Posted in General

The three factors that make Darkest Dungeon a truly unique dungeon crawler


The central message of Darkest Dungeon — if we can be so serious as to make one — is that instead of making stronger, noble heroes, repeated dungeon delves in RPGs would cause serious mental and physical trauma. If these people were anything like us. It almost makes me wonder if this is a sly look at how combat veterans deal with multiple deployments and the scars (visible and internal) that they return with.

Then again, Darkest Dungeon could merely be a clever title that takes the bland tropes of being a professional munchkin and make a game out of considering the mental state of our party in addition to their physical. Either way, it’s a pretty impressive display.

Darkest Dungeon opens with a simple backstory: A rich man becomes obsessed with digging under his manor until he happens to hit on portals to eldritch realms, goes pretty much bonkers, then begs his relatives to go dungeon diving on his behalf and beat these monstrosities back. Even the surrounding town is ruined, slowly being repaired as the player progresses through the dungeons.

The central idea here is that players form teams of four characters out of a roster of off-kilter heroes, go into the various dungeons under the manor, and return with loot to expand services and strengthen the party. As the name implies, it’s a grim task that will most likely churn up bodies in a meatgrinder — if they’re lucky. If not, they’ll probably go stark raving mad from the efforts.

Dungeon delves are cautious, difficult affairs in which you must try to get as far as you can while keeping your party somewhat sane and hale. There’s turn-based combat, traps, and all manner of clickables. It doesn’t help that your torches keep flickering out, letting the darkness creep in…

So instead of a full review or an account of my playthrough, I wanted to highlight three factors that really go into making Darkest Dungeon a memorable, well-crafted RPG title.


1. The Art

While at its core, Darkest Dungeon is really just a 2-D title with minimal animation, it makes up for any visual deficiencies with its art style. It reminds me of Paper Mario a bit, and also Flash animation, but mostly a really dark and gritty graphic novel inked with lots of personality and talent. The characters, the backgrounds, the attacks — all of it makes me think of an animated graphic novel, one which I would gladly read. The thick lines and lack of any sun (save for the intro) or cheery dispositions makes for a moody go. “Cute” has no place here. I could lose myself in how this game is drawn.

2. The Language

Even more than how the game looks is how it both reads and sounds. There’s a particular emphasis here on descriptions and narratives that sound like they’re straight out of a gothic story. Lots of older turns of phrases, heavier descriptions, and dour monologues abound.

What I love the best is the narrator, who gives this game a severe gravitas. Whether you’re perusing the small hamlet’s services or getting pummeled in a dungeon, he’s constantly popping in with something to say — and what he says gives weight to the atmosphere and actions. Again, it’s like someone took a really great fantasy novel and then broke it up, sifted it for all the best sentences, and then parceled them out to us.

“Survival is a tenuous proposition… in this sprawling tomb.”


3. The Stress

As I said earlier, the stress/mental health mechanic is what sets Darkest Dungeon apart from its contemporaries, and it’s a well-thought-out mechanic at that. Each character has a stress bar that goes from 0 to 200, and the higher it goes, the more a character starts to lose it. At 100, a character’s “resolve” is tested, which could well result in obtaining a negative trait that will stick with him or her until treated.

There are simply scads of quirks to be found here, many of which radically change how the group functions. Have  your healer become paranoid? She might stop healing or refuse help, thinking that everyone is against her. I had a Plague Doctor who got the curious quirk, so he would automatically touch every dang thing in the dungeon whether I wanted the party to or not.

Seeing your team unravel — and trying to do everything you can to keep them from doing so — is where the stories from Darkest Dungeon emerge. Sometimes it gets downright hilarious, but often you feel genuinely bad as these adventurers go mad trying to push to the end of a dungeon run. At least you can plop them in a church, tavern, or sanitarium afterward to give them some respite.

Posted in Final Fantasy

Serial killers and haunted houses in FFXIV


Even though I’m level 33, I still don’t have my first job yet because I’m lagging behind on the main storyline. Two levels behind, I guess, since last night the game finally sent me to Haukke Manor, a level 28 dungeon that I’d heard about here and there. FFXIV’s notion of a haunted house, or what my guild master labeled, “the first big boy dungeon.”

I’m always down for haunted houses in MMOs, so bring it on, FFXIV.

The lead-up to this dungeon was fairly grim — pretty girls killed, their faces mutilated beyond recognition (not that the game shows it to you… in fact, in some cutscenes you can clearly see that their faces are normal, so this is informed details), and their bodies dumped around the world and left guarded by winged eyeball things. Not quite sure why investigating this was left up to me instead of the local authorities, but sure. I’ll go track down this serial killer. Bet it’s Kevin Spacey.


