Try-It Tuesday: The Return of the Obra Dinn

What do you get when you mash-up the graphics of a 1980s-era Macintosh, the board game Clue, soduku, and a locked-room murder mystery? You’d end up with one of the most original games of 2018, that’s what.

As I perused the “Best of 2018” lists, The Return to Obra Dinn popped up again and again. I actually hadn’t heard of this fall release, but the stellar ratings and the unique premise earned a quick buy from me. It was money very well spent, because I became incredibly engrossed in this tale of murder and calamity on the high seas.

The player character takes on the role of an insurance adjuster (seriously) who is tasked with boarding the now-derelict Obra Dinn after it has been brought home with nary a single soul of its 60 original crew and passengers on it. The adjuster uses a magic pocketwatch (just go with it) to relive the final moments of each discovered corpse, taking notes in a book to help figure out the three essential questions: Who was this person? How did they die? And who killed them?

By jumping in and out of these past memories, a scattered timeline eventually takes shape. No spoilers here, but it involves both human deviousness as well as some supernatural elements. Eight chapters eventually are woven together to tell of this misfortune of this ship from start to end as well as those who sailed on it.

At the core, Obra Dinn is a logic puzzle in which the player has to identify clues from scenes and piece them together to figure out who is who and what happened to them. As it’s been said, the attention to detail is staggering here, and I had to look at nationalities, uniforms, photographic evidence, and not a little bit of prowling around the death scenes to see if I could spot anything helpful.

Once the player makes three correct guesses (as in, the correct fates of three individuals), the book will confirm it and start the countdown from 60 unidentified people down to zero. Some of it is easier than others, and there’s some guesswork to be done, but eventually it all is very solvable.

In a similar fashion to walking simulators like Tacoma, I appreciated how Obra Dinn really drew me into this world and told an engrossing story. I walked away from the game knowing a lot more about the positions and roles of crewmen aboard an 19th century sailing vessel as well as a ship’s layout, and some of the characters I ended up liking far more than others.

I was hoping for a little more satisfaction in the end, although wrapping up all of the fates was probably satisfaction enough — and there were very few unanswered questions when all was investigated. So yeah, I give this a strong recommendation. I’m sure we won’t see many other games like it in our lifetime.

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Quest for Glory IV: Slumming it in Mordavia

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1993’s Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Quest for Glory series is its continuity, thanks to the fact that they were all designed by husband-and-wife team Corey and Lori Ann Cole. Seeing how all of the games connect and how certain themes are revisited in new ways is really cool.

For example, the town of Mordavia is in many ways an obvious callback to the main town of the first game, right down to the layout. Yet this town subverts the warm-and-fuzzy fantasy village trope by barely holding back monsters with a magical staff and being home to a lot of macabre sights.

Plus a really grumpy leader of the town who looks like he spends his off hours glowering at Fivel for daring to ask if there are cats in America.

After stocking up in the store and getting a room at the inn, the next stop for my hero — of course — is to check in at the local Adventurer’s Guild. The only problem is that it’s completely deserted and boarded up, thanks to the fact that the valley is currently isolated and no adventurers have been through lately. Guess it’s time to open it back up for business!

I am really, really loving both the art styles of the characters and the fantastic voice acting. Igor — of course there’s an Igor in a horror-themed fantasy game — is a hoot with his black humor and dorky jokes. Wish he could come along as a companion!

There’s a type of humor that runs through this entire game that we today would probably call “dad jokes.” Just goofy, groan-worthy puns and silly jokes and loads of fourth wall-breaking references. Plus emoticons, because this was the 1990s and the plague of emojis hadn’t been invented yet.

I did stop by at the local mad scientist’s house, a fella by the name of Dr. Cranium. Stepping in there is like going into a completely different game entirely — in fact, Dr. Cranium is the great, great-grandfather of Dr. Brain from Sierra’s 1991 The Castle of Dr. Brain (also developed by the Coles).

