Dishonored

I’m really fond of Dishonored, even though, as a stealth game, it does a lot of the same things wrong that DXHR & DXMD did. Apparently I was fond enough to play it again in 2017, setting silly rules for myself, and picking up all the achievements I missed last time.

You can screw up a Dishonored no-kills run in the most baffling circumstances; maybe the physics engine decided to get creative, and an unconscious guard you left on a rooftop jittered off the edge and fell to his death when you had your back turned. Or maybe a swarm of rats came by and ate that guy you left in an alley. (From a rules-of-stealth point of view, rats are the most bullshit thing in the game.) Sometimes NPCs kill each other, or die in scripted events. These shouldn’t count, but do they? I can’t say I know for sure, because I had no way of figuring out where I went wrong. It would be incredible if the game could do a simple thing like flashing the words “FIRST KILL” on the screen, so you’d know when the time came to hit the quickload key.

A run in which you’re never fully detected by an enemy is harder to do, but usually comes with fewer uncertainties, given the loud musical sting that plays, and the red alert marks above a guard’s head. Usually. I still managed to surprise myself with failure by the end of a couple missions. I don’t think it’s a problem if bodies are spotted, but in one of the missions in the first expansion, if you linger around too long, enemies spawn in around a corpse and start talking about how they need to find whoever did it. Only thing is, I never left a corpse there. The corpse had been spawned in too, as part of the same event. There should be an understanding between the game and I, but if it narratively pretends I slipped up when I obviously didn’t? That’s the kind of thing people would replace their dungeon master over.

The painted art style is real cool, and I remember thinking at the time that we’d reached a point with video game graphics where we finally had enough power and could start to boldly experiment instead of just pushing for deeper, boring photorealism. After five years, though, the game does show its age: the visual style is still notable, but the character models aren’t the best. And after taking down around six guards, some of the bodies start to vanish. This limitation is probably a bigger setback than the shallow issue of Good Graphix. After all, half the fun I had in DXMD was putting 25 unconscious men in a big pile.

Most of the time, the game is delightful. The blink power–short range teleportation–was a revolution for stealth games. (I’m grateful that DXMD stole it.) There are only about 9 missions, and 6 more from the two expansions combined, and none of it is a drag to replay. You can do each mission in maybe five minutes each while blinking around like a maniac, even without exploiting glitches or being a speedrunning god. Or you can spend an hour choking out each guard from behind and dragging each of them to a big dumpster. Apart from the occasional unskippable bit of dialogue, the game doesn’t waste your time; you only elect to waste it yourself, as a part of your preferred play style.

Some of my favorite missions include infiltrating Lady Boyle’s masked ball and figuring out which of the masked sisters is your target, or the one in the first expansion where you target the City Barrister and can pop in and out of his four-story manor from various balcony doors. Partly I think the estates of nobles are more appealing locales for stealth and robbery than sewers and prisons and magical mazes–something that also really worked to Thief 2’s advantage–but these missions also have some interesting options and variations. The non-lethal approach to taking out Lady Boyle is quite creepy, insinuating that while you might be able to keep the blood literally off your hands, there’s no way to achieve your goals with purely moral behavior. And with the barrister pacing around between the floors of his house, one approach is to find a way to get close and swap the items in his pockets without him even figuring out that you exist. This is fun stuff; it’s more pure and (I think) to the point of why you’re playing than some of the pretentious nonsense you get up to in the Deus Ex games.

As with other games that give you the option of being non-lethal, or the option of remaining silent and undetected, a lot of the tools you’re given will never be used. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I suppose it would be better if you were given a mine casing and got to decide whether to make a lethal or nonlethal tool out of it, which is something DXMD handled pretty well, apart from the tradeoff of its irritating inventory management. Nonlethal mines and grenades didn’t even exist until Dishonored’s expansions, though, sort of like how DXMD revisited DXHR’s Typhoon augment by adding a nonlethal version. The expansions also add numerous passive runes that would have allowed for some cool gimmick play styles if not for the fact that you were basically done with the game by the time you obtained them. Without the ability to do a New Game Plus where you can play the original campaign again with the expansions’ choke grenades, or with the runes that took away your mana recovery but let you gain mana by drinking water and made you invisible while standing still, it’s really a lost opportunity.

