World of Warcraft: The might of Maldraxxus

Well here is something that I really didn’t anticipate: I ended up liking Maldraxxus waaaay more than Bastion. Sure, Bastion has the pretty enough visuals, but it’s hollow and boring. Contrast that to Maldraxxus, which actually makes a necromancer’s man cave seem interesting if you inject enough high-spirited story in there.

This zone is really the kind of energy that Shadowlands needed out of the gate, but instead we get it after the Maw introduction, dull-as-dirt Oribos, and HerculesLand. It’s like a mini-Game of Thrones shoved into a single zone, with five of the houses tasked with protecting the Shadowlands now turning on each other thanks to Sylvanas’ machinations.

I particularly liked the monster design of the zone. Lots of slime and slime monsters and bizarre twisted creations, all partying it up in undeath central. At the center of the place is a gladiator pit that had some humorous encounters with the various contestants.

I actually was taken aback to hang out and do quests with Vashj, who I guess is now a sort-of good guy in the afterlife. Actually, it’s kind of weird that I’m only now bumping into characters from the rest of the game, unless I have been all along and just didn’t recognize any of them. It’s not as if my WoW lore is at the collegiate level.

All in all, I had a good four or five days of questing in Maldraxxus. I took a lot of breaks to rush to various rare bosses that would spawn with the promise of a shot at some desirable back items. Since I hate cloaks, I’m really desperate for a backpack here. No luck yet, but I’m planning on farming this later on.

Another highlight of the zone was a trip up a possessed tower. It had just the right amount of challenge and chaos without being a drag.

So yeah, Maldraxxus is the first time that I’m feeling like Shadowlands is living up to potential. I even liked the covenant skills — a damage shield and a DoT attack — so I am considering pledging this frat. Now out with the color green and in with the blue as we head to Night Fae territory!

KOTOR: Leviathan levity

(This is part of my journey going playing through 2003’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

As the Ebon Hawk blasts through hyperspace for the next planet, it’s suddenly ambushed and caught in a tractor beam by the Leviathan — Malak’s ship. Things don’t look promising for our rag-tag group, so a plan is quickly devised to camoflage Juhani and let her be the jailbreaker once everyone else gets caught.

Considering that “non-stop torture” is on the menu, courtesy of Admiral Saul, this may not be the best of plans. This segment of KOTOR really is the Long, Dark Night of the Soul for the game — the moment when all goes from bad to worse and it seems quite hopeless for the heroes.

At least Juhani is free, and she’s kicking tail. I spent some time upgrading her lightsabers on the Hawk with the crystals that I got from the Tatooine dragon, and she’s now Death Incarnate with them.

For whatever reason — perhaps man-hours invested in making this work — the KOTOR devs were sure in love with the idea of putting the player in these bulky EVA suits to waddle around for a while before coming back to the action. I always felt like they were painfully pointless segments.

With a beefed-up party, it’s kind of fun to go around the Leviathan, smashing up the place and chewing through waves of elite Sith troopers and dark jedi. There’s a big boss battle on the bridge against Admiral Saul, who whispers a devastating secret to Carth right before he dies. What is this secret? No time for that, the game says, and if that’s not suspicious, I don’t know what is.

I wanted to say that the Leviathan stage is one of my favorites in KOTOR. It’s got a strong narrative flow that feels, for a lack of a better term, very “Star Warsy” in sequence. The odds feel stacked against getting back to the Ebon Hawk and making an escape, but the team keeps trying.

But there is one big obstacle standing in the way of freedom — Darth Malak. He shows up and demands to know why Syppi is here, why the Jedi spared me. This makes no sense until the game kicks into gear and delivers a series of flashbacks from various points in the game so far. Various throwaway quotes that were probably misread by the player. Things about the Force erasing minds, of Jedi not killing prisoners, of the counsel accepting someone a little older than normal for a recruit. This brings us to one of the biggest WHAM! moments of all CRPG history:

That I, the player, am actually Darth Revan, the big bad guy from the Mandalorian wars who was trying to overthrow the Republic and use the Star Forge to my own advantage. Apparently, a combination of Malak’s betrayal and a Jedi strike team combined to capture Revan instead of killing her. The counsel, trying to find the Star Forge, decided to Force-wipe my mind, give me a new identity as a common soldier, and assign Bastila to tag along as I hopefully led them to where they wanted to go. There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’ve always felt disgusted at both sides. There’s no defending Malak, but the Jedi are just as bad to erase a person’s memories and life while using them like a puppet.

