Divinity: Original Sin – Enhanced Edition

As far as I know, when Divinity: Original Sin came out, it was an entirely new idea to have a CRPG in the style of Baldur’s Gate or Fallout that could be played entirely in cooperation with another player. It was probably for this reason that this Kickstarter-funded successor to some Diablo clones I’ve never heard of generated quite a bit of interest in 2014. Playing a game like this with a partner is very different from the way I normally go about these games: I like to quickload when I didn’t really screw up all that badly, just because I think I can do better. I also tend to never use scrolls, grenades, or other consumables, because I’m “saving them”. But it’s different when you don’t want to drag things out for another person. We still reloaded quite a bit, but I’d sometimes get caught stealing and live with the penalties to an NPC’s disposition towards me. I’d start battles from a clumsy position, or I’d fail on critical skills at the start of battle and keep going. It’s probably a healthier way to play, and I like that co-op incentivizes this, with no further work on the developer’s part.

CRPGs are the hardest games to avoid bugs in, though, and we ran into a lot of them. If this was Enhanced, I’d hate to see the original: the mechanics were often clumsy, there were UI problems, quests could end up in unresolvable states, and at least one map was unfinished, with a visible but inaccessible path behind a statue that could not be moved, devoid of items or other content, according to the Internet.

We sometimes had to reload saves or exit the game when my co-op partner’s stats were all set to 5 and he couldn’t use any of his skills, due to the fact that he wasn’t correctly syncing with me, the host. Health often wouldn’t sync correctly either, and my friend would think he was low on health when he wasn’t. Occasionally, skills would just fail to apply when used: I would cast Adrenaline or Haste or something, the skill would go on cooldown, and there would be no notice of a miss or failure, but I wouldn’t get the buff — even when I wasn’t in an Invulnerable state where I couldn’t be buffed or damaged. Targets would be inexplicably undamaged when they were right in the thick of a spell’s active zone (and not immune to the element of the attack).

The controls were a problem. It was all too easy to misclick. Left-clicking an enemy to attack them always came with the risk of clicking to walk to a space on the other side of them instead. Certain spells would be nearly impossible to aim correctly, stubbornly snapping to the wrong targets. I would also sometimes try to get into the cone behind an enemy where they might be backstabbed, but I would be completely incapable of stepping into the space behind them, even when there seemed to be plenty of room.

The AI was bad. Characters would path horribly and run into traps. Enemies would pass their turns for no reason or target Invulnerable characters with their skills, or provoke opportunity attacks on themselves and die during their own turns. The scariest part of the end boss was that three allied NPCs joined us: my main character had the zombie perk which allowed them to heal from poison damage in exchange for taking damage from regular healing spells, and I was killed twice by my own allies trying to heal me, when I otherwise would have been fine.

Information was often poorly conveyed. It’s hard to count the passage of turns, and hard to plan ahead without counters for the remaining cooldown times of skills. I assume there was some reason characters would have their turns skipped, or an ally would rarely get their turn back immediately after using it, but I have no idea. I really appreciated the chaos and strategy of environmental effects, but when moving or aiming skills, there was often no indication of some barely visible puddle of water on the ground that would cause me to electrocute my whole party by accident, and area-of-effect radius markers could be way off, causing me to start an explosion from a poison cloud that I had never expected to reach a lit brazier in the back of the room. It’s also hard to plan a build when it’s unclear how many points are needed in Speed before I gain an extra AP per turn, or whether a few points in Strength will help my damage more than a few skill points in weapons training, extra weapon damage, or whatever else.

We had to leave a few quests unresolved on our log due to glitches, which always bothers me. Hell, not splitting the quest log into main and side quests bugs me, but by Divinity’s standards, that’s extreme nitpicking. A few other quests were failed without any warning when we collapsed a mine, which I don’t mind as much, though I do prefer clearer points of no return for things like that. But as I already said, it seems easier to swallow non-optimal outcomes in cooperative play. CRPGs often leave players with a few things they wish they’d resolved differently in retrospect anyway, but I’m far less likely to ever replay this one, because it’s upwards of a hundred hours long and it’s hard enough to find time to play with a friend as it is.

