Invisible, Inc.

Invisible is unique; an FTL-styled roguelike stealth game that’s more XCOM than Thief. It’s an inventive combination, but to me it’s not one that proves to be more satisfying than a more traditional stealth game. That’s up to a person’s tastes, but I like to take my time and completely ghost a place. In Invisible, that’s off the table from turn one: your break-in is immediately detected and your alarm level is steadily rising, no matter what you do (or don’t do). The distinction isn’t simply about taking it easy; in many stealth games I often wish the guards had smarter behavior, responding more appropriately when losing sight of an intruder in the building. But Invisible’s approach is certainly often harder, too, and if you’re more interested in a challenge than in a state of mind, this might be for you.

Invisible might not be designed specifically for me, and I wouldn’t hold that against it, except that I also think it’s not a perfect execution of what it tries to be. One of my bigger contentions is with the lack of crucial information conveyed. “But Zack,” you might say, “you gave Dark Souls a 5/5 and it doesn’t explain shit.” True, but Dark Souls isn’t a tactical stealth game. Is the challenge supposed to come from putting together a cohesive set of character skills, items, and programs from what you’re able to find in the seven or eight corporate buildings you have time to plunder before the campaign’s end, and flitting through guards and managing your power with the right timing? Or is the challenge supposed to come from not understanding where you’re allowed to stand, or what the rules are?

I would have liked to see movement ranges of guards when hovering over them, like in Advance Wars or other combat-focused tactical RPGs. I never really picked up on what would cause a guard to shoot me if I stopped on or passed through a specific tile in his vision, and this is something that could be put in a tooltip when you hover over a tile. I often had no idea how an item or program worked before I bought and tried it, because the description wasn’t self-explanatory, or it didn’t list the cooldown time in the store. I didn’t understand that guns weren’t reloadable without consumable items, even between missions. I once carried an augment around in my inventory between several missions, thinking I needed to hit up a grafter in a cybernetics lab to install it, when it was actually usable out of the inventory. I didn’t know if the alarm level would rise if I stepped directly in front of a guard and then knocked him out while it was still my turn. I didn’t know how guards would communicate or what would set them off. I didn’t know how many turns a daemon would last, even if I had it identified, and that’s the sort of thing a person might want to plan around.

Communication is basically the most important thing in a stealth game. What’s the level of light where you’re standing? How much noise will you make with a certain action? Are guards globally alerted to the presence of an intruder in the building, or is the alert still restricted to the guards in the room? Invisible communicates some of these elements well, but still fails to explain a lot of its mechanics. Does hacking a drone make the drone alert when the hack ends? If I move a hacked drone through a door with a shock trap on it, will it be destroyed? Will a shock trap shock me if I open the door myself? What if a guard opens it while I’m in range? Do EMPs take out a guard’s shields? Does Net Downlink cap at 6 AP per turn, or per mission? If I step directly onto a sound bug, does it alert guards? When I have 8 hours left on the clock, what happens when I fly directly to a mission that’s 12 hours away instead of picking the 5-hour one? If this were a board game, every player would have to come up with their own unique way to resolve the guards’ turns, because the explanation is never prepared.

Good use of RNG is about being able to adapt meaningfully to what you’re given. “Let’s find out which threat you’ll have to experience today” is much better than “Let’s see if you something good happens to you, or something bad happens.” Invisible is a mixed bag here. I thought item-shopping and map generation were decent mix-ups: they didn’t always conform to what I needed, but didn’t really screw me, either. There’s good and bad for sure; I’ve seen some breezy, linear levels and some where I had to double back. I’ve also done levels where I had to let a camera see me before I could hack it, which kind of sucks. But these are manageable and don’t have terrible long term consequences; there will be other shop terminals, and even if items don’t really mesh with your overall team strategy, they always seem to have a use somewhere; here, one man’s trash is definitely another’s treasure.

But chance plays a role in too many things, including awfully major stuff, and I’m not into that Snakes and Ladders shit. It absolutely sucks when you break into a detention center and find the guy with a slight bonus to ranged weapons (unarmed in his cell, of course) when you could have been given the guy who opens safes for free–especially when your program setup hasn’t left you with much spare power to get safes open. There was also a time when I hit a cybernetics lab only to find two augmentations that both did nothing for me; they had a chance to give spare power per turn or something, but at the time I was swimming in power, and I would’ve killed for extra actions or melee armor piercing or whatever. It would hardly be crazy to give me a few choices at the grafters.

Daemons can also absolutely screw you, especially if you’re foolish enough to run Faust and Brimstone. When you do that, there’s really nothing to keep the game from just spawning extra guards or locking your hacking down each turn. I’m seriously thankful I don’t have to deal with some 25% chance to miss on a sleeping dart or whatever, because it would’ve just kept me from using one more thing in my arsenal.

The game seems to generate its seeds early enough that there’s no chance of save-scumming around this stuff. I’m actually grateful for this, because I’d hate to feel incentivized to tediously use my rewind actions to avoid bad luck. I think the logic is that you’re supposed to be alright with getting dealt a terrible hand for an entire campaign sometimes, because campaigns are short and you gain experience toward unlocks even on failure. But I found this grindy and would’ve vastly preferred creative challenge-based unlocks like the ones in FTL, like unlocking a non-violent specialist by playing without knocking any guards out.

The geoscape felt a bit sparse, especially when 12 of the 72 hours of your campaign can vanish in a single click. I’m not necessarily trying to say that because it resembles XCOM, you should have to spend a full third of the game managing bases on the world map. But you could certainly have some more options. Maybe all the cloaking device manufacturers are in Asia, but the companies in North America have a monopoly on ranged weapons, and you can choose to do all your work in one place instead of flying around, but you still have to wait 8 hours for nightfall or whatever. When a detention center mission pops up, show me three of them simultaneously, tell me who’s in each of them, and only give me enough time to hit one, so the other two agents die. This could even be how agents are unlocked.