It didn’t take long before I discovered a witness who pointed me to Haukke Manor, where a particularly crazy lady who was scarred in the Calamity has been butchering girls in some sort of magic ritual to reclaim her glory.

Yes, it’s a thinly veiled fantasy homage to the real-world Elizabeth Báthory, a Hungarian serial killer and countess who killed hundreds and hundreds of girls and became somewhat of a folktale for supposedly bathing in their blood to retain her youth.

The description of the Haukke Manor includes the following passage:

“No amount of man-made tinctures, however, could hide the hideous scars she eventually suffered during the Calamity, and soon she was forced to turn to a darker solution, signing away her very soul in a final effort to literally ‘save face.'”

I… don’t think I can forgive the game for the bizarre pun in quotes at the end there. Maybe it was the intern’s day to write the flavor text.


Anyway, the dungeon itself wasn’t too hard, probably because I was the only fresh-faced newbie on the team. It also wasn’t quite the haunted house that I was expecting. Oh sure, there were a few cobwebs, some bats, and skeletons, but the place was quite well-lit and spacious. Spacious like an aircraft hanger, actually. I could’ve piloted Voltron through those halls and doors with room to spare.

The dungeons down below were kind of neat, but I didn’t have a lot of time to play tourist since I was running behind a Team On The Go. The final fight in the lady’s chambers was pretty atmospheric, although it left me wondering why she would want to stay in this decaying house. Would be pretty depressing day in and day out.

Posted in General

Bio Break’s MMO Timeline page gets a major overhaul


I crossed off one of my blog to-do items this week by giving the MMO Timeline page a pretty big overhaul. I’ve always wanted this to be an easy-to-read layout of MMOs throughout the last 40 years — when they launch, when they released expansions, and when (if ever) they closed. I’ve been continually adding to it over the years, of course, but it needed some attention.

So here’s everything that I did for the revamp:

  • Created a new header graphic
  • Created new graphic headers for every year (much bigger than the older ones) that feature a major MMO release from that year
  • Cross-referenced Raph Koster’s MMO timeline for some additional dates and changes (we disagree on a few dates and his focus for that list is a little different)
  • Added several games (especially older titles) and changed the dates for a few things, probably about two dozen new line items in all
  • Decided to list early access “launches” from the past few years since studios are treating these as major release events

Check it out and let me know if I’m missing any important games or dates!

Posted in Final Fantasy

Six gripes I have with FFXIV right now


It’s always strange when you have a blog about MMOs and you sometimes want to write about complains you have about games that you quite like otherwise. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I feel as though if I criticize, I tarnish whatever current recommendation vibe I might be throwing out by playing a particular title.

I hope that’s not the case, that readers understand that no matter how much you enjoy a game, there are always things that bug you. And writing about experiences, both good and bad, are part of blogging — a yin-yang of honesty.

Last night I felt a little gripey, probably not helped by the onset of sickness, so I started compiling a list of six things that kind of bug me about FFXIV even as I’m having a great time. Don’t mind me as I vent!

(1) No housing for you!

It’s almost like this game is purposefully cruel by making low-level players go on a quest to check out the housing neighborhoods full of mansions that they won’t be able to afford for hundreds more hours. Hey, I’m glad FFXIV has housing at all, but it’s ridiculous how expensive and hard to obtain it is. Coming from WildStar and RIFT, which both make housing a great and affordable part of the early game experience, this feels elitist and poorly planned. And no, I don’t want my own free company room — I want my own little cottage, darn it.

(2) No port to Vesper Bay

As part of the main storyline, you’ll be visiting Vesper Bay and the HQ of the Seven Scions practically every third quest. You know what Vesper Bay doesn’t have? Any really quick way to port there. There’s no crystal shard, so you either have to take a boat over from Limsa Lominsa or port to Horizons and ride over from there. Over and over and over and over again. What were the devs thinking?

(3) Combat chocobos: great idea, half-hearted implementation

I turned 30 a couple of levels ago (finally!) and instantly went to go get the quest so I could turn my mount into a combat partner. I think it’s a really neat idea and it turns everyone into a pet class if so desired. But my excitement was soon tinged by disappointment when I realized that I couldn’t queue up for dungeons with the bird out as a pet (since the pet counts as a party member instead of a, y’know, pet for some stupid reason). Making me choose between queuing for party stuff and being able to level up my pet through combat is terrible design.