There are a few really head-slappingly annoying puzzles to do here, including a tile-flipping one and a maze rotating one. All the while, the statue blows bubblegum because why not? He’s got nothing else to do in his spare time.

I did get to meet the good doctor, and he was as science mad as the rest of the town is magic mad. Kind of like a low-rent Doc Brown without the time machine.

Another fun stop in the town is the evil monastery, which honestly couldn’t BE more evil if it put a six-legged C’thulu octopus above its doors and had deadly books in the basement. Which it does. At least I was able to loot some clues about various rituals I’ll need to perform to win the game.

I also drank from the (ahem) Cask of Amon Tillado and got a rather terrifying vision of some sort of winged dark lord bursting out of the nearby mountain and bringing doom upon us all. Gotta make sure that doesn’t happen, I guess. That would be the “bad ending.”

Pillars of Eternity: Completed!

At the beginning of December, I set for myself a goal to stop pussyfooting around and finish Pillars of Eternity — a title I had been slowly progressing through all year — by the end of the month. And on the evening of Christmas I realized I was actually pretty close to the end of the game, so in one three-hour session, I fought valiantly to the resolution.

And so it was done.

The problem with going through modern single-player RPGs is the sheer time commitment that each takes. That was terrific back before I got into MMOs and family and had a lot of spare time to fill up. These days, a 60, 100, or 200-hour game is a daunting prospect compared to a breezy two-hour adventure title. But it’s still something I want to do, even if these completions come at the rate of one per year, because I enjoy the mechanics, world, and story. Plus, they’re perfect to add gaming variety alongside MMOs so that I get a bit of the best of both worlds.

In any case, lets talk Pillars. This was Obsidian’s 2015 RPG that sought to bring back the style of Baldur’s Gate-era games with a more modern update. It takes place in a new fantasy world in which babies are being born without souls and the main character is imbued with the power of a “Watcher” who can investigate souls to see the past.

I’ll admit that, while serviceable, the main plot was not as compelling as the shorter side stories and the companions’ tales. I suppose this is true of most RPGs, as bigger storylines tend to lose us after a while and we enjoy the full resolution of a short story instead. What if there was a single-player RPG where everything was a side story, just a whole bunch of them? I’d be down with that.

Probably my highest praise for Pillars is that the game mechanics are really well done. There’s a bit of choose-your-own-adventure segments from time to time, understandable stats, and a very flexible character system that lets you mold and roleplay your team as you see fit. By the end my main character was a lightning-fast twin-rapier fighter who was surprisingly tough even though she only wore light armor.

I was torn on using preset companions for a party (which wasn’t mandated, as you can create a full customizable team). But the fact that each of them had personalities, was voiced, and had developing stories won the day. Plus they talked amongst each other and even bickered and joked. I liked that.

What I liked even more was the fact that in the back third of the game, it mostly took place in elvish territory. And the game let me get up in each of the clans’ faces and often wiped them out without any dire consequences. I’m not here to bring peace to the elves, but the blade.

It’s such a good feeling to have the game done and know where it went. Of course, now that presents a huge quandry — what now for my single-player RPG time? As I see it, there are three strong options:

  1. Buy and play through the Pillars of Eternity expansion
  2. Skip ahead and start Pillars of Eternity 2 (and its DLC) for that “fresh start” feel
  3. Or change things up with a different title sitting in my library (Wasteland 2, The Witcher 3, and Divinity Original Sin 2)

Kind of wish I could do all of them simultaneously! That’s a good problem to have.

FFXIV: Search, heal, and destroy

As I may have mentioned before, my second time through FFXIV here has been a lot more organized and driven than my first. The first time around? It was all about learning and experimentation, which resulted in a lot of grinding and repeated content. This time, sticking with the same job/class has resulted in me rocketing up through the levels and greatly outpacing the MSQ levels.

