Posted in Arcane Waters

Arcane Waters: PvP now means ‘pirates vs. pixels’

I recently dined well on Steam Next Fest — my first ever participation in this demo event, by the way. I wish I had been more aware of this, because I loved sampling all sorts of indie titles for free. And I knew right away what the first one I’d be trying out: Arcane Waters, a pixel pirate MMO that I’ve had my eye on for a couple of years now.

Character creation was basic — cute, but basic — with a “perk” tab that caught my eye. I guess this is as close to classes as we get here? I like the idea, at least.

The demo’s tutorial isn’t the best — just a series of semi-hard-to-read info boxes (in the lower-right corner, no less), after which the game just dumps you out into this SNES-looking world to fend for yourself. It’s an adorable setting, and the chill music only adds to it. There were a few quest givers who are there to prompt you to fight, farm, and mine (the three primary activities, I’m guessing). I elected to grab a free pistol from a retired pirate and make my way through a skeleton-infested area and see what loot there was to be had.

Oh, and it took embarrassingly long to realize that I could actually jump with the spacebar. I just assumed that a top-down game like this wouldn’t have jump, but… it does. And there are even little trampolines on the map.

Maybe I limited myself with a revolver instead of a sword, but my combat options were extremely skimpy. Arcane Waters operates on a turn-based fight system like an old school JRPG, and it functions fine. It’s just that my options were shoot and… shoot. I could adopt a different stance (there’s defensive, balanced, and aggressive), but for the most part I was plugging away at skeletons until they fell over and gave me some silver.

I didn’t get incredibly far, just enough to get a taste of the game. It definitely is going for the Stardew Valley aesthetic, although I doubt that the farming system will be as deep. It’s a title that warrants further investigation when a much more robust version comes along, that’s for sure.

Posted in Nostalgia Lane

Nostalgia Lane: Console demo discs of the ’90s

Back in 2020, I mused about how much I loved the PC Gamer demo discs, including their thematic CGI menus. But those weren’t the only demo discs on the scene, and today I wanted to cast my memory back to the console equivalent.

The earlier disc-based consoles, especially the PlayStation 1 and 2, weren’t internet machines capable of downloading demos and games. I mean, technically the PS2 could be kitted out with a modem for like two games, but for all intents and purposes, it wasn’t online. So players had limited options when it came to accessing new titles: Pony up a full price based on reviews and/or word-of-mouth, try it over at a friend’s house, rent it, or snag a demo disc from somewhere.

This pre-internet period for consoles was a boom era for the demo disc. By stripping a title down to a single level or so, companies could squeeze several titles onto a single disc and distribute them all over the place. Studios saw it as shrewd marketing, but us players saw it as a whole lot of free gaming. In fact, I’m willing to bet that a majority of players who used these discs weren’t doing so to try-before-you-buy — they were engaging with these mini-games as if they were the full product.

I played several of these demo discs to death, especially in the period of my life where disposable income was a laughable concept. And I appreciate that it expanded my gaming adventures past titles I would actually pay for. I wouldn’t buy a Tony Hawk game, but I would certainly boot up a free demo to kill an hour or two.

Unlike PC Gamer’s demo discs, I never had a regular source of discs for consoles. Some I got from various magazines, or game stores, or even Pizza Hut. Once in a while, a studio might include demos as bonuses if you purchased a main product. I know Squaresoft did this, such as getting a few levels of Parasite Eve if, say, you bought Final Fantasy VIII.

I’m not super-nostalgic for demo discs, but back in the day they offered up dozens of hours of fun for the low cost of nothing. Sampling all sorts of different games and perhaps even finding a title to invest the price of a box was an adventure in and of itself.

Posted in Lord of the Rings Online

LOTRO: Alts in LOTRO prove why I can’t casually play an MMO

If there’s been one overarching theme in my LOTRO adventures this spring, it’s been “experimentation with alts.” There’s this very real pressure to shore up my roster as the Treebeard server prepares to go into its second unlock phase, because the longer things stretch out, the harder it is to get a character up to where everyone else is.

Generally, I’ve come to the position that I’m going to stagger my characters so that I’m not doing the same content on all of them. That gets boring, quick.. My main, a Minstrel, is the one who will be leading the Vanguard into Mirkwood and staying on top of the level curve. My Beorning and Lore-master, both at around level 50, are in mothballs. My secondary, a Captain, is working her way up through the 30s with the eye of venturing into Moria by July.

