The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3 is in many respects the best game in an incredible series, but it’s funny to think that The Witcher 2 was more to my liking in some respects, because I thought the same thing about W1 when I played W2. For all its relative shortcomings, I found myself enamored with W1’s pacing–or lack thereof. And likewise some of W2’s questionable decisions seem somehow endearing in the face of some cynically AAA-standard design strategies in the third game.

Some aspects are nearly perfect. The amazingly nuanced morality and questing that makes fools of its competitors, the subverting of white-knighting and Mass Effect-esque busybodying. Players are accused and interrogated over their biases and emotions. I love it.

Geralt is his own person; he isn’t given the freedom to “be evil” just to allow the game to pretend that it has more freedom. And W3 understands that the weight of the world on its characters’ shoulders has a direct relationship to your immersion: it’s not too easy to get rich or kill your way through the town guard, and as a consequence, poverty seems more real and Geralt is sensibly not so above-the-law in the narrative itself. How many games have you played where you were chomping at the bit in some cutscene that seemed completely limiting and at odds with your mastery of the mid-gameplay world? I can think of several.

It brilliantly improves over its predeccessors in both scale and mechanics, for example in avoiding burdensome potion-hoarding in favor of a system in which potions automatically replenish themselves, which masterfully incentivizes their use. And it’s just a visually stunning game, both in terms of an island’s flora and the dynamic way Geralt might bisect a Drowner from shoulder-to-hip with his silver sword, which is all the more shocking when you’re accustomed to only seeing Gamebryo Engine People pop apart like dolls at the joints.

But the “cynically AAA-standard” remark is a real criticism. One way to call attention to it is my 223 hour playtime on Steam, compared to the 120 hours it took me to beat W2 twice. I didn’t entirely want to spend over 200 hours on the game to get 100% completion. Length comes at the expense of reactive depth, and length also means hours diving to pull up randomly generated smuggler’s cache loot in the North Sea around Skellige just to get some markers cleared from the map. It means bad horseback riding quests.

And it means Gwent–okay, fine, Gwent is really good. I played a lot of Gwent. It’s not balanced well–I don’t think anything is ever going to beat a Nilfgaard spy deck–but the mechanics and card collecting are really nice, and I think Gwent is the exception to the “less is more” argument, because they did a good job of making sure they really had something before shoving their card game down players’ throats. It’s an obvious step up from developers shoving full Texas Hold’em mechanics into Far Cry 3 or Watch Dogs or whatever just to give players something to do and make their game seem like it was worth more money.

I do think it gets a bit cutscene-heavy toward the end, and despite being very invested in the story, I would have preferred something minimalistic in presentation where I’m responsible for more of what’s happening; in dealing with the Wild Hunt and White Frost, I’d truly be thinking, “Hurry up and end this grand spectacle of a cutscene and get back to making me regret my choices.” I saw a few too many “You cannot do that now” messages for my liking. Scenes where I just run along behind someone. Fist fights where I don’t choose whether I’m aiming to kill. In some ways it does feel like it’s lost some of that extremely reactive, extremely agency-friendly CD Projeckt style. The nuanced morality and intelligent writing is better than ever, but otherwise is it really outplaying Mass Effect or Assassin’s Creed at their own game? The expansions definitely felt better about this, and by the time I was wrapping up Blood & Wine, I was actually thinking once more about what I would do in a hypothetical second playthrough. Very hypothetical at this point, given the sizable time investment, but maybe next year… and, hell, maybe just the expansions alone.

Perhaps from how grown-up the writing feels, it really is the game Ubisoft Montreal or Bioware could only ever vainly wish to catch up to. There was some fantastic dungeoneering that I really enjoyed, though this might’ve peaked early-in while crawling through the muck with Keira along, complaining the whole time. There were also parts where I thought they were just ripping off some other AAA game with some idea. This is partly why I wish CD Projeckt tried less to be these other companies this time around.

The story is incredibly solid, for what it’s worth, and the character writing in particular may be the best I’ve seen in games. Despite not having read all the books yet and having had much more time to get to know Triss, I deferred to the Yen route, and I did think she was a tremendously interesting person–standoffish and unfriendly but deeply considerate in her own way, revealed through little things. When she keeps it a secret from Geralt that she’d be mutilating a sacred grove with dark magic in order to find Ciri, she’s saving him from the responsibility for that decision, not to avoid him going against her decision, but because she knew and trusted him well enough to understand that he would have done far worse things for Ciri if he had to, and chose to take on all the guilt and blame herself. I really liked that.

I had a great time of not knowing where I stood with characters, particularly in the expansions, sympathizing with them and thinking they’d crossed one line or another, but ultimately I think it was the Bloody Baron of Crow’s Perch who felt more real than just about any video game character to date, between his down-to-earth and relatable terrible shit of alcoholism and domestic violence, his guilt, his relationships with his family, and more. So many characters were brought to life.

There’s also some great music, of course. I even enjoyed going over the soundtracks on youtube, seeking out things like Priscilla’s song in Russian, and other curiosities. There’s some great sound design as there is great graphics, and I don’t know where CD Projeckt RED snatches up their talent, but it’s certainly working for them.

Ultimately, purely as it works as a game, I don’t feel at all prepared to say “Move over, Dark Souls,” or any such thing. It’s hugely ambitious, and I respect that. Its central combat mechanics are in very good shape but the state of its other features, in exploration and item management and questing, don’t really stand out, and these invariably occupy a lot of any player’s time. It does do some things with a little more nuance than your typical Elder Scrolls, and in rare instances there will even be some divergence in a quest that can’t be dealt with just by mindlessly following a map marker in the corner of your screen. Though, also, unfortunately, most (but not nearly all) of your choices in dialogue are more about allowing players to skip some secondary questions than they are about truly providing players with different approaches.

There’s not much else that isn’t in every other big modern CRPG. A lot of quests revolve around using Geralt’s witcher senses to identify clues and track footprints, but for a central mechanic, it’s not that interesting. You follow the indicators and Geralt says “Ah, these are Nekker tracks,” or “This blood is about a day old,” and there’s not much in the way of questionable LA Noire-esque solutions to really make attention to detail matter.

★☆★

We could really put an end to the review here, but since I can do whatever I want, what I’d really like to do is get into the minutiae of design. Here are some further notes on the things I’d change, were it all up to me:

Get rid of “combat mode” as an automatic adjustment that changes the controls. Being unable to disengage is bad. Whenever I have to think about “what the game thinks”, this is a sign of bad controls. And if the game thinks I’d rather fisticuffs the enemies who can one-shot me rather than break into a full run with my sword sheathed, it’s not working out. When Geralt decides to engage with a harpy in the sky whom I can’t reach, while I’m jumping from one rock to another, so my jump turns into a roll and I plummet 10 meters, it’s really not working out. I’d associate engagement with drawing weapons–fists only if no sword is equipped at all, still allowing the game to override equipped items if a combat encounter is understood to be “non-lethal”, as in a tavern brawl. To deal with potential issues arising from this change, I’d also make it so Geralt would be unwilling to loot containers while enemies were nearby at all. And I’d make Geralt take critical hits–attacks of opportunity–if struck while sprinting past foes without manually “engaging” in this manner.

Reduce container looting. Players are incentivized to loot through the drawers in every village for old pelts and busted fishing rods. It’s just not fun, though–cleverly hide a chest or two in each village with non-randomized loot that always feels worthwhile–up on a high roof or some gamey place like that, even–and the time investment would feel much better. And while I respect the game for not biting off more than it could chew with awkward stealth mechanics, they might as well’ve not had guards pay attention to looting at all, because villagers don’t call for them and you end up with this backwards and arbitary distinction that looting the outsides of houses is a crime but the insides are fair game. In the meantime, AutoLoot Configurable All-in-One and Alternate Lightsources Interaction are some good mods for reducing frustration or tedium, though AutoLoot sometimes loots containers it shouldn’t, spoiling some chests that may have been inside a locked basement or whatever because you walked past them on the floor above. Luckily, it knows better than to open quest-related chests in this way.