I was really fond of the cooldown-based items, but I almost never used ammo-based weapons or consumables. Even if guns gave you a limited number of shots per mission, they could still be freely reloaded when missions are over. Ammo packs could give you one mid-mission reload, but still be replenished between missions, too. My problem is that, strategically speaking, unless I’m absolutely screwed unless I throw that grenade, my instinct will be to hold onto it, because I’m afraid of getting screwed more for not having it in the future, as the difficulty increases. Your goal is to gain resources, not to consume them. Essentially, I ended up selling everything, because money that can be put toward levelling up my character’s speed always looks better in the long-term. But that’s boring.

I mentioned challenges or achievements as a means of unlocking new characters or starting programs, but I’d also have been more motivated to attempt some extreme challenges if I earned some extreme characters for pulling it off. If the hardest challenges specified which characters you could use to accomplish them, it would be kind of fun to get some people with really overpowered abilities to use when just messing around. I can’t say what would be too overpowered off the top of my head, but rather than just an extra point of armor piercing here or there, I would like to see more dramatic variety. What about someone who could sprint soundlessly, or turn sprint on and off at will?

I got a few enjoyable campaigns out of Invisible, but I burned out before trying Expert Plus, Endless Mode, Time Attack, Iron Man or any of that. Once I saw the various threats and used a good chunk of the playable characters, and felt like I had a good handle on the limitations of the game, I was more or less done. There is a DLC expansion that adds more of everything, including new enemies, which would might shake things up for another couple runs. But as long as the primary formula is unchanged, I think I’ve had my fill.

In short, some more goals and choices would have gone far, particularly choices on the world map and those reducing the impact of the RNG. Info could be conveyed better, especially when it comes to guards noticing and firing upon you, which tiles they can hear you sprinting from, etc. I’m still not describing a game I would score a 5/5, but there’s untapped potential here.

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.

Shadowrun: Hong Kong – Extended Edition

Another Shadowrun. Almost nothing has changed. Just about all the problems I had last time are still around. It’s nice in the sense that I can keep the review shorter.

The load times are still way too long, it’s still easy to misclick tiles, and it still compounds as I end up having to sit through a 30 second “quickload” to undo a misclick that shouldn’t have happened. The impact of RNG vs skill? Still bad. Summoning hasn’t changed. The campy, heavy-handed social commentary, like something out of the movie “They Live”, is still all over the place. “The Matrix with elves” is about as low-brow as it gets.

The level/object art is great and there are some pretty baller combat themes. So that hasn’t really changed either.

Okay: there are a couple new things. Stealth plays a bigger role, which I didn’t really mind until one mission on a boat, where Koschei kept lagging behind my main character by like 20 feet and getting me caught. It really doesn’t work well. Aside from the parts where I was jacked into the matrix, I found myself having very little clue what would trip alarms, or how close I could get while positioning my characters for an ambush before the enemy would see me.

That brings me to the shoot-first mechanic, the only other new feature I can think of. But you can usually only do it right before you’re forced into a fight anyway. If combat is treated as “an option”, say, against those gangers in the parking garage, there’s no way to line up behind some crates and kick things off with a grenade. You have to walk into the middle of the room with your whole party, tell the guy “Hey, I’m going to kick your ass,” and then deal with combat from there. Which, I mean, has a kind of macho appeal of its own, I admit, but I’d rather not be locked out of a strategy. And as for pulling the guns out in town and blasting up the major NPCs? Forget about it.

Fallout (which came out in 1997, nearly 20 years ago) allowed these things in part by compartmentalizing all the stories it wanted to tell, but none of the Shadowrun games have used the linear form to such great effect in the telling of their main scenarios as to ever fully justify a non-modular approach to quests. Even though I always wanted to see the ability to draw weapons outside of a dialogue prompt in the Shadowrun series, it’s admittedly just a bandaid fix if they’re still deciding when it can be used. I’ve also wanted to see matrix gameplay extended, seeing as you should be capable of a lot more on the internet than just stealing files and fighting corporate anti-malware, but I know that this wouldn’t get to the core of what the game is lacking, either.

The hub gameplay of Shadowrun: Hong Kong is tedious. You come to know your squadmates and others around town by endlessly interrogating them about their past: it’s much in need of “Show, don’t tell.” Running from building to building to check in on everybody feels like a checklist of things I don’t enjoy but feel like I must do before getting back to the fun stuff: cover-based flank-exploiting gunfire, and the comedy of occasionally bluffing my way past whole rooms of guards, or trying but failing. I like that the cast has baggage and flawed personalities, but I don’t especially like walking on eggshells with them just to finish up their sidestories. Just walking between them is enough of a hassle. If they just ferried you automatically from mission to mission, the game would probably be half as long. Just gimme the good half, thanks.

I think the mission design is better than ever, in terms of giving you multiple ways of getting from A to B, as well as having some cool building layouts and amusing ways of throwing a wrench into each objective. A few things could’ve been clearer and I sometimes had no idea what my current objective even was–or how doing what I was doing could possibly help me–but for the most part it was fun. Especially the couple times I got to give the middle finger to two competing factions at the same time, ending up getting myself shot at from both sides in a street with inadequate cover.

There was the occasional hiccup, though. In one postgame mission, I was in a police department, and despite bringing a drone with me, getting it through a vent, and using only that one drone to kill a guy before he could sound the alarm (which took a little save-scumming), then getting the code to a cache of drugs, blackmailing my way into the holding cells and finding someone to give the drugs to–ostensibly to cause a distraction of some sort at the front desk?–it turned out I didn’t have the etiquette that was (for some goddamn reason) necessary to give the guy the drugs I was holding. What does all that mean? Well, the whole stealth attempt hit a dead end. (I didn’t like etiquettes in the first two games, either.) I had to go back to square-one and shoot my way out, with nothing to show for my time. Except for keeping the drugs, I guess. Hurray.