There’s definitely room to try a variety of builds out, but some skills and talents seemed far more useless than others. With so few skill points to go around, the bulk of the Personality, Craftsmanship, and Nasty Deeds skills are completely wasted: money is practically infinite if you’re willing to fill your bags and spend 10 minutes selling them every once in a while. I tried to use Pickpocketing on everyone in the first town, and it got me a few extra early skill books, but that and Lockpicking were rarely helpful afterwards. I could have greatly benefited from a respec, but as this erases all learned skills, it can be impossible to find second copies of skill books the player doesn’t wish to forget, even if players have the money to buy them. My main character remained a mess, but fell into a role of summoning skeleton allies, throwing grenades, and casting a handful of buffs and debuffs each turn, as she couldn’t really take hits or deal out big damage.

A lot of gear is carried around for boosts to specific skills the players don’t need all the time, like Crafting or Loremaster, but you can’t save preset configurations of gear, which results in a lot of tedious shuffling of items every time the player wants to identify something. I also think some things are influenced too much by player attributes, as I could barely push an empty crate or barrel around, and my co-op partner had to do all of that, even when it was just to move something slightly out of the way, and not to try dropping a thousand-ton object on somebody.

The co-op mechanics work well, for the most part. Though players can’t move to entirely different areas without bringing the whole party, it’s often fine to have one player run back to town on their own in some of the bigger areas. Early in the game, the players get a pair of “teleporter pyramids” that allow one player to teleport to the other, and these are really cool: a player can also throw one over an obstacle and have the other player teleport to it, resulting in some interesting puzzle solutions. Unfortunately, most puzzles come down to spotting some hard-to-see switch on a wall or doing something extremely esoteric, like snuffing out candles in a room, so we tended to think of the puzzles as frustrating speedbumps to our progress more than anything else, and had to check a guide more than a few times.

But it’s not as though the incorporation of multiplayer into the CRPG design was seamless. Only one player can actually be the one to click on an NPC to start a conversation with them, and a second “eavesdropping” player can’t hear a line of voice acting that had already started when they joined the conversation. This means that one player always misses the first page of spoken dialogue, though they can still scroll up and read the text. But there were also times we found it impossible to join into another player’s conversation at all. It seems like it would have been trivial to send a “joint conversation” request to another nearby player while clicking on an NPC, which could be declined if the other player didn’t want to take part. You can’t have both players simultaneously trade with the same merchant, either.

There’s a cool system where the two heroes get to express their personalities and opinions during quests. We were often already talking about whether we wanted to kill someone, or help them, or whatever when the dialogue options came up, but it was also kind of interesting to say nothing over voice chat and let the other player discover our choice in-game. Apart from some messing around in the early parts of the game, we never actually opposed each other’s choices, but it makes sense to arbitrate conflicts within our own party through rock-paper-scissors. However, one thing I don’t like is that the same rock-paper-scissors system is also used to pass speech checks with NPCs who don’t know you, which is pointless RNG.

Story is integral to every big fantasy RPG, but I got absolutely nothing out of this one, except for some good jokes with my friend, like, “Don’t worry Bairdotr, we definitely didn’t kill your boyfriend Jareth while you were taken out of the party, and your quest to find him is definitely still on our log. Anyways, you have the highest Loremaster skill, so I need you to identify these Boots of Jareth.” Or, after finally sealing the Void Dragon end boss inside the Godbox: “I wasn’t paying attention, but we can open that big treasure chest and collect our loot now, right?”

The game doesn’t really have an aesthetic beyond generic fantasy, unless you count the cartoonish voice acting, which wasn’t really bad acting per se, but it was too much. The plot was mostly convoluted nonsense neither of us were ever invested in. In the early game, I couldn’t keep things straight between Icara, Leandra, Evelyn, Cassandra, Astarte. Who was the Conduit? The White Witch? Have we met Zandalor? Was that the Councillor? No? I eventually figured it out, but I never cared about them. In the final battle, when Astarte was at low health, I asked my co-op companion, “Do we care if she dies?” He responded, “Are you asking if I care, or if we need to keep her alive to beat the game?” I laughed, because the answer to the first one was all too obvious.