In fact, I stopped doing daily dungeons for a while because I hated getting so far ahead. Plus, the lowbie dungeons are soooo boring to heal, since FFXIV level-scales you down and takes away your fancy post-30 job skills. Whee, I have one whole heal spell to use. This is living.

So I’ve been focusing almost entirely on the main story quest — and as I said, I printed out a complete list of all of the quest names to keep track of where I’m at. As of this writing, I’m almost done with the second of 16 pages, nearly complete with the 21-30 content (as my Scholar rushes into the early 40s).

And as I know I’ve said before as well, this MMO frustrates me because it’s almost completely balanced between things that I find fun and interesting and things that annoy (or bore) the snot out of me. My greatest wish for this game is for FFXIV to decisively swing over into the former and just stay there — otherwise known as “clicking.” But as I know the bulk of the story to come for the next couple of months for me and the skills I’m going to be getting, I don’t think that there’s much to anticipate other than hopefully shooting up through the content to new stuff (to me) before I lose interest.

Maybe FFXIV just needs to be one of those “every so often” MMOs for me that I can keep up on the side. I’m already starting to look around for a stronger second game, as I’m looking into SWTOR and ESO while also pushing myself to try out new games this year.

In any case, I remind myself often that there is plenty to enjoy here. Some of the story is really good and carries a more cohesive narrative than I find in most MMOs. I really do like healing and look forward to doing so in mid- and high-level dungeons. And there’s the upcoming excitement of Shadowbringers, which is bound to get a lot of attention turned back to this game. There’s something comforting about being latched on to a “game of the month” to keep one from worrying about the downfall of other titles.

LOTRO: Angmar, where enthusiasm goes to die

I hadn’t planned on going to Angmar quite so soon after Misty Mountains on my progression server Minstrel, but all quests — normal and epic — were leading there, and as I’m level 47, I figured I might as well rip off that bandaid, hit 50, and get this place in my rear-view mirror as soon as possible.

Welcome to Angmar, where enthusiasm in LOTRO goes to die.

Oh, you don’t think so initially upon entering the zone. Look at that picture up there! It’s a little frontiersy and rustic, but there’s a blue sky and waterfall and trees. This won’t be so bad!

…Or so you think until about six quests in, when you enter the zone proper and the atmosphere hits you like a ton of bricks. There are a handful of zones in LOTRO I cannot stand, and this is one of them. There are good reasons, too. The sky turns into this horrible shredded mess and a grating sound starts screeching nonstop from the soundtrack unless you turn it off. Apart from the southern tip, Angmar itself has nothing growing and is a dark, craggy wasteland full of dead trees, orcs, more orcs, angry tribes, giant statues that will one-shot you until you complete a certain quest chain, and just loads of ugliness.

No matter what level of energy and drive you have going into Angmar, Angmar will relentlessly wear it down until you hate life and cannot remember the Shire any longer. The look, the flow, the characters of the zone — none of it is appealing. And to make matters even worse, there’s like a dozen or so necessary deeds to get done here.

So all that’s left to be done is to roll my Hobbit sleeves up and get to work. This isn’t fun play, it is a grim task, and at least I am forewarned of the danger.

In fact, I’ve spent 47 levels preparing myself mentally for Angmar, knowing that it would be a major hurdle to overcome in these first four months of Eriador content. My strategy is the same as dealing with pretty much any large and undesirable task in my life: To prioritize it, to set daily goals, and to get it done without dithering around.

What helps me here is that I set a time limit every day. For about 30 minutes to an hour, time permitting, I’ll devote myself to doing nothing but Angmar without any destractions or procrastination. Just keep plugging away at quests and deeds. And when that time limit is up, poof, I’m done for the day and will move on to other games to cleanse myself of this evil. I’m not going to marinate in it all evening or get pushed away. I’m just going to get it done.

And also to help is my cheery Christmas outfit and the chatty kinship that keeps me company. I also like to mute the soundtrack here and get something really peppy going on my MP3 player, because everyone knows that orcs love that EDM.