Oh, yeah, one more thing. The “rewind” feature, which lets you “turn back” a save slot to make available a previous save that had been replaced, seemed like a huge potential lifesaver–except that in execution, it does a very poor job of deciding which saves to preserve, which is to say that it tries to decide at all. The one time I actually tried to rely upon it, I found out I could only revert my quicksave to an hour ago, and not five minutes back as I’d expected. I just had to make do with my screwed-up situation.

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.

Valkyria Chronicles

Valkyria Chronicles is a turn-based tactical tank warfare game that shows inspiration from Final Fantasy Tactics. The Windows port was a surprise, for me at least. Most console exclusives don’t tend to make their way over if there’s no word within a year or two. This one came six years later.

Being an anime JRPG, it was unsurprisingly foolish and cutscene-heavy to the point of overindulgence at times. There are a couple twists that are very predictable, and a point where it took about five chapters too many for the story to develop in the obvious direction. I also felt that the story’s ethical dilemmas seemed watered down, tame and ridiculous, especially considering the setting, modelled on World War 2, some of the darkest years in modern history. But overall, I enjoyed the story. There were a number of highly likable characters and good voice acting, though in playing with the Japanese audio setting, I was often distracted by numerous and unnecessary liberties taken in the English subtitles.

The control scheme is pretty bad, despite my using a gamepad. The same button will confirm a selection on certain menus and cancel out of others. The select button goes unused, which would’ve been ideal for help text and the minimap. And unsurprisingly, the control settings only let you swap every combined use of a button to another, which is no help at all.

As with too many other Japanese games–like Fire Emblem: Awakening, where I also had a major problem with this–luck plays too big of a role. If I move a unit into range and allocate my action points for an attack, I feel that I’ve done my part and the attack should work. If the unit misses or freaks out for whatever reason, all I’m going to do is load my save and try again, like most players. Each character has various special feats called Potentials, but these are a total roulette wheel that will frustrate players or else make a mission trivial. Instead of whimsically deciding to fully heal my character, they should make that power activate rarely, but reliably, under the right circumstances. For example: Once per battle, this unit is restored to full health if they begin a turn at under 25% of max HP. If things were more rule-oriented, I’d be completely alright with losing the ability to save mid-battle, and the gameplay would become much more interesting.

One thing the game does better than Final Fantasy Tactics is the way it blocks the player’s access to various upgrades until progress has been made in the storyline, but allows players to increase their squad’s levels through repeatable Skirmish battles. If they’re really feeling stuck and are close to levelling up, players can grind a bit. But I found skirmishes too time-consuming to grind on, and stuck to what was probably the expected level for someone going through the story for the first time, and that made things more interesting.

There are a few other issues here and there. Bullets colliding with invisible walls when you’re trying to get a headshot over the top of a fence. Grenades can be very coy about what they’ll hit and whether the damage will be a complete waste of time. Before the start of an encounter, the player is told pretty much nothing in terms of situational information, so they’ll have to reload shortly after starting a mission if they want their team to be appropriately positioned.

It’s also somewhat irritating when the game doesn’t communicate things, such as that a particular tank will only take damage from a lancer, even in its weak spot, whereas it would ordinarily be fine to use infantry with an anti-tank order. When you use up all your AP getting a scout through enemy lines and the game hits you with something like that, all you can do is restart the level and know in advance what you need to bring, and it can feel hostile and pointless.

Ultimately, my main issue with the game is just that it’s somewhat trivial. When it starts out and they introduce you to the tanks and five other classes, it feels like there could be a lot going on, and to some extent, there is–shocktroopers are great for killing units in cover, and good luck if you can’t ever use an engineer to restore ammo. But eventually you’ll find that the best strategy is almost always to use a defense order on your scout and then blitz the objective on the first turn. The game only cares about speed. Despite the movement range penalty, it’s almost always better to use the same unit repeatedly, rather than wasting AP to shuffle your entire army across the map–which is probably why the AI doesn’t seem to want to use the same unit more than twice: so they don’t completely destroy you. It would probably feel a lot more tactically satisfying if a unit could only act twice per turn without using some kind of “act again” order. And if players had to keep a capturing unit alive for a full turn in order to take an enemy base, that’d be good, too.

It’s still a solid game. I love the look of the battle maps, and the mix of turn-based strategy and cover-based shooting as you assume control of units is kinda neat, if awkward at times. It’s got some pretty good ideas, but it’s not the ideal approach to the genre.

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.

Massive Chalice

Massive Chalice borrows more from the Firaxis version of XCOM than anything else, although the Kickstarter project was envisioned as something between that, Final Fantasy Tactics, and the good parts of Fire Emblem: Awakening, which is to say the eugenics. The formula they landed on makes for a solid strategy game, but I tend to enjoy myself more on the Tactical JRPG side of that fence, where there’s no sinister XCOM calendar and you can set your own pace, obsessing over who your best character’s great-grandma will be so they’ll inherit a completely broken package of stats and have zero chance of low fertility or heart disease later in life.

Whether that’s your goal or not, I think Massive Chalice’s worst enemy is the extent to which the RNG plays a part in the experience. In terms of what I go for–creating overpowered characters across generations of arranged marriages–it unfortunately treats the parents’ traits as nothing more than a passing suggestion, and as often as not the kiddles end up inheriting nothing apart from class and level. There’s no “locking down” a stat like you do with IVs in Pokemon games, nor any cool ability inheritance that makes the characters stand out.

Moreover, as sincerely as I went into the game trying to keep myself from save-scumming my way around my mistakes, I ended up doing so heavily by the end-game. That’s my weakness of character on display, but I still find that it’s way too encouraged by the way the system is set up. The game makes most of its decisions at the last second, so a reload is usually the difference between a sexless decade, a generation of slow, dimwitted babies, or the fabled demi-gods you’re always praying for. The FTL-style multiple-choice events that come up are real cool to see, but the outcomes of those events have killed my primary heroes a number of times, and once even lowered the fertility of my entire army. There’s a sense that this is a game where you’re not always supposed to win, and I did enjoy playing through it, but not nearly so much that I would have continuously restarted my 20+ hour campaign until the good rolls came up on the dice.

