Posted in General

2020 Wrapup: 11 great video games I played this year

Now that we’re wrapping up 2020, it’s a good time for me to peruse back through all of the games that I managed to play this year and share the 10 that had the greatest impact on me. Let’s get to it!

Lord of the Rings Online

For a good portion of the year, I was deeply immersed in Middle-earth, particularly with Aragorn and Arwen’s wedding and Rohan on the progression server. But by the end of 2020, I was very burned out on this title and disillusioned with SSG’s decision to monetize the latest quest pack.

World of Warcraft

I took several months off at the tail end of Battle for Azeroth, which helped to pave the way to revive my interest in the fall for Shadowlands. I really loved the new leveling revamp and spent the last month immersed in Blizzard’s latest expansion.

Disco Elysium

This was a really bleak RPG that I got over last winter that nevertheless enthralled me with its unique storytelling and game mechanics. I don’t think I’d play it a second time, but I’m certainly glad I did it in the first place.

Toonstruck

I had a really good and very productive year with retro gaming, often writing posts many months ahead of time. Toonstruck with Christopher Lloyd and Dan Castellaneta was a delightful discovery and a very funny game to boot.

Chrono Trigger

It was a real blast to go through my favorite RPG of all time to share in a rather extensive retro gaming series. I’ve never played it on the PC before, but it turned out pretty well in the end!

Fallout 76

I had several good months of adventuring through the wasteland, especially as Bethesda improved it with Wastelanders and One Wasteland. It’s definitely a title I want to return to in 2021! Here’s hoping they get text chat in there some day, however.

Space Quest 5 and 6

It was SO satisfying to finally finish up this series that I began as an 8th grader. I’d never played these last two titles, and they turned out to be really funny and enjoyable!

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Bounced around in SWTOR over various months, but toward the end of the year, I made it my mission to power through the Knights of the Eternal Throne expansion to finally finish that up. Had some great time doing this with my oldest son, who was really into it.

Octopath Traveler

Thanks to a half-price sale, I picked up this Square Enix day and got All The Nostalgic Feels from this modern RPG classic. I’m still poking my way through it but really loving its presentation and design.

Elder Scrolls Online

ESO is one of those MMOs that I find myself dipping into for a month or two and then leaving for a while, only to come back again and have a good time when I do. I finished up Elswyr’s main story and started in on Greymoor, although I haven’t completed that yet.

WoW Classic

For a good while there over the summer, WoW Classic was really hitting the spot for me. I haven’t looked back since Shadowlands, but… you never know.

Posted in Retro Gaming

Sam and Max Hit the Road: Cruising the Tunnel of Love

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1993’s Sam and Max Hit the Road. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

As our gaming session opens this week, Sam and Max are investigating the carnival in which Bruno the Bigfoot and Trixie the Giraffe-Necked Girl both disappeared. Of course, there’s always time to ride the rides, so a whip around the Cone of Tragedy is not out of line. Alas, it results in Sam losing all of his inventory — which is a huge problem for adventure games. Off to the lost and found!

A weird thing about me is that I have an unhealthy obsession with being able to go on virtual theme park rides in video games — MMOs, FPSs, adventure games, wherever I can find them. So you bet your sweet bippity I was thrilled to get to go into the Tunnel of Love. Just look at that thing! It’s amazing and apparently sponsored by Hell!

Inside the Tunnel O’ Love, the pair discover Doug the Mole Man, a couch potato with a sweet tooth and a penchant for telling overly long tales. It’s here that I learn that Max is allergic to lengthy stories.

One of the stories is useful, though, as Doug tells of how Trixie had fallen in love with the frozen Bruno and pined for him as for the fjords. She eventually coerced the firebreathing guy to defrost Bigfoot so that the two of them could run away and live happily together. Doug also says that his uncle at the biggest ball of twine in the world might know something more.

What’s pretty amusing to me about Trixie is that she’s repeatedly mentioned as having come from Scranton. I don’t know if Scranton was supposed to be super-obscure or whatever back in the early 90s, but these days it’s synonymous with The Office.