I’d add more stash access points, or better yet, use a Dark Souls-esque (or Darklands-esque) equipment weight system where only equipped items affect the player’s burden, and carried space is infinite–the stash would only function as a means to declutter. Decoctions related to carry-weight, like Fiend and Arachas, as well as Roach’s saddlebags, could always have their purposes adjusted.

I’d make horse trophies a little more interesting, as their effects are typically reused by several species, and usually go unnoticed during gameplay.

The game is terrible at explaining itself–not unlike Dark Souls, really. While this clearly doesn’t hurt the appeal of cult-followings, it’s not a good thing. Instead of confusing toxicity offset and toxicity level, rename toxicity offset to something else, like “immunosuppressive damage”, maybe? The way they compliment each other tactically in gameplay is clever–the way they’re communicated to the player is not. I don’t think it’s explained how toxicity isn’t necessarily bad apart from imposing a limit–unlike overdose, which is actively harmful. I don’t think it’s ever said that toxicity ticks down in seconds even while still under the potion’s effects, whereas offset, this “immunosuppressive damage”, lasts for hours without ticking down at all, either.

Remove the often-necessary mid-combat pausing, and make oils and potions take a full second to be used if consumed while an enemy’s nearby. Have the player find them in the menu without stopping time for them, like in Dark Souls. Time could still come to a stop in the settings menu where you also adjust your Gwent deck, or while meditating and doing alchemy. Oils should last forever, as putting a use limit on them only encourages more pausing. To make it a little more interesting, force Geralt to do an oiling animation if you oil your weapons in mid-combat, so you might do something like setting down Yrden to slow and distract enemies while you take the few seconds to do it.

Drop the unnessary horse racing quests. It might be nice if the game made better use of the game’s broader mechanics while you rode, such as by dropping caltrop bombs or using Axii on other people’s horses to befuddle them. Personally, I think the game is better off without the horse-racing at all. How does it fit, aside from as AAA gamedev bloat? At least in a couple races without horses, like when Geralt gets into a rock-climbing contest with Cerys, there’s ostensibly some pride to be found on the line–he didn’t go through all those mutations as a kid so he’d lose to some brat in a personal athletics contest. But who cares about his horse mastery? He’s not supposed to be some Skyrim-esque simultaneous thief-lord and dean of the magic school–he’s Geralt of Rivia.

The water parts need work, both in terms of what’s to be done on boats and the swimming controls themselves. Despite assigning two buttons permanently to rising/sinking in the water, Geralt’s “Swim Forward” button also aims toward the camera–be it pointed up or down, rather than swimming at level height. Somehow he’d sink back down sometimes as I tried to make it to the surface for air. And combined with shifts in the combat-engagement control scheme, I ended up having Wind Waker flashbacks of loops of getting knocked out of my boat by monsters… so, ultimately, I wasn’t a huge fan of the water parts. Of course, one ought to get rid of the very “Ubisoft Montreal” smuggler’s caches, too. It’s the ocean; it doesn’t have to be full of anything other than fish and water. Given that swimming combat is mercifully just one-shot crossbow kills, CD Projeckt probably realized that it was far too terrible otherwise and didn’t have time to impliment a nicer solution, but in a perfect world it would’ve been nice to have a Geralt who could really fight in the water, and could interact with some unsunken boats, different kinds of sea creatures, or best of all: gnarly tidal waves.

Adjust character skill-speccing–either entirely toward or entirely away from the numbers. I find it unfortunate when one choice gives me something interesting, like a new gimmick ability, and another gives me +25% damage all the time or whatever. There may even be a possible best scenario where skill builds are removed from the game entirely, and all of Geralt’s customization comes from better armor set bonuses, more unique weapon properties, your chosen armor weight class, runewords, decoctions used, and better horse trophy passives. I think Geralt should always be encouraged to use his whole arsenal–signs, bombs, potions, swords. W3 smartened up over W2 when it came to the exclusion of mandatory abilities–like “rolling” and “parrying”–from the skill trees, but it should’ve gone further.

Show a little more care to quest items–where they’re sorted, whether they still remain unsellable after their quests are done. I had old keys and masquerade ball masks cluttering up one of my tabs through to the end of the game, and while their combined weight was probably about a single pound, that they had weight at all and couldn’t be dropped was somewhat annoying.

Make the crossbow more useful, and more fun. Blood & Wine does make it a little more viable, but really getting the most out of it does come at the cost of some other useful abilities. Most importantly, I think having a separate button to reload from the button used to shoot would have been really nice. If that’s left up to Geralt, the player is robbed of a good tactical choice.

Disable the storybook loading screens, at least as an option, or allow you to tap the skip button to go straight to a silent loading screen. I eventually opted for a mod called Disable Intro and storybook videos to remove them, as the repetition was pretty annoying–and frustrating, when I was failing at some Gwent game or whatever and had to keep reloading. Ever since I did, it felt like I was blowing through loads in a fraction of the former time, but it’s sad that a person needs to turn to mods at all for such a thing.

Now let’s look at some things that would really help in the UI:

  • See how many of something I already have when looking at it in a shopkeep’s inventory.
  • Pin specific missing ingredients, and from multiple incomplete items.
  • Buy missing ingredients directly from an alchemy supplier’s crafting screen the same way one can with blacksmiths. (I do think I saw a mod for this.)
  • List potion effects I’m under in greater detail on the character screen; for example, Basilisk Decoction bonus.
  • Don’t put a badge on the icon of new items if it’s just an increase in quantity of something you already have, thereby improving the signal-to-noise ratio.
  • Subsort items alphabetically under type, so all your stacks of white myrtle petals or whatever are kept together. (The Sort Everything mod helped a lot here.)
  • Have a same-cost buyback option in stores when accidentally selling something.
  • List items with text instead of simple icons that are impossible to remember, especially given that all the wraith decoctions (and so on) share the same icon. (In the meantime, the Better Icons mod helps a lot.) When using a keyboard, allow you to start to type somewhere to filter this list, including keywords–let someone find their White Raffard potion by typing “Whit”, or “Vit” for the vitality it restores.
  • Add sorting for books. And sort finished quests, by level, location, or most recently completed first. Sometimes I need to read the descriptions to refresh myself on some detail.
  • Turn minimap directions to quests off by default, and don’t automatically choose a new quest to have active on the UI when the active quest is finished. Let me have nothing active.
  • When an ingredient is tagged, highlight junk items in your own inventory that would give you those ingredients when dismantled. This would make dismantling a little more useful, as you wouldn’t need to manually check if there’s actually some need to spend money dismantling an item when you could just sell it instead–as a consequence, I only ever dismantled to get runestones back from an obsolescent sword. You could also simplify some blueprints so you only need to provide metals and magical/specialty ingredients, to reduce the need for junk items, such as no longer needing to buy a cloth shirt to make light armor.
  • Have an option to pathfind to custom markers or nearest quicktravel signs, instead of just active quests (when enabled). I’d sometimes set a quest in another region as my active one just to get it to point me to the nearest quicktravel sign, so why not make this an option all the time?
  • Split decoctions and potions, to better illustrate their distinctive use cases.
  • Mark levelled-up potions with ☆ to ☆☆☆ ratings, instead of giving them the same rarity as decoctions when maxed and putting “Enhanced” or “Superior” in their names. Do the same for weapons and armor. This is just about conveying information as simply and clearly as possible.
  • Mark stairs or points of elevation changes on the minimap, as these things often currently look like dead ends. Add a view of whole cave structures on the world map, at least while you’re in them.

For now I remain a loyal acolyte of CD Projeckt RED and hope for the best from their next big game–Cyberpunk 2077 or whatever it will be. (And here’s hoping standalone-Gwent becomes at least as F2P-friendly as Hearthstone.)

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.
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The Real Texas

I really love The Real Texas, and I’m amazed that it was all made by one guy (apart from the soundtrack). It’s not a genre where that sort of project seems all that likely to pan out, as the scope and interdisciplinary talent needed are some kinda immense challenges. It’s very much to my tastes, too: very Ultima-inspired, with moveable objects, NPCs that act out day-to-day lives (following the village path to work at 8:50 AM, hanging out in this building on the weekends, etc), and it even uses the same keyword-based dialogue system where you can pointlessly, humorously ask your mom what her name is, or a toddler what her job is–Ultima’s very same awkward divisions of human beings into how they’re forced to sell their labour, all the more affecting here, in a game centered around themes of capitalism and greed.