If the event outcomes were consistent, then at the very least a player could say “Ah, that was the event that screwed me on my last run,” and get something out of the loss. I think XCOM also decided whether a shot would hit from where your character was standing before you actually fired it, so you couldn’t just reload and take the same shot again. That would’ve been another good idea for Massive.

I also didn’t feel like I had enough control. Randomization is certainly a part of that, but I would have liked to take a Hunter child with the “bear strength” trait and class-change him to Caberjack instead of just reloading to get a trait that wasn’t useless. Classes are locked down, unfortunately.

As are character names, family mottos, and war cries. These were all submitted by high-tier kickstarter backers, which is nice and all, except that they cannot be changed, ostensibly so backers could feel they got their money’s worth. I find it hard to imagine that anyone who backed the game out of a passion to make it as good as possible would take issue with their submissions existing solely as defaults. They’re pretty awkward, and even a backer can’t just play through the whole game with their one personalized family. Being able to start with backer houses and then changing their text seems only natural, and trifling. But as became clear with Pillars of Eternity (and is generally becoming common sense), a need to appease crowdfunders can be just as bad for the health of a game as any blustering publisher.

But they should still consider it, even now. It’s hard to overstress how much simply being able to name your own characters can improve an experience. It was for that very reason that I nearly laughed myself into a coma with another Double Fine game, a little prototype called Dear Leader.

A Civilization V-esque “marathon mode” might’ve been a good way to solve a few issues. The game is long enough as-is, but with three hundred years quickly bleeding away, you generally only got to use a character three or four times at most before it was time to pass the torch to someone forty years younger. If you could slow down time, get a fertile regent to conceive within a matter of weeks, and get to know your heroes better, that’d be great. The game works, but a good eugenics simulator would be less of a race against a clock, and more about good planning, as Fire Emblem had done.

Planning is still a good idea, of course. It’s best played while keeping notes on how long until your vanguards and regents get old, who the promising young replacements are, which hero has what relic, and any ideas you have about your favorite hybrid classes. It took me a while to get a good system going, and my first hundred or so years were pretty tense.

I thought the tactical layer was in pretty good shape, and the depth of mechanics and classes was probably comparable to the Firaxis XCOM, although that was notably a little shallow compared to the control players had in the original UFO Defense (most overtly in dogfighting from the geoscape). As with some of Massive’s choices, the Firaxis team prioritized a more balanced game, but to me this was somewhat unfortunate. Players who preferred the tight challenge of the new XCOM–rather than making their own fun by min-maxing troops for Psionic skill and making a joke of the enemy as one could do in the original–may appreciate Massive Chalice more than I did, although I’d argue that players of both camps should agree that the RNG elements could’ve been handled more carefully.

To sum up, I’d have generally liked the game better with a slowed pace, fewer mechanics rooted entirely in luck, and if it had capitalized more on the opportunities for player control, participation, customization, and so on. That said, the game is pretty fun. It’s a pleasure just listening to the chalice talk to itself. There’s some good UI too, which I didn’t even mention. But I probably wouldn’t be interested in a Massive Chalice 2 unless it forked from XCOM a little more and became the tactical RPG I had wanted Fire Emblem: Awakening to be, and I don’t see that happening with the resources at Double Fine’s command. Keep an eye out for whatever Yasumi Matsuno is doing next instead.

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.

Shadowrun Returns

A note: this review covers the Dead Man’s Switch campaign as well as Dragonfall as it originally existed, as DLC, before the release of the Dragonfall Director’s Cut.

Shadowrun is a ridiculous setting. The internet was replaced with the matrix, and people voluntarily switched to a system where software can murder them? A dragon becomes the president of the “United Canadian and American States”, but AI is scoffed at? Magic and ghosts are real, as is Literally Satan The Devil? It may even be sillier than Warhammer 40K, set in the year forty thousand AD, where patriarchal jingoist semper fi dudes cut each other up with chainsaws.

Plenty of fun to be had with the stupid and the ridiculous, though. I got interested in Shadowrun Returns not at the time of the kickstarter, but when alpha footage appeared of a pretty-looking Fallout-like. And I’m mostly content with the game they made. It’s solid. If I were to boil my many reservations down to one, I’m disappointed that it doesn’t make ol’ 1997 Fallout obsolete with this new open, customizable turn-based squad-combat flat-map isometric toolset. The default skill balance is certainly better than Fallout’s redundancies and overpowered abilities, but that’s where these old-fashioned pen and paper guys always do their best work. But more than a great and balanced campaign, I wanted things to work flawlessly at the core, technical level. That would’ve been something to last. I might have wanted to create something in the toolset myself.

Fallout’s accomplishments in open, free-roaming gameplay aren’t threatened by anything the two paid campaigns–Dead Man’s Switch and Dragonfall–have on offer. No world map. No freedom to pull out guns whenever you like. If they weren’t in the campaigns, I doubt the development tools provide a simple way to include them. It also lacked Fallout’s targeted shots and satisfying death animations, which were never essential, but would’ve been appreciated.

There were technical problems with the controls and interface: sometimes my escape key would fail to open my menu. Occasionally it’d be impossible to run to or drop an AOE on specific tiles, or to click computer access points. When decking, nothing would happen for a few seconds, without any kind of minor loading indicator, and I would be free to hit “end turn” on my own while waiting, thinking that it was necessary, only to end up wasting my next turn. Long times in loading maps left me wondering if they might’ve been doing something really inefficiently. And since there’s no dedicated attack button or target mode, it’s easy to accidentally run up next to an enemy instead of shooting him–particularly with that finicky tile targeting. The understanding of cover and line-of-sight were also a little awkward sometimes, and I’d waste actions trying to line up a shot or heal spell. Maybe if I could toggle a key to see shadows cast from a specific tile, and the viable targets lit up. This list of flaws is getting a bit lengthy, and I think it all amounts to not enough time or too few minds allocated to engine work.