Another little interesting feature of Sam and Max is that when a new location is discovered via dialogue or items, it then opens up a new area on the world map to go explore.

For example, Gator Golf! Nothing like a golf driving range with real alligators. I’m really digging this kooky roadside attraction theme that Sam & Max have. These are exactly the kinds of places that I like to stop at on trips.

At the range, the duo bumps into Mr. Bumpus and his bodyguard. Bumpus is a country music star (of the short variety) who is also on the prowl for Bigfoot. Max insults his hair one too many times, and a fight erupts. Despite their tenacity, the Freelance Police are outmatched, and Max ends up being driven into a dunk tank.

To rescue a very ungrateful Max, Sam drives fish into the gator pond to make the creatures line up and create a path. It’s a pretty fun and easy environmental puzzle. 10/10, would smack fish again.

As Max emerges, he shows Sam another tuft of Bigfoot hair that he found in the tank. Also present is a snowglobe that unlocks the Mystery Vortex in Washington state.

Posted in Music, Podcast

Battle Bards Episode 184: MapleStory 2

Nexon’s late, doomed MapleStory 2 gets a resurrection of sorts, as the Battle Bards salvage the soundtrack and deliver it, shining and sparkly, to you. It’s a surprisingly good score with lots of interesting themes, and as such, Steff, Syl, and Syp are excited to talk about it. So rest in peace, MapleStory 2, we think you left behind a delightful musical legacy.

Episode 184 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Rune Blader Cave,” “Black Star,” and “Ice Age Field”)
  • “Knight Theme”
  • “Perion Field 1”
  • “Tria”
  • “Dream”
  • “Dungeon”
  • “Lapenta”
  • “Historic Desert”
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Listener note from Katriana
  • Jukebox picks: “Flying in the Sky” from Super Robot Wars F, “Rey’s Theme” from Sims 4: Journey to Batuu, and “Volcano” from Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom
  • Outro (feat. “Wizard Theme”)
Posted in World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft: Clawing myself out of a grave

As I move into the routine (pattern?) of Shadowlands’ day-to-day life, I took a break from my Druid to raise up my Death Knight to 60. I have to say that I absolutely love the option to either level the conventional way or through the “Threads of Fate.” This time, I did the latter, and it worked out really well for me.

Instead of going through a linear storyline, Threads gives you a covenant choice and then tasks you with filling up an activity bar for each of the four zones. I did that mainly through side quest chains and local challenges, with a few world quests and dungeons tossed in, and I got to 59 by the time I was done with that. 60 wasn’t too far behind, and all in all, it went faster than the story leveling — plus, I got 6 or 7 renown levels for my covenant along the way.

But by cracking open this box, I’ve presented a dilemma to myself, which is the fact that I don’t really have the bandwidth to juggle two characters right now. There’s too much to figure out with the endgame and the constant rollover of new daily and weekly events to be ping-ponging between the  two. And while my Druid makes more logical sense for the sheer variety and options I have at my fingertips, I find myself gravitating toward the DK because I simply like the combat better. Of course, that could change next week, but as long as I’m having a good time, I suppose it doesn’t matter too much.

I also really like the Venthyr covenant more than the other three, now that I’ve sampled them. I love that the innkeeper is *right next* to the flight master, which is pure convenience. And the gothic atmosphere suits me very well.

Plus, with that covenant’s battle ability, my DK can melt down packs of mobs with blood and plague like nobody’s business. I still get a giddy thrill when I’m able to summon more pets to the fray.

Our guild seems to be getting into the groove of Shadowlands quite nicely, too. We’re not a raiding or mythic+ type of guild, but more of a loosely social guild where everyone has their focus and we’re always comparing notes. I’ve been chasing some toys and world map rares, and sometimes a couple of guildies will come along to join me in the attempt, and that’s been a good time.