It’s not quite as free as Ultima 7–you can drag items around all day (including containers, once again) but you can’t exactly build a staircase out of crates. Yet it more than makes up for that with its incredibly charming world and dialogue, which someone else compared to Earthbound’s charm (and I’d note that Mother 3 also had a lot to say about some of the same themes). In a different game I might lament the restrictions on freedom in not being able to just shoot any NPC on sight like in Fallout: New Vegas, but despite that generally being an exciting angle in the genre, it’d be absolutely stupid here: the characters are the draw.

And, well, shooting stuff isn’t too great in The Real Texas. Aiming is already a little finicky in the engine, as is clicking on many objects’ hitboxes to pick them up or otherwise interact with them. Combined with the very short range of the gun–and you don’t pick a direction to fire in, you pick an exact place to aim and your bullet stops there–plus recoil, which can push you out of target range after you’ve missed, and it’s sort of an awkward recipe. It’s quite alright, all things considered, and I enjoyed the challenges, but I was rather pleased that Cellpop, the DLC expansion, didn’t have any combat whatsoever, instead diversifying the dialogue-and-investigation gameplay with some food and energy mechanics which would probably seem quite tedious if virtually any other developer were behind it (it’s probably a bit tedious in Cellpop as well, especially without using an exploit I found to duplicate my food, but it was at least interesting, because it served as more than just an impediment to gameplay).

The thing is, this game isn’t exactly high-profile. It has a following in some critical circles, which was how I found out about it (a few years ago before its Steam release), but just look at how many games come out on Steam in any given week nowadays and it’s not terribly surprising that the overall playerbase is still small. But with the keyword-driven nature of the game and the ease with which something can be hidden, it’s to the point where I suspect there are still some things that literally nobody apart from the creator himself actually knows about. When I would find something in Cellpop, I would honestly wonder if I might have been the first person to ever find it. And that’s not something many other games can offer.

For example, at the end of a conversation with a robot character, they said, “Please don’t go, I’m so lonely,” so I talked to them again and manually typed “lonely”. The amount of dialogue that this hidden keyword kicked off was staggering. And when you factor in that you don’t actually have to say “bye” to people–how it’s just as easy to exit out of a dialogue window without using a keyword and thus bypassing their closing text if you aren’t really thinking about it–it’s remarkable just how small the playerbase is that would find such a thing. (And then there’s the fact that the expansion was released without any game testers apart from the creator himself, doing future patches when people encountered bugs, which as a consequence meant nobody really could’ve found these things through insider knowledge.)

I suspect there’s more hidden, too, because I finished with a number of unsolved questions, even after following an NPC around as they moved through their late-night routine, which required a bit of plotting with caffeine and sugar intake so my character wouldn’t automatically pass out after a certain hour.

Most games have long-abandoned the very secret-conducive typed-keyword dialogue system as something awkward and easy to get stuck on, but there was one use I thought was remarkable: you can type “steal” to steal something. It’s hugely useful to get things for free–obviously–and yet it’s absolutely unnecessary and never taught to the player. In a genre where stealing is so immensely incentivized if it’s allowed at all, a player of The Real Texas might never think to do it if their mind isn’t already thinking that way. At one point when I was wondering how to do something (killing the big bad wolf with a silver bullet is a little broken) I loaded up a Youtube Let’s Play and ended up watching a bit more of this other guy play the game. And I noticed that, possibly to his credit, it seemingly never occurred to him that he could steal at all. I just found that remarkable.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

Darklands

This wasn’t the first pausable-real-time combat game ever made, but being from 1992, it’s the earliest one I’ve ever played. Some things haven’t really changed. You hit the spacebar to stop time and tell your guys where to move, and there are little indicators for where they’re heading and who they’re targeting. And while there aren’t magic spells to cast in real-time, some actions do take longer than others, like preparing to throw an explosive potion or reloading an arquebus, compared to quick sword attacks.

Man, are there ever some conveniences that would make this game so much less of a pain, though:

  • You can’t select all your characters to do a ranged attack on a target at once, or have them automatically switch ranged targets when one dies (they’ll do this in melee range, though).
  • Out of combat you can move all your characters together, either clustered together or single-file, but goddamn is the AI pathing terrible. If you’re in a narrow corridor, you won’t be able to use the group-cluster at all to move, because the pathing range is only about a screen’s distance away and you need to target a spot wide enough that they can all come to a rest. And in single-file mode, if one person gets out of position in the line, say, because you repositioned your #2 guy slightly to loose an arrow through a doorway and then moved the #3 guy up closer so he could pick a lock or just hit in melee range or whatever, once you tried to get the line moving again, #2 would come to a dead halt behind #3 and #4 would queue up behind #2 forever. So you’d have to select #4, move him backwards to the nearest open space, then pull #2 out, then #3, then put #2 back in… it’s horrifying.
  • Don’t even get me started on stairs. Each character has to be close enough to interact with them but there’s not enough room in front of the staircase for the whole party all at once, so you have to march the party up to the stairs, push your #1 through, then turn off group movement because having two characters present on two different floors confuses it so you can’t move at all, then switch to #2 and move him to where #1 was standing… I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m actually quite proud of how good I got at using stairs in this game. I probably went from taking a full minute to get everyone through, to about five seconds of rapid clicks and hotkeys.
  • Scrolling the viewport around is a huge pain, and every time you hit the key to swap to another party member, the camera centers on them (a modern game would probably have you double-tap their key for that). So if you’re doing the aforementioned one-by-one ranged target-painting, you have to painfully scroll the viewport back over to the enemies each time.
  • Everyone moves sooooo slooooow in dungeons. I actually got into the habit of leaving Dosbox in turbo mode, and even then it’s still so slow when you’re just moving around that I would tab out of the game’s window after telling my party where to go, and this despite the pathing range being as short as I said it was. Really, if everything else didn’t seem normal–even the visual effects on screen as I moved–I’d have suspected that some issue was causing the emulator to slow to a crawl. It’s hard to believe they deliberately chose that walking speed.
  • The UI is really bad. I was miles deep into the game before I figured out how to throw potions (you can’t already be engaging an enemy at the time), or how to tell why I couldn’t open a chest (because it was locked and I needed to press P instead of O) or why I couldn’t pick a lock (because it was trapped and I needed to press D instead of P). When you’re buying or selling items, your inventory box is only tall enough to see like 4 items at a time, which is like trying to see something through a 2-centimeter-high window. And if your first-slot character’s inventory is full, any further items obtained–even key items–are just quietly thrown away when the game says you got them. Not only did I miss out on some caravan random encounter rewards because of this, but I also had to roll a save back (twice) in the final dungeon because I didn’t have room for each of the six key items I needed to bring to the final door. God forbid they put up an “inventory full” dialogue confirmation, or, hell, just hand the item to the #2 hero, eh?

Perhaps nobody can really load up a quarter-century-old game expecting drag-selections and right-click context menus, but, hey. Things to consider for an OpenXcom-esque remake project some day, right?

It’s clear we’ve come a long way–in some ways–but the more old games I play, the more it seems like the only strides we’re making are in ease-of-use. 1992 was also the same year as Ultima 7, which shocked me even more in that department. Once more, a lot of this gameplay is eerily modern when you strip modern gaming’s paint away (and I don’t even mean this in the most insulting sense). There’s a lot going on in Darklands. It’s very open-world–you can probably infinitely continue with killing off your heroes and hiring replacements, even repeating the main questline dungeons, which is more penalty-friendly than games like Wasteland 2 (which offered a similar “replacement party member” feature). The skill challenges in Pillars of Eternity, which at the time of my review I compared to a 1994 game called Realmz, are even more obviously inspired by Darklands (which is actually a favorite game of Pillars’ lead designer)–although Pillars handles them a lot better, because it only checks if your attribute scores reach a certain value, so you can’t save-scum until the RNG smiles upon you.