Anyway, Bastila stays behind on the Leviathan to slow down Malak while the rest of the Ebon Hawk crew escapes. There’s a pow-wow with all of the companions to see if they still support Ex-Revan, and apparently they do. I love that Jolee knew who Revan was the whole time and was like, eh, she’ll figure it out sooner or later on her own.

Nostalgia Lane: How shareware revolutionized my gaming

My career trajectory in the 1990s was almost equally divided between “completely broke high school student” and “completely broke college student.” Sure, I had jobs and even a couple of computers, but I was never so flush with disposable income to be snapping up any game or game system that caught my fancy. A brand-new boxed PC game was a major purchase for me — and I sweated the decisions to get the few I had. They had to be excellent or otherwise I was out 50 bucks and potential months of entertainment.

But all of this started to change during my high school years. One Sunday afternoon I went over to a friend’s house, where he showed me a free copy of Wolfenstein 3D that he got. Free? I asked. Free, he said. Apparently there was this new thing called “shareware” that made it actually legal to copy and pass along games.

Within a year or two, the shareware revolution was everywhere. All the kids at my school — and later at my college — would pass around shareware copies of Duke Nukem and DOOM and pretty much anything with “Apogee” stamped on it. I found my gaming library now filled to the brim with potential options, and it was glorious.

Shareware was an ingenious marketing tactic for the pre-internet gaming scene. The idea was that a company would freely distribute versions of its games with only part of it unlocked — the first “episode” or somesuch — and then encourage players to buy the code to unlock the rest of the levels (or send away for the full version). Players would do the footwork of copying and passing along the games, and studios would see a certain percentage of all recipients convert into paying users.

Of course, that didn’t always happen — the paying part. I don’t recall how many shareware games I bought in their entirety, but I don’t think it was too many. What I do remember, very vividly, is getting as much entertainment out of the “free” unlocked part of the game as possible.

And you actually did tend to get a lot for free, here. Duke Nukem 3D’s first episode could last you hours if you were hunting down all the secrets. Kroz was one of my favorites to explore. Wolfenstein and Doom made for great bite-sized gaming sessions. Commander Keen was one of the best platformers I experienced on the PC at that time. And there were numerous other shooters, pinball games, flight sims, and so on.

Shareware quickly faded once the internet spun up in the late 1990s. Now anyone could access demos and order full versions of games online, so there really wasn’t a need for this street-level marketing. But I am so thankful that it existed, because it put games in front of me that I wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.

Book of Travels is hitting my expectations right down the middle

Might and Delight made my day last week when it released a 30-minute video of Book of Travels’ gameplay (with developer commentary). It’s the first time that we’ve actually seen this micro-MMO in action, and I’ve been very curious about what I spent my Kickstarter money on back in 2019.

The good news is that after watching the video, I feel like my expectations for Book of Travels are exactly in the right place. I’m not under- or overestimating it from the articles to date, which is a relief. I think it speaks well to how the devs have been portraying this “serene” title in media.

What we have here is an extremely chill gameplay experience, where BoT actually makes an effort to immerse us into this world and roleplay (if internally). From watching it, I would say that this is a survival-lite sandbox MMO where you pick a direction, explore various maps, pick up useful items, react to various local events, and pretty much follow your whims.

I really liked our glimpse at the (still unfinished) character creator, which takes pains not to give us the boring MMO template but inject a lot of thought and personality and subtlety into it. You can pick character traits that offer both positive and negative options (which is bold of them, I approve) and you actually “roll” for your starting gear. The only thing I didn’t like was the restriction of having to pick a random name — allegedly for the sake of immersion and not wanting to have to mod names — which is something I hope they change before launch.

The gameplay fields are really neat and dealt with in a way that you don’t often see in games. It’s an interesting blend of 2D and 3D, where your character can walk toward the camera to reveal what’s downfield while what’s upfield gradually fades into the distance. Coupled with the dreamy visuals and the outright lovely music and the sedate walking pace, it’s such a refreshing change from the dash-everywhere-and-kill-everything approach of most MMORPGs.

So if you missed it, you might want to check it out:

Sunday Serenade: Syntech, Future Animals, 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… 

“ByT&E” by Syntech — A catchy synth-only track from 1989!

“Testing the Passionate Bonds” from Tales of Zestiria — Wonderfully spirited boss fight music. I like the Spanish guitar giving this a dance-like quality.

“Animal” by Jim Yosef and Riell — Man, there’s some great emotion running through this one. It’s epic in the best sense.

“The Best Days” by Sam Feldt and Karma Child — A lovely mix of sweet and sorrow.

“Ask For It” by Future Animals — Another downbeat/upbeat song that sucked me right into the depths of it.

“Feliz Navidad” by F4ST — A little house with your Christmas classics!

