Try It Tuesday: A Plague Tale

Two gameplay elements that I traditionally don’t like — and often moan at great length about — are escort quests and stealth segments. I don’t think I’m alone in that. So imagine that there’s a game that features a non-stop escort quest WITH nothing but stealth! That’d be the worst game ever, right?

Except, no, it’s not, at least when it’s A Plague Tale: Innocence. This one was picked up on my radar a couple months back due to the high volume of praise that it had been receiving, and after checking it out, I figured the story and setting were interesting enough to outweigh how the game itself plays. And that turned out to be largely true.

Set in slightly fantasized version of medieval France, A Plague Tale follows Amicia, a daughter of a well-to-do lord, who is thrust into a skittering flight from the Inquisition with her hardly-ever-seen little brother Hugo. Something’s both wrong and dangerous about Hugo that’s attracted the Inquisition, and they will stop at nothing to get to him.

To make matters worse, the Black Death has broken out, except in this version of history, it’s called the Bite, and it comes by swarms of man-eating rats that burst out of the ground everywhere and are only thrwarted by light and fire. So, Inquisition on one side, rats on another, and a scared teen and a little kid running through it all. That makes for a compelling framework.

While A Plague Tale isn’t going to make me love escort or stealth missions, at least it incorporated both with a minimum of frustration. Generally, Amicia is not able to deal with challenges head-on, so she has to use her sling (and its various types of ammo) and environment to trick guards, distract rats, and creep around threats. It’s possible to kill the soldiers, but it’s not that easy and not always advisable.

The game is a journey of a thousand smaller parts, with each part being an environmental puzzle or situation to overcome. How do I get through the barn to the rafters? How do I outrun the guards? How do I use lit mirrors to channel rats? The game gradually gives more and more tools to use, but always at a measured pace so that it’s not that overwhelming. What’s even better is that there are often more than one way to beat a section, so I always felt like I was rewarded for my own choices rather than figuring out the one path to success.

I was hoping for a stronger story, something in the line of an adventure game, but really A Plague Tale’s narrative mostly rests on what’s around you — snippets of conversations from guards, sights both disgusting and beautiful, muttered comments from Amicia, and the occasional dialogue between characters. I wasn’t really in love with the idea of lugging Hugo around for the whole game, especially since he tends to freak out if you leave him behind. It’s Babysitting: the Dark Ages in parts.

What really gripped me was how much detail is paid to the setting and this vision of a world coming apart from an apocalypse of sorts. We’re very used to modern day apocalypses in our media these days, but having one set in old timey France is fascinating. It’s not accurate for what really happened, of course, but I think that once we accept that a form of magic is operational in this game, we can go with almost anything else.

Good stuff. I play in little spurts here and there and am hoping to have it beaten within a week or two. I give this the Syp Seal of Approval.

Try-It Tuesday: The Last Door

The recent GOG summer sale didn’t leave me unscathed, as I was tempted into snapping up a few heavily discounted deals, including Cosmic Star Heroine, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Epic Pinball, and both of the Last Door titles. I guess I was intrigued about the latter for fairly strong reviews and an interesting graphical style.

In fact, while the indie games industry is ga-ga over pixel art these days (and I’m not complaining, since I love it too!), I can’t recall too many that get, well, THIS pixelated. The Last Door’s art style is chunky and blocky, like early King’s Quest entries or later Atari 2600 efforts. I mean, it’s good for what it is, but I think what works with this is that the lack of fine detail makes the player imagine a whole lot — which is a very useful quality for a horror title.

Which this is, of course. The Last Door is a sort of spooky adventure game set in the late 1800s and dealing with some (pixelated) disturbing imagery and themes. A guy named Devitt is drawn back to investigate some strange goings-on with some former schoolchums of his, and without spoiling too much, let’s just say that an experiment that they performed back at school has had dire consequences and drawn all of them into different forms of madness.

Plus, there are birds. A lot of birds. A lot of angry birds who are possibly channeling things you don’t want to know about.

Each of the four episodes of the first game run about 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how fast you can figure out the relatively few object puzzles. None of them are that hard, as each episode takes place in a single location (a house, a school-turned-hospital, a city block, and another house). There are even handy shortcuts to quickly transition to the next screen when you’ve already explored that location, which is a nice alternative when you have to backtrack a lot.