The most interesting thing is the invocation of Catholic saints, which you essentially collect like Pokemon from city churches and remote monasteries. There are like fifty billion of them, most of which I never even used, but I at least found the locations of all but the last ten or so. Pray to St. Polycarp for a temporary fire resistance buff! Call upon Thomas Aquinas to debate against a bridge demon who has claimed the right to your soul! Well, most of them just restore endurance points or boost your stealth skill or whatever, and there’s a ton of overlap, but it’s quite cool. I would have suggested having them play a more active role and making them more fun to find (and use, and sort through). Though they can be invoked mid-combat, it’s an instantaneous pause-menu action rather than a time-consuming prayer.

The basic gameplay loop–heading to a new city, checking for alchemical recipes and any saints your party doesn’t know about, looking at the reagents in the market stalls and the horses in the stables if you’re in need before leaving for the next place, getting into random encounters along the way–is typically quite boring, especially later into the game. Most of the navigation occurs through CYOA-esque text choices, and this gets in the way once you’ve read it all before and you’re finding your way through to your fiftieth alchemy guild by rote, or back to the inn after a study at the church brings you late into the night. A simple abstract map with nodes where the churches and markets and guilds are would be far better than nested pages of text: I imagine clicking to an inn which might be two nodes away from you on the map, thus requiring two opportunities for time to pass or for bandits or guards to catch you out past curfew–you could show more dangerous regions by coloring a node differently and so on.

It’s also unfortunately RNG-heavy at every step. Is your next random encounter a bunch of spiders with no item drops, or a caravan under attack by bandits? Will that caravan reward you with a potion you don’t need, or with a 46-quality longsword? Do you have to pay money to get into the city, or do you get you in for free and level up your Speech skill as a bonus? Does the church require more time and payment to study their saints? Does the alchemist freely offer to trade a recipe you’ve never seen before, or just one of the ones you can buy anywhere? Or does he offer you nothing and tell you to piss off? The incentives to save-scum are profound; I couldn’t dream of not doing it.

Ultima had its Skyrim parallels in its moveable objects and NPCs with scheduled lives and theft detection, and Darklands has its own parallels in the skill system, as you’ve got each of your skills represented by a number that can be grinded up at any time through use of the skill in question, with some requiring a special opportunity and others being trainable at virtually any time without even moving. And, luckily, there’s no awful level scaling in Darklands that makes you get your ass kicked because you got your Speech skill raised a bunch before you ever got into a fight. (Skyrim’s one true innovation?)

And Darklands’ equipment weight system is a lot like Dark Souls, in that you have tons of inventory room, but only what you’re wearing has an impact on your carry weight–which I thought was extremely inventive and ideal in Dark Souls, because it removes the tedium of constant item storage and management, but makes you really have to think about whether your 30-pound armor is worth it.

I could talk about the annoying quirks of DOSBox or the crashes and save-file corruptions I had to contend with while playing, and there are a million more conversations to be had about whether Darklands does this or that right, whether character generation could have been simplified, or attributes better balanced, whether these potions are too useful or too useless or too easy for making and selling for cash, whether there should be fewer stats for weapon proficiencies, or on the role of the calendar and character aging, on crime and the Virtue statistic, on Divine Favor as a conservative resource mechanic… one could write several long essays on the depiction of 1400s Catholic ethics or the portrayal of witchcraft and Satanism alone… it’s so weird to see a game with a religious angle.

Like, could I just talk about the very unusual feeling of praying for some plague victims, and the prayer not being answered because of a bad RNG roll, but being in a situation where the people are still grateful for my prayers despite the fact that I could have burned more of my Divine Favor (read: mana) to increase the prayer’s success rate? And what does that say about St. Roch, who has been empirically shown to be capable of helping with these situations in the Darklands world, but chose not to? Game mechanics are such an unusual lens for viewing religious stuff through, aren’t they?

But I should only ramble on for so long about such an old relic of a game. Any influences it might have had, or lessons that might have been learned from it, are distant enough to seem fruitless to be chasing down now. The age makes a review score that much sillier, and makes it that much harder to fault the game when it falls short. Darklands certainly does impress, though I’d hardly say it was perfect even in its own period, so let’s give it a four. 

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

Legend of Grimrock 2

Grimrock 2 feels the same as the original, but I had a lot more fun with it. I think the changes of scenery, from dungeon to open air to crystal mine and so on, did a lot to keep me from burning out. Non-linear design has its ups and downs: being able to hoard my stuff in a hub I could always return to, seeing enemies (and their drops) respawn, and having a surplus of food squirreled away made me feel safer in meandering between the various puzzles I was stuck on; they paced things well. But some puzzles actually require players to get a hint or item from another place, which is really frustrating if you spend a lot of time trying to solve a puzzle with what you already have on you. You also might pick up a sheet of paper with a hint on it but forget the context of where or how you found it, which could be important. This was probably the only thing Toki Tori 2+ did more appreciably in not having puzzles associated with item or skill progression.

The puzzles aren’t as challenging as those in Fez, nor should they be in a game with food and resource mechanics, but they also aren’t as well-designed. Take Grimrock 2’s coded word puzzle: as with Fez, you can work out rules and patterns. Write the contents of signs down and you’ll find six verbs as well as a few frequently-appearing but optional suffixes. The platforms are of the variety that can’t be weighed down with inventory items, so there’s no chance of a “drop item here” verb. Compass directions only make four verbs, so that’s out… but movements relative to facing, like “step forward”, along with “turn clockwise” make six. Pretty straightforward, right? But what had me stuck for the longest time was that I assumed the instructions began at the signs. Instead, you’re supposed to read the sign, and then move to the start of the room and carry it out from there. And yet… there’s another one of these signs in a forest, and for that one, you do just act from the sign. You certainly don’t move to the start of the forest. That inconsistency kept me stuck for probably over an hour, and I don’t think Fez ever would’ve overlooked something like that.

Other puzzles also had me stuck, and when I checked a guide, it told me to do some esoteric nonsense for no discernable reason. Probably something hinted by a piece of paper I tossed in the hub that said something cryptic, like “At the crossroads, I moved slowly toward the sunrise, turning back when I feared the dark.” But to be fair, there were only a few of those, and most of the puzzles were very satisfying. As long as you keep detailed notes and are willing to move on to another area when stuck, you aren’t likely to miss much.

I don’t remember all the specifics of the original Grimrock, but not only is the sequel a much more ambitious game in scope, skills have been reworked and are more satisfying now. I remember not being able to use the cool swords I found in the original game, because I had built a character around the axe skill instead. But in Grimrock 2, various weapon skills have been merged together, although there are still light weapons and heavy weapons, and some of these are dex-oriented instead of str-oriented, which means you might not find a use for all of them in your build. I think it’s also much easier to attack from the back row with standard weapons, now: you just need a couple points in accuracy, which players can get pretty much immediately.

But there are balance issues. Magic seemed weak compared to the damage my melee attackers were doing, and it required more invested levels and more player skill. Of course, on top of that, the attacks were limited by one’s mana pool. Frankly, that seems ridiculous. While I didn’t focus on ranged combat, I also read unencouraging things about the firearms skill, in that guns would jam and ammo was unretrievable.

I also think a few tweaks would also be an enormous help for the feel of the game. The way I can “queue up” my next movement immediately after starting the previous one causes a disconnect in my brain that is very tricky to adjust to, given the whole second or so it actually takes to move between tiles. Some of the trickiest endgame challenges in the Castle simply ask the player to move efficiently despite awkward controls. My recommendation is that actions shouldn’t queue up until I’m much closer to being able to take that step, and what’s queued should change if I still press something else in that time, as I would if suddenly reacting to something.

Maps and notes are also a big part of the game, so it’s a shame I have to drag and drop symbols to the map instead of pressing keys where my cursor is, or making notches on the map with my cursor itself. There also aren’t enough symbols I can use to distinguish certain features, compared to the clean notes I could leave myself in Etrian Odyssey IV, and any changes in elevation within a floor are especially hard to read. It’d be asking a lot if I said I wanted proper text editing, but the clunky type-and-erase-only thing most games do really does keep me from making notes as comprehensive as I’d like them to be.