Divinity still has the openness of a great CRPG, even if it may be an awkward and clumsy one. It’s real funny to create a circular barricade of about thirty crates and then start a fight with someone by teleporting them into the middle, where they can’t do anything. Although the player’s capacity for hijinks isn’t quite at the level of something like Ultima VII, it’s great to do this in co-op. I’ve read that you can even fill a chest with a hundred thousand kilograms of items and drag it onto an enemy’s head to kill even bosses in one blow, as the damage calculation is weight-based and has no upper cap. That’s the exact sort of nonsense that makes CRPGs one of my favorite genres.

I would have preferred a more involving story, and some polishing of the controls and mechanics, but the co-op CRPG is a very untapped idea, and the game delivers on that promise pretty well, for the most part. I always have fun with the genre, and however annoyed we might have been when some bug or bad puzzle wasted our time, we clearly had a lot of fun, and it was somehow a foregone conclusion that we’d be playing its sequel.

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.

 

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Torment: Tides of Numenera

The premise of this Kickstarter-funded sequel to Planescape: Torment is attractive right off the bat. There is an immensely powerful being called the Changing God, who creates a new body for himself every decade or two, and you are some remnant spark of life in the body he most recently abandoned. You still have sporadic access to his memories, and to a number of his mystical abilities… including the fact that you usually don’t actually die when your HP drops to zero, kind of like in the original Planescape. So far so good, right? A good elevator pitch like that one is important here, because at its heart, this game is a book, and how many people will pick up a book if its premise is unengaging?

They’re pretty far out there, I’ll give them that. It’s not the usual fantasy or sci-fi setting. At the start of the game, you’re already in the most exotic reaches of the universe — beyond the beyond — and almost everyone has some innate weirdness. Once more, this is true to the original Planescape. Here’s a sampling of the people you meet in the first town — not even party members, but the inconsequential nobodies who just loiter around: A young boy sent hundreds into the future because there was no food to go around in his time. An man who obsessively hunts a woman, who ran away from him after he’d resurrected her from the dead simply because her corpse was pretty. A little girl from a distant civilization that remotely controls lifelike bodies to explore distant lands, walking around in the body of a warrior, without her parents’ permission. It’s cool, even if I sometimes want to roll my eyes.

tone it down random npc

My dude, you’re a random NPC. You’re not even part of a sidequest. Tone it down.

But ideas are secondary to their execution. A good premise for a word-thick CRPG doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good game; finding a fantasy novel with a killer premise on the back cover won’t guarantee that you’ll want to read a thousand pages of it, even if it does help it get a foot in the door of your brain. Tides of Numenera has a number of things to appreciate, but the thing is, if I walk into a room and see six NPCs, and I let out a defeated sigh right then and there, believing that I won’t be going anywhere for the next two or three hours, then I’m probably not as invested in what’s happening as I should be. It’s the equivalent of compulsively checking a book’s page count. At the very least, pacing is difficult, and if the people you encounter don’t intersect with everything else that’s going on in the story, they’re just… speedbumps. If every obstacle is an A+ story of its own, it’s different, but I wasn’t nearly that engrossed in either the main course or these distractions. I was hoping to spend less time asking needless tell-me-abouts tediously nested in dialogue sub-trees, and more time tripping over my own dick weaving elaborate knots of moral obligation and hypocrisy: the deep, reactive stories this genre is supposed to be getting resurrected for.