So is it scary? Um… sometimes. It’s not the most frightening thing I’ve ever played, and these days I have a pretty low bar for being too scared to play on, but there are a few scenes that made me jump or recoil. A few unexpected smash cuts or creepy things or what have you. I wasn’t too much on edge, as Devitt can’t die or be harmed, so the threat of death isn’t so much present as a cracked doorway into insanity.

The real star is not the visuals, but rather the sound design. The minimalistic music, the odd noises, the use of loud chords at dramatic moments, all of this had a deep impact as I was wearing earphones. One episode even ended with a black screen and nothing but the sound of dirt being shoveled on top of the coffin that trapped you. It was highly effective.

I found myself intrigued and enjoyed what the team did with the art style and the gradually unfolding tale. I suppose my greatest complaint is that the narrative doesn’t really move forward that quickly nor is it resolved by the end of the first game (there’s a whole “Hey, come play the second game to find out what happens!” cliffhanger here, which I did not appreciate even though I own the second game). There are several abstract weird moments that are never explained or put into context, as well as a few moments where scary things happen just to be scary, I guess.

For about two hours of play, The Last Door delivered on an interesting enough experience that I didn’t feel cheated out of the 99 cents that I spent on it, and if that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is. Now I guess I’ll have to dip into the sequel, if only to find out how all this ends.

Try-It Tuesday: Outer Wilds

This was a title that I had brief but fierce hopes for when I bought it for a discounted $15 on the Epic Store. The visuals and intimate, hand-crafted space setting had instant appeal to me, so why not? And I have to say that, for $15, I think I got my money’s worth — even if Outer Wilds isn’t a perfect game.

The setup for this one is a little odd, so track with me here. You’re a four-eyed blue alien that lives on a very tiny world, and you’ve started your first day as an astronaut in its Outer Wilds Venture organization. After taking a tour of the village (which contains the cleverly integrated tutorial), you blast off to… just explore. Go wherever you want inside your solar system, see what’s what, and poke around. There are a few story threads given to you at first, but no strong guidance.

Your ship is a ramshackle thing that contains more wood and tape than high technology, although you’ve got enough to get you places and a suit to protect you from the elements. After landing on a moon or planet and seeing what there is to see, the world comes to an end. The whole solar system, actually, thanks to a supernova.

And then you wake up, the clock reset, and you have 20 more minutes of exploration before the supernova happens again. So yeah, you’re in a Groundhog Day time loop with the apocalypse happening three times an hour. Or sooner, if you happen to kill yourself in one of the many exciting ways that are possible here. It’s very survival game-lite here, with only rocket pack fuel and oxygen to worry about, along with general health. But since whenever you die you start over, there’s not a whole lot of time lost. Progress, perhaps.

So this is the big exception to the time loop reset — the ship computer. For whatever reason, it keeps track of my progress as I uncover any information and mysteries. It’s kind of the quest tracker of the game, showing links between relevant discoveries and nudging me toward certain areas. Without this, I have no idea how you’d even play the game period, as it’s so free-form and some of the mysteries very obscure and, er, mysterious.

Outer Wilds feels extremely intimate. Every planet is pretty small — as in, “walk around the circumference in two minutes” small — and the whole solar system here is so smooshed together that it takes only seconds to zip from one planet to another, including takeoff and landing. Initially, it seems like there’s not much here, with just six or seven destinations, but exploration keeps opening up more and more.

Outer Wilds makes a great case for hand-crafted worlds, and this is exactly why I’ll gladly take something smaller that has a lot of design and function to it rather than giant expanses of meaningless randomly generated terrain. Each world here has had a lot of thought put into it, including a water world with vortexes that suck islands up into space, a world with a black hole in the middle, and twin worlds that exchange sand a la an hourglass as the 20 minutes goes on.

The game gives you a handful of tools and abilities for exploration, including a translator for an alien language you keep finding, a sound scope to help locate other astronauts, and a very finicky jetpack. Here’s where my main criticism of the game lies, and it’s almost a dealbreaker.