But then there’s this desire to have a third regularly played character, one that is dedicated to really, really taking it slow — full zone and quest completion of everything. And in this, I haven’t settled on an alt, because I’ve reached the limit of the classes I typically play. I know I love the Cappy, Mini, and Lore-master, but outside of that is a lot of unexplored country for Syp.

And maybe that country should be explored for such an alt. Play something I haven’t a million times before. I hear you, and I agree. The problem is that figuring out what this might be is not as easy, because the solution is, “Well, just casually level up each remaining class to 20 and then pick the one you like the best.” Sample around while giving each class enough time to come into his or her own.

That’s all well and good, but it’s a tough thing to roll a character that you haven’t mentally committed yourself to playing for the long run. At least it is for me. If I have a character that I’m taking to 20 with only a chance of further progression, how invested am I going to be in those 20 levels? And how much will it bug me to think that no matter what I pick in the end, the others will represent wasted time and effort (albeit with some LOTRO points gain and maybe a blog post or two).

I think it’s something I’m going to have to get past in my head, but this experiment is a good example of why I have historically had a hard time casually alting in MMOs. Dozens of hours poured into a character never feels “casual” to me, especially when you can’t get a rebate back on that time.

So the remaining potential alts are Warden, Guardian, Hunter, Rune-keeper, Burglar, Champion, and Brawler. I’m leaning toward a ranged class — Rune-keeper, Hunter, or Warden would fit — but I’ll see.

Posted in General

The fickle fates and fortunes of MMORPGs

Recently I’ve been working on a column for MOP about MMORPG sunsets — especially ones that were more sudden and shocking. It’s kind of a macabre subject for a player like me who doesn’t want to think too much about MMO shutdowns. Yes, they happen, but nobody’s happiness is going to last if that’s all you think about.

Thinking, one day my game will shut down. This illusion of persistence and permanence is actually less permanent than video games from the 1970s that you can easily access a billion places.

But it isn’t the inevitable shutdown of MMOs that I wanted to talk about today, but rather the evaluation process that comes with returning to or checking out a MMO. Because one of the first questions everyone has, myself included, is “How stable is this game’s population? How active are the developers? Does this look like it has a future or is it circling the drain?”

Case in point, I’ve been thinking about heading back to RIFT for a stint — call me weird — but I love RIFT. I do. I miss it. And yes, it’s technically still operating. It might continue to exist in this limbo of maintenance mode for years to come. But ain’t nobody going to tell you that it has a future. Gamigo could easily shut it down tomorrow and I don’t think most people would blink an eye in surprise. That precarious factor makes it extremely difficult to return, because why would I want to risk getting re-attached to a game and community, only for the increased likelihood of it being taken away in the near future?

It’s also in part why I think players are a lot more skittish in sticking with new MMORPGs. There’s that day one success, sure, but if there’s a drop-off by week two or three (and there always is), people flock away, afraid of a shakier existence and thereby endangering the game’s future prospects. New World is a great example of this kind of Catch-22. Again, it’s not the ONLY reason why people bounce off of new MMOs, but I suspect that the FOTM factor is a major component.

It’s why we look for “healthy” live MMOs with much better odds of endurance and survival. And while the field of MMORPGs is literally in the hundreds, if not thousands, the “healthy” games — the ones with population, activity, development, and other positive signs — are maybe a dozen at best. More, if you expand your definition of MMOs, but not too many more.

In a way, that might drive us back to older MMORPGs that have weathered time and become more constant and dependable. I know it’s where I find a lot of my prospects when I’m fishing around, even though there are newer titles that I haven’t tried yet.

Posted in Wildermyth

Wildermyth: The boy who cried wolfhead

The fourth chapter of the saga dawns with the Mothragi on the march again. However, the Order receives a mysterious note telling it to come to a certain pass and gain an advantage over them. Brothers Norlon and Norloth suit up.

It’s certainly unique to be adventuring with a party that is half made up of members from a single family. The little story scenes they include sons and dads talking back and forth, which is really impressive. I do miss Norly, though. A lot. She was the backbone of the Order, and it’s sad to see Erick venturing on without her.

While some of Wildermyth’s interludes are reflective, moving, or weird, others can be quite hilarious and personable. It kind of brings the game down-to-earth in a good way.

At a stone outcropping that looks like a wolf, Erick encounters the god that’s been calling to him for his entire life. He elects — against his son’s advice — to take an oath and become wolfkind. Practically, this means that Erick gets a big ol’ wolfhead for the rest of the campaign and his retirement age is bumped back a few years. Meanwhile in another province, Jenshae recruits a new warrior for the group named Helen. She’s a bit greedy, but she’ll do in a pinch. They also pick up Scraff, a hunter who can replace Keen when she retires at the end of this chapter.