Dishonored’s guards aren’t terribly bright, but at least they aren’t easily lured away into a dark corner, away from the eyes of the other guards. In truth, most of Dishonored’s guard innovations are in making them speak like magic 8-balls to each other. But they will sometimes wonder why another guard you’ve already dragged away isn’t patrolling where they’re supposed to be. At most they change their patrol route slightly when this happens, but in a more perfect game I think this should make them become a lot more panicky, especially when they finally notice that they seem to have become the only human being left in the entire complex. As always, I want to see stealth games become more difficult, but only in the fairest ways. (And I’d like to see the return of a Thief-style UI that communicates how well hidden I am, instead of dealing mostly in direct lines of sight.) I still haven’t played Dishonored 2 yet, and I have no reason to expect AI miracles from it. But I have heard that you can see how many people you’ve killed so far from the pause menu. For that alone, I’m itching to play it.

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.

Dark Souls 3

DS3 looks and plays fantastically, and for better or worse, most of its changes to the formula have been pretty safe ones: for example, the arcane rules of covenant-switching and equipment upgrading have been streamlined. Good things about Dark Souls 1, like the lack of an Agility stat, three distinct equip load brackets, and Soul Level-based matchmaking, have returned. Dark Souls 2’s better mechanical innovations are here too, like the engine itself, aspects of PvP, and more situational freedom with four equippable rings.

There are bigger changes, too, like the new weapon arts, and a mana system for spellcasting (the flask allotment is a great touch). These are especially good for PvP; this way a weapon can have standard, reliable attacks, and also be as gimmicky and weird as one could ever desire, and the attunement stat gains a little value even in strictly melee builds. And nobody can just count out how many casts of Crystal Soul Spear you have left.

For these and other reasons I had more fun in actual PvP combat than ever before, though I found it an incredible hassle to actually rank up in most covenants, whether I was trying to fight honorably or just grief my way to 30 wins. Mound Makers was hilarious, but in Rosaria’s Fingers I was likely to get beaten up by a gang of allied phantoms or the host would just hide somewhere, and this after waiting a long time to successfully invade without a connection error, etc. Some, like Farron, just had to be grinded out from monster drops. It also seemed terribly pointless that Sentinels and Darkmoons shared a purpose; the way I would have done Darkmoon would be to have a revenge covenant with no indictments, but to put a counter on any player that used a red eye orb, which would open them to a retaliatory Darkmoon invasion. Wouldn’t that have been cool?

Even with this being the third installment, the same terrible seams in the netcode/online experience do appear. I’ve found myself stuck, unable to quit the game or use a bonfire for several minutes as the game tried to connect me to some imaginary invader. And the new thing I’ve found to dislike about the matchmaking is the separate weapon-level limit. For one thing, this fragments the pool of available players, making things seem more dead than they really are. They could’ve fixed this by just temporarily downscaling one player’s weapon level to that of the other. The other thing is, I felt pressured to never change my weapon until very late in the game. If I had a +10 weapon and I switched to a +6, I’d still be matched up with an invader with a +10. Disincentivizing experimentation like this is pretty bad. You could solve this problem too: if the matchmaking only checked for weapons in your inventory and ignored the bonfire box, you could lower your weapon scaling at any time, and not unfairly.

I didn’t enjoy managing the sidequests, and without deeper changes to the gameplay formula, I don’t think the Souls games are suited to elaborate ones with narrow windows to interact with characters. Dark Souls to me is supposed to be very friendly to a blind run of the game–you die a lot, but you make progress and you aren’t disincentivized from continuing without help–but I think NPC questlines where someone dies because you didn’t talk to them before killing a boss or whatever is kind of bullshit. DS1 had Solaire and Siegmeyer but that was about it; in DS3, it’s everybody, and they’re often interconnected.

