someone who likes it. For some reason I came across the TV-series first and then found out it was based on a book. As I quite like historically based fiction I decided to watch it and absolutely loved it. Mark Rylance, whom I had never heard of nor seen before, was great in it and I immediately started watching a load of other movies he's been in. I also decided I wanted to read the books the series was based on to see if it had more to offer, as is often the case when books become series or movies. Unfortunately that is not so here. If you have any interest in the era or historical stories overall, I definitely recommend the TV-series over the books as it is more comprehensible and as such a lot more enjoyable. Mantel simply employs a writing style which might be commended for it unconventionality, but it often left me confused as to what was going on and who was doing what. Apparently this is something other people have found a problem as well, so it wasn't just me being slow-witted (this time).

Overall the story is a good one though, based in facts but Mantel has of course taken some liberties with the characters and she's done a fairly good job there. The little quirks she's given these historical figures may be somewhat founded in actual sources, but either way they feel believable and justifiable in the context. Apparently she aimed to set the reader directly into the event of things, to make you feel like you're there. I do feel like she has succeeded in this but some of the comprehensibility has been lost instead. She's removed too much exposition, and I'm usually the last person to want more exposition. Commendable effort but still, watch the series rather than suffer through the book is my recommendation.

I also just finished Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and that on the other hand was just as good as I've been told it to be. It had a few very minor issues, so small they barely even deserve to be called issues to be honest. For instance the way to use items is a bit round-about and I missed the slide move that is in some later Castlevania instalments. But overall it's the masterpiece it's being hailed as, especially considering it was pretty ground-breaking when it was released. There isn't much to dislike actually, except maybe the dialogue in general and the voice acting in particular. The artstyle is great, the music is absolutely phenomenal and the gameplay is great fun. If you haven't played it for whatever reason you really should. It's just too bad it's so expensive to get hold of nowadays.

One of the VGM podcasts I listen to mentioned Suikoden 1 & 2 and I realized I've only ever played Suikoden 5 which I've tried to get into several times without succeeding. I can't even put my finger on what it is that makes me lose interest only a few hours into the game, but it has a slow start (although not as torturously slow as Star Ocean 3), boring characters, story, gameplay... well yeah it doesn't really have much going for it. I've only gotten 1,5 hour into Suikoden at the moment but so far so good. I already like the characters better, the story seems pretty standard so far and the gameplay is promising. I definitely prefer the Playstation sprite work over the ps2 polygons, there is just something about the ps2 era RPG polygon artwork that really turns me off playing those games. Star Ocean 3 as already mentioned is another game where the aesthetics really don't appeal to me, Breath of Fire Dragon Quarters had this issue too somewhat. Final Fantasy X just barely gets away with it, but it has so many other issues... well I digress.

I intend to check out at least Suikoden 1 & 2, and if they are fun I'll see if I'll move furher down the list until I hit 5 at which point I might give it another chance. Who knows, maybe having played the other games will make the fifth one more enjoyable?

I've also hit a metaphorical brick wall in Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor. I've come across a boss event that is silly difficult, especially compared to the challenge so far, and I was certain it was the final event. I thought it would make the game a bit short so I decided to see if I was right. I was not, of course. Turns out this event is just barely half way. There is still loads of game left to play and I want to get there! But ramming my head against this boss, which has to be killed in a very specific way, is wearing a lot on my patience. What'll happen though is that I'll stop playing it for a while, get back to it, one-shot the boss and wonder what I made such a fuss about. I've also got SMT: Devil Survivor 2 and SMT: Digital Devil Saga 1 & 2 to play after that but that feels like far off in the distance now.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Crimson Shroud and Convoluted Gameplay

Oh Crimson Shroud. Who knew such a tiny little game hidden as a downloadable on the 3DS could turn out to be such a tease? I bought it back in February 2014, simply because I had some cash over in my 3DS funds, it was cheap and seemed reasonably fun. It's taken me two years and five hours of gametime just to get through the second area of the game. Yet it says a lot of the gameplay that after all that time I still had the want to give it just one more try.

There have been more games than I dare to count throughout the years where I've gotten stuck somewhere and given up. Sometimes I give up forever, which usually isn't a decision I take straight away, but after having stared at the game icon on my desktop often enough without having any interest in playing it, it normally gets the boot. Equally often I do decide to give it another go, only to find that whatever had me stuck wasn't much of a problem at all and I go on my merry way.

The artstyle isn't the only thing that feels like Final Fantasy.

There are so many different ways you can get stuck in a game - a boss or area is too difficult, or you simply don't know what to do or where to go next. If it's simply a matter of not being able to figuring something out I might resort to a walkthrough or playthrough to push me along. If it's a tough area I often give it a set amount of tries or some grinding to try and get through. If that turns out not to be enough the game has to be very fun or compelling to have me put in that bit of extra effort needed of me to get further. Ys Origin was one of those games that failed to get that from me. Crimson Shroud it turns out did get it, eventually, eventhough what it asked of me was almost laughably harsh.