Posted in Star Wars: The Old Republic

SWTOR: Mad scientists are merely disappointed scientists

As an Imperial Agent, I always liked SCORPIO. She was one of the last companions to join my crew, but her eerie nature made her endlessly fascinating to me. I was kind of sorry to see that she kind of became a villain (with ulterior motives) in these expansions. And I was even more sorry that my time with her came to an end. The game gave me a choice whether to spare her and let her merge with the Iokath planetary computer or kill her, but really it was all the same in the end. SCORPIO was no more.

And with ARIES and SCORPIO gone, there’s nothing left on Iokath — and so it’s time to load up the Gravestone and head back to Odessa. I felt a little let down by this beat, like something could have be very much resolved here and yet was not.

But yeah, I’m starting to sense that this entire expansion is an elaborate exercise in dragging its feet before finally letting the Alliance confront Vaylin. The next attempt was crashing her party on Zakuul, which involved an elaborate stealth sequence. I’m usually not one for these, but I thought this palace was designed well and kept the confusion to a minimum.

It was here that my oldest son started joining me for a nightly expedition in SWTOR. He really got caught up in the story and made me promise not to play without him. Bonding time over Star Wars? I’m down with that.

As I pointed out in this level, whenever a game shows you that there’s a huge death pit in the middle, you’re going to be fighting in there before all is said and done. I think SWTOR’s gone to this Jabba the Hutt-Rancor well one too many times.

Oh hey, Vaylin got away again, big surprise. She fled to Nathema, the planet where mad scientists messed up her brain to keep her under control as a kid. Her hope was to reverse that conditioning, which she did. Mine was to get a neat tour of spooky labs and perhaps get a weapon to kill off the emperor’s ghost. Missions accomplished all around!

Got a real Aliens vibe going on here.

At least the action keeps moving as we went into chapter 8 (of 9), with the Eternal Fleet once again showing uncanny positioning as it attacked Odessa.

Posted in Music

Sunday Serenade: The Breakfast Club, Worms, and more!

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… 

“Set Me Free” by Max Oazo and Camishe — Thump thump thump!

“Crying Over You” by The Band Camino and Chelsea Cutler — Perfect when you’re in the mood for a sad breakup song.

“Erase and Rewind” by The Cardigans — Can’t recall ever hearing this one before. Kind of like it.

“Cool and Cosy” by The Avons — Well, here’s a dang catchy oldie that I’ve never heard before.

“Awake O Sleeper” by The Brothers Bright — Powerful song based on Ephesians 5:14 (which I’m preaching through this month, by the way!)

“Love Theme” from The Breakfast Club — All the ’80s synth feels!

“Speed Training” from Rocky (SMS) — Don’t often get a chance to share Sega Master System music here, so I’m happy to have this chance.

“Going to Lunatea” from Klonoa 2 — Some simple, unadulterated cheery music. Needed this today.

“Wormsong” from Worms Armageddon — Some pretty kickin’ menu music right here.

“Forest Path” from Penguin Adventure — Truly, a classic of our time! Well, of 1986.

“Opening” from Hole Chaser — Really cheery VGM is always a tonic for my soul.

Posted in Books

2020 Wrap-Up: 10 great novels I read this year

Periodically I like to share what I’ve been reading. At the start of the COVID pandemic, my wife was transitioning to a stay-at-home teacher, we had little where to go, and I fully figured I’d have loads more time to read. The truth ended up being that my reading was more or less the same as it had been previously. I slowly made my way through various books, some better than others.

One big change that I made this year was to organize all of my to-read books into a massive list separated by books that I own, books that I want (but do not own), audiobooks I have, and audiobooks I want. It’s a rather larger list than I would like to admit, and unless I retire at 50, I don’t think I’ll ever have time to get through them all.

