Very worried about RIFT

Ever since last year’s sale of all of Trion Worlds’ games to Gamigo, I’ve grown increasingly concerned for RIFT. I didn’t care as much for Trion’s other games, for the most part, but RIFT was always really special to me. I’ve considered it one of the best so-called WoW clones to hit the scene and have enjoyed hundreds of hours in that MMO.

But since Gamigo took over, the new company hasn’t seemed that invested in doing anything with the game. It went ahead and canceled the (half-baked) progression server, which marks the last time I was playing, and has pushed out a seasonal pass and kept the events running. But for new content and hope of the future, there hasn’t been much of a sign.

At the very least, it doesn’t seem that Gamigo is rushing to cancel these games. It did close the doors on Atlas Reactor — to nobody’s surprise — but it has kept two versions of Defiance running, supported Trove, and thrown a lot of weight behind ArcheAge. RIFT kind of sits in the middle there, probably not as populated and profitable as AA and Trove, but not as forgotten as Defiance. Gamigo seems like the kind of company that’ll keep the lights on as long as there’s a trickle of income, which I guess is better than being cancel-happy like NCsoft.

Apart from deeply investing in developers and more content, I don’t see much that can be done for RIFT. There are some loyalists sticking with the game, but there’s probably a greater crowd that shied away the second it sold to Gamigo and haven’t returned because there hasn’t been a lot of reassurance that this title has a future. Players will give a lot of the benefit of the doubt when they are predisposed toward a game, but that goodwill only stretches so far. They need hope, and that’s not something that Gamigo is rushing out to give.

Personally, it’s disheartening. RIFT is one of those MMOs that I love returning to here and there, mostly because I love so many of its systems and its ease of use. The Chronicles, the minion system, the housing, the mix-and-match classes, the dynamic events, the cosmetics, the zone puzzles, the pets… it kind of checks a whole lot of boxes on my MMO wish list. Heck, even typing out this paragraph made me want to log back in — and maybe I will some day soon. But I’ll be nervous about it, at least until Gamigo makes up its mind one way or the other about what it is going to do with this game.

Shop Titans is the fantasy shopkeeping simulator I’ve been seeking

For a while now, I’ve been keeping my eye out for a good shopkeeping simulator — you know, a game where instead of being the heroes out in the wilderness, you’re the guy running the shop that supplies them. I’ve played a few titles here and there, but nothing has really filled this desire. Until now.

I have gotten in the habit of downloading interesting-looking free games onto my phone for that mythical moment when I’ll have free time to check them out. On a whim the other day, I booted this one up and — to my delight — found that it was exactly the fantasy shopkeeping sim that I’ve really wanted.

I’ll be up front on this: Shop Titans is a total freemium game. It’s got all the traps of this sort of free-to-play experience: lockboxes and energy timers and SPECIAL DEALS LIMITED TIME ONLY WOWZERS. Yet… yet it’s insanely relaxing and fun. I’m totally serious. I haven’t spent any money on this and have gotten a full week’s worth of satisfying play out of it.

The secret, I think, is that for all of its slightly annoying business model features, Shop Titans is a very well-done game. It has a bright and crisp art style, the UI is really responsive, the gameplay loop is oh so addicting, and the sounds pop. Even with timers, there’s almost always something to do or watch or plan, and it has become my go-to game when I have five minutes here or there.

At the start of Shop Titans, you get a small store and can use the ever-replenishing resources (ore, lumber, leather, herbs) to make goods. Those goods are displayed on racks, and random NPCs wander in and decide whether or not to purchase them. There’s a bit of strategy in this, as you can use energy (which replenishes with time or sales) to bargain customers down or buy items off of wandering vendors for cheap. You can even “small talk” customers as a way to gamble on more energy.

Part of the gameplay loop is equipping and sending out a small band of heroes on quests. They’ll progress through these automatically, and if successful, they’ll bring back rare crafting resources and other goodies to sell and use.

I’ve found that there’s a lot of planning ahead in Shop Titans, especially when you want to pursue more complicated recipes that will require stocking up on rare items and perhaps building intermediary items to use later. The more a good is crafted, it starts to accrue bonuses (more valuable, better chance at getting a quality upgrade, etc) until you max it out and it becomes a great staple to have around.