You know a game is pretty off the radar when it doesn't have its own Wikipedia page nor Gamefaqs walkthrough, but Crimson Shroud is such a game. It had gotten good reviews however, and I had quite fun with it when I started playing. The quirky aesthetics, it all looks like a tabletop RPG, definitely added to the charm and the gameplay was compelling eventhough it was a pretty by the numbers and scaled down RPG. The Classic Game Room review states it pretty well when they call it "a fifth of an RPG", because that is exactly what it feels like. For what little I've played however, it feels like it's drawn out the essence of what makes RPGs fun and run with it. I was a bit bummed therefor, when I hit what almost was a literal brick wall only a few hours into the game (it was in fact a door).

You'll get to see these a lot.

At what looks like the end of the second area is a room called the Gerseym Waterway in which you fight a handful of skeletons. They're pretty tricky the first couple of times you fight them, but this will soon change as you realize you're going to have to fight them for many, many more times, especially if you're unlucky like me. When I first got here and defeated the skeletons nothing happened. The door that lead to the next area didn't open and I had no idea why. So I started trecking around, I started revisiting every room I had been in so far (thankfully not too many) and I eventually returned to the room and fought the skeletons again. And again. After more than an hour of this and not being anywhere closer to a solution I decided I was clearly too stupid for whatever puzzle was keeping me from advancing, and looked it up on the internet.

Turns out you need a special item from the mage skeletons specifically, that also is a rare drop. Even after I read that I didn't give up however, but after yet another hour or so of fighting without having seen the drop I decided it was time to move on. And I didn't touch the game again for 1,5 year.

Until today, when I decided to give it another go. I was feeling lucky, or something, but I actually really wanted to continue the game. I started playing, and I fought the skeletons again, over and over. After several attempts I decided to refresh my memory on what needed to be done and turned to the almighty internet. This is when I discovered that there wasn't an easily found walkthrough of it anywhere, and only one pretty bad quality playthrough of it on Youtube. I had to scour forums to find the information I needed, and the information wasn't being very clear. Everyone seemed to agree that a certain item was needed, but some claimed that you needed to kill the skeletons in a certain order for it to appear. Then you needed to take this item to another certain room, use it to unlock a chest to get another item with which you could unlock the door. But the first item could also be used as a trinket, making it even unclearer that it was a crucial item for furthering your progress.

Apparently there are hints to this in the game. I can tell you they are pretty damn vague! And I definitely would've never ever in my wildest dreams have been able to figure this out on my own, and I doubt I would've even been able to randomly succeed just by trying long enough. It immediately made me think of Simon's Quest and its convoluted gameplay. Fortunately for Crimson Shroud, it was fun enough to make me want to go through the effort and it turns out today was indeed my lucky day, as the trinket dropped for me eventually. Now I can continue to play it, two years after I almost gave up on it. That is probably the longest I've had a game on standby, but at least now I can see if I can finish it and move on.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Let's Check Out Rymdresa

I recently started playing Rymdresa, a "poetic, roguelike space odyssey in a procedurally generated world" according to the homepage and I really want to like it. When I first read about it, it seemed like the perfect fit for me - I like roguelikes (although I tend to get very frustrated with them) and I love space games, so what's to dislike? Well, so far I've spent about 7 hours with the game and there are definitely elements I love and some elements I like a lot less.

Rymdresa was released by developer/publisher Morgondag in August 2015 and has all the feels of a nice little indie-game. Semi-interesting anecdote here - both Rymdresa and Morgondag are Swedish words and mean Spacetrip and Tomorrow (sort of) respectively.

When I first started playing it I had no idea what to expect and had clearly missed the "poetic" part, because whatever idea I had about the game it turned out to be nothing like it. Not in a bad way however. Essentially you play as a spaceship trying to survive and scavenge resources in space. You can't attack anything and initially there isn't anything to attack you back either. Not that space isn't full of dangers to kill you faster than you can say Rymdresa backwards, but in the first two chapters of the game (there are three) these are of the passive sort that merely need to be avoided. Trust me, it sounds a lot simpler than it is.