To be fair, there are some great things on offer too: the aforementioned art and appearance of the game, for one. While those load screens are long, they put some pretty solid prose on them, as well as in the descriptions of places and characters. The soundtrack is sometimes pretty ballin’.

The combat is well designed, being based on cooldowns and tactics instead of long-term ammo-scrimping. There are a lot of neat skill trees for guns, magic, robotics and other disciplines; more than I got the chance to investigate. The cover system and overwatch functions, while being liberally borrowed from the new XCOM, made tactical positioning much more meaningful, and the game was definitely better off for having them. I think a few things that were RNG-based should not have been–namely summoned creatures, who should probably have had an expiration date from the outset–say, five turns and then they explode or turn on you depending on other conditions, like how far away they are or how much health they have–instead of a standard risk of going berserk each turn.

There were a lot of interesting choices specific to the campaigns–I’ll go over the good and bad of each of those.

Dead Man’s Switch
When I talk about DMS, I’m talking about what it looks like at the time of the Dragonfall DLC, when I played both. I’ve read that when DMS first came out, it didn’t even allow the player to create their own save files–it was autosaves or nothing. I respect that they went back and did the work to include a sensible saving system. In fact, it was something I was specifically holding out for before buying.

I probably would’ve enjoyed the story more if I picked up on the many larger Shadowrun world references. It occurred to me when the Jake Armitage character kept showing up and getting the focus–without actually joining my party or having much of a stake in current events–that it was a sign of a celebrity cameo. A google search confirmed that he was the protagonist in an SNES game. Even that track from the OST I linked was referencing the older game, as it turns out. In any case, I still got loads out of it.

I enjoyed jacking on to the matrix–or whatever Shadowrun calls it–given the very distinct mechanics and Tron-style that are only in play when you’re in there. (Tough luck for non-hacker builds, though.) I would’ve liked it more if you could free-roam the matrix outside of combat and talk to other internet users, but that limitation is, at this point in the review, probably not sounding like much of a surprise.

The campaign was basically a 12 to 15-hour linear sequence of maps that I was automatically moved between, and the quests didn’t show any more breadth. One sidequest early on helped me realize what I was dealing with: I had a bag of gems to sell, and found out that all my choices had the same outcome: I couldn’t sneak off with the magic gem or find any greater purpose for it, and I couldn’t hang onto the gems for later and sell them when I could pass higher charisma checks for more money, since I was moving on the campaign’s terms: if they were still in my inventory when I left the map, they’d be nothing more than a paperweight.

Later on, I met some killer I’d been tracking down, and while he was still outside of combat, on the other side of a pane of glass, I was given three dialogue options that all involved revealing my cards too early and telling this killer that I was after him–the sort of ham-handery that allows a bad guy to temporarily retreat so I’d have to jump through some extra hoops.

I was also sent on a “stealth mission” once, and as I asked myself whether the engine even had any of the bits necessary for sight and noise detection, the campaign’s story answered the question for me by having the mission not go as planned from the first room; stealth was never going to be a real choice. I felt it was a shame that almost every mission had to be a firefight, but I wasn’t too broken up about the stealth fakeout: I don’t even think stealth is a good fit for Fallout, at least not when you’re passing a roll every time you walk past somebody. On the other hand, if stealth had meant equipping a suppressor to my pistol and manually entering combat to take a guy out before he ever saw me, that’d be another story. But Fallout didn’t really operate that way, and SRR certainly doesn’t.

One advantage of the tight reins was that I was always kept wanting for more money, which is generally a good thing. And I liked the idea that there were these recurring costs in hiring NPC allies in each mission, although the costs were too high: it mostly just encouraged me to play with a party of two or three at most. Characters like Coyote will work pro-bono when the quest is as important to them as it is to you, but they otherwise require payment like anybody else, which I’m more comfortable with, narratively speaking, than I am with the path of least resistance and indentured servitude.

I had read that Dragonfall was about the same length as DMS, but I think I put about double the time into it. The paid-expansion campaign is definitely a step up from the first one, even when not having played DMS until after its post-Dragonfall patches. But I’m not handing out any “Most Improved” awards: the quests are better designed, but most of the core problems are still there, clear as ever. Also, having some legit sidequests and a respectably-sized hub to keep tabs on ultimately didn’t open the game up as meaningfully as I would have liked.

I can’t complain with the length of the game–within the existing campaign structure, I don’t think I would’ve wanted it getting any longer–but if there had been time and money for more reactivity, it would’ve been nice to visit places whenever I wanted, even before quests had sent me to them. For example, it sucked when I failed to read a terminal before leaving a map, and couldn’t return to it later, but it sure must’ve simplified the internal quest logic.

I found the party members easily engaging, but I was turned off a little by the classic “butt your nose into everyone’s business until they like you” NPC exposition-and-bonding strategy whenever I got back to base. The writing was otherwise very likeable–I made sure to visit all the characters of the hub whenever I got back from a mission to see if they had anything new to say. The tediousness of this varies from game to game, depending on how much the story has gotten its hooks into me, but I was willing in Dragonfall. I only found it tedious when the NPCs didn’t actually have anything new for me.

I also thought the story had a great hook early on: that a true RPG protagonist, the sort of busybody who gets their finger in every pie from merchant protection to homeless shelters to sewer maintenance, has died. The player isn’t that protagonist–the player must control the damage.

The system of how allies are handled is one of the bigger things to get a meaningful reworking in the Dragonfall campaign. They still have the hireable non-story characters, but you’ll probably never enlist them, because your storied cast is already paid for, taking a small cut of the reward money from employers at the end of a mission. They then refresh their own stock of grenades and such automatically between missions, and taking that out of the player’s hands brings more than one advantage.