But really, for me, it’s just the satisfaction of watching customers trickle into my shop, check out my decorations, and pay me for stuff. Did I mention how the animations are pretty terrific too? It’s a small thing, but I’m impressed that when you sell a hero an item, he or she will then equip it right there. It feels less abstract that way. And did I mention that you get to decorate the place — and that decorations also have benefits (when they are admired by NPCs, you get a shot of energy)?

Anyway, I can understand why the freemium side of Shop Titans would earn it a lot of side eye, but I don’t feel that pressured into buying anything. I’m just playing for fun and figuring out what next steps I want to take in growing my store. I haven’t been this excited over an iPhone game in a while, and I thought I’d share.

Battle Bards Episode 157: Chronicles of Spellborn

An odd, offbeat, and short-lived MMO, Chronicles of Spellborn hardly registered on most of the gaming community’s consciousness. However, this fantasy title has not escaped the attention of the Battle Bards, especially with Assassin Creed’s Jesper Kyd composing most of the score. It’s a strange score, with plenty of otherworldly tunes, but just perfect for this team to tackle!

Episode 157 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Main Theme,” “Lullaby,” and “Palace at Night”)
  • “Armada Combat”
  • “Stonedeep”
  • “Aldenvault”
  • “Silent Child”
  • “Gleaming Cauldron Tavern”
  • “Fountain”
  • “Traitor’s Rest Tavern”
  • Which one did we like most?
  • Listener notes: Katriana
  • Jukebox Picks: “Afterimage” from Einhänder, “Main Theme” from Yonder, and “Colored Engine” from FAR: Lone Sails
  • Outro (feat. “Housing”)
  • Stinger: Battle Bards’ t-shirt store

LOTRO: The shocking story of Gandalf that you can’t handle!

So yeah, I’ve decided to use clickbait headlines for all of Bio Break’s posts from now on. Anything to drive up traffic, right? Ahem. Anyway.

Minas Morgul! I have spent most of my LOTRO time in the past couple of weeks charging through (well, plodding through, as I am wont to do) the latest expansion. I’ve already finished the Mordor Besieged map, which was fine if a little repetitive. Getting into Morgul Vale felt like the “real” expansion content — a new map (versus a repurposed one) dominated by the rather colorful multi-tiered city.

I guess I never really thought of Minas Morgul (the city) as the counterpoint to Minas Tirith, which probably illustrates how slow I am on the take. But it’s cool that there’s this dark version of the bright city, and I’m looking forward to exploring it. Probably will be littered with skeletons. That’s my bold prediction.

I’m happy to report that combat is still going fairly well. Not super-fast or anything, but between reworking my rotation and the jump in gear levels that the expansion epic quests provide, it’s more than enough to keep me moving through packs of mobs with little worry. At least I’m sweating less often than before.

However, when I switch over to my Minstrel, I’m much more content with that combat style. It feels way more satisfying and relaxing to yell at things and slam down a righteous beat, I guess.

The epic story moving through Mordor Besieged was, again, just okay. There were a few good moments but a lot more of those SSG-trademark “treading water” quests where you’re doing a lot of busy work but the narrative isn’t moving much.

Probably of most interest was the conclusion of that section, in which we did actually find out something surprising about Gandalf (I won’t spoil it, but it was a neat twist) and confront Sauron face-to-face. No misty apparition here; Sauron is in full lich mode, sporting a rather ugly face and a right arm that looks pent up with evil magic.

All in all, I’m really enjoying myself. I pass a lot of the time examining the details of the world, such as these fantastic doors in Grimbeorn’s home. Seriously, those are just amazing how it works in the trees and stain glass into the branches. And there are these little cute animals in the patterns behind it.

Flying high in Final Fantasy XIV

You know that scene in Fellowship of the Ring where Sam stops in a field and has that realization that if he takes one more step, he’ll be the furthest away from home that he’s ever been? I had my own Sam Moment in FFXIV last week as my character finally caught back up to where my original character was — and then pushed deeper into Heavensward than I ever have before.

It was actually a really good feeling. I’m not blazing on fire for FFXIV, but ever since my re-return a month or so ago, I’ve been wondering if I would be interested enough to catch up to where I used to be. It was a tiny bit of a grind getting Mechinist up to scrap — and then, hilariously, I switched back to Scholar anyway because I liked having a healing fairy at my side — but overall I didn’t experience much difficulty getting here.