Wish me luck!

Battle Bards Episode 135: Battle for Azeroth

It’s Battle Bards vs. Battle for Azeroth — and only one victor will come out of this alive! Actually, the podcast trio is delighted to have another World of Warcraft expansion to explore and investigate. Will it be destined to obscurity as this x-pack apparently will be, or does the score rise above and beyond Blizzard’s design flaws? Find out in today’s show!

Episode 135 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “The Grand Bazaar,” “Drustvar,” and “Freehold”)
  • “Pride of the Seas”
  • “Crimson Forest”
  • “Might of the Zandalar”
  • “Zuldazar Zandalari Lament”
  • “The Motherlode Dungeon”
  • “Time and Tide”
  • “Tiragarde Sound Tavern (Night)”
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Listener mail from Pedro Macedo Camacho (Composer, Star Citizen), Katriana, and
    Jinxed Thoughts
  • Jukebox picks: “Pallet Town” from Pokémon Let’s Go, “Hunting Path” from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, and “Another Voyage” from Chrono Cross
  • Outro (“Dive Bar C”)

Quest for Glory IV: Down the throat of H.R. Giger

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1993’s Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

A new year, a new retro gaming playthrough here on Bio Break! Ever since stalling out on Quest for Glory III, I wanted to get back to the series at least to tackle the fan-acclaimed fourth installment. As with the previous three games, Quest for Glory IV is connected in themes and even character progression (as you can import your previous game’s character into this to continue his journey). Also like the previous titles, this game hews to a particular theme. First there was European fantasy (Quest for Glory I), Arabian Nights fantasy (II), and Egyptian/African fantasy (III) — and now with IV, it’s all about Transylvania and dark fantasy!

Kind of really excited about it. The rock music of the main theme and those dastardly drop shadows in the title text only serve to heighten my hunger… for adventure/RPG hybrid gaming!

Unfortunately, since I never beat III, I don’t have a save game to import. That’s OK, as I want to try a different class this time around — specifically, the magic-using Wizard. I pumped in extra points to magic and intelligence and called it a day.

The game starts off in a bizarrely dark place, as if I was dropped right down the throat of H.R. Giger. The dry wit of the (voiced) narrator tells me that I have no idea where I am, how I got here, or where all my stuff is. Why feature continuity, after all!

Fun fact: The narrator is Indiana Jones/Lord of the Rings actor John Rhys-Davies! That’s so cool.

Wherever I am, it’s obvious that the first objective is to find my way out. And so I go through many doorways that the narrator oh-so-helpfully labels as “sphincters.” I can’t decide if that’s on purpose or not.

As you might recall, the Quest for Glory games are famous for their replay value due to each class (Fighter, Thief, Wizard) being treated to a different experience. So for example, as a Wizard I’m too weak to use the rope to shimmy across this gap, so instead I use a sheet, catch some wind, and use a levitate spell to fly to the other side. Dumbledore ain’t got nothing on me!

I escape into the night air and quickly bump into one of the residents of Mordavia (for that is where I am, apparently). Her name’s Katrina, and she’s suspiciously bubbly for a resident out on a nighttime stroll that she claims is under peril. She points me to the nearby town and skips off.

Another fun fact: Katrina is voiced by Jennifer Hale. Yes, THAT Jennifer Hale. Apparently it was her very first video game appearance. I’m going to pretend that Katrina is Femshep in disguise.

From there I wander generally northward, looking for the town while avoiding a swamp full of zombie hands emerging to grab and grasp. That’s when I met this charming ghoulish fellow who was serving as a gatekeeper for a Dracula-looking castle down the road. I’d love to look that creepy when I’m old.

The actual town was about two screens over and doesn’t look nearly as cheery or inviting as Quest for Glory I’s Spielburg. It’s definitely got a Halloween/autumnal theme going on. Well, time to go rock these inhabitants’ world!