For one thing, I think it’s narratively easier to swallow when the main character isn’t the only one who accumulates. Whose purchases are used to save the world. There’s no such thing as greed in the context of the player’s actions in most RPGs: at worst, the player can be accused of over-preparedness in world-saving, perhaps at the cost of an NPC’s livelihood. I think it can be agreed that such a thing is not quite as bad as greed.

It also encourages the regular use of consumable items, since a follower’s inventory is just going to get replaced by the next mission anyway. The very low carry limit also helps with this, once you grow used to it. Sub-limitations might’ve been even better: with a cap of, let’s say, 3 healing items, 3 grenades/summon tokens, 3 stims, and an inventory max of 9, I might’ve brought and used stims more. But I also think this balance is something tied strongly to the mission structure–if I could free-roam and get into random fights all over a Berlin “world map”, I’d have to be able to carry a lot more.

I’d have appreciated the ability to “loan out” better items to followers, if you happened to have a spare pistol or whatever that was better than the one they’d bought for themselves, as long as you could get loaned items back when their inventories refreshed at the end of a mission. Since you don’t really get enough skill points to spec into too many disciplines, you’ll probably only look at one gun type, so if you’re doing rifles, any SMGs, pistols, and shotguns you might find will go to waste. If you could loan guns out, this would have helped to satisfyingly put found items to use.

Allies only show up to missions as scheduled, rather than staying a constant step behind you as you browse the markets or whatever. I like this a lot better, too. I’m more narratively comfortable with NPCs that only agree to help out with the specific goals that align with their own, at times and places that work for them, and it’s something that very few developers think about or are able to incorporate.

Missions were better than the DMS campaign when it came to non-violent options. A handful of them weren’t pure firefights. In one particularly good two-part mission, I had to hack some computers in one building before taking advantage of the hack in another part of town, and I’d tripped a matrix alarm without ever bringing the rest of my crew into the building. My character’s physical body came under fire just one turn before I’d disconnected from the matrix–I managed to sprint out alone, wounded, with a half-dozen guys hot on my tail, and no save-scumming, which was probably my most memorable moment with the game. The second part of that mission also reintroduced “stealth”, although this time the campaign kept the engine from having to do anything dodgy by just having me refrain from opening any doors into rooms with guards in them until I’d found some disguises to put on. Even though I liked the combat enough, I felt that passing charisma checks to bullshit my way past a few floors of guards was more satisfying than the fighting would’ve been.

The “etiquette” system, for eking out advantages with certain factions by talking like a guard with the “Security” etiquette and so on, was neat, but unbalanced. My assessment was that Corporate and Security etiquettes were meant to frequently provide slight advantages, whereas the others, like Socialite, were meant to be rarely applicable, but dramatic if you had them when they were; much like picking safecracking instead of lockpicking in Wasteland 2. And maybe if the game had been much larger in scale, there would’ve been opportunities for big payouts that justified choosing those skills, over time. But in practice, some etiquettes were basically useless, like Shadowrunner, and others provided only a very paltry sum of cash or removed one trivial step from getting what I wanted. Meanwhile, Corporate and Security were routinely essential for getting through obstacles the clever way.

There were some interesting moral aspects that probably would’ve been better if they had been explored further, as you didn’t generally ever see consequences for your actions. The ending of the campaign had a classic last-minute decision that provided, more or less, the only semblance of reactivity in the game, much like Mass Effect 3 or Human Revolution.

I love a good decision moment, but given an advanced AI who seemed a little too limited in its thinking, and a dragon that apparently justified mass murder by valuing environmentalist policies more highly than human life–nonetheless a dragon given a sense of validity in the narrative, through the gravity of its great age and spirit (which didn’t quite convince me)–I didn’t really feel the weight of my choices this time around. There’s no verisimilitude, too many unknowable factors for me in the Shadowrun lore, so I have no big rant about what these choices mean or should mean, as I do with transhumanism in Deus Ex. For example, if you live in a world where there’s proof of heaven, is genocide not so bad, because you’re sending everybody there? What about if there are also techno-ghosts and reincarnations? Hell, I don’t know. Flip a coin.

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.

Fire Emblem: Awakening

The 3DS Fire Emblem is an okay game, generally boring and unfulfilling, but with a couple of great features. The story is typical stuff, although the use of time travel and the unique conceit of its “in media res” opening deserve some praise. The character interactions are where the magic happens, although the translator pushes the wackiness a bit too much sometimes and though I couldn’t make my own comparison, my instincts say that these scenes are more rewritten than translated. The soundtrack never grabbed me either, although I may have been spoiled by Etrian Odyssey IV.

More importantly, the turn-based squad combat felt shallow. This was my first Fire Emblem game, and a number of clunky design choices and mechanics gave me the hunch that I was interacting with legacy systems that nobody had the guts to change. This is Fire Emblem 13, after all. While it may or may not have borrowed a thing or two from Yatsumi Matsuno games along the way, it still could use a deeper rehaul. The near-meaningless character levels are probably an easy fix, but the flat maps are another thing entirely. It’s closer in style to Advance Wars than Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, but when it lacks the fog of war, base capturing, and unit-building mechanics offered by Advance Wars, the only strategy here seems to be to grind until you have the most damaging skills and then to throw your units directly at theirs (Advance Wars’ terrain advantages are present, but more trivial in value). Admittedly, I played on Normal difficulty, and that comes with some strategic babying, but I’m confident in my assessment that it’s basically a grind-off on any difficulty.

There are some deeper rules, most notably the “Pair Up” tag-team mechanic, which is apparently new to Awakening, but after Tactics Ogre, with its Rampart Auras, arrow trajectories, cliffs and chokepoints, MP regen and a dozen magic types, there’s no comparison. There was also the fact that you actually had to account for and respond to character death on the field, instead of just resetting as soon as it happened. I had pages of complaints about Tactics Ogre, but there’s less to complain about in Fire Emblem because there’s so much less there to begin with.