One of the more unfortunate things about DS2 was the arrangement of the environments; to put it another way, the lack of any arrangement. You quick-travelled around and never had a sense of how deep you were the way you did in DS1. It had its creative ideas too, mind you, and I miss the way you’d colonize a space in that game by spreading fire to its sconces. But for all the places DS3 backpedalled to DS1, I’m kind of shocked that they kept the weird warpy design of DS2. It feels at times lazy, even if some of the level designs are very good, like the way the Cathedral of the Deep forks around and continually leads back to the Cleansing Chapel bonfire in inventive ways. I don’t think it’s masochistic to take away bonfire warping: DS1’s shortcuts worked great, and if there was any problem there, it was with running around to four distinct blacksmiths to get your weapons upgraded, and that certainly wouldn’t be a problem now that everyone just obediently hangs out in one hub. I’m also curious about other possibilities: what if you could warp to an isolated hub region and back, but other than that, had to get around completely on your own, and the game world had been designed to accommodate that?

Some new innovations in Dark Souls design felt gimmicky rather than really taking the formula to the next level. There were areas where enemies would fight each other, and you were given opportunities to sneak around a patrol, but this could sometimes feel out-of-place. I remember a big demon in the catacombs who must have one-shot me a half-dozen times, and mind you, one of the things I love about the original game (which probably made my SL1 run possible) is that you’re almost never in a situation where you will die in one hit; it goes against the game’s design principles. I later found out that the enemies in this area would attack this demon for you; you could lead it around and even let a mimic kill it. It was designed as such, but it seemed so against the brave face-to-face encounters I felt Dark Souls was all about that it didn’t even cross my mind; I just got annoyed that the skeletons were getting in my way and kept stubbornly throwing myself at the demon until it died the old-fashioned way.

And at times I felt like maybe these ideals of challenge and personal achievement were all in my head, because the game didn’t really seem structured to support them. Was it really True Dark Souls to do every boss without ever summoning another player for aid? Or just another self-imposed bragging rights challenge, no different from the ones people come up with in any other game? I’m not sure anymore.

But the bosses were, for the most part, a nice step up from DS2. Wolnir would be an example of a boss I really don’t like: the goal is always “Easy to learn, hard to master,” right? Wolnir is hard to comprehend, but easy to master: I kept dying at the start from some aura attack I couldn’t even see, and I had no idea what the hell was going on, but once I figured out where to stand, the fight was a joke. On the other hand, some of the best bosses include Soul of Cinder, Gael, and Midir, but here I start to notice something: these, while being polished and impressive in their own right, are somewhat derivative rehashes of Gwyn, Artorias, and Kalameet respectively. The game is, in a word, derivative, and this derivative gaze is focused in one place: DS1. From that, I can see why a new property like Bloodborne could make people more enthusiastic.

I honestly see DS3’s constant looking-backwards, both mechanically and thematically, as a deliberate statement, an Art Game if you will, but actually having more to say than most Extremely Art Games ever do, and through the perspective of AAA development no less. I think there’s no mistaking that it’s one of the bigger flaws of the game, but it’s also, possibly, the whole point. Hidetaka Miyazaki is a very idealistic and committed game designer and here I feel like he’s inserted his feelings about being told to Come Back to a game he already made by turning the whole thing hollow and sad, which is, when you think about it, very Dark Souls. This is what becomes of a world when you linger and stagnate instead of moving forward–something like that. I can’t be sure.

But is it fun? In some ways, yeah, absolutely. I literally laughed out loud the first time fighting Soul of Cinder when he started using sorcery, pyromancy, and miracles interchangeably in addition to all his weapons. And even traditional enemies like Silver Knights (whether they should be making a return or not) have been subtly refined in ways I appreciate. Even so, I’m certainly not planning to do another SL1 playthrough. I don’t have half the enthusiasm for it, even if someone were to tell me that the full game is as fair at low levels as DS1 had been.

I also think I may inevitably come down harder on DS3 because whether or not I want to admit it, the magic of a person’s first Souls game will probably never come back. This doesn’t wipe away the flaws I’ve already named, but it’s very possible that people who never played DS1 would feel like they discovered what video games were all about by playing this, because the pace of its combat is an elaborate dance, because it doesn’t baby you with tutorials, because the lore is sad and beautiful… whatever the reason. But me, I’ve seen that already.

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.

DOOM (2016)

Revisiting old-school shooters isn’t something I have a passion for–you can look at, for instance, what I said about Hard Reset–but it’s good for a change. I didn’t play the original Doom until I was a little older (and even then not all the way through), but it does take me back to Quake 3 Arena. Stepping onto a boost-jump pad, leading a target with the rocket launcher while I fly through the air… the mechanical core of this game was there. DOOM is also not so different from Metroid Prime, though it’s more action-oriented. Each could probably learn a thing or two from the other.