I’m certain that some of these interruptions are a direct consequence of the crowdfunding mechanism, which — to echo how I felt about Pillars of Eternity — has proven it can exert just as much useless and undue influence on a creative vision as any traditional publisher. Only so many games will be able to get away with such paeans to vanity as adding a magical endless graveyard map with the thousands of tombstones they promised as a pledge tier (with your own custom name and epitaph!), before all the players catch onto the fact that most will never even find their own tombstone, much less expect anyone else to. In fairness to those people, perhaps they don’t feel they’re “buying” a tombstone so much as contributing to the promise of “deeper story and reactivity” enhanced with every dollar pledged — the tombstone just a bonus — but can one really see success here by that metric, either?

The intrusive fingerprints of backers aren’t as obvious when you step out of the graveyards, but starting with the numenera themselves — little oddities ranging from the harmless to the terrifying, and each beginning as a suggestion from a backer with $350 to spare — there are a million little vignettes of varying complexity in the game. As the bigger picture goes, I found the effect of any “design an NPC” tiers to be far less overt than the “vibrant souls” of Pillars of Eternity, but one spends a big chunk of their playtime reading stories not unlike what you’d get from the SCP Foundation, and I imagine a commensurate amount of dev time (and therefore budget) bled away in the fulfillment of these rewards. If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that some vignettes are quite brilliant, and the game’s writers clearly weren’t averse to the form, given how many little short stories of greater complexity appear in the rest of the game as remnant memories of the Changing God, the tales of NPCs, and of course the merecasters: items that allow you to dive into someone else’s past.

But do your choices affect anything? On a case-to-case basis, yes: quests have multiple solutions, and you can ruin someone’s life to get the item you want, though I usually don’t want to. You can also not bother addressing various calamities happening on the side, and I’m sure there’s a lot of epilogue text I’ll never see about how a lot of people died from earthquakes because I didn’t turn off an earthquake machine, or whatever. There are a couple time-sensitive quests you can fail by resting at the inn, too. I conducted a pretty deep investigation during Inifere’s questline, and even with a protracted dialogue-based solution to his quest, I missed the clean solution and was unable to release him from his torment, which felt more fitting than reloading a save until I could do everything perfectly and walk around guilt-free. This is nice, but these quests are compartmentalized and hardly ripple into others; nothing derails the story. The writing in Inifere’s part of the game showed considerable talent and effort, but there is no outcome in which he storms back in at the end of the game with his own proposal for dealing with the looming threat called the Sorrow: when the quest is done, he’s done. You don’t return to Sagus Cliffs after you leave it; there’s no second round of quests offered there, contingent on how the first ones went, nor any checking up on how the city might have been affected by a plague ship if you successfully turned it away in a merecaster. Tol Maguur, an undying slaver, doesn’t even show up to ambush you later if you kill him once. I’m unconvinced that the original Planescape was truly much better in this regard, but if reactivity was supposed to be a priority, I think they lost sight of their goal.

Even the best Fallout games were largely compartmentalized, but they could have 10 solutions to a quest (many due to more sophisticated mechanics, like stealth and theft, different dialogue if your intelligence was low and so on), and some of these solutions would traverse the boundaries of the modules they take place in, telling the player to get some information from someone in another town, tying you up in its quests. There’s very little available in the mechanics of Tides of Numenera to back up its interactions.

Really, Tides of Numenera’s best efforts at reactivity aren’t so different from the kinds of divergences you’d see in a recent Bioware game. For the most part, I only saw minor lines about how I dealt with earlier events interspersed into bigger conversations. In a few instances I had to fight more enemies because I’d pissed a creature off earlier, but it’s relatively unimpressive to slap a few more monsters into a one-time encounter based on one variable. All the warnings you’re given about how abuse of the Tides will draw the attention of the Sorrow amounted to nothing that I’m aware of. What’s more, I encountered bugs or oversights in dialogue that meant that even this small amount of reactivity could fail to represent me: I was told that I had abused the Tides before I’d even learned the Tidal Surge ability, having actually missed the first chance to get it. And one of my followers actually started telling me the second part of his backstory before I interacted with another character to hear the first, and all my dialogue responses implied that my character knew about the characters and objects he was mentioning. I was able to fill in the gaps with the first part of the conversation a couple minutes later, but this is pretty bad to see, because these interactions are what this kind of game is supposed to be all about.