I want to get through the entirety of Heavensward at least to give the much-vaunted story a real chance. Fans rave about this expansion as being the start of the “real good” stuff, and so far? Well, it’s not horrible, but it’s not page-turning excitement either. At least Alphanerd got a coat to cover his weird pants-tights he has going on. And any scene with Tataru is gold. And the ninja girl is more than tolerable.

Part of my middling feelings is that right here is the narrative nexus between dragons and elves, two things — you might recall — I am less than enthusiastic about. I’d be alright if Heavensward ends with the dragons eating the elves (one does, but it’s sort of a love thing? They kind of lost me with that.) and then the dragons dying of indigestion. Listening to people fawn all over majestic sky-lizards hurts my eyes from the rolling.

At least I’ve gotten to the point where my small party is on an actual journey instead of dithering around in zones and then returning to Ishgard for yet another pow-wow in the Count’s quarters. The forward momentum makes me want to log back in to see where I go next and what happens.

So here’s something cool: I finally got to fly in FFXIV! I took a few minutes to figure out the aether currents system, which fortunately proved to be a lot more straight-forward to navigate. Basically, you unlock flying zone by zone. There’s about 10 or so exploration points you have to find and five quests to do, and that’s it. Ding! It’s only slightly gated (with the quests appearing at a point in the MSQ), but I felt like I unlocked it at a good point without being strung along for too long.

Compared to World of Warcraft, flying itself in FFXIV feels slightly more clunky, but that’s true of a lot of this game’s controls. It works, but it’s not as… tight as I’m used to in WoW. I did have fun zipping around the zone, exploring the spots on the map that were hidden, and checking out things from a high vantage point. Good stuff.

Sunday Serenade:

Time for another Sunday morning dose of random songs that I’ve been listening to this past week! Welcome to Sunday Serenade — now let’s crank the jams up with…

“Stage 1” from Heiankyo Alien — I’ve never even heard of this Gameboy title before, but man, this tune got in my ear and refused to leave. Fine with me. I love the GB sound.

“Big Ape City” from Donkey Kong Land — Yup, I’m exploring Gameboy music this week. Just another catchy little ditty… starring Diddy Kong.

“What is Love (Live)” by Howard Jones — Kind of a nonsensical song, but it’s hard not to croon along to it even so. Loved hearing a live rendition of this from the ’80s.

“Collide” by Howie Day — The beat and guitar make this an ideal driving track… just mellow enough to keep going for over five minutes without a worry.

Nostalgia Lane: Dungeon!

Back when I was a kid, I’d say that a majority of the vacations our family took was to visit other members of our family. Every so often we’d make the long drive down from Indiana to Texas to see our aunt, uncle, and four cousins, which was just fine with us. Not only did we like having cousins to play with, they had great toys — an NES (which was amazing to us NES-deprived Olivetti kids) and a closet full of board games.

One Thanksgiving in particular (I forget which year), we all got hooked on playing a particular fantasy board game that was in my cousin’s room. It was a bit like D&D, just more simplistic and fast-paced. We raced around a dungeon, fought monsters, grabbed loot, and enjoyed the fantasy of it all. There weren’t a lot of board games that me and my brothers all liked to play together, but this one seemed to fit the bill.

Years passed and I forgot about this game as I did about so much from childhood. However, something this year triggered a faint memory of the board game, and out of curiosity I tried to track it down. I asked my brothers, but seeing as how they were younger than I when we played it, they have no recollection. Or as my brother Jared said, “You were always more into that fantasy roleplaying stuff than we were.” True that.

Many, many Google searches later, and I finally found the title of my mysterious dungeon-themed board game. It was… Dungeon! Probably should have started with that, but oh well. I found it! I know it’s silly, but reclaiming parts of my long-forgotten childhood is important to me, especially when I can pass it on to my own kids.

Anyway, Dungeon! is a very old game, dating back to 1975 in its original incarnation. It’s kind of like a gateway to D&D proper, containing the stripped-down mechanics of dungeon crawling and looting. It got reprinted a few times, and the pictures above are the ones that I saw when we played it.