The RNG is another annoyance. What shocked me was that there was some interview revealing that even the developers would soft-reset when they got a bad level-up. So why is it even there? I’m positive it’s another legacy/nostalgia nonsense thing. I played on the mode where my killed characters were only out for the current fight, to minimize pointless resetting, but without any associated cost or timed revival period, it felt like an underthought implementation of non-permadeath. It still could’ve done more to discourage high-risk strategy.

Weapon durability and destruction is a cool feature, and presents an interesting contrast with games like Crimson Shroud where weapons are everything, but since you can’t repair items when reforging them, improving their stats is a complete waste of money (unless players have the infinite money DLC, but I’ll complain about that a few paragraphs down). I think if you could repair all gear, it would just force an optimal but tedious strategy where the same improved items are used in perpetuity, but either way it just isn’t affordable within the existing non-DLC currency balance, so it was probably a waste of time to implement the forge at all.

There is one feature I’ve yet to mention, however, and it makes up for a lot of the game’s shortcomings. Listen closely: you can marry your characters to each other and create children, who will, at some point in the future, time-travel backwards and join your current-day army as adults. These aren’t generic combat units, either: they’re story characters, usually associated with their mothers, who only see minor changes based on who you picked as their father, such as a palette swap. Since your main character can marry a time-traveller, there’s some potential creepiness, because you could reload an earlier save and become the wife of the girl who was previously your daughter. But this freedom is cool as hell, ridiculous, amazing, and highly ambitious, because the support conversations get multiplied based on whether characters are siblings or potential love interests in the current playthrough (though from my understanding, the parent-child conversations are often a “fill in the blanks with your dad’s name” kind of deal). Even if I had several more paragraphs’ worth of complaints to make about the tactical layer, this one mechanic would still undoubtedly affirm Awakening’s position as an “okay game” instead of a bad one.

Another thing I do like is that you can’t really mess up your characters (apart from maybe choosing the wrong parents). You can only make it take a little longer than you’d like to max them out. Unlike Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics, there’s no job-based limitation on permanent stat growth, and you can reset their class levels for a small cost repeatedly until they hit their stat caps, which are pre-defined.

The DLC, however, is a sour point. Shocked and pleasantly surprised as I was at first to see a wealth of DLC available in a Nintendo game, I still didn’t buy any of it, as I took a closer look and saw that it was an unashamed cash grab. I couldn’t do it. It’s absurd–there’s like $50 worth of the stuff, and it all seems to fall into the following categories:

  • Cheats (or close enough). Stages you can repeat for free money and experience, breaking what little sense of balance the single player has.
  • Advanced challenges, meaning, “grind more” challenges, basically requiring the purchase of the cheat levels.
  • Fan-service bonus levels where the female characters show off their swimsuits. Anyone paying Nintendo for wank material is living in an incredibly strange bubble.
  • Nostalgia traps where you can add Marth, Ike, Roy, etc. to your party! But that this is my first Fire Emblem, so I’d be paying six bucks just to see a Smash Bros. character. Ha ha. How much did Crimson Shroud cost, again? Oh, right: five bucks during the last sale.

I encountered some glitches as well, with the Japanese audio getting switched back to English whenever I loaded a save (I can’t live in a world where Chrom’s daughter isn’t voiced by Kobayashi Yuu! Is that so wrong??) and certain sound effects wouldn’t play after I loaded a pre-battle save. I’d get dead silence when I struck an enemy, which irritated me far more than I would’ve guessed, and this would persist until I loaded a world-map save with English audio active and re-saved. I feel like the developers could’ve and should’ve patched these issues in a world where they managed to figure out DLC on a Nintendo system, but then again, there was money in that. At least both problems were only temporary.

For someone who likes a tactical JRPG, shallow or not, and isn’t afraid of a long grind–I think I’m just describing Disgaea fans–the breeding mechanics and character interactions can probably carry this whole game for you. I’m happy to hear that the success of the game meant that it wasn’t the final entry in a canned franchise, but I also think that tradition and a relatively ancient intellectual property–FE1 came out in 1990–is worth little in the grand scheme of things. If the eventual “Fire Emblem 14” remains insular with its nostalgia traps and vestigial parts, I won’t buy it.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

The amount of content in Tactics Ogre on the PSP is staggering, and being another tactical offering from Yasumi Matsuno, there was never any doubt that it would be good. There’s a number of wonderful characters, and the ability to unify this cast into one great army by time-travelling in postgame is profoundly cool. The game is even more ambitious than Final Fantasy Tactics, although often not as balanced or fun, and much of the late optional content requires a soul-crushing grind.

In gameplay, I particularly liked the Rampart Auras and fragility of mages, who really had to be protected from even a single hit. The portrait art, presumably completely new to the PSP version, was gorgeous, even if the sprite art often wasn’t, even for main characters.

The bulk of the main campaign is pretty fantastic, and most of my issues were with design elements that could have been given more attention to make the game user-friendly. Otherwise, I was only disappointed by a few cases of inconsistency. For example, I travelled back in time to see what would happen if I hadn’t made a choice that caused a character to oppose me, and found out that they disagreed with my new choice.

It would be simple enough to keep the review short, but I think it would be more interesting to look at the numerous design issues and suggest what might have been done to make the game much better.