A few areas were highly reminiscent of EO4, and made me feel a bit nostalgic. I’d say Grimrock 2 isn’t quite on its level in a couple areas. Grimrock’s combat requires skill, especially if you’re luring enemies out for backstabs and trapping others in force fields, and it deserves some mention for that, but it’s also somewhat clunky with the existing movement controls and doesn’t change much over time. Conversely, EO4’s combat could be grindy at times, but were the truest puzzles that game had. But Grimrock challenges the player’s mind more in its dungeons, and doesn’t overstay its welcome: while I tend to like shorter games that don’t require me to slave away at them for weeks, I was actually a little disappointed that there wasn’t more to the postgame dungeon (overall, I was wholly satisfied with Grimrock 2’s length, whereas it hurt to commit as much time as I did for EO4). EO4 had beautiful music and characters that made me feel more of an emotional attachment to what I was playing, but Grimrock 2 was really fun, and I feel confident giving it a score in a similar range for playing to its strengths.

So to wrap this up, here are some picks for the Grimrock soundtrack that exists only in my head:

Twigroot Forest: EO4 – Labyrinth I: Cerulean Woodlands
Keelbreach Bog: EO4 – Labyrinth II: Misty Ravine
Crystal Mine: EO4 – Labyrinth III: Grotto of the Adamantine Beast
Castle Nex: EO4 – Labyrinth IV: Library of Puppets
Cemetery: of Montreal – Old People in the Cemetery

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

Pillars of Eternity

Modified slightly for Patch 1.05.

Few game designers really appreciate the power that systems wield in influencing the behavior of players, even when those players are cognizant–and resentful–of the coercion. The people at Obsidian have got this more or less figured out by now, which accounts for some pretty smart design in Pillars. There’s no “dump stat” and no stat that gives you extra skill points to spend. Experience points aren’t rewarded per kill, but are strictly measured out, and usually received by finishing quests, which helps players roleplay without seeing each NPC as a cut of meat. It also seems to be understood that randomization plus quickload leads to the worst incentives of all, which is why traps aren’t disarmed by a roll of the dice, and won’t explode when the player tries. The stealth doesn’t leave much up to chance, either: it’s not thorough enough to be what I’ve previously described as the best way to handle stealth in a CRPG, but the genre has never really done it well, and as systems go, it’s a good start.

The camera control seen in Wasteland 2 has been traded for beautiful environments designed from one angle, which works so well in Pillars’ favor that it’s sometimes hard to believe that the two games were both made in Unity. Combat is tactical and satisfying, and the choose-your-own-adventure-esque D&D skill challenges might just be the coolest thing in the game.

Whoops, this is a screenshot from the 1994 game Realmz. How did this get in here?

Whoops, this is a screenshot from the 1994 game Realmz. How did this get in here?

Therrre we go.

Therrre we go.

But there are also a hundred things that probably could’ve been handled better. The game raised something like 4 million dollars, which is great, but probably less than the Baldur’s Gate games. A lot of work clearly went into the stronghold, but still ultimately feels shallow, even if it’s at least a lot better than Norende–it doesn’t have the visual or mechanical customization of something like Breath of Fire 2’s Township, or the reward factor of Tales of Symphonia’s Luin. The game has a lot of great voice acting, but it’s marred by technical problems, sometimes cutting out, sometimes poorly compressed, with raspy sibilants that make me want to grind my teeth. And while crowdfunding has undoubtedly done great things for the revitalization of this and other genres, it sometimes seems like gamers might be the worst publishers of all. Publishers wouldn’t veto a working 5-attribute system just because their favorite games have always traditionally had 6. They also wouldn’t make hundreds of thousands of dollars conditional upon the inclusion of hundreds of fanfictionish characters. Obsidian made it work, but I have a number of notes.

Combat and abilities

Combat is cool, but there are some issues with pathing, particularly with characters getting in each other’s ways in narrow passages. In time I got around these issues by not casting spells where I saw the “footsteps” icon, instead manually moving my spellcasters into range, and by luring enemies into choke points instead of starting battles with my own party halfway through. But it would have been nice to have an autopause setting that kicked in whenever a character gave up trying to path to some place and just went idle.

Some skills felt largely overpowered in the ongoing balancing of the game post-release, and I relied a lot on Firebug, petrification spells, and confusion at various times. I wished that the charm category of spells worked a little differently, as it would totally convert the charmed character to the other team as far as systems were concerned, which was really irritating for micromanagement. I wouldn’t be able to use “target ally” skills, even ones that reduced the duration of ongoing domination spells. And when the characters still ostensibly under my control would deviate to attack a confused ally, I had to wonder which of them was truly confused.

It may be that rest-based health and magic recovery systems have never been better. Campsites are a consumable item, and the resting bonuses at inns are significant and long-lasting enough to be worth the trouble, which was a nice touch. Conservatism influences tactics more than I think is ideal, but players can go all-out against bosses, enemy parties in bounty quests, and the like. But it’s still not too difficult to get through Normal difficulty by spamming the good spells and resting more than once on the way through some cave or dungeon. In D&D, players are kept from resting as much as they like by a DM who can creatively punish players for taking too long to achieve a goal, and that’s not really replicable here. Maybe you could have a system where once a player reaches the starting point for certain quests–the mouth of a cave where a hostage is held, or the rush to catch up to a villain before they make their escape–players can’t rest more than once until their objective has been completed, or else the quest is failed and can perhaps be retried from the entrance.

But I think cooldowns would have simply worked better than per-rest and per-encounter spells. You could reset cooldowns between battles, so people aren’t encouraged to wait around for a minute before stepping into the next room. You could also not start certain spell cooldowns until a battle begins, so the most destructive abilities only become available in longer-lasting fights.

I liked the way the classes were handled–that you can build some silly muscle-wizard if you want, but more importantly that you can still build a bad muscle-wizard, and consistency is what’s important to get right. But I wished there had been a greater range of class-specific talents, as it doesn’t feel satisfying to level up and only get a small passive boost to damage, defense, or anything else available to any character, at least not when the max level is 12 and the rare level-ups feel like they should be all the more impressive for it. Some of the magic classes have levels where they’ll suddenly gain like nine new spells all at once, but others aren’t so lucky, and it would have been nice to see some more fabulous, game-changing perks on characters like my fighter or paladin.

Interface

There are a couple things in the UI that are really nice. For instance, I wish Wasteland 2 had the two tabs for the messages window, and had put the whole party’s inventory on a single page with no tedious space management the way Pillars does. But there are a number of problems, too. Choosing powers off the bar in combat can be iffy, both by hotkeys or mouse, and sometimes I just had to escape out of a spell placement, click the little Cancel button, and reselect a spell to unambiguously know what my character was doing.

Here’s a few other things I’d change:

  • Taking something back out of a shop’s sell window puts it in my party inventory, not back in the stash I sold it from.
  • Special properties of rare items are often communicated poorly and need to be googled to see what they do.
  • I can’t view a character’s existing abilities/equipment from the level-up screen, which often inform the talents and powers I want to take.
  • Suppressed effects from other equipped items aren’t immediately conveyed, so any equipment change requires a lot of trial and error.
  • The character sheet could make better use of space. I’d rather not have to scroll around so much to see how many points a character has in athletics, etc.
  • A character’s power bar hotkeys aren’t remembered if they’re removed from the party.
  • Chants were getting reset for me, or losing their names, so either there’s a bug somewhere, or the chants window can be closed without applying changes, in some unintuitive way.
  • Level-up and “party member wants to talk” icons on character portraits are hard to notice, as is the red-handed cursor if I would get in trouble for stealing from a certain container (I was many hours into the game before I caught on to the cursor thing).
  • The Notes tab doesn’t let me click to a point I want to type from. There also doesn’t seem to be a way to delete notes.
  • Some of the default keybindings are a little bizarre (I ended up rebinding the time controls to the thumb buttons on my mouse so I could pan the camera with WASD).

Other mechanics and design

The way the player character can gain a reputation for certain behavioral traits, like honesty or cruelty, is pretty cool, especially for players who roleplay certain ideologies, doing a no-stealing playthrough and so on. Also neat are the ways the paladin & priest oaths to their gods and orders can mean consequences for deviating from these behavior roles, in the form of passive character buffs and the like. It reminds me of the way Planescape: Torment let you make certain vows in conversation, and I’ve always had an interest in systems like that: the gamble of making promises when you don’t know precisely what you’re walking into.