In Dungeon!, you pick a starting hero (human fighter, elf wizard, dwarf cleric, halfling rogue), each with their own strengths and weaknesses. They then start to explore and conquer a sprawling dungeon made up of six levels. Earlier levels contain weaker monsters and lesser treasures, but it gets tougher when you move up in levels.

There’s a bit of dice rolling involved during combat encounters that offer something different than just whittling down hit points. For example, make some bad rolls, and you could lose treasure or even die and have to grab a new hero. There are some items and spells that can be used during adventures, and the whole aim is to gather a set amount of treasure (which varies depending on the class) before anyone else.

Nothing super deep, but it was fun — and I did ask for it on my Christmas wish list this year in the hopes that I can try it out on my fledgling household heroes.

The Outer Worlds’ two glorious flaws (and why I love them)

I’m still enjoying every moment playing through Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds, although I haven’t been able to zip through this game as quickly as some due to time limitations and recent illnesses. Still, it’s been one of the best purchases I’ve made this year, and I’ve read not just a few articles discussing its world and design.

What is most interesting to me are two commonly cited “flaws” that seem to run counter to most big-budget CRPGs these days. The first is the lack of romance options with your companions, and the second is the relatively quickly playthrough time (something like 20 to 25 hours).

I, for one, am deeply glad for both of these flaws. I don’t even see them as flaws. Let me explain.

For starters, I think romancing companions was super novel and interesting back when BioWare was doing it in Baldur’s Gate 2, but these days it’s felt like this very forced system that players demand but are not satisfied with when they get it. Why? Because it’s really silly to gamify romantic relationships with computer characters. You stop interacting with those characters the way you’d actually want to and instead try to pick the one option that will push your “love meter” further. You bend your will to, let’s face it, seducing them so that you can get the satisfaction of… what, exactly? A tepid bedroom scene, a murmur of heartfelt love, and then exactly zero follow-up to that romance then after?

I’ve never seen an RPG, MMO or otherwise, really explore a romantic relationship in depth between a player and NPC. There are no spats, no marriages, no dates, nothing except this seduction mini-game. It’s unsatisfying, yet it’s become so expected that people have a snit fit when it’s not there.

So yeah, I’m glad The Outer World decided to chuck that away, because it is far more interesting to just interact with your companions the way you want to and develop friendships with them. My crew is great, each one with his, her, or its own wonky personality. I can help them with their own storylines or not, but if I do, I’m not doing it to get into the sack with them. That feels far more realistic.

The size of the game is absolutely fine with me too, because I’m far past the point in my life when a 100-hour CRPG feels manageable. You know how much people have been pushing The Witcher 3 on me? I keep nibbling at that game, but its combat system (which I’ve disliked in all the Witcher titles) and its sheer size keeps me at bay.

Let me put it this way: I don’t want to play a big game just because it’s big. I’d always, always prefer a smaller, more hand-crafted RPG world that had a density of detail and a good pace of storytelling from start to finish. Chrono Trigger is a great example of this, as it is only a 16 hour RPG (more or less) that is incredibly replayable and delightfully designed.

That’s what The Outer Worlds is. It’s not huge. Most of its areas aren’t massive. But they are well-designed and a lot of fun to explore, and I feel more relaxed without the pressure of a scandalously big world map pressuring me to visit All The Places. I have a reasonable shot at finishing this game before the end of the year, and I love that feeling in a CRPG when you do get to the end. Don’t get it that often, and never with MMOs.

So yeah, Obsidian, you make your own games and don’t let the way we’ve always done things determine the course of your design. It’s made this game better for it.

A tale of two amazing MMO character creators

Let me ask you a question: When is the last time that you created a new character in an MMO and felt, by the end of the character creation process, that you had a firm grasp on who that character was beyond superficial looks and combat prowess? Almost never, right?

If you have ever played a good pen-and-paper RPG, that is certainly not the case when you whip up a new character. You know a name, a backstory, a list of feats and weaknesses, native languages, personalities, and the like. It’s part of playing the role of that character, that you need more than just hit points, bust size, and damage output to partake in the game. When I was a kid, I always loved pouring over PnP RPG manuals to dream up an army of characters, each with their own unique place in the world.

Some single-player CRPGs still carry forth this legacy. Some actually give a damn about making an involved character creator process that gives the players lots of options and ways to customize a character so that, from the first minute of the game onward, he or she has a good grasp on who that character is.