For all of its well thought-out mysteries, Outer Wilds falters when it comes to its controls. It’s simply not a good platformer nor a ship sim, and since so much of the game involves both, it’s unavoidable. To get to the mysteries and narratives, there’s a whole lot of annoying platforming and maneuvering that has to happen. I’m not going to belabor this point, but if everything functioned a lot better, the game would be an instant classic.

As it is, I have to weigh my interest in these worlds and mysteries vs. the excitement-stealing nature of the controls. It’s a good enough game to play in little spurts here and there, and I think that’s probably what’s going to happen. I would like to know the “why” behind all of the plot points, but I don’t know if I have it in me to persist until I get there.

Try-It Tuesday: Blade & Soul

So why Blade & Soul? There’s no particularly strong reason why I chose this for my next MMO experience, just that it seemed like it had a solid following, has been putting out a lot of updates, and was from the classic MMO studio that’s already canceled some of my favorite games. So why not?

I’ll admit that eastern MMOs have an uphill battle with me. I don’t dislike the cultures that these games represent, but it’s not one that I strongly identify with or fantasize about. There’s a lot about anime and eastern animation that makes me roll my eyes and feel like we’ve seen this a million times before… and here’s a million and one, because Blade & Soul is not going to tread on any new ground. You’re the last surviving student of a super-awesome dojo that was betrayed and razed to the ground. Now, you got to be super-awesome for everyone.

Tired tropes aside, Blade & Soul gets off to a very strong start. First of all, character creation is absolutely wonderful, with a nice selection of classes, races, and visual customization from which to choose. My only quibble was that there are some class/race lockouts, such as the Summoner only going to the tiny girl-people.

And then the game surprised me with a strong cinematic start. In fact, the whole first hour plays out more like an extended martial arts game cutscene than an MMO, with some tutorial stuff interspersing a LOT of mini-movies. It definitely raises the tension and stakes right off the bat instead of the slow-burn that most MMOs choose to cultivate. While I did like it, I thought that the initial story was rushed, a little confusing (why is everyone calling me “Cricket” now? Why did that little guy with the bunny ears turn into a big guy with bunny ears?), and didn’t allow for much time to explore or choose a path.

Blade & Soul gets high marks on eye candy, and while it’s no Black Desert or anything, it had me doing the “guy nod of approval” (you know, frown a little, raise your eyebrows, and bob your head a little).  At least it was nice to look at, and once the game showed me that my character was capable of gliding (some… how) right from level one, I got a kick out of taking that mode of transportation to every quest destination.

WHEEE! Kind of makes me feel bad I never got a glider in Guild Wars 2…

Combat wasn’t hard to grasp — this is an action MMO we’re talking about, here, so lots of mouse clicking and the occasional hotkey for specials. I went with a Warlock, so she had these cool floating pamphlets while attacking and even a really wicked-looking Asian demon as an occasional summon.

But Blade & Soul has a lot of small little nuances that I didn’t get right away (or, you know, ever). The tutorial would fling things at me really fast and then with no follow-up I’d find myself confused. So how do I get new skills? Or upgrade them? Is… that something I should do? Oh well, I’ll just go back to mouse clicking and hope I’ll win. Yay, I won.

Eventually the tutorial period is over and the game settles into a calmer, more traditional RPG opening. You know the type: peaceful village, trite quests, “Oh you’re awake? You look strong. You’re now recruited to protect us!”

So as I go through a few more quests, here are a few additional and random thoughts from Blade and Soul:

  • The user interface is a hot mess — it’s an eyesore of sprawling elements and has the largest minimap I’ve ever seen in an MMO.
  • It takes so, so long to log into this game. Not sure why, as I haven’t had this problem with any other MMO on my computer. Probably about a five minute load time for me.
  • There’s some good voice acting — but a lot of cringy acting too.
  • Beautiful loading screens!
  • I could do without the computer loudly announcing things to me like “THE SCREENSHOT HAS BEEN SAVED” and “THERE ARE NEW ITEMS IN THE HONGMOON STORE.” Kind of immersion breaking, and my immersion wasn’t too deep to begin with.
  • If you’re looking for a quest pattern other than the “epic story arc broken up by a handful of scattered side quests,” then go elsewhere. That’s pretty much the pattern here, like it or not.
  • The equipment system absolutely baffles me from an initial cursory glance. This is where the game really differs from contemporaries and requires a bit of a learning curve.