Reputation also exists in terms of a faction’s opinions of the protagonist, like in Fallout: New Vegas before it. But this part of the system feels somewhat toothless and underutilized. For example, being the Champion of Defiance Bay didn’t let me get into the animancy hearings on the weight of my own name. I don’t actually want there to be an unequivocally superior “I Am The Best” solution for every problem, but if it doesn’t pay out at moments like that, there’s little point in even having your character sheet tell you that the people of a certain city think you’re the bee’s knees. I seem to recall that in New Vegas, reputation could mean groups like the Powder Gangers not shooting the player on sight. That doesn’t really seem to be a factor here.

I felt that it was encouraged to play too much of the game in Scouting Mode, which made it take longer to get around, which also just meant playing the game in Fast Mode arbitrarily. I didn’t cover every square inch of forest with Scouting on, and a lot of traps and secrets were in places where you’d expect to find them, but there were always the few exceptions. I think the idea of slowing down was somewhat unnecessary. Maybe they could have made Scouting necessary to find traps, but allowed other secrets to be revealed simply by passing the perception check, no matter what mode the player was in. Or maybe Scouting could’ve worked at regular speed, at the cost of faster fatigue generation, as a result of characters having to concentrate harder.

The stronghold’s use of Turns for some events, which advanced as quests were finished, and Days for others, which advanced when the player rested or travelled, which seemed a bit strange. I liked the idea of locking some aspects of progress behind quest completion and thus not allowing the player to earn infinite money by quick-travelling around, but it seemed strange that they didn’t go all the way with it. It probably would have been better if the number of building improvements were locked behind progress in the main questline, so that every time a major quest was finished, the player could build or customize two or three more things, and by the time they were 75-90% done in the main questline, the stronghold would be completely restored.

Rather than the stronghold’s focus on fiscal management and hirelings, shallow or not, what I really wanted to see was utility benefits. Thankfully, Patch 1.05 apparently allows you to access the stronghold resting screen from the campfire button, which reduces the amount of loading screens and time spent running along the same maps, but even then you aren’t getting as good a resting buff as you could find in the inns of cities. If you could solve a quest for a city’s innkeeper, or otherwise pay or persuade them to share their feng shui secrets (or whatever it is that makes their rooms so good), that would’ve been cool. Or hiring on some kind of teleportation wizard who can get you to a distant quest hub in less than an hour, so you can make the most of those resting bonuses.

Most of the game’s quests flowed pretty well, but a handful lacked satisfactory choices or player representation, resolved in unclear ways, or locked you into some hit to your reputation in the area.

Writing and atmosphere

I really was reminded of some old-school gameplay experiences while traipsing deep underground, getting assaulted by spiders, and being charmed/dominated by giant plants every goddam second. The Endless Paths was one of the more fun things to take on.

I did already allude to the “vibrant soul” NPCs, but if nothing else, their overly fabulous lives do help to build a world that’s a lot bigger than the player’s quest. That said, you’re still pretty much the only person on the task of solving the world’s biggest problem, and at the end of the day all these godlikes are just loitering in town. It was an awkward situation, and Obsidian tried to make the most of it. Patronage has, historically, made the world turn. To their credit, these soul-vignettes could be pretty interesting–it just wasn’t where I would ideally have wanted so much of the game’s writing work to be focused. It was a struggle sometimes when I’d walk into a room and see a half-dozen more of those NPCs, knowing I was going to read them all even though I didn’t really want to.

High reactivity and a specifically “game”-unique story aren’t really on the table here, but I don’t know anybody who went into this expecting different. The story does pontificate about some Big Questions in its endgame, and the player gets to participate in the choices made, and I always go in for that sort of thing. But for the most part, it’s not a particularly engaging narrative, apart from some moments where the player’s purpose is clear and the villain is showing what he’s really capable of (as in the sanitarium). The central hook of the plot, while good, didn’t stop the story from stumbling or getting a little dull at times, and a few companions had the Chris Avellone effect of showing off some cool lore while lacking a human touch, or else requiring a little too much patience to find it. But there were also characters like Aloth and especially Eder, who were easy to relate to from the start (and had some great voice acting).

I talked to a few too many representatives of factions outside of White People City that gave me exposition in the form of “My tribe believes that souls are…” instead of just “Souls are…”

The expository dialogue trees were too much, especially Durance’s, and my heart sank whenever I saw multiple “I want to know about…” conversation options that each lead to a half-dozen sub questions. Apart from one lore enthusiast in the Dyrford inn, whom other characters directed me to if I had questions–and I knew exactly what I was getting into when I started talking to him–it tended to feel weird and videogamey to get so much out of strangers. It’s typical of the genre, but I would have liked to see more conversations where the train just keeps rolling while you pick only one ever from a list of responses at each juncture. That is, until the NPC says “Any questions?” The Exposition Guy in the inn was alright because he wasn’t there to tell me critical info, just bonus stuff about the history of the town for nerds to nerd out over. But for the average NPC, minor and major, the sense that “Less is more” could’ve been better realized.

Hopes for the future, closing thoughts

Overall, I think Pillars of Eternity is an promising milestone in the genre, particularly as an important step in exploring how we can continue to introduce modern design sensibilities to the classic CRPG. It meets expectations in most respects, surpassing some and falling short in others, but I wouldn’t call it the apex of anything, as it stands now. I hope its inevitable expansion content can move things in a good direction, and I’d be pretty sad if the upcoming Torment: Tides of Numenera couldn’t learn at least a few lessons from Pillars. In either case I’m thrilled that Obsidian has released something that is being received well and that they have tools and a strong intellectual property to call their own.

Pillars succeeds most at combat and systems design, and is tactically interesting. It might have come closer to something truly eternal if it had been built as a great game first and foremost, rather than an Infinity Engine throwback above all else. Also if it raised ten billion more dollars–I mean, it’s your fault, really.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

Wasteland 2

Note: This review and the playthrough that informed it both followed the release of Patch 5.

I’m happy with the game I got in Wasteland 2. It’s a deep, expansive RPG in the style of the original Fallout games, but it allows itself to be much more farcical and strange than the world of Fallout ever was. There’s a Toaster Repair skill. It also distinguishes itself with an emphasis on squads, rather than one heroic Vault Dweller. While having a team, and packing the dumb bruiser, the sniper, the lockpicker and so on into every party eliminates a lot of what Fallout’s replay value consisted of, it also makes combat much more interesting, using something like XCOM’s proven cover/overwatch combat system. It even makes the player’s session somewhat recoverable even after a permadead squad member or two, at least in the early game.

More importantly, the level of freedom to do a number of locations in any order, and to shoot whoever you want, provides a level of freedom that I had really grown to miss when playing the Shadowrun Returns campaigns, with their tight controls on combat and habit of moving the player through a linear sequence of setpieces, even when bringing the player back to a home base at the end of the day. Shadowrun Returns was prettier and a little better at balancing the numbers and playstyles, but Wasteland 2’s convoluted quest logic–the “What if I picked this up and killed that guy and I know about this thing from this other town before talking to this lady” stuff–is a highly rare thing today, and to me, much more impressive and ambitious.

I’ll most likely play the game again some day, if only to try out some of the more sinister forms of conflict resolution and to see everything in the Ag Center quest hub, which the player is locked out from if he or she chooses to go to the Highpool quest hub first (and vice versa). It’s admirable to go that extra step and create huge chunks of content that one-time players will never see (even when it doesn’t always work out for the best, as was perhaps the case with The Witcher 2). The Ag Center is available from very early on, so a full replay wouldn’t be necessary for that alone, but there were a number of sinister and irrational approaches to conflict resolution that I’d also be interested in seeing throughout the game. Some day.

The game is split into two acts, one in Arizona and the next in Los Angeles, California. Though some of the second act’s quests felt a bit more rushed, I liked the way it sent me around to small maps for quicker XCOM-esque deployments. That said, Arizona benefited from the lore of Wasteland 1 and it had more of a sense of history behind it. I liked that sense of progression, the long-term goals: the expansion of the Desert Rangers, moving into the base of their conquered enemy, moving into another state to spread law further. This more than anything else makes me interested in a Wasteland 3. In a lot of post-apocalyptic storytelling you don’t get to see what has become of other parts of the world. I found myself wanting to see the Rangers move out deeper as the nuclear fallout settles and the world heals (or doesn’t).

