Monday, April 25, 2016

Screenshot of the Week #81: Tactical cowering!




                Somehow this blog has been on a streak of Souls articles this month, but that’s about to end with the upcoming review for Dark Souls III. Since my last post, I’ve spent dozens of hours exploring the game through a second playthrough and a NG+, trying to understand the mysterious story and enjoying the gameplay while being enraged by the PvP imbalances.
The combination of entertainment and frustration that I’ve experienced in the past few weeks is the gaming emotional peak of this year and I have a feeling that it will last for a while (I’m not rooting for it, it’s just a feeling). Maybe I’ve been led to this moment by the path I set for myself before the game’s release or maybe it is because I’ve skipped quite a few notable titles this year. But even if one of these two plays a role, I’m sure it also has to do with the fact that Dark Souls III is not your average experience which tends to be the case with some of the important releases of each year.
                It certainly has been a wild ride playing Dark Souls III with over 100 hours spent in the game and an achievement completion reaching the grinding level of an MMO. I’m almost ready to holster my Twins Princes’ Greatsword (bragging!) and move on to other games (like Battlefleet Gothic: Armada), but not until I pour my love and hate for the game into one half of a review that should be the clash of opinions between a fan and a skeptic (guess who’s who!). So stay tuned!
It's all part of the plan!


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Monday, April 18, 2016

Screenshot of the Week #80: Inception!




                This article comes later than usual, partly because I got a new (more demanding) job, but also because Dark Souls III was released and I’ve played it inside out (within my limited time frame). I feel the need to go into details about my experience in the latest and last Dark Souls game, but as I have a review in the works I’m going to keep this as brief as possible.
                Dark Souls III is an impressive game that has a lot of good things in store. But between the goldeny apples of quality mechanics refined through four games (and a scam re-release) hide a few bad apples mudding the shininess of what could be a terrific game from start to finish.
                Combining the faster pace combat of Dark Souls with the vast and varied itemization of Dark Souls II and the more up to date graphics of Bloodborne, some would say that Dark Souls III has it all and for the most part it does. There is an above the average amount of content filled with challenging encounters in a linear driven yet intricate world that requires enough skill and attention from the players to become frustrating at some point, basically the recipe of a Souls game.
                The mysterious story rekindles a purpose to go through the world of Londor one last time, exploring old and new areas in a breath taking artistic world but with a slightly less impressive level design. But the dungeon crawling is there, with attractive loot, deadly encounters waiting around the corner, traps where you don’t want them to be and enough secrets to force the obsessive players to hit walls for a few more weeks from now.
The combat system is as good as it gets after going through the forging process of multiple releases and with a few neat little tricks which add more complexity where it was needed. Usually, people would say that with the combat comes the challenge and that might be true, for some. For me mastering Dark Souls III was easier than I expected. Maybe because I trained myself just before release and after going through the slower paced Dark Souls II dodging faster in the third game was like growing wings. But when one says Dark Souls people usually gasp as they are reminded of nightmarish boss encounters they faced, which I can’t say I’ve experience here. The boss fights are impressive from an artistic point of view.  Fighting imposing looking enemies accompanied by a musical score that transcends the epic was a hell of an experience even if more often than not this experience was cut short by my swift success. But difficulty might be the most subjective thing on my list of complaints, so my experience in the matter can’t apply to most of the cases.
As I’ve slowly slipped from good qualities to complaints, I have a lot of those and not because I want to be annoying (which I tend to be) but because there are more than enough problems that my analytic eyes can’t miss.
                The third and final (for now) installment in the series has inherited almost everything that the previous game had good and has managed to improve on its inheritance as a sequel should always do. But these praise worthy features and mechanics have been accompanied by most of the problems the Souls games I’ve played had. Even as the best port in the series, Dark Souls III still has some sketchy keybinds accompanied by controller icons in all the menus. The camera can go crazy at times and there are a few battles where it can be the biggest enemy on the screen and if not, the commands queue and the small input lag could finish a fight prematurely. The enemies weapon collision hasn’t been fixed and the target system could be a gamble at times. There are other various issues and bugs, but I don’t want to emphasize on the negative as I stretched this article more than I wanted to and I don’t want to end it on a negative note.
                With all its improvements Dark Souls 3 might as well be the apogee in the series, but still doesn’t unshackle itself from the problems of the past. It’s not fresh but nor does it have the stench of reused that most of the current popular franchise exhale. It’s a sweet scent for the fans and in a better shape for the skeptics with enough room left for the noobs. Take from this what you will…
Must suck for those who lived there.