The first chapter, without spoiling too much, felt a lot like a tutorial of sorts to me, something to allow you to get acquainted with the concept of the game before the actual game begins. As such it was a tad on the dreary side and things definitely look up once you get to chapter two. So let's break down gameplay;

Your goal is to find materials in space to rebuild what is left of humanity. To find said resources you need to do a lot of searching around in what is a lot of empty space. There will be a big chunk of time spent doing little much but drifting around waiting for something useful to come into view and I think this can be a divider for many of players. Personally I quite enjoyed even these parts as soon as I understood what the game was trying to do. Some effort has been put into trying to instill a feeling of vastness and emptiness of space, and the game definitely succeeded with this. As such you can't play the game hoping to get action around every corner (mostly because there aren't corners in space). This game needs to take its time and it wants you to take time with it. If you allow yourself to just relax, maybe let your mind wander a bit and enjoy the stillness during these moments, I found that it was quite meditative and possible the best game I've played before bedtime. Don't relax too much however, because in a heartbeat that calm will change into quick death if you're not on your toes.

Your ship works on resources, which basically serves as both ship fuel and ship health. Whenever you use your engines you lose resources and whenever you take damage you lose resources. You can regain resources by exploring objects you find, things like planets and asteroids. In chapter two and three these objects also reward materials with which to rebuild your base. Also found in space are something called "spacepoints" which are basically the currency of the game. They can either be gathered or awarded through different events of the game, pretty much anything gives you spacepoints. With these you can buy better ships for instance. Your ship also gets experience with which you can upgrade stats that can improve you exploration success rate, experience gain rate and other things like that. And then there are items that can either be consumables or upgrades for your ship. Experience, items and spacepoints are saved on death.

It's nowhere near as confusing as my rambling explanation is making it out to be but I do feel like all these elements give you a false sense of power. You get tools to level up and upgrade your ship, but never during my gameplay did I feel like it made a big difference on the actual game. Maybe I just haven't gotten enough upgrades and levels yet...

The poetic part of the game is obvious albeit not easily understood. The main thing is what I am assuming the pilot of the ships (namely you) voice recordings that activate at regular time intervals throughout the game and that can also be found floating around space. I'm not a big poetic buff myself, I rarely get the thing about poetry, but I found these recordings to be alright. They fit the frame of the game. Unfortunately they can ruin immersion somewhat since there doesn't seem to be any programming preventing the same recording to repeat. Since it's a roguelike I wouldn't demand for a recording to never repeat ever again, but twice right after eachother within the same turn of playing? That just removes the poetic feeling and makes it sound silly instead. There are also various message displayed all around space and they make little more sense other than to further instill you with the feeling of emptiness and fragile hope the game seems to thrive on.

If the first chapter feels a bit slow, the second chapter is where I thought the game really brought out its best potential. In this chapter you're basically trying to find as much material as possible, and there are moments when you've floated around for what feels like several minutes without having come across anything of interest when suddenly BAM! A goldmine of objects to explore and mine and fields of starpoints to collect. These moments are quite enjoyable and gives you a nice kick to want to explore more. At this point in the game it is a lovely little roguelike where challenge and reward are neatly balanced. The goal is clear and the gameplay manages to throw itself between relaxing and stressful without any hitches. Just as in any roguelike you can have unlucky runs where you die shortly after you've started, there are plenty of unavoidable death situations where an asteroid just comes rocketing from left field and you barely have a chance to avoid it. But just as in any good roguelike it's ok because you just buckle up and launch out again.

It's unfortunate then that it doesn't last. As soon as you've fulfilled the goal of chapter two, which felt way too easy in my opinion, and you get to start on chapter three, the game introduces gameplay elements that sound great on paper but just don't come together to a fun experience. Firstly there are now enemy ships that, although they don't actively hunt you down, are so difficult to avoid and impossible to survive you just feel like giving up immediately when you see one. Secondly, the goal of this chapter is to find "keys" that are scattered so far off into space it takes forever to get to them. Fortunately progress is saved between each one of them, but trying to reach each one feels more of a time sink than anything else because your ship is so fragile and the difficulty is upped quite a bit. Whereas in chapter two you could choose between playing it a bit safe and slower, or venture further out for more rewarding but more dangerous scavange hunts, in chapter three you are basically forced to do the latter eventhough your ship is just as shitty. Maybe if I felt like leveling and gearing up my ship made more of a difference I would've gone down that route first, but it never manages to feel like anything but a big waste of time.

There is a lot I like about this game. I love the mellow parts where I just drift around space and the fact that I don't mind that nothing much is going on. This game manages to pull those parts off for me, and the middle segment of the game manages to balance perfectly between what practically is a "walking simulator" (or maybe "floating simulator" in this case) and a stressful roguelike. I just wish they would've stuck with this formula for longer, but it's like they didn't trust it enough to keep people entertained, and the third chapter has too much of a bad roguelike in it to be fun. Eventhough I am only halfway through chapter three, when reading reviews of the game I see that the latter half of chapter three is apparently even worse than the first half. If you can find it on discount I still recommend it, I've overall enjoyed my experience with it. Maybe I will just leave the game where it is now and enjoy those serene moments of vast emptiness of space that we had together. Those parts were great.