  • First, explain things better. Things should be more self-contained, self-explanatory. How do you know that you need 30 glass pumpkins to get the Wicce class? By asking the wiki class. Never mind, there is no wiki class, so you’ll have to turn to Google for your recondite nonsense. A few secrets aren’t so bad, you might say, but what about basic operations? How do you know what magic you learn from Griomoire Oeildaigle? You don’t. Well, it teaches Ballistics. What does Ballistics do? Well, if you wait an eternity for the help text to scroll across the screen, you’ll find that it casts Trueflight on one target. How do you know what Trueflight does? Well, you might be able to figure that one out on your own, but others are more confusing. What does the Withered effect do? What’s the difference between Touched and Attuned? Which stat will be raised when you pick up the Temperance card? In the Japanese version, it was likely that the slowly-scrolling text help wasn’t as annoying, because the messages were shorter in kanji. But even if you’re patient, that text will only tell you a small subset of things.
  • Limit the grind. The aforementioned glass pumpkins? They take an eternity to get. Some slow-paced things are fine, and I’m okay with needing to get hit half a million times to get the Parry skill up. But when the cast is as large as it is, to have any hope of using more than the same small few of them all the time, it’s asking too much of the player to train up a late-game character from Lv.1 before using them, especially when the enemies won’t show them any mercy and the max-level party members still get an even share of the experience. You even have to buy them 6 empty skill slots before you can start buying skills. It’s insulting.

I did it. I can finally die now. Wait, no, I still don’t have a boat.

  • Crafting also draws things out painfully. It takes forever to craft something, maybe thirty seconds, because of the animations and the unwarranted dialogue. You need to craft thousands of things for the best items. I should be able to tap A once on a list and get two bars of wootz steel. Let me hold down the button until I have a hundred of them! And get rid of the random chance of failure, because everyone just reloads when crafting fails anyway, making the whole thing take even longer. The game is slower than it needs to be all over the place. When grinding, every little banner that pops up for five seconds at the start of a fight to say “Vanquish the enemy!” or “To battle!” just makes things that much more excruciating.
  • Damage seems to need to cross some threshold to do anything at all, and in most fights, my characters could either do 1 damage to a foe, or they’d take off more than 40 HP in a hit. It got to the point that whenever a Rune Fencer or Ninja came at me, I would think, “Oh, he’ll only hit me for 1 HP, I can breathe easy.” A Dragoon could hit for 1 HP, or use a power-up skill and suddenly deal 300. This is far too high of an imbalance.
  • The level and class system doesn’t work very well. First, I’d recommend getting rid of the shared class levels. Canopus doesn’t have to be a Level 30 Terror Knight just because Denam is. In Final Fantasy Tactics, you received bonus JP when witnessing someone of the same class gain JP. That was much more elegant. Next, get rid of character level entirely, so character stats would drop all the way back down to what they were at Lv.1 when they switch classes. Make them gain class levels faster and reduce the overall importance of level, so it’s more about mixing and matching abilities by training in as many classes as possible, and unlocking cooler skills from better classes later in the game. Instead of worrying about stat growth, chose your ultimate plans for each character based on inherent dispositions in their base stats which aren’t influenced by the jobs they’ve held. These dispositions should be intensified at higher levels, rather than getting smoothed out.
  • Make most class abilities usable in all other classes. If the locking down of these abilities was meant to keep each class balanced, they failed, because the classes aren’t balanced as they are. If I buy Swiftfoot II, I should get to use it. These sorts of abilities should ideally serve as the difference between a character at Lv.1 at the start of the game, and a character at Lv.1 who has already maxed out three other classes.
  • Some of the totally worthless activated abilities would have been great as passives. Who wants to eat up RT and TP just to increase katana strength by 25% for one attack? Skills could at least be passive in their native class, and require activation and a TP cost when ported into another. This would help a character’s primary class remain important.
  • Customizable or smarter menus, so ranged characters don’t have “Melee Attack” at the top of their command list.
  • Don’t zoom in at the start of battle. It makes the already somewhat gaudy-looking sprites blurry as well, and is less useful to look at.
  • It’s often unintuitive where ranged attacks will land. Trajectory should always be active without taking up a skill slot. Similarly, sometimes someone is just barely in the way, and it would be nice if they were just nicked in the arm, or slightly grazed by a fireball, instead of taking the entire hit.
  • Activating a counterattack should be based on the actual distance, not the type of ability. Being attacked by a ranged weapon from one square away should provoke a counterattack. There’s also no reason I shouldn’t be able to just shoot the unit directly in front of me if I can still hit him by aiming at a spot ten squares behind him.
  • There are too many magic skill abilities. (Please eliminate three! P.S. I am not a crackpot.) I feel like it would be better to combine Air, Earth, Lightning, Water, Fire, and Ice into one Elemental skill, and to do other things to encourage specialization, like equipping augmentation passives. Even after merging those skills into one category, there are still separate skills for Divine, Dark, Necromancy, and Draconic magic to obtain later in the game. I guess it does give you a reason to keep ten unique mages in the party, but it seems a little absurd.
  • Increase the party roster size to a maximum of 100 or so. There’s not enough for all the story characters plus a little menagerie of beasts, and I should be allowed to keep some custom characters as well.
  • You should be able to rename non-uniques and get more use out of them. Their stats shouldn’t be worse than the main characters either, since the heroes will invariably get personalized classes anyway. They don’t need better stats on top of that.
  • No missable items. It’s a real bummer when you can time-travel and still not even end up with 100% completion.
  • The titles, which are like achievements, are impossible to collect all of, as if they were put there just to mess with people. Beat the whole game without any units getting knocked unconscious? Not dead, but unconscious? Ridiculous. I think it would be cool not just if some titles were taken out, but if players could set an “active” title that would provide some slight gameplay bonus, like “Using meditate won’t delay your next turn.” If these titles could all be obtained by use of the time-travel system, or otherwise saved globally for follow-up playthroughs, it could make for some interesting challenges that might actually pay off.

This is a game well worth getting if you’ve got a PSP, but I gave up on completing the postgame dungeons, and I’ve historically been proven willing to do some wretchedly tedious things in games. If it could one day be enhanced further, particularly in fixing the class balance and the grind, Let Us Cling Together would be a legendary title.

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.