Playing in January 2015, I found the game quite stable. Probably quite a bit more stable than Fallout 2’s official patches ever made it to be. Not once did the game completely crash, though I did have to quickload my way around a few hiccups, and there were a few quest bugs, mostly in the second half, which was less beta-tested. I had one broken quest stuck on my quest log until the end of the game, but I was 85% done when I picked up that quest anyway. Considering that the western RPG is probably the most bug-laden genre in gaming, I can’t complain too much.

I do, however, have numerous remarks (complaints) and suggestions. Numerous issues still hold the game back from being the best it possibly could be:

  • RNG-based systems: Too many things are left up to chance. You better believe I’ll quickload twenty times until I get that safe open, and I won’t enjoy it. Let people choose the salvage result if they meet the weaponsmithing threshold. As with a skill like Kiss Ass, if they don’t have a 7 in safecracking, don’t let them open the safe.
  • Items: They could just use a little cleanup. Some items aren’t marked as junk, maybe because they were components of some quest that got removed during development. Sometimes quest items aren’t removed from the player’s inventory after they’ve served their purpose, and these can’t be dropped or sold. But they can be stored in a locker at the Rangers’ base, which is better than nothing.
  • UI changes: The UI is quite nice overall, but what if you could click an item once instead of holding the mouse button down to move it (Diablo 3 style)? What if, while hovering over an item, you could hit the “1” key to quickly move it to your first party member? What if you could hit x while in the inventory, or even in the shopkeeper UI, to switch guns, so you could compare stats with your other weapon?
  • Quest log: I liked that I could write notes, although due to a bug they wouldn’t stay erased, and anything I wrote ended up buried in the “Resolved” tab, including reminders to come back to some place. What if I could just write in my own quests, and mark them as complete whenever I want? Such as, “Come back to that safe in Darwin Village when I have more than 3 points in Safecracking.” Being able to label coordinates on maps would have been really helpful, too.
  • Reloading outside of combat: I’d suggest less text over everybody’s heads. Maybe a subtle sound effect that means nobody needs to reload. Clear jams automatically at the end of combat, or reload and clear the jam with one press. Maybe double-tap the reload key to reload secondary guns.
  • Quest reward notifications: Sometimes I don’t know what a quest reward was or remember who got it. Try writing out notes in the main text box for quest rewards, like “Angela was given 500 scrap” instead of delivering this information at the top of the screen. The top notice-window is actually harder to pay attention to, often because it’s queued with back-to-back log update and quicksave notifications that can’t be quickly skipped through.
  • Text descriptions of areas: This is an issue of polish, but it’s very noticeable when the text doesn’t match the game’s assets. In the case of portrait art, it’s understandable that one couldn’t paint hundreds of unique portraits for minor characters (though I would have preferred it if portrait art wasn’t mandatory in every conversation). And sometimes perhaps a unique asset wasn’t created. But more often, it seems more like the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. It’d be nice if the text was adjusted where this was especially glaring. For example, when you see the Hollywood sign, it says that all but two of the letters have fallen down. Maybe that was the plan at one point, but the actual asset doesn’t reflect that at all.
  • World map: There’s a lot I don’t like about it. The use of two buttons to move and enter a location is unnecessary. Clicks are often ignored, as if there are tiny invisible pockets where the player isn’t allowed to stand. Actually, it’s strange that there’s even a need for a second map that can be opened up on the world map screen. It should have been one easily readable, zoomable abstract map, with clear color coding showing where radiation starts and where the rangers can’t walk. It could probably speed up load/scroll/movement times if this were the case, too. Also, caches sometimes remain as “Untouched Cache” long after I empty them out, but that’s more of a bug than a design problem.
  • Environments: The locations are well-made, but I actually preferred Fallout’s smaller and more segmented maps, where you could usually quick-jump right to the zone in a city you wanted to go to from the world map, and it was harder to get lost. It would cut down on load times when I’m save-scumming to disarm a trap, too. I got used to commanding my rangers to march all the way across a canyon and watching them make the journey as little triangles on the map on the log screen, but it was tedious. Smaller maps are more fun, anyway: there’s less worry about overlooking some door or important container when there’s less ground to check.
  • Party order: It would be nice if I could reorder party members and decide for myself who the party’s guests would follow. I’ve had guests run out into awkward spots when positioning my characters individually before starting a fight, and eventually I just had to put Vax down. Sometimes it would also be nice if I could put my Perception Shotgunner vanguard in the first slot, which I didn’t have the foresight to do during character creation.
  • Attribute balance: Though I found in late-game that my rangers were earning skill points beyond what was strictly necessary, but that I still had shortages in things like carry weight and combat initiative (because I had felt pressured to go high Intelligence at the cost of things like Strength and Awareness). I still never really regretted putting 10 Int on everyone, because having some two or three extra skill points per level made a big difference, particularly in the early game, when the player is most disadvantaged and there’s a real risk of not having the couple points needed in Brute Force, Toaster Repair, or whatever. I found myself wishing Intelligence had nothing to do with skill points, so that I would have been free to vary my characters more without feeling like I was making them worse for the sake of variety.
  • Skill balance and variety: Some skills, like Animal Whispering, were barely needed, beyond a couple ranks to herd some cows every so often. Other skills demanded five points or more almost right out of the gate. While I understand that Safecracking was meant to be a more rarely used version of Lockpicking that tended to result in more substantial payoffs, in practice the player was strongly encouraged to master all of them by synergizing with additionally recruited characters, and the game ended up with four or five “Open A Thing” skills. It would have been nicer if the skills were less about watching progress bars fill up, and more about fulfilling different roles, as if in a heist movie. What about a Sneak, or Camouflage skill, which could let players send one member of their team into a restricted area? What about an Acrobatics skill that could let a character maneuver around a laser security system to disarm it deeper inside, or climb up onto high rocks to use as a tactically advantageous position in combat? Both Fallout and Shadowrun Returns had more interesting skills, and while the Desert Rangers probably shouldn’t be summoning demons or jacking into the matrix, and maybe Pickpocket was a little broken, there are all sorts of skill ideas that could be implemented in Wasteland 3.
  • Angela: I screwed up by letting her suck up EXP for a good portion of the game, EXP that another recruit could have used, only to discover that she leaves the party for good. I also had been synergizing my party’s skills with hers, and consequently, I was without Brute Force, Hard Ass, and Weaponsmithing for a while. I think it’s a shame when players are penalized for playing blind in this way. A number of things could have made this less of a problem. For example, if it had been hinted: if she had said “I’ll stick with you for now, while you learn the ropes,” and maybe if Vargas said “I see you’ve met Angela–don’t get too attached to her, because I’ll be pulling her back if I have need for an experienced ranger,” it would have saved me some heartache.

All that said, I think the game meets and exceeds expectations, especially considering that inXile was a relatively unknown development team. And talk of balance and gameplay and all that aside, I want to end on a favorite moment from my playthrough: the leader of the Monks of the Temple of Titan, a major faction in Arizona, lay on the ground, dying. His last words to my party weren’t anything dramatic, sad, or foreboding. What he said was, “You suck!”

I immediately looted his corpse. The only thing this leader of people was carrying was a single issue of Mad Magazine.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

KOTOR 2 was ostensibly a great game once, but it came out in 2004, and as of 2014, I can’t say it’s aged well. I hoped I’d like it more, but in a post-Mass Effect world–and more specifically, post-Mass Effect 2–it is obsolete. In any case it’s not hard to enjoy a “travel from place to place, shoving your nose into other peoples’ business” game, but a good story is usually the only reason to even attempt to play a really old title in the genre, and in this case I think it’s weighed down too much by a lot of Star Wars expanded universe junk I couldn’t even begin to keep track of. That includes KOTOR 1’s junk, since it was a decade ago when I played that.