“Dynamite” by BTS — I only became aware of this Kpop group a week ago due to writing a news piece about them popping up in an MMO… and then this song came into one of my channels. It’s plenty poppy.

“99 Red Balloons” by Oliver Nelson — I definitely don’t like the singing here, but the melody is… I don’t know. It scratches an interesting itch in my brain.

“Dungeon” from Sword of Vermilion — A surprisingly good Genesis RPG tune!

Cautiously curious about Corepunk

In my recent list of games that I’m excited about for next year, I completely forgot to include Corepunk on that list. Announced a year ago, Corepunk is an MMOARPG that’s seeking to blend Diablo-style gameplay with cyberpunk aesthetics. I know, I know, we’re all getting high on the fumes of Cyberpunk 2077 right now (which, sadly, I won’t be playing in the near future), but even so, it’s not a genre that gets a lot of play these days — especially in MMOs.

Right away, the colorful and stylish graphics grabbed me, even with the overhead camera. If I look at a video or screenshots and go, “Yeah, that’s a game world I definitely want to visit!” then I judge that to be a good indication of whether or not the art team is hitting its mark. There’s some post-apocalyptic theming as well, which is never unwelcome.

The impression I’ve gotten so far usually sparks phrases like “seems cute” or “could be fun” in my head. There’s supposed to be a closed beta going on this month, but the team’s been pretty quiet since September. I’m hoping everything’s going OK, because what I have seen this year is promising — like this Q2 update, which is filled with cool tidbits like the fatality system — it’s just not an avalanche of news. It’s easy to forget this game is being made (hence, its absence from my anticipated list), so hopefully actual player testing will bear out and get some hype going.

I’m not staking all of my hopes and dreams on this. I feel about it much the same way I did about Torchlight III and Magic Legends — it has potential, it has a cool art style, and it could go either way in the end. I do like that they’re devoted to making this an MMORPG rather than something lesser, so I guess we’ll see how Corepunk shakes out in 2021.

World of Warcraft: Bastion bunts rather than socks a home run

Probably one of my least-favorite Disney animated films is 1997’s Hercules. It’s not that interesting of a film, to be frank, and it only has, like, one good song. But what grates the most for me is its visual design, which is a flat and lazy take on Roman mythology. It’s just an ugly-looking movie.

World of Warcraft’s Bastion, the first leveling zone of the four added with Shadowlands, does a better job bringing a sort of Greco-Roman myth-inspired realm to life… yet it still manages to underwhelm even as it gives us all of the eye candy. We all have subjective reactions to zone visuals in MMOs, so your mileage may vary, but Bastion never clicked with me. It’s way too golden and elysian without much of a personality. The strongest reaction I had running around was an aversion to abruptly falling off the sides of what is essentially a series of giant floating rocks.

And yes, I fell a few times. Never hire me to drive your tour bus.

It wasn’t just the visuals that underwhelmed but the story, too. In seeing preview videos and screenshots, I kind of already knew that Bastion wouldn’t be for me, but I had hopes that it would defy expectations with the narrative. Instead, the story here — sort of angels-in-training finding the system falling apart around them — is head-thuddingly dull. There were no standout characters or quest lines (although I did like the little owl servants).

We’re also entering this weird territory of Blizzard trying to come up with some sort of afterlife system that makes sense for this game world, and it’s not selling me on the merits of dying, here. I sense the studio trying to walk a very skewed line of touching on religious ideas without trying to make any real-world connections while also trying not to be religious at all.

It’s unfortunate that Bastion had to be the first in this linear leveling experience, because I went from a full tank of excited steam to a quarter-tank by the time I was done. It was fine, it filled a few days of mindless questing, but it wasn’t the jazzy, gripping, “oh my goodness I need to go tell my friends how amazing this is” experience I was hoping it would be.

KOTOR: Manaan musings

(This is part of my journey going playing through 2003’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Star Wars is well-known for its one-biome-fits-all planetary design, so it only makes sense that sooner or later we’d come upon an all-ocean world. Manaan is… kind of like an open-air space station sitting on top of the ocean, which is an inviting setting in which to adventure. Let’s go Jedi some stuff! Jedi it reaaaal good.

I seem to recall that Manaan got into SWTOR as well, and I know I was kind of jazzed to return here. Feels like a bit of a sterile oceanside resort. However, this city is teeming with tension between the Sith and the Republic, both of whom want the precious, precious kolto that the Selkath harvest here. For their part, the Selkath play it neutral, selling to both parties and strictly enforcing a peace on their planet.