MMOs? MMOs have largely given up on this. Character creation is boiled down to “pick a faction, pick a class, pick a race, pick a look.” We might laud them for having MANY classes or SEVERAL look options, but there isn’t a lot of width there.

Yet I can point to two strong examples of very different fantasy MMOs that nevertheless put a premium on establishing deep characters inside the creator itself rather than hours later in the game. The first would be Guild Wars 2, which astounds me today as it did nearly a decade ago with a 10-step (!) process to make characters.

Sure, some of those steps are pretty standard — look, class, race — but others help establish the outline of a backstory and seed future narrative events in the first part of the game. You pick choices that illustrate the personality and history of your character, such as the god you worship or your greatest ambition. You even select your character’s predominant personality trait, such as charm or deceit. These choices are often limited, but they’re immersive and often have some impact in the game down the road. I’ve always loved it, and by step 10, I feel like I am far more connected to my character than I am in other games.

The other game I want to praise is perhaps less-known, especially for this feature, but no less robust. Villagers and Heroes bowled me over the first time I went through its character creator. It’s apparent that a lot of love went into this part of the game, as the choices you make are not only written up as a multi-paragraph biography, but a narrator asks you questions and talks about your picks.

You can choose things such as your place of origin and pick a starting gear set. Not only do you select your combat role but also your village role — what gathering or crafting skills you have and what house you want. A game that gives me a house out of the gate? Get out of here!
I feel that the character creator is a lost art in MMORPGs. I don’t just want to pour over what I look like, I want to agonize over choices of who my character is and what motivates them. I want the game to recognize and respond to that. Maybe it’s a silly thing to champion, but it matters to me.

Fallout New Vegas: Judge, jury, and tourist

(This is part of my journey going playing through 2010’s Fallout New Vegas. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

I am torn between two desires as I push further into Fallout: New Vegas. The first is to roam forever and fully explore this game map. The Fallout games are like catnip for explorers and completionists, and it does drive me a bit batty when I don’t get to see 100% of everything out there. However, the second desire is to push forward in the plot and make headway on actually completing the game. I don’t want to be in here forever; there are too many other worlds to game (and blog) about!

So I gave myself two weeks to explore. Two weeks to roam aimlessly, pursue unexplored map markers, and level up a tad. It was a good time, more or less, although I didn’t really encounter a lot of super-noteworthy locations. Mostly I shot up radscorpions and got ambushed a few times by the Legion.

And I found this adorable painting. Truly, New Vegas is the burgeoning art scene of the future.

What is a little weird to me is how the world around me seems to be all caught up in this relatively small saga of a rogue courier (me) who somehow escaped death and is now acting as judge and jury over the American southwest. I do like to listen to Radio New Vegas while I play, because every once in a while the DJ will talk about some of the things I’ve done and how it’s impacted the communities.

There is a lot of opportunity during wanders and quests to form opinions of the major factions in the area — namely the Legion, the NCR, and the Great Khans. There’s some good and bad to all of them, although the Legion do seem to be more evil than the rest and the NCR a tad more law-abiding and Boy Scoutish than the others. I particularly liked the above statue at the NCR camp commemorating a great alliance of yesteryear with the Desert Rangers (a nod to Wasteland, I assume).

Meanwhile, my character is beefing up in all sorts of great ways. I’ve accumulated several perks, both from leveling and from hitting various achievements. I am Lord Death now, since I’ve killed so much. That’s going on my business card.

I did swap out Boone for a different companion that I met at a trade stop. Veronica here is a member of the Brotherhood, and I went with her because she seems a lot more personable than the grunty Boone. Plus, she punches things to death with her robot fist, and that never gets old.

Back on the trail of the main storyline, I made my way to Boulder City to broker a peace between the NCR and the Khans in exchange for some info about the jerk that shot me.

See? Everyone seems to know me. I’m like tabloid fodder for the apocalypse. I’m still confused why Benny wanted to kill me over a platinum casino chip, but hopefully I’ll find out some day.

Turning my back to Boulder City, I head into New Vegas proper for the first time in the game. Its bright lights beckon to me — but is it a warning against imminent peril? TUNE IN NEXT TIME FOR RETRO GAMING DUN DUN DUNNNN