There’s a robust multiplayer mode, but I played a few rounds and it felt a bit dated. I found myself thinking I would be much better off spending the time in Overwatch, so I don’t have too much else to say there.

The different systems are really cool and cohesive–chainsaw kills, glory kills, runes, weapon upgrades with challenge-based unlocks, and so on. Whether your options are balanced is a whole other story: once I discovered the rune to make grenades siphon armor, and paired that with infinite ammo at 75+ armor, things got easy. The weapon challenges were also pretty easily cheesed, but I prefer that to frustration.

The aforementioned glory kills–the melee animation finishers–are something that I’d hate in other games, like the canned stealth takedowns I was made to watch over and over in Human Revolution. But not only are they pretty fast here, you can make them even faster with a certain upgrade, and one can easily avoid doing them when they need to keep moving. It’s probably the most effective example of their mission to blend new and old-school game design.

Some of the earlier levels, like the foundry, are actually among my favorites; later on there’s a bit too much of fighting hordes in giant arena rooms. It’s the natural way to hike up the challenge factor as you progress, but when you clear out a room and then more enemies just start teleporting in, it definitely feels like it’s dragging.

I also liked the levels set in Hell a little less, but that may have more to do with the natural themes of human settings, where variety is endless and yet familiar. It’s like how humanoid enemies with arms and legs are more fun to fight than giant floating heads, something which in my experience remains true whether you’re playing a Doom game or a Castlevania.

Some of the levels have points of no return, perhaps because you have to fall a ways, or a door locks behind you, or they don’t have a consistent visual language for marking the end of a level. (One level even ends in the middle of a fight with a pack of enemies.) It’s not the best way to incentivize hunting down secrets for yourself. The level replay feature is pretty cool–you can redo an old level and have the collectibles you miss count toward your totals and achievements–though I still would’ve preferred not needing it.

DOOM uses checkpoint-only saving, which I generally dislike. I always notice it influencing my behavior: “If I touch this switch it’ll replace my checkpoint, so I should avoid it and grab this thing first, so I won’t have to do it again if I die.” It seems arbitrary and limiting, and I’d generally prefer to have a say in when the save happens, but it’s at least good about letting your secrets and challenges remain separate from your checkpointing… with the exception that map icons for lore entries annoyingly seem to appear uncollected again, despite being in your collection database.

One of the things the game does best is its self-aware tone. There’s a documentary about the game on youtube that touches upon a lot of this stuff: the demons with jetpacks, the metal soundtrack, the security systems that tell you that demonic presence is at “unsafe levels”. It seems like an obvious fit in hindsight, but so many games have some rigid story that avoids asking what it is that the player signed up for: look at the shooters where you think “Why can’t I just shoot this guy?” at basically any point where someone is talking. DOOM itself isn’t fully resistant to that: it does still occasionally lock you in a room for some exposition, sometimes with the lame old trick of putting the villain on the other side of bulletproof glass.

At least these parts are segregated from gameplay, and you never have to do an escort mission or whatever just because the story calls for it. Still, frankly, these scenes should have been skippable, if we’re really taking the best of old-school games with immense replay value. Instead, they seem to have added Arcade Mode precisely for this, though it doesn’t help with getting all those collectibles on your main file. Though the part about some of the later levels dragging on a bit would remain true, this game actually might unexpectedly be worth another playthrough some day.

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.

Life Is Strange

I think this one was a very beautiful game. The drama and its characters are extremely well executed and acted, and I think what surprised me most was seeing the specifics of the medium used remarkably well at times to convey things beyond what could be done with the traditional storytelling. In one scene Max is just lying in bed and it becomes clear as it exits a cutscene that it’s one of those times where you can press a button to actually get moving, but Max is reluctant to move and I actually found myself reluctant to move her… it’s not something that can be easily described, but I thought it was particularly special.