So from what I can tell, it’s not a terrible game, just not one that pulled me in and made me hungry for more. Has some charm, but feels a little too rote and tropish for my tastes.

Try-It Tuesday: Fractured

I know I really should listen to my own advice and stop jumping into alphas and early testing, because the entire time I was in Fractured, I kept thinking to myself, “What is the POINT here?”

Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have gone into a game this early except that (a) I have been cheering this little indie project on ever since its first announcement, and (b) for whatever reason, the team dropped the NDA for its very first alpha test and winged me a key. That intrigued me. What did I have to lose other than my time, innocence, and all clothing?

Here we early testers are, shaping the world in our undies. Truly, legends will be told of us brave pioneers who were at a sleepover and then jumped through a portal into this strange, new world.

But here’s the thing: There’s no game here. I mean, it’s functional. You can log in. You can do stuff. But I was expecting something in the way of classes and story, and instead was treated to no instructions whatsoever and nothing to do other than your usual survival game stuff. You know, pick up a ton of stuff, start crafting, make your mark on the world, and hopefully hide your shame with ragged clothing. It’s the same formula that I’ve already groused about a few times recently, so I won’t belabor it here. Welcome to alpha, I know.

So I ran… and ran… and ran. Fractured is an isometric title, so you don’t get any sense of what’s beyond the borders of the screen except what the minimap or larger map indicates (“green”). I didn’t really bump into much of anything other than generally pleasant nature and one area of ruins that turned out to be an unclaimed housing plot. So I guess I claimed it? It’s as good of a place to die as any other.

I’m not writing this to be hard on Fractured, because you get what you get when it is early alpha. It’s a very unfinished game that we’re poking around in. And to give credit where it’s due, there are some praiseworthy elements. The UI is clean and even attractive, everything works (more or less), I saw no egregious bugs, and if the world actually had stuff in it, I’d be happy to explore it. Oh, and the one music track that kept looping was pleasant enough.

Other than bumping into some friends, I had one humorous encounter. A wolf came up to attack me, and I was so glad to actually have something to fight (everything else I’ve seen was wildlife that just fled before me) that I started punching with abandon. But the wolf got the best of me and… knocked me unconscious. I guess you can’t die right now? So after a few seconds, my character stood back up with a sliver of health, at which point the wolf — who was patroling the area — ran over to “kill” me again. And again. And again.

I was being corpse camped by a wolf. Turnabout is fair play.

I also found a fully-built (but not furnished) player cabin, which shows you what others who know what they’re doing can accomplish.

It looks to be a very sizable continent with many biomes, if this map is to be believed. If I had many hours and perhaps a motorbike, I wouldn’t mind zipping around to seeing what the non-light forest areas looked like.

I wrapped up my time in Fractured’s alpha 1 by putting my crafting to good use. Here. I’m finally clothed and wielding a spear. If that wolf comes looking for trouble, a face full of stick is what it’s going to get.

Try-It Tuesday: DC Universe Online

It’s been a long, long while since I last tried out DCUO. The tutorial really was a turn-off to this game and didn’t make me want to stick around to push deeper into it, and I have all sorts of reservations these days about dealing with Daybreak. But as part of my effort to go on an MMO safari this month and also to expand my look into superhero MMOs for my column, I thought it was high past time to do that.

DCUO is the type of game where for every one good thing it does, it does another poorly. The character creator is a perfect example of this, with tons of options laid out in the most awkward and difficult-to-use format possible. There really should be a different version for PC users so we’re not saddled with the cruddy console-friendly UI that is on display here.

Unlike City of Heroes, DCUO goes a more modern route with being an action MMO with lots of clicking, combos, and movement. It’s very fast-paced in this approach, and I can see that as being both a pro and con. I definitely enjoyed getting into scraps (especially when I got the hang of the symbiosis between powers and melee attacks) but it always felt like my power selection and usage here took a backseat. Plus, those powersets were about as generic and unthrilling as possible, which is why I went with mental abilities and called it a day.

I made a robot staff-fighter who could do some fancy mental projections and fly around. It was fine for my purposes, and after a while I got into a groove of mindlessly knocking out missions and slapping bad guys around with my staff and the odd car wielded as a weapon. It was odd seeing my costume evolve with gear, but I like the idea of collecting pieces and using them cosmetically in the future.