As far as other sources of “replay value” go, I was unable to get the full stories from each of my companions in one playthrough, as I could only drag three of them around with me at any given time. But I didn’t feel attached to these characters to begin with, especially given that my primary mode of interaction was to barrage each of them with questions, and with the game encouraging me not to divide my experience points, it’s not surprising that I wouldn’t put in the effort to use each party member equally. Frankly, I’m uninterested in hearing their remaining stories. Pleased as I am that this game doesn’t too much of my time on mechanical interactions that don’t belong — as Dragon Age: Inquisition did — it lacks any good mechanics to fill things out, too. This means a replay would be easy enough, but I’d just be running from person to person, only reading the text enough to be certain I’ve already read it before, as I tried to find the missed interactions with my other followers. This sounds entirely tedious. I want to play Fallout 1 & 2 again. I want to pull out a gun and shoot someone in the leg in the middle of town, just to see what happens. I long to do all that because there was none of it here. Alas.

One follower I do truly have to salute was Rhin — the one written by a favorite novelist of mine, Patrick Rothfuss, as a Kickstarter stretch goal. It’s not that her backstory, her homeland or her gods, particularly fascinate me. But I see this young child as a devious little practical joke: she’s the weakest character in the party, unskilled and untrainable in all types of weapons, and she absolutely cannot survive on her own, which means you can’t ever remove her from the party without condemning her to a terrible fate of slavery or death in some god-forsaken hole in the middle of nowhere — not that I was ever even willing to try. Frankly, the guts needed to pull such a bastard move as this is beyond most full-time game designers, and the fact that there are players out there who have been outraged by this makes me love it even more. Combat being such a negligible part of the game, it really doesn’t hurt all that much to be saddled with someone largely useless, but even I’m unsure if I’d be taking as much or more delight out of this if combat was actually something I had to worry about.

Where Pillars of Eternity was a very encounter-focused CRPG — perhaps unbalanced and perhaps underwhelming to level up in, but nonetheless a game in which combat was at the center of everything — in Tides of Numenera, combat is the thing you’re forced to do as a last resort when you’ve failed all your speech checks and are committed to playing out the consequences. It’s entirely uninteresting, and while there are conceivably some differing “builds”, it hardly makes a difference — even if the prologue suggests otherwise by forcing you to make a bunch of choices before you even know what you’re choosing, like not knowing what a “bonded artifact” is, and yet committing yourself to penalties for their use. I don’t recall combat in the original Planescape being any better, and while that’s not much of an excuse, others can reach whatever conclusions they want to from this.

Fighting can be avoided, possibly entirely, depending on which areas you skip and what you walk into an encounter with, but entering the turn-based “crisis” mode cannot, even if you only use it to rush over to and interact with objects in the environment, and never hit anyone back. But I don’t even necessarily want to avoid all the fights: I like to be the good guy, but sometimes, the idea of debating down some crazed madman by defeating them with their own logic is groan-inducing and dissatisfying. It’s one thing if you’re just picking the truly convincing thing to say from a list of options, or you perceptively picked out all the clues in the area before getting into it. But when you just have a high intellect stat or persuasion skill, and you have some god-given ability to make people throw away their own convictions and agree with you? It rings hollow. But I can’t put this entirely on Tides of Numenera when the whole genre seems to love doing it. The sole solution is to hire more tactful writers in the first place.

The only truly cool thing about the crisis mechanic is that (in rare cases) you can still talk to people while you’re in it, and one quest revolves entirely around this: you need to interact with the central computer system on a spaceship without tipping off its crew, and you do this by splitting up your party and asking the captain to give you a tour, having a couple members of your squad follow him around and ask him questions about the ship to stall for time, while one goes through the procedures with the central core of the ship, and another stealthily confirms these actions from a terminal on the bridge. Although it’s ridiculous — you’re likely doing this in the crew’s own interests, having figured out what’s best for their civilization within 30 seconds of meeting them — I’m truly glad it was included, because it was brilliant, and the game never does anything like it anywhere else.