(4) Can’t pause levequests

Queuing up for dungeon or guildhest roulettes can take a little while as DPS, so naturally you want to be doing other things in the meanwhile. But FFXIV is particularly unforgiving when it comes to anything interfering with that. If I’m in a long cutscene and my queue comes up and then I run out the clock on that minute without ever seeing it? Tough luck for me; I have to re-queue. And if I’m working on a levequest and the queue pops? Then I have to decide whether I fail the levequest (since it’s timed and can’t pause progress) or kill the queue. I shouldn’t HAVE to decide or be punished for these things, especially when all I’m trying to do is group up in an MMO.

(5) Tonal shifts

The story so far is… adequate. Sometimes good, sometimes bland, but it’s keeping my attention and isn’t confusing. I’m not seeing this amazing narrative that some rave about, but hey, maybe that comes later. What I have seen, however, are some bizarre shifts in tone.

I guess part of the issue I have here is that Final Fantasy is somewhat culturally alien and not written for a western audience. But when it projects cuteness and whimsy and an assortment of world leaders who are either children or supermodels… then casually tosses in things like a disillusioned adventurer carrying around the head of her leader in a bag or mentioning that this girl over here was raped, I find myself doing mental whiplash. I’m not saying these things can’t be part of a story, but FFXIV does such a great job portraying a sunshiny world that I can’t quite buy into the characters telling me about all of the suffering, etc.

(6) Mail

Again, coming from other MMOs that have learned to make in-game mail far more accessible, it’s annoying that FFXIV requires me to hunt down a delivery Moogle if I want to get my Amazon Prime packages. There are a lot of these little “old school” elements in the game that make me wonder sometimes if the devs have played MMOs over the past five years.

Posted in General

Could Diablo clones be the future of MMOs?


Back around 2007, I was in the beta for a little game called Mythos. Flagship — yes, that Flagship — originally created it to test some tech for Hellgate London and then liked it so much that it decided to spin it off as its own game. Unfortunately, the whole Hellgate/Flagshipped saga sunk any hopes of Mythos ever getting released, which was a shame because it was a fun little game (and this was before Hanbit got ahold of it and made it into a reanimated corpse of what it once was).

I was truly excited about it at the time because Mythos took the Diablo-style gameplay (action RPGs or “clickfests”) and put it in more of an MMO-style persistent world. Dungeon Runners was doing something like that as well and fared about the same in the end. I thought the combination of Diablo and MMO could be a hit, and it was disappointing that both games failed to get the audience and studio they deserved.

Today, however, I feel like we’re on the cusp of seeing MMOs move in some exciting new directions. Smaller indie projects that are taking risks once more. Flirting with virtual reality. And strong growth and popularity in the OARPG sector.

Diablo III, Path of Exile, and Marvel Heroes have all shown that not only is there a market for these kinds of (semi-)persistent games, there’s a huge market for them. These aren’t traditional MMOs, with an over-the-shoulder view, slower combat, and more skills than you could fit on four hotbars. Instead, it’s isometric country with frantic clicking, a handful of skills, highly repeatable content, and fast kills. Some players prefer it. Some, like myself, like it as an alternative for other MMOs.


We’ve got more on the way, too. Last year Trion took a stab at getting a slice of the market with Devilian, which is probably the most MMOish of them all, even if its classes and world are pretty generic. John Smedley’s Hero’s Song, Lineage Eternal, Lost Ark, Tree of Savior, Dragon of Legends, and the much-rumored Torchlight MMO are all on the way or being discussed.

Of course, OARPGs aren’t universally liked. They might lack the sticky factor that some need to really plant roots in online games. The isometric viewpoint can be a dealbreaker (not for me, though). But they are a different option for those that feel frustrated with theme park, action, and sandbox MMOs.

MOP’s Bree and I have been talking about OARPGs a lot on the podcast lately, as these games represent a segment of the industry that seems to be (1) on the rise, (2) incorporating MMO elements such as housing and raids fairly well, and (3) very accessible for gamers at any point along the hardcore-casual spectrum. We don’t have a lot of big AAA-budget games being developed at this point, but there is a nice little wave of these OARPGs on the way, and that’s cause for cautious celebration.

Diablo clones, so to speak, won’t be the only future of MMOs, but they could be quietly and surely growing into an important part of the coming years of online massively multiplayer gaming. I hope we see more emerge.

Posted in Music, Podcast

Battle Bards Episode 67: Age of Wushu


Before they were podcasters, the Battle Bards trained in sacred monestaries deep in the Chinese mountains, where they learned martial arts and life without wifi. As they tackle the Age of Wushu soundtrack this week, memories flood back of their life as kung fu artists who drifted from town to town, setting right what once was wrong.