In any case, here are the best novels I’ve read — audio and print — during the course of 2020:

  1. Hollowpox — Our family was really excited to dive into the third Morrigan Crow book and see how her adventures in the mythical city of Nevermoor continued. Seeing as the theme was a contagion, it felt weirdly relatable.
  2. Guards! Guards! — I’m only now starting to get into the Discworld books, and I found this one to be laugh-out-loud funny. And pretty clever.
  3. Magic for Liars — A really well-told mystery set in a sort of Hogwarts school. I should also mention Westside too, as a fantasy mystery. Both were great.
  4. Zero World — This one kind of blindsided me, being a scifi spy thriller on an alternate world. Really great world building with this one, and I’m up for a sequel.
  5. Emperor of Thorns — I finished up this re-read with the audio version of anti-hero Jorg and his fascinating journey through a post-apocalyptic earth. Really great narration on this one.
  6. The Merciful Crow — A solid fantasy debut about a clan of plague doctors who use their small talents to try to save a kingdom.
  7. Sabriel — I enjoyed the discovery of this older fantasy novel and its self-contained story of a girl with singular talents on a quest to rescue her father.
  8. Crowfall — Very nice to finish up this series, although it wasn’t nearly as impactful as the first two books.
  9. The Unusual Second Life of Thomas Weaver — There’s a sub-genre of time travel tales where a person goes back into their younger self, and this book kicked off a whole series regarding that. It was okay, with the first half being far better than the second.
  10. Spellbreaker — This was an interesting one. Kind of like magic set during the Pride and Prejudice era. Lead character can undo spells but not make new ones of her own, and she falls for a mage with problems of his own.
Posted in World of Warcraft

Wrapping my head around the Shadowlands endgame

After hitting level 60 and finishing the standard leveling experience in Shadowlands, I’m looking back at it and going… what was the point? It was fine busy work that served as an introduction to the factions and the settings, but to me it feels that Blizzard really missed an opportunity to give this stretch anything important or vital. It was, as I started to suspect, a lengthy time gate to the “real” expansion content.

So I’m just going to say this and leave it: If Blizz can’t figure out something better to do with its leveling — better rewards, a vital role — then it needs to stop adding it with each expansion. Really, there’s nothing much missed if you got a level 60 and started in on the rest of it.

And that’s what I’ve been tackling over the past week and a half. I realize that I have a sort of heightened anxiety when I reach expansive parts of game (in terms of content or even layout) with no good feel for the lay of the land and what I should be doing to be efficient and satisfied. Shadowlands’ endgame sprawls out in front of the player like a wide-open buffet, and with only a couple of hours to play a night, I didn’t know what I should be doing to make the best of it.

So I did what I should’ve done from the start, which was to log out and do some honest-to-God homework. Icy Veins has a terrific endgame guide that walks complete newbies like me through all of the different systems, and I took a page of notes from it, dividing it into weekly and daily objectives. The game itself does lead players through this, mind you, but I knew I’d only be at peace if I got a high-level overview first.

From there, my Druid joined the Night Fae covenant and started plugging away at world quests, renown, dungeons, and all the rest. I’ve done a few Torghast runs (underwhelmed) and dived into the Maw a few times (cautiously pleased). I got my gear up to the point where I could actually heal again, and I’ve been getting to know Shadowlands’ instances this way.

I will say that I’m not too happy with the world quests this time around. First of all, we have no flightmaster’s whistle, and that is so annoying. I still don’t understand why Blizz thought this helpful and beloved feature was a good idea to omit here, but the end result is that it makes transportation around these already complex zones difficult. Second, there seem to be fewer WQs in general, and the ones that do pop up seem to take a lot longer than in Legion or BFA. I asked my guild their impressions about this, and everyone agreed.

That said, I do like the renown reward track and the variety of activities. I love not having to worry about multiple faction reps this time around, and I’m certainly not lacking in interesting things to do any given night.

I’d love to get my Death Knight up to speed with Shadowlands, but that would take away from my Druid’s making progression. I may start splitting my time between the two, but we’ll see.

Posted in Retro Gaming

Sam and Max Hit the Road: Bigfoot wanted!

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1993’s Sam and Max Hit the Road. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

One of the reasons that I love doing these retro gaming series is that it’s giving me a perfect excuse to make up for omissions of the past. I didn’t play every PC game that came down the line, even the “classic” ones, and LucasArts’ Sam and Max Hit the Road is one of the glaring gaps in my gaming resumé. So knowing very little other than that this bizarre adventure game stars a talking dog detective and a talking manic rabbit, let’s dive into this 1993 title!