But what would have made it better, and made the rest of the game better, is if skill checks themselves weren’t random. I think it’s a damn shame that we’re still doing these dice rolls in CRPGs when there have been better approaches around for years. If you have advanced training in stealth and dexterity, and this guy you’re trying to do whatever to has intermediate training in perception, you should be able to perform x actions without being seen, or get x distance away from him. If you pass the threshold, you can do it, and if you don’t, you can’t. Why does RNG have to factor in at all? It creates far more replay value when there are things your character’s build flat-out prevents them from doing. But this seems to be a recurring frustration with a lot of these traditional tabletop designers. It’s like they have this way of doing things that works when you’re rolling dice in a group, but never seem to realize that the way people are incentivized to react in a single-player CRPG are completely different, and the mechanics must be, too. As mature as I have tried to be when it comes to accepting messier resolutions to quests, I find that if there’s simply an optional door with an item behind it, and the game says, “No, you didn’t roll a high enough number, so you can’t lockpick the door and get the item,” I’m always going to hit quickload.

There’s also Tidal Affinity: mundane dialogue choices you make will attune you to one color or another. I was Gold-dominant, which represents concepts like selflessness and empathy, though I also picked a lot of Red Tide options that represented passion (in practice, this could mean anything from artistic sentiment to making threats or violent outbursts). Tides get talked about a lot in the game, but I found it to be inconsequential: it altered some combat abilities available to one of my followers, and other Gold-dominant NPCs were occasionally willing to help me without first passing a persuasion check that I’m sure I would have passed relatively easily anyway. Honestly, I guess I should be thankful that they didn’t have this affect my ending, because if I had to get into some Mass Effect-style mess — flip-flopping between whatever “Renegade” meant in the moment, from “badass” to “cruel” — just to keep my affinity consistent, I would not have appreciated that.

What does it say that the best parts of the game were the merecaster segments? With combat just an afterthought, and dialogue a tiresomely systematic series of interrogations that rarely ever felt human, is it any surprise that I would rather just throw all of the game’s mechanics aside and play little Choose Your Own Adventure-style episodes of interactive fiction? But I really loved these. In one, I was so intent on keeping a village on the back of a whale from being completely annihilated that I threw a grenade into a crowd of people who were just in my way. In another, I made terrible choice after terrible choice and was fully satisfied with the result, where my own daughter died from some kind of radiation sickness and my robot companion left me to die that way too, instead of giving up the cause: a power source that would keep the robot itself from dying. If I feel positively about this game, it’s largely because of these parts, and the occasional other good throwaway bit, like the time I got a game over because one of my companions grabbed and opened a jar filled with something really terrible before I could even say anything to stop him, which was actually really funny.

rinkworks

You know, this really reminds me of those browser-based games I used to play as a young kid in the early days of the web. Only, I would have had to draw my own crude map, instead of the game’s own art team supplying one of similar quality.

Production values aren’t very high, though I do feel a little bad complaining about this in a crowdfunded project of passion for a genre that can’t rake in huge sums of money anymore. The voice acting isn’t great, but there’s mercifully little of it. The visual art is honestly all over the place, but I saw some very cool painted backgrounds in merecasters, and some nice touches in environments here and there. Bugs and other small annoyances are a bigger problem: needless slowdown, my character shouting “I’m barely hurting it!” every time I hit someone for like two damage from a secondary aura effect that’s not even happening on my own turn, barked follower lines sounding echoed and extremely far away. I even had to roll a save back once when I somehow broke a rather straightforward quest, but just the once. If anything, the low number of post-release fixes, compared to Pillars or Wasteland 2, is telling in itself: this game is simple, and simple games don’t tend to have fifty broken quests where you can get stuck because you handed Quest Item A to Person X after telling Person Y you would give it to them before handing Quest Item B over. Perhaps I would have preferred a more broken game.

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.

 

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.

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) 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.