But the execution of the time travel and the game’s themes of choice, and loss of control, and feelings of regret over trying to play God (awfully like the movie Project Almanac if you’ve ever seen it) don’t always appropriately deliver. It’s an incredibly hard thing to get right in a game, but it’s one of those works of fiction that will tend to frame things in a limited fashion to make an argument that only sort of works on its own incredibly specific terms. You see a few false dichotomies, lacking the agency to take actions or make arguments that should be there, because the absence of choice is a contrivance that creates more dilemmas. Sometimes choices you might not want to make are made for you, which is ludically unfortunate, although it might make for the best story in the end. And narratively speaking, the limits on your rewind power–being unable to use it during a cutscene, or after leaving a room–can feel sometimes arbitrary. These things were often forgivable but just as often worked against what I feel were the story’s best interests as a work of interactive fiction.

Sometimes it’s a classic Inadequate Telltale Argument situation, not even related to the time travel: like when you’re trying to talk the religious girl down from suicide and eventually you’re lead to three options that all involve appealing to her religion, despite that Max doesn’t even share the religious views at all. To me that seemed like three incredibly fucking condescending choices when I just wanted to make an earnest appeal to a suicidal girl to just slow down, because the rest of her life was worth a few minutes of reasoning if nothing else.

But I think what bothered me most was when our favorite girl Chloe was doing target practice and hit herself with the fucking ricochet: your only choice is to rewind time and tell her to pick a new target, causing them to keep at it right up until the drug dealer enters the scene–unavoidable–and the situation gets worse. I badly wanted to give Chloe a smack in the head and to tell her that it was time to stop playing with guns, that it’s not fun anymore after something like that; to say if the ricochet had hit me instead of her, it all would have been over, because there’s no rewinding that.

Like a lot of fun time-travel films that don’t quite get their logic right, Life Is Strange messes up. Putting aside the other method of time travel that gets introduced later on, Steins;Gate style–in which case I have so many questions and assumptions to challenge that I don’t even know where to start–Max is supposed to be retaining her position in space when she rewinds, which means that when she gets up from her seat at 9 AM, walks out of the room and stands by her locker at 9:02 AM, and then rewinds the clock back two minutes… to any outside observer, for all intents and purposes, she teleported from her seat to her locker. But nobody notices that, and the game is inconsistent with how this works in cutscenes. But… apart from wanting to yell at the game sometimes, I have to admit that the errors didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the story in the end. And I liked Project Almanac more than Primer anyway.

I found the time travel most thrilling when it allowed me to put something I learned to use in conversation thirty seconds before learning it, such as making people like me by saying the things they hadn’t said yet. And before Max’s klutziness got played out a few episodes in and they stopped doing it, it was nice wish-fulfillment to get to undo the occasional error. But I didn’t find myself rewinding much as a result of equivocating on major choices: unless Max said something I hadn’t intended for her to say from a dialogue option (thankfully not such a big problem in this game, for obvious reasons), I basically knew what I wanted the first time around. If there were ever more games based around this premise–and I’d be thrilled to have them–I think the most obvious place to really get more out of the rewind would be in the joys of optimization; speedrunning by virtue of rewinding until everything is done. Entering a building at exactly noon and having teased every bit of info out of every NPC and having all the nearby objects in your pocket before 12:01 PM. Put a clock in the UI and make it matter.

The last episode did drag a bit with the extended nightmare scenarios–I felt like it had all been done before–though the first conversation with the teacher pulls a Hatoful Boyfriend trick with your dialogue options that I was pretty delighted to see again.

Ultimately, and especially with the big (and evidently divisive) choice at the end, for me it was an Orpheus and Eurydice love story. There’s beauty and poignance in petulantly fighting for one person at the cost of everything, even if you have to use your fingernails to dig straight to hell, and even if it’s ultimately greedy or fundamentally self-centered and misguided, like the original Orpheus probably was. But if you already know all your uncomfortable priorities… if you really have your trolley problem shit figured out–like, would Lee drown a baby to save Clementine or whatever?–you can always live with the hard choices you’ve made.

I think the Dontnod team managed to match Telltale at their best on this one. (And there are no QTEs, which was even better.) In all seriousness I was hit pretty hard by this game, and I would have very likely given it a 5 if it had done better in just one area between its occasional weak choice options, the pacing of its final act, and the low level of mechanical ambition. It’s still, I think, a must-play 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.

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.