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Nodrim

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Zombasite Early Access Impressions!




                Zombasite is the first game produced by Soldak that I've had the chance of playing out of the four ARPGs they have put out thus far: Depths of Peril (2007), Din's Curse (2010), Drox Operative (2012) and obviously, Zombasite (silly name), which has been released in an Early Access format. Soldak Entertainment is a small company with only two (very busy) employees that has been adding a nice twist to the classical ARPG formula throughout all of their titles: the game worlds come with a promise of dynamism and reactivity towards the player's actions.

                In Zombasite, you play as the leader of a clan trying to claw its way to survival through a zombie apocalypse. From the start, I was impressed with the number of different classes that are available, from the classic Warrior to the dark Demon Hunter and the deadly Death Knight. Each of these classes has three unique skill trees that shape their fighting playstyle, but you can also roll a Hybrid character and choose a combination of any two skill trees, so the possibilities are quite ample. The game's combat is hack&slashy and I found it to be similar to Diablo or Path of Exile. Thus, I choose not go into details about it but rather focus on what sets Zombasite aside from the other ARPGs out there. It suffices to say that are plenty of combinations of classes, skill trees and items that you can experiment with.
                The main draw of the game is its dynamic and evolving world: with every character you create comes a differently generated world with new areas, quests, monsters and items. The clan you lead is not the only one trying to survive, as there are other clans with which you can interact by forming alliances, trading or simply going to war with them. Once you find another clan, they appear on the Relations screen, from where you can see the relations between all the clans you have discovered so far. These other clans can also become allies or fight amongst themselves, making the world feel real and alive. Solving quests for another clan, trading with it or slaying a monster close to their lands will improve your relationship with it, whereas solving a quest for one of their enemies or refusing their demands will hurt your relationship. Knowing whom to ally yourself with and whom to fight is key in order to survive the zombie threat.


                There are multiple ways of winning the game, such as destroying all of the remaining clans or forming a coalition with them, but also by gaining a huge surplus of food or solving all of the quests in the world.  While doing that, you have to take care of your own followers by making sure that they have enough food or that they're content with their situation. You can take any clan member into combat with you, but you can also send them hunting for food or foraging for herbs that are necessary for potions. Relationships between followers exist, and some may even fight amongst themselves or banish a commonly despised member of the clan. As leader of these people, you have to keep all these aspects in mind, as losing all of your followers means certain defeat.
                Zombasite's neat twist that makes the game feel so alive is that while you are out in the wilderness questing and slaying, the other clans are doing the same thing. You may find that the fearsome monster you've set out to kill has already been taken care of by another clan or that the NPC you've been trying to recruit can no longer be found, as quests have different priorities and you had ignored the quest text which warned that these were time sensitive issues. When you add to this the previously mentioned clan relations and follower systems, Zombasite's world becomes a complex and challenging place which is certain to provide plenty of hours of enjoyment to the player.


                As Zombasite is currently in Early Access, the player's choice to support its developer by buying the game should be an informed decision, as there is a tendency for some EA games to get stuck in development hell. The two guys at Soldak have been pushing out quite substantial updates at a good pace and their previous experience of developing games (as proven by their previously released titles which enjoyed a good reception) can only be interpreted as promising signs towards the future of Zombasite. However, there were a few things that bothered me during my time with the game. I was not impressed at all with its presentation, as the game looks very outdated and yet doesn't perform too well even on a GTX 970. Also, the music felt quite bland, and this is quite a hit to the atmosphere of the world. Now, these matters are probably easy to overlook when you consider that Zombasite comes with some unique and fresh features, but also that there are only two guys working on it. Nonetheless, it is a shame that developing the game with one of the more powerful engines such as Unity or UE4 was not possible. I would have also liked to see more attention and polish being given to the interface to make it more appealing, but I believe that this and the optimization in terms of performance can be worked out before the game fully comes out , as the developers have launched it in Early Access to receive feedback just like this.


                Overall, the value and fun per price ratio is enticing, with the game only costing £12, yet offering plenty of hours of fun through its randomly generated maps, multiple character customization options, different playstyle possibilities offered by the Clan Relation system and even a multiplayer co-op mode. With all of these in mind, production value aside, it's hard not to recommend Zombasite.