A couple characters were memorable or likeable enough, although I wasn’t exactly bonding with any of them: HK-47 returned from the original, still funny and still getting his affectations stolen by robots in Starbound and who knows what else. The old woman Kreia is probably the most stand-out new face, but her cryptic scenes and speeches were sometimes difficult to slog through. I liked Bao-Dur’s weird Christopher Walken cadence, and he had a good vibe in general, but not much to talk about. And I liked dragging Visas around, because even with the “malleable personality” cliche, I found her more interesting than Mira, or the Disciple, or Mandalore, or G0-T0, or Atton–maybe it’s just fun to try and change somebody, and if there’s a wish-fulfillment angle, people aren’t going to be too put-off by a cliche. The only party member I haven’t listed is T3-M4, but he’s more like a dog than a person. Still, who doesn’t like having a dog around?

I played a female protagonist and while some of the less interesting party members crushed on me, I didn’t stumble into a romance with any of them, which was a bit of a relief, because romance is the worst in this genre. Reading up on it, I see that romance is possible in KOTOR 2, but minimal. So I guess that’s alright, for male characters, or for someone who liked Atton or the Disciple more. Spoiled by Mass Effect, I would’ve preferred if there was a planet I could land on to survey the damage of Atton’s past life directly, and as for the Disciple, well… he’s not even referred to by a name. The closest thing to a good moment with him was when he bowed during his introduction, and I had a chance to say “Thanks for the polite bow. You must be a gentleman,” but it wasn’t really what I’d hoped for, because he didn’t pick up on my mockery of Nice Guy dorks who say “m’lady”.

Part of the game’s weakness is its age, as expectations have risen, but this was also a game known for shipping in something of an unfinished state, with quests ending unsatisfactorily and doors remaining locked forever, due to all the cut content. A few fans are still putting in an unduly amount of time fixing the game up, and I played with TSLRCM 1.8.3 installed, which came out only two months ago. Even with it, KOTOR 2 is still buggy: mostly things that likely can’t be addressed by a mod. Nine times out of ten a modders has a weaker sense of design than the original creators, and so mods rarely address fundamental design problems even if they had the ability. The patch also adds in amateur voice acting for a restored character who didn’t make the cut, which is about the worst thing I could imagine. The voice acting was already done on budget–half the characters are aliens whose dialogue consists of repeated, snippets of “FEEDON GHELFA VON INU VON GHELFA,” which really hindered my ability to read the subtitles–but unprofessional VAs are a higher order of crime. (I also lost interest in the Skywind fan-project the day I found out that they were doing away with one of Morrowind’s best features–the minimally-voiced NPCs.)

The restoration mods got me thinking about how the better parts of this game could survive unscathed in 2014, though, if presented in a completely new way. Something like Mass Effect 3 meets Dark Souls, with a good feel for lightsaber combat, would be the pie-in-the-sky fantasy for a remake. An isometric Fallout-style remake would be interesting, too. Nothing could really be salvaged from the engine or the geometrically-simple, sparse environments and textures. So why keep anything but the script, and the systems as they exist on paper? Food for thought.

The karma system–light and dark sides of the force–falls into the most crude category of old-fashioned video game morality bars, like SMT4 or Fallout 3. This “karma number” system is slightly less useful than the Mass Effect approach to morality, which ranks below the New Vegas style, which, in its own turn, ranks below The Witcher’s style (where karma isn’t tracked at all, but flags are, so factions only react directly to specific deeds). But despite its use of this weak system, KOTOR 2 force karma doesn’t really lock you out of anything, which I find ludically harmonious with its occasional exploration of the somewhat Christian “it’s never too late to seek redemption” theme. Not to mention the themes of Star Wars, I guess, where a jedi probably never becomes too good to fall.

This isn’t the best game to turn to for great tests and debates about moral codes–for that, try Human Revolution, The Walking Dead, or The Witcher 2–but the system does apparently do a few other interesting things: “Influence”, which the player holds over their followers (earned through your typical verbally manipulative nonsense) tends to drag them over to the player’s side of the force-karma-bar–or shift them away from it, if they dislike you, possibly causing them to turn to the dark side if you’re too unlikable in your good-guy run. There’s no way I could go through another whole playthrough to test this out for myself, but since it’s disadvantageous, both in terms of lore access and combat stats, to lower the influence held over a follower, this means they’ll all gravitate toward the same side of the force. This makes sense narratively, but the characters already all tend to play similarly, and this compounds that by encouraging them to all use the same force powers. One way to fix this would be by giving each follower a unique tree of skills based on whatever their class ostensibly is, as Dragon Age 2 (another real-time-pause game) did.

The difficulty was a bit unstable, but generally, it was hardest at the beginning: you had to pick a class and assign attribute scores, knowing nothing about the system you were heading into, and then you’d get punished for the first dozen levels if you went magic-heavy, since you didn’t have spells yet. The game’s slow start was a bigger issue, but as a power-based character, I did have to thoroughly save-scum my way through a couple optional fights: every time you get into a duel, it’s with some jerk who says, “Oh, you think you’re tough, huh? Let’s see how tough you are without your powers, because an assessment of which of us is stronger can only be considered fair if you’re not allowed to do anything I’m incapable of doing.” Bastards.

The game is too technical in its descriptions of abilities, weapons, etc., operating heavily in the realm of D&D despite being run by a computer and able to crunch numbers without a player there to roll any dice. If I hadn’t already understood difficulty class and what “2d6” meant and all of that stuff already, I would’ve found it incredibly daunting. A few premade builds and then having a few skill paths within them would’ve been far more accessible and fun. I don’t like to make a permanent decision about my dexterity score ten seconds into a game I don’t fully understand, and while you can auto-assign skill points and perks, there’s no long-term strategy in the choices it makes, so anyone using it would really have their work cut out for them.

I didn’t stress out over a few poorly-allocated skill points, because there’s very little to go on and the game was generally pretty easy later on anyway (with the exception of the tedious restored-content HK Factory level, but such are the perils of accepting some random modder’s judgement calls). It also didn’t help that the UI presented information in a dense and poorly sortable way. I can’t sort weapons and armor out of my equipment screen, I can’t quickly determine at a glance who is equipping what, I can’t make the game remember a loadout when I need to unequip things, nor can I unequip characters remotely. All the plain white text makes it hard to parse what effects are on an item, or to see which effects come from upgrades, and which ones are inherent properties of the item.

They gave the main character options for their past that the player couldn’t possibly know about, which is a tricky thing to conceptualize in a video game. New Vegas did this too, but sparingly; asking whether the player character had ever been to some place, or met some guy. It’s common enough in D&D for the player to invent their own backstory like that and work it in, but if anything, in a video game, it reminds me who really holds the keys: not the player. You’re not really in charge of your own backstory, so it feels not so much like I’m actually generating my history at that moment as I am choosing whether to lie or not, but not knowing which option is the lie. And at any point the game may mix it up and start telling you what your history was, once again, so hopefully you didn’t get too accustomed to making things up.

As usual with these games, the most fun parts are when you’re idiotically jogging around quest hubs, intimidating thugs and not worrying about whether you might pass an invisible line in the ground, get locked into a cutscene, and get transported to another planet before you get a chance to loot a corpse. I do vaguely feel like the original KOTOR was more exciting, that it had some more grand moments. I can’t adequately compare this to something I played so long ago, but I do still vividly recall this guy, and I don’t think KOTOR 2 held anything so memorable. (Skimming over that article, I see that he appears again in the The Old Republic, which almost makes me want to look into an MMO. Almost.) But while in thinking about a game I played ten years ago, and how what lingers in my mind is usually going to be a character or an event, in the game I played a day ago I’m much more likely to fixate on how my stupid squadmates were difficult to control, how they kept running into minefields, or the times when they’d stubbornly auto-queue a melee attack before using the spells I told them to use, so they would run in close on their own and try to cast ranged spells within stabbing distance.

I suspect that KOTOR 1 had these problems too, and its characters were probably even less memorable–I don’t remember Canderous, or Carth Onasi, even though I’m supposed to. I remember HK-47, and Bastila, vaguely. There was a wookie with a life debt to a twi’lek or something? The point is, if somebody with a fresher memory told me that KOTOR 1 was–in terms of its interface, environments, character balance, morality, general design sense, narrative themes, or whatever–a worse game than KOTOR 2, I’d probably believe them.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.