Episode 67 show notes

  • Intro (feat. “Martial Instance” and “Youyunshiliuzhou”)
  • “Main Theme”
  • “Chengdu”
  • “Luoyang”
  • “Zhouz”
  • “Lingxiaocheng”
  • “Scholars”
  • “Saibeicaoyuan”
  • Jukebox (feat. “Explore” from Aliens: Colonial Marines, “The Swindle Title” from The Swindle, “Episode 1, Track 1” from Life is Strange)
  • Outro

Listen to episode 67 now!

Posted in General

Homer gets muscled


So I was watching the Simpsons’ Hullapalooza episode tonight and I did a double-take at the above scene. Had to make a graphic to see if I’m not the only one who thinks that this is a pretty funny (and unintentional) visual connection.

Posted in General

My dungeon experiences across 14 MMOs

Now that I’m running a dungeon almost daily in FFXIV, it’s making me think of my long and sordid history with dungeon experiences in MMOs. What I’ve always noticed is that when it comes to dungeons, it’s not me — it’s the game. That is, I’m usually willing to run dungeons in theory but not every MMO makes it easy to do so or attractive to do so.

So here’s a rundown of the MMOs I’ve spent a fair bit of time in and my dungeon experiences in each:

Anarchy Online

Since my early years were mostly spent solo — and guildless — I wasn’t even aware of any dungeons existing here.

City of Heroes

The bulk of the game experience to me was grouping up and entering one of many modular instances. I don’t know if you can call them dungeons proper, but they functioned much the same even though they used templates matched with random mob placements and difficulties. Mostly these experiences boiled down to the tank pulling a large group into a room and having the rest of the team activate their special particle effects light show until the mobs surrendered due to being dazzled with our brilliance.

World of Warcraft

Obviously I did a lot of dungeons here, especially post-Vanilla when the dungeon finder came into play. Before then dungeons were more of a rare treat due to being a headache to organize (I did appreciate high-level players speed running us through Deadmines and letting us keep all the loot). Generally had a great time with dungeons here and even flirted with raiding in Kara. Wasn’t present for the LFR era.

Warhammer Online

WAR wasn’t really big on dungeons, if I recall. I think they had some public dungeons, per the design philosophy carried over from Dark Age of Camelot, but I only ran one in the Badlands (?) a couple of times and felt fairly disappointed with it.

Dungeons & Dragons Online

What dungeons?

Ha, just kidding. Obviously the entire game is nothing but dungeons, and as long as I could find a group or had a regular weekly team, they were pretty awesome. Great design and the addition of good storytelling (I still contend the invisible GM voice is one of the neater additions to MMO dungeons), puzzles, and traps made these dungeons a cut above the MMO crowd. Plus, you didn’t heal health the same way, so they felt a shade more dangerous.

Lord of the Rings Online

Dungeons were always something I wanted to do more of in LOTRO but never quite did. I did run several over the years, but really what I did more of were skirmishes. The Inn of the Forsaken, with the Goonies theme, was easily my favorite.


The higher end of difficulty and dungeon length made dungeons very unappealing here. I much preferred expeditions and adventures, which are instances under different names. Only ran Stormtalon a few times — and never finished it.

The Secret World

TSW’s combat system isn’t the zenith of the game for me (that would be storytelling, quest ingenuity, and environments if you care), so I can’t say that dungeon diving was what I lived for. Still, I did a lot of it since our weekly group did for a while. I appreciated the mostly trash mob-free approach. They could be very, very tough.

Fallen Earth

If I recall, Fallen Earth had public dungeons too. I only ever did one, the prison in sector one. It was really neat, but like some other MMOs, there was no easy system to group up and get right into dungeons here. You had to find a group and physically travel there, so that cut down on most people doing them.

Guild Wars

Were missions considered dungeons? Otherwise the game didn’t really have them, did it. Still, did a lot of instances with a team as I worked my way through the storylines.

Guild Wars 2

My disappointment for Guild Wars 2’s dungeon design still gets me a lot of comments on this blog. For the record, I thought the actual instances were neat and the multiple choices of how to approach a dungeon was a good idea. It’s just that actually running them became a wacky exercise of stacking, sprinting past mobs, and farming them (pre-Heart of Thorns) for gold instead of loot.


RIFT remains one of my favorite MMOs in which to run dungeons. The dungeon finder — in from practically the beginning — made it really easy to do so, and there were no strange twists for how the game did dungeon runs. Very straight-forward with a tried-and-proven approach, and I liked that. Ran many, many dungeons with groups here.


The Old Republic was much like RIFT: straight-forward dungeon design with tab-targeting and the holy trinity. Good stuff, plus some amazing set pieces. Did a lot of them and enjoyed most thoroughly.

Star Trek Online

Did STO have dungeons? It must have, I guess, but I didn’t do too much group stuff in this game so I never found out.