(This article is based on a press copy of the game provided by the developer.)




Wolfe

Monday, April 11, 2016

Screenshot of the Week #79: A journey for the Souls!




                Finishing Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin was a much more underwhelming experience than I was expecting it to be. Under the coat of technical problems Dark Souls was quite good game. Dark Souls II carries the problems of its predecessor but without being able to retain its many qualities. There is a visible difference in design that took a turn for the worse in Dark Souls II taking down with it some of the feeling and the qualities that made Dark Souls so frustratingly enjoyable.
The graphics have changed, for the better (but not by much), rendering a sorrowful landscape through a more colorful pallet which isn’t too strong on contrasting. Better graphics could only mean one thing, a more immersive labyrinthine world. Sadly, the intricate level design which made Dark Souls exploration puzzling and fun it’s now gone. The curse of linearity strikes Dark Souls II worse than the character is struck by the curse of the undead and while the hub has been improved, everything else has changed for the worse. The world is mostly designed as several lines starting from the hub area and leading eventually to a dead end with no connection to the other lines that start from the same place. The level design is frustratingly predictable with little exceptions losing at times any grasp on logic as levels tie to one another in bizarre and unexplainable ways (I still try to figure how I got from Earthen Peak to Iron Keep). But the downgrade in level design isn’t such a scary impediment, the world still holds its secrets and discovering them is more rewarding than ever.
                The itemization has skipped a few steps in evolution and Dark Souls II provides a varied arsenal with many weapons behaving in unique ways unleashing a huge amount of potential builds. The armor sets are plenty and many of them look so badass that it’s hard to choose which to wear. But even these improvements come with a price and I’m not sure it was a fair bargain.
The combat is slower, much slower, and the bosses and mobs design favor shield play over dodging since the changes in pacing have taken a great deal of effectiveness out of the dodge mechanic. Both ways are still viable, but dodge is much slower and requires a considerable souls investment in a certain stat to increase the number of invincibility frames to a playable level. And speaking about combat, the boss fights have seen better days even in games that aren’t praised for their increased difficulty. Most of the bosses are so predictable and mind boggling boring that the small number of decent fights took me by surprise when I reached them. The DLCs add a little more challenge and frustration (that Fume Knight!) and showcase what the level design could have been if..., but it’s hardly a compensation for the cakewalk up to that point.
To make up for the bosses, the difficulty has been artificially enhanced to such degree that it pushed me close to the edge of quitting. The mobs are usually dumb, but they make up for that in sheer numbers and through other unfair advantages which sometimes are hard to overcome. Dark Souls approached this matter in a much more elegant manner leaving things to player’s skill and creativity rather than forcing them into finding exploits to beat the unfairness.  
                On my first playthrough in Dark Souls II I lost my motivation multiple times and I can be called many things but not a quitter. A week before, even after countless tries on Manus I still felt motivated to keep going because the challenge was fair and I just needed to step up my game. Now I had to put up with a lot of lazy design choices that were bad reflection on the gameplay and a motivation killer.
                I’ve always said that the Souls series is overrated (at least on PC) and I’ve never felt more entitled to say so then after I played Dark Souls II. A quick search on Google reminded me of the 91/100 critics score on Metacritic and reflecting over my experience, I’m not sure I’ve played the same game. Sure, the port is better with a grid inventory and (some) rebindable keys, but these are mild improvements that still don’t sum up into a good port, but rather ironically point at the state of the game.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good elements in Dark Souls II, testimony to that is my NG+ playthrough, but these elements tend to be eclipsed by the number problems and pale in comparison with Dark Souls.
                I’ve been in a marathon through Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition and Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin and despite my complaints I don’t feel sorry for spending so much time with these games. While I’m patiently waiting for Tuesday’s release, I’m hoping that Dark Souls III found the balance between its two predecessors while focusing on fixing the problems of the past rather than adding new elements, because I think this is the best way to improve the series.
A quiet moment...


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Saturday, April 9, 2016

Gibbous – A Cthulhu Adventure Impressions!