Without any warning or explanation, the pre-credits scene opens with a mad scientist about to fry a three-time date who’s just not into him. Cue Sam and Max crashing through the wall and decapitating the scientist (don’t worry, he’s a robot). Already I can tell that one of the trademarks of this game is the fast-talking back-and-forth chatter between the two, which reminds me somewhat of Dragnet. I’m sure that’s on purpose.

Anyway, this is the final bit of their current mission, so after the credit sequence, Sam and Max — freelance police — return to their rundown office.

Almost immediately, the phone rings, and the two have a brief struggle to get to it first (Sam wins by throwing Max out the window). The two obviously have a good working relationship, but that’s not going to get in the way of some good old fashioned cartoon-on-cartoon violence!

Already I’m loving the mouse-driven cursor. In particular, the eye icon closes when you’re hovering over nondescript items and it opens when the characters have something to say about an object or person.

Another thing I like is that Sam isn’t the tsk-tsk type of straight-laced partner I’d expect. When Max does violence, Sam either quips about it, ignores it, or approves of it. I guess they’ve been buddies for a while.

Max extracts their current orders from the throat of a small cat, and away the two go to investigate something weird happening at the local carnival.

How cool is this travel map? By the looks of it, Sam and Max’s office is in South Carolina(ish) and the carnival is up in Maine(ish). That’s a bit of a drive!

But what’s a road trip if you don’t take a rest stop along the way? There are a few Snuckey’s to investigate, with Max whining to go to the bathroom and cruddy knockoff Sam and Max merch lining the shelves. The stained glass donut in the window is a work of art that I wish I had in my own house.

Eventually, the Freelance Police arrive at the carnival, where they discover that the tent of freaks is missing its star attraction — Bruno Bigfoot — as well as the giraffe-necked girl. The mission? The glorious task? The questiest of all quests? To find and retrieve them both!

What I really wish here is that I could properly convey the rather clever and wordy dialogue that provides the backbone of the humor here. I’m listening to all of the characters talk not because I solely need information to solve puzzles from them, but because it’s witty and weird and hilarious.

I’m not normally one for minigames in adventure games, but this Wak-A-Rat thing is pretty easy — and fun! Bonus points to the devs for letting Sam hit Max on the head while playing.

Posted in Magic Legends

Cryptic should be terrified for Magic Legends

If I were Cryptic, I would be terrified for Magic Legends right now. Like, all hands on deck, perhaps we should go back to the drawing board kind of terrified.

Why? First, there’s just no enthusiasm out there for it. Oh, there was a whole bunch of excitement — including some from me — when this MMOARPG was announced a year ago as Cryptic’s secret project. Hugely popular IP, experienced developers, an actual MMO… yup, it was checking off some good boxes there.

Then Cryptic quickly dropped the “MMO” portion altogether, downgrading this to a multiplayer Diablo clone, which was… fine, it’s their decision. Didn’t make me happy, nor MMO players looking for a massively multiplayer game from a studio that specializes in such things, but it’s their choice.

And then it spent a year haphazardly putting out underwhelming dev diaries and videos… just every once in a while. The result of this was to reinforce this notion that this is a substandard Diablo-esque game that doesn’t really have that Magic: The Gathering feel nor much in the way of a unique hook.

Finally, Cryptic should be scared after seeing the absolute lackluster performance of Torchlight III — another game under its wing that downgraded from an MMO to put out a multiplayer ARPG. And from where I’m sitting, Torchlight III had more in the way of personality and interesting hooks than anything we’re seeing from Magic Legends.

The proof is always in the pudding, of course. If Magic Legends is downright fun to play and offering a lot more than we suspect at this point, it could generate a wave of word-of-mouth publicity and establish it as a sleeper hit (or better) for the studio. But honestly, I do NOT see that happening. If Cryptic was more proud or sure of this game, we would have seen a lot more from it by now, but we haven’t. I’m guessing that there are a lot of hard talks going on in the office and that 2021 could see some major changes and/or delays for this title.

Your thoughts?