Probably my most favorite part was the ability to fly right off the bat. Actually, my three-year-old wanted to hang out with me while trying this and he figured that the spacebar was the answer to everything. Bad guy? SPACEBAR. Quest objective? SPACEBAR! That naturally sent me shooting vertical about three hundred feet, but he felt involved and happy and I couldn’t take that away from him. Plus, DCUO has no fall damage, so I’d just un-toggle flight and we’d crash down on the ground with a statisfying thump.

There’s a lot I’ve yet to wrap my head around, how the systems work and just how pay-to-win (or paywalled) this game is, but for now, it’s a fun diversion for a half-hour here or there. I love to zoom around Gotham picking fights as a bad guy (yes, you can be a villain in this one!) and hearing some of the classic voice acting from the Batman series and elsewhere.

Try-It Tuesday: Starmourn

When it comes to the fringe world of MUDs, Iron Realms is a current powerhouse, containing several popular titles that have endured even as online players have mostly forgotten that text-based MMOs are an actual thing. The studio’s newest title, Starmourn, just released into open beta this winter and caught my attention due to its sci-fi nature and promises of engineers and hoverboards. I’ve only ever lightly tried MUDs, so I figured it was time for another go with as modern of a title as I could access.

I’ll say this for MUDs — they always seem much more concerned with getting you into the headspace of your character during the creation process than most MMORPGs. I often lament how bare bones and boring character creators are in MMOs compared to pen-and-paper RPGs, but at least Starmourn has a slew of options and encourages you to visualize your looks in your imagination rather than giving you a picture to go with it. The details go so far as to descriptive skin and eye color, although I was disappointed not to get more in the way of background and traits. I went with a Jin Engineer with a smoky skin tone in the hopes that one day I would get probes, hoverboards, and other fun toys.

Unfortunately for blogging, MUDs are not very photogenic. It’s a bunch of reading, for the most part, and by and large I enjoyed what I experienced here. The different colors of text separated quest text, other players’ presences, general descriptives, location directions, items, and so on. I think you get more used to parsing this as you play, but I found that it was a bit of an eyesore at first, especially when you got to a new area and the text kept scrolling as events unfolded. I don’t want to be speed-reading, worried that I’ll end up dead because I’m on paragraph 4 while my character is being lasered in paragraph 10.

The other problem I had with the text is that the main box is far too wide, making my eyes travel too far left and right to be comfortable. After a couple of hours playing, my eyes grew fatigued from this. Perhaps there were options to resize the center frame, but I didn’t see it.

One very nice touch was that Starmourn includes a lot of hypertext links, allowing me to bypass typing every last thing out and clicking on options when presented as well as directions on the mini-map.

So this is the general layout here, with the minimap on the upper left, character sheet ont he lower left, main screen and options in the middle, and on the right descriptions of items in the room and quests.

Starmourn started out with my character crash-landing on a planet and then falling in with a group of scoundrels while slavers came to attack the area. It’s all an extended tutorial of do this, do that, and you definitely won’t die, but I still thought it was more interesting than your standard MMO “go kill the first five mobs and return with their ears” quest. Following this, we took off and I got a confusing spaceship tutorial — and yes, the spaceships kind of move in real time, although not very fast. Plus you have to keep using various text commands that I was sure I was not going to remember, so I hoped that there would be shortcuts in the future if I got my own craft.

Eventually the game dumped me out in a large city area, and here’s where my interest started to flag. Probably one of the worst things that RPGs can do to me at the start is go “Here’s a big town, now poke around and feel lost and directionless as you’re trying to learn the game!” I sat on a bench, I stood up from a bench, I had a long chat with an AI information broker, and I took a shuttle from one part of the city to the other, all while whatever immersion the tutorial had created started to dissipate.

I have a feeling that I’ve played visual games for too long at this point in my life. I would have had a lot more patience (not to mention fascination) with a MUD like this in the 1980s or 90s, but getting over the learning hump would take a bit of a push that I’m not willing to put in right now. Still, it was interesting and made me applaud the fact that devs are still creating these kinds of games today, so check this out if it sounds interesting to you!