                As a declared lover of Lovecraft's work I feel compelled to try any game inspired by the Cthulhu mythos or with an eldritch thematic. Adding to the subject the salt and pepper of an old school adventure game mixed with a bunch of loveable characters and I'm sold. But there was another influential factor that made me take a closer look at Gibbous – A Cthulhu Adventure.
Usually my limited time restricts me from doing most of the work I want to with this blog, but I tend to ignore the dire factors in my life or the schedule I set up for myself as I’m drawn in by various implications to different subjects than the one I set on pursuing (it’s not because of ADHD!). I've said in my interview with KillHouse Games that I'm not a nationalist and I stand by that without diving into political terminology to sustain my point of view. But here is Gibbous, a game produced by a small Romanian indie studio and I couldn't resist the temptation of talking about what could be another successful game made in this country.
                Right off the bat Gibbous and its developers come in front of a large number of competitors by releasing a demo. YES! A demo to an unreleased game with a Kickstarter campaign that barely kicked off this week. I call this BLASPHEMY (!!!) out loud as I don’t think there is any other way to describe it. I can't even remember many games that came with a demo after their release and Gibbous has one during what I presume to be some of its early development stages. When was the last time any of you had the chance of testing a game before supporting it on a crowdfunding platform?
                So, what is Gibbous? Gibbous is a point and click adventure game with a bunch of characters that constantly seem to break the fourth wall as they get involved in an occultist Lovecraftian plot driven forward through witty dialogues with a not too shabby voice acting. So, basically, an old school style adventure with a thematic I love and funny dialogues that can lighten up the frowns on my forehead (seems like something I need nowadays!). The best description was given by the developers themselves: “Lovecraft meets Day Of The Tentacle” which translates in what should be a sinister setting but with humorous implications.
Oh man! All that time wasted in Diablo 2!!!


                The demo kicks off in the city of Darkham after the librarian Buzz Kerwan stumbled upon the dreadful Necronomicon and cast a spell from it accidentally turning his cat, Kitteh, into a sarcastic talking pet. Buzz is set on a quest to turn his cat back to normal and to do so he is relentlessly approaching every character on the streets of this shady town, characters that make a talking cat look normal by comparison.
                The demo is short and doesn’t involve real puzzles being rather focused on interaction with other characters through funny dialogues that lead Buzz and his cat in the right direction. Despite its setting and mysterious plot, Gibbous can’t really be taken seriously and this is highlighted from the first moments of the game. Every character acts silly no matter the situation, the level of sarcasm is off the charts and the interaction with the environment more often than not triggers goofy reactions from the protagonists. The dark humor is tasteful and the references to pop culture build up on the humorous value enriching the game’s comedic atmosphere. I’m usually into serious settings and plots but I don’t back off from well written satirical games and at the first glimpse Gibbous seems to be such a title. Yet, I do find the game’s fourth wall breaking jokes a little off-putting as their number is overwhelming especially for the short amount of game time the demo provides.
He's quite chatty!


                While playing the demo I could spot various influences aside of those mentioned before. Wondering on the almost empty streets of Darkham I went back onto the memory lane to times when I was playing Monkey Island and Grim Fandango or even the brief time of my childhood when I was watching Warner Brother cartoons. The influences are many and the press kit provides more details, but my mind flew to those three.
Don't ask!


                On the technical part Gibbous looks great in a classic adventure game renaissance way with painted-like backgrounds and well animated characters powered by the Unity Engine. The characters are lively and fun to watch as their frame-by-frame animations are gorgeous and follow the comical tone set by the dialogues. The locations are rich in visual details and can be interacted with in a non-mandatory fashion as their purpose is to give more context. I had some problems with the frame rate at certain points during the demo, but it isn’t a Unity Engine game if it doesn’t come with those problems.
I want to hop over the fence!
She is the definition of being weird.


                Gibbous aims to be fully voiced. The voice acting I experience in the demo seems to serve the game quite well by intensifying the humorous dialogues through well chosen voices that fit the characters’ weird personalities. The music is created through virtual instruments and this can be noticed rapidly by a keener ear. While the music does lack the natural finesse of real instruments the composed songs are befitting for the game with a vibe resembling old cartoons with an orchestral score.
There isn’t much else to say on this chapter. The sound isn’t at the same level of quality as some of the adventures we got lately, but I did appreciate the music and the voice acting as they are both in line with the game’s action.


Not in the demo...
Ending with a commercial!