One cool thing about defending against huge incursions is that you can use ALL of your heroes for the fight instead of just the normal five. It’s a good way for the greenhorns to get in some practice.

Seems like everyone is adjusting to Mr. Wolfhead pretty well at this point.

Stricken by a neigh-incurable disease, the party splits to find a cure for Wyn. The cure is found, but it could also be used to help a local pilgrim restore his long-lost sister. It’s no choice, really — Wyn sacrifices her future for the girl. It’s why the Order is made of heroes. The saved girl, Lonbera, asks to join the Order and help as she was helped.

Meanwhile, Helen makes a little friend when she chases a critter who stole her lucky coin into a cave. Love at first nibble!

The Order finally arrives at Foxrun Ring, where they find an enclave of “good” Mothragi who have been persecuted by all of the bad ones. What follows is a tense escort mission through a stream of never-ending spawns. It’s a nasty fight, and Scraff gets killed when she’s grappled to a spot and then surrounded by the enemy. Then, if that isn’t enough, Norloth sacrifices himself to create three friendly Mothragi to aid in the rest of the battle. The team triumphs, but at what cost?

Posted in General

When an MMO patch — or expansion — isn’t for you

Patch Day or Expansion Day in an MMO can be one of those events that instantly makes a particular month more exciting. New content! New features! New realms to explore, classes to play, stuff to check out!

And while usually those days are thrilling, sometimes they’re… not. You know the ones of which I speak: the patches or expansions that simply don’t have much — if anything — for you personally. It’s a PvP patch, and you hate PvP. It’s a balance pass, but not for your class. It’s a whole beefy expansion, but it’s not really up your alley, so to speak.

Hashtag #firstworldgamingproblems and all that, but it’s not a fun feeling, is it? Because not only are you let down by the offerings, but now you’ve got a long wait until the next content release. If it’s a big enough bummer, it might drum you out of the game for the time being.

A good example of this in my life is World of Warcraft’s Dragonflight expansion. As with all expansion announcements, I was sitting there practically daring Blizzard to win me back. Instead, it’s as if the company did all sorts of detailed investigation into my likes and dislikes and came up with a feature roster that is dull as dirt to me. Dragon stories? Dragon people? A class that can only be played by dragons? Flying dragons? Dragony dragon dragons?

Apart from that dragon overdose, the only real attractive elements here are the typically beautiful zones and the return of talent trees. But neither of those are must-experience, thrill-a-minute additions in my book. And so I look at this and go, “What a waste! A whole expansion, and it’s not for me.”

I think that when we feel this way, we do understand that there’s a level of ego-centrism happening. Game development doesn’t have to revolve around just you or just me. I get that. But it’s also valid to have a reaction to a patch or expansion that repels rather than attracts you. Devs should be angling to please as much of its audience as possible, because it doesn’t help the long-term prospects of a game if you’re only appealing to 10% of players with a patch while leaving 90% out in the cold. “Spreading the love” is the phrase I like to use.

But even with that in mind, devs can’t please all of us all the time, and I get that. It’s regrettable when that disappointing patch day arrives, but hey, there will (probably) be another.

Posted in Lord of the Rings Online

LOTRO: Rubberbanding back to the beginning

OK, I’m pretty much convinced at this point that Lothlorien is cursed. It sucks more my interest out of adventuring than Moria ever did, and I can’t exactly pin down why. Perhaps it’s the lack of actual leveling going on, but I think it’s also the dull-as-dirt questing that flows through this region. It’s a bunch of Elves too busy to clean up their own front porch because they’re gazing in rapturous awe at their trees, so I get to be the chore monkey.

Frodo? He got to rest here. Me? I’m told to go kill a bunch of bears but not THOSE bears because they’re covered by the Elvish Wildlife Protection Act of TA 1011.

So instead, I spent a whole lot of time last week working on my lowbie Captain. I won’t ever regret having a cappy on hand to tackle current content, I figure, so it was time to get her up to the level cap on Treebeard.

I could, of course, go with the standard leveling path of questing through the various zones. But having done that far too much in the past year, I elected for an alternative over self-induced burnout. I decided instead to focus on just doing a daily regimen of missions. Nothing exciting, to be sure, but it’s not the worst either. I can do about seven of the Trestlebridge missions in 30-45 minutes without being stressed or taxed during that time. It’s a perfect opportunity to listen to some music, watch a movie, or go through a podcast.