One of KOTOR’s more memorable quests is on this planet. It involves becoming a lawyer for a guy who’s being tried for murder. As with many RPGs, there are easy ways to resolve this, but to do it right takes a lot more effort and footwork.

The Sith base on Manaan is a rather tough “dungeon” (and unfortunately generic in theme). What’s notable is that there are several discoveries of how the Sith have been recruiting Selkath to make into apprentices, which is kind of a no-no around here. I’m not too keen on fighting the Dark Jedi with twin blasters, to tell you the truth, but I soldier gamely on. And I game soldierly on.

Finally I have proof that the evil Sith are evilly up to no good, which was painfully obvious to everyone except the Selkath authorities. I mean, when you treat with guys who look like discount Cobra Commanders, you have to suspect that maybe they don’t have your planet’s best interests at heart.

I have a real problem with the Republic on Manaan. You go right up to the head guy on the planet and tell him that you’re there on Jedi Counsel orders to find the star map and it’s extremely critical to the fate of the Republic, and he’s like, “Oh, yeah, I *might* know something about that. But first you gotta go on a suicide mission to destroy a Sith base before I say anything.” You do all that for the jerk, and his big revelation is that the Republic has been going behind the natives’ backs and setting up a kolto mining operation of their own. But something happened under the ocean, the communication went dead, and he can’t be bothered to check it out himself so why don’t you go give it a looksee?

The real shame is there is no option to force choke the guy to death. And this is in a game saturated with dark choices.

Is there anything creepier than a deserted undersea base? No wonder so many video games and movies like using these as modern haunted houses. There’s definitely something unconcerting about seeing giant sharks lazily swim about right outside these way-to-large windows while a lone merc babbles about the Selkath going insane and shooting up the place.

Oh hey, here’s something creepier! Let’s jump into a big, bulky environmental suit and sloooowly jog outside of the base while nasty sharks try to get a free meal. It’s a short segment, but it gets high marks for tension. The feeling of vulnerability is palpable.

I’m starting to get tired of the endless wave of bounty hunters, dark jedi, and apprentices that Malak keeps sending to capture Bastila. But at least I save a giant shark from poisoning (the Republic operations were making the locals pretty upset) and got the star map. AND I got a really wicked-looking suit of armor that I upgrade to make me immune to all of the annoying mind-control Force attacks that the dark jedi use.

Battle Bards Episode 182: Last Oasis

What does the apocalypse sound like? That’s the burning question, so to speak, that the Battle Bards are investigating this week as they dive into the soundtrack to Last Oasis. Michał Korniewicz’s unique score is a haunting experience that must be heard to be believed. But at the end of it all, will it be enough to endure?

Episode 182 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Seven Pieces of the Moon,” “Before the Reckoning,” and “Against All Odds”)
  • “Beast from Beneath” 
  • “Growth”
  • “Woodpunk”
  • “The Old Ways”
  • “The Flotillans”
  • “Big Red”
  • “Chase the Bard”
  • Which one did we like the best?
  • Listener notes from Mika, Minimalistway, and Bullwraith
  • Jukebox picks: “Out of the North” from Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, “Main Theme Part 3” from Baldur’s Gate 3, and “Super Sonic” from Sonic Mania
  • Outro (feat. )

Are tonal spoilers for MMO zones actual spoilers?

I know I’m a slow leveler with less time to game than some, and so I’ve made my peace with the fact that everyone in Shadowlands would be at 60 and in the endgame zones long, long before I’d derpy derp derp my way there. And that’s OK all around. You game the way you want, I’ll do me, and we’ll all arrive at the same place eventually.

But the problem I had during the first week of the expansion was that the rushing ahead crowd (i.e. “everyone but me and maybe two others”) in our guild would not stop expressing very loud opinions about each zone they went through. It wasn’t so much story spoilers, mind you, but rather tonal judgments usually expressing what they didn’t like. Over and over again.

And that genuinely bugged me, because hey, some of us aren’t there yet. Some of us would rather form our own opinions rather than have them handed down to us by the advance wave. I’ve deliberately avoided reading spoilers, beta impressions, and the like from Shadowlands because you can only experience something as new precisely once without a severe blow to the head, and I wanted this week to be that.

So we kind of got into it a little bit in the guild over whether or not general reactions to zones and storylines — the “hate it,” “love it,” “made my skin crawl,” variety — constituted spoilers. I felt that it was definitely spoiling my experience and my expectations (a feeling which was not universal), and so I eventually had to leave guild chat entirely for the time being.

And that kind of stinks, because I would prefer to stay tethered to the community. Whether or not tonal spoilers are spoilers, a guild should be considerate in the first week or two of an expansion and maybe tamp down on openly spewing reactions where people can’t easily avoid it.