                After playing the demo I think Gibbous is a very promising game. It’s filled with old magic brought into the new and far more casual world. The demo didn’t feature any hardcore puzzles but based on the game mechanics I presume that won’t be the case with the final game. I love the puzzles in adventure games but this feature didn’t stand the test of time and using it is forcing the game into a niche corner. But Gibbous can surely overcome that with a comical storytelling and its intuitive gameplay, a tribute to Lucas Arts adventure games of a long gone past.
                If you are not convinced or your curiosity has been triggered you can always download the demo yourself from the official website. The Kickstarter campaign has been running for 5 days now and the pledges reached almost 30% of the final goal. The future of the game is one-third secured and I do wish the developers best of luck with their crowdfunding campaign as I’m looking forward to play the full version of Gibbous and have a real chat with Cthulhu himself!




Nodrim

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Screenshot of the Week #78: An iconic hit!




                I’ve always been drawn to games with slow paced realistic and meticulously detailed gameplay and Hitman series has always been about that.
                Hitman is a testimony of technological evolution and how this evolution positively affects gameplay. Those who have played the entire series surely know what I’m talking about. There is quite a gap between the exploitable and glitchy first games (still good games!) to the masterpiece that was Blood Money. That gap was mostly created through Glacier engine which had the power to create, at that time, one of the most immersive and well designed games. A combination of good graphics, fluid animations, a capable AI, great level design and gameplay innovations gave us to one of the greatest stealth video games of multiple generations. But the series took a detour in 2012 with Hitman: Absolution. Absolution tried to make the game accessible by conveying storytelling with arcade game mechanics, both elements that aren’t well suited for the series.
                Four years after what I thought it was the end of the series comes a reboot that has an older soul in a newer skin. Hitman has returned to his roots, caring less about the storytelling and with a bigger focus on the gameplay. Episode 1 (yes, it’s episodic now!) comes with the prologue missions which serve as a tutorial and an actual mission in Paris.
                Right off the bat I could easily spot the intricate level design that made this series so great. Multiple and intertwined paths are everywhere you look, offering the much needed choices to get closely to your target unnoticed. The contracts from Absolution are back to take advantage of the great level and combined with the challenges add a great deal of replay value for every single mission available. You can get hours of entertaining gamplay out of a single level, never having to see an assassination going the same way as the last. This bodes well with the episodic release as one has the time to completely see what a level  has to offer before moving up to the next one. But level design wasn’t really a problem in Absolution either.
                The big change comes in the overall gameplay which isn’t much affected by the consolization that got its predecessor. The game is slow paced but smooth, with Agent 47 equipped with all the tricks in the hitman playbook. As a (bald) master of disguise, Agent 47 can pass unnoticed getting closer and closer to his target with each new change of outfit. When having to deal with those that aren’t so easily tricked by appearances, he is always faced with choices. Sneaking past them could work either by running from cover to cover or finding a way to cause a distraction, but there is always the more aggressive approach of silencing those that stand in the way, temporarily or permanently. With an entire arsenal at his discretion and environmental objects that can be turned into weapons, Agent 47 is never out of options. This attention to gameplay mechanics is what made the series great and it’s what’s going to bring it back to its glory.
                I said above that Hitman is a testimony of technological evolution and I’m glad to say that this statement stays true even after all these years. The new game looks amazing and runs much smoother than I expected (with a few exceptions). With the graphics and the animations at some of the highest levels, what this game needed to come to life was a competent AI and this is where things get tricky.
The AI behavior is great from the NPCs spoken reactions to the player’s actions to their own actions against them, the NPCs are truly living into the game’s world. But as it happened with games before (The Phantom Pain), a complex behavior doesn’t translate into difficulty and such is the case with Hitman. There are moments where the AI fails lamentably by not transitioning to a more aggressive stance towards the player. Patches have fixed some of the problems, but Hitman is a game where the weakness of the AI is so easy to spot and exploit. Sadly, in the latest years the developers haven’t really invested much in perfecting this technology.
                Hitman Episode 1 release hasn’t been received so well. Part of this comes from players being angry about the game being released episodically. The technical problems that plagued the release didn’t help the game image either. Much has been fixed but there are still annoying little things that shouldn’t be seen in an AAA game that took so much time to get done. Still, this is a new beginning, and a much better one than I thought it will be. I’ll have to wait and see what Io-Interactive holds in the sleeves with the future episodes, but after playing a part of this episode I want to be positive about the future.
Agent 47 is a bully !


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