And since missions stay on-level with you, about the same effort keeps equating to the same result — about a full level every day. The plan is to get her up to 45 with missions, then start in on Moria. I’m not worried about being initially underleveled there, because in the history of LOTRO, no Captain has ever died.

OK, that’s a bit of a fib, but not too much of one.

We are just a couple of weeks away from the Mirkwood unlock on Treebeard, which will make up the next half-year of our lives in Middle-earth. I’m fine with that, although I am harboring a concern that six months may be too long for what has historically been seen as a half-expansion at best. I suspect alting is about to get a whole lot more popular than it already is.

Posted in Wildermyth

Wildermyth: The wings of walking

The third chapter of the campaign opens with the Order of the Holey Sock investigating even more far-flung areas infested by the Mothragi. Erick and Norly’s kid tags along — he’s a fine enough mystic, but he’s kind of a sixth wheel in our perfect five-person group. Still, I should invest in him if my other guys get too old and retire before the campaign is through.

At a town renowned for its brews, the group is shocked to find a brewmaster making foul concoctions for the Mothragi because his wife is being held by them. Well, that’s not going to stand, especially since it gets in the way of Wyn getting her ale! Well, that’s a noble reason if I ever heard one.

After a fight, a bizarre beacon of light is seen shooting up into the heavens over the horizon. And you can bet that the Order wants to investigate.

Along the way, Jenshae — who will never not touch or talk to a spirit in the woods — makes contact with a giant walking tree. She gives it her heart, and he infuses her with legend and a new sense of purpose. She’s almost become a mythological creature herself.

It’s always exciting when a character levels up, because he or she gets to choose between four abilities that can drastically benefit fights or adventuring.

During an overnight stay in a rainstorm, the party encounters a — witch? seer? reader? — who speaks to Keen of a dream she has. A dream of flying. And the next morning, Keen is forever changed.

The journey to the beacon leads them back to their friend’s forge… which is now strangely devoid of life and full of used mothragi equipment. The crew fends off an assault from all sides before being left with no real answers.

Eleven more years of peace follow. Wyn goes drinking at her friend’s establishment, Norloth falls in love with a traveling salesperson, and Norly, my amazing front-line fighter, retires to be a rancher. However, Erick and Norly’s second son, Norlon, joins the Order in her stead. The game also let me choose who Norly imparts her life’s wisdom to, which I chose to be Norlon. He needs the hand up with an extra level.

Posted in General

Self-medicating with Life is Strange: True Colors

So last week was a highly unusual one in my household, in that my wife took all four of our kids to visit my folks while I had to stay behind and work. I cannot stress how strange this is, because I’m never alone in that house. I’ve never had it to myself for more than an hour or two since we moved here four years ago. And suddenly I had all of this quiet and space for an entire week.

I treated it — the part that I wasn’t working — as a staycation of sorts. Just a time to really soak in the solitude, recharge my batteries, and spoil myself a bit. And because I knew that it would get in my head a little that I was all alone, I splurged on an adventure game to fill some of those hours. I ended up landing on last year’s Life is Strange: True Colors, which is the latest in the series that kicked off with the terrific original title. I’d heard good things about this entry and figured, why not.

It was a good purchase, all things considered. It starts with your standard Girl With a Troubled Past — Alex — who arrives in an idyllic mountain town to reunite with her brother after eight years apart. Her arrival goes hand-in-hand with the player’s arrival into this game, and both get to know the setting, the cast of colorful characters, and (gradually) the lurking tensions, mysteries, relationships, and stories of the place.

Like Max’s ability to rewind time in the first game, Alex has a special power. In her case, she can see emotional auras in people and objects and peer into them to learn some vital details or secret thoughts. It’s not quite as compelling a special mechanic, but it kind of works to take this girl on a journey out of her shell to understanding other people and connecting with them.

Looking back at other games like this, I was struck by how many of them feature a somewhat shy female protagonist. Aside from Ethan Carter and Firewatch, I can’t think of another recent “walking simulator” that doesn’t have a girl at the centerpiece. Maybe the more emotional tones of these games is well-suited for a female lead.

Another thing that stood out to me is how the setting of Haven, Colorado is obviously the developers’ fantasy brought to life in a video game. This setting was so dang pretty, cozy, and perfect that it — at times — felt like a carefully tailored theme park rather than a living, breathing town. Not that it made it any less interesting to explore.

I really took my time and explored every bit of this setting and story, knowing that when it was over, that was it. Overall, it was a very satisfying experience, albeit a short one, and I’m glad I had it to keep me company.