The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

★☆★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darklands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dropsy

Dropsy was far better than I anticipated. I think it was that it didn’t just go for easy weird-territory, “scary clown” bits or rely overmuch on rando amoral webforum humor; I think Dropsy earns the player’s sympathies very quickly. Probably during the first time he attempts to hug someone and they reject him… there’s this little deflated animation he does. To give this some context, hugging is Dropsy’s only distinct “action verb”, in the classic LucasArts sense, apart from his generic interaction clicks. So right away it’s pretty obvious and cleverly communicated that this sort of thing means a lot to him. He’s got a lot of immediately appealing animations, like little dances and reactions that communicate a very childish joy that’s very different from our shared cultural image of clowns as jaded, depressing old men who are most likely also serial killers. These animations, and the rest of the art, are great.

It’s a charming story, but also a pretty somber one, with some ridiculous developments that had me actually barking out laughter in shock. Though none of the characters have dialogue in audio or in text form, you learn more about the backgrounds and personalities of characters through little pictographic symbols of items, actions, and moods in their speech bubbles. Writing still exists on signs and notes, only written in a Fez or La-Mulanese-like character substitution alphabet, and players can optionally figure those out for a little more lore and understanding (and I did, because I never seem to get tired of those cipher puzzles), but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was not really meant to signify a foreign alphabet for once but instead Dropsy’s illiteracy warping the appearances of letters into something familiar, but mostly unrecognizable. I don’t mean to get carried away here, but these things are fun to think about.

The music is fantastic, too–even putting aside the diverse collectible cassette tapes, it’d be a completely different game without the jazz and other funky music playing around the island. There’s a town theme that puts my head in the same kind of place as the intro/outro to Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, which is an incredibly pleasing direction to go in, if you ask me. (And I think the instrumentation tends to change depending on the in-game day-night cycle, too.) My only complaint here, which reminds me of a big gripe I had with EO4, is that these tracks get interrupted on you too frequently. Transitions definitely could’ve been handled better–maybe only changing tracks when you used a bed, went indoors, or otherwise switched areas by more significant means, like taking a boat out to the smaller island nearby. We can’t all be Monkey Island 2, but having an occasional buffer map where one track plays out (or fades back in if you choose to double back) would’ve worked wonders. Or just planning the allocations a little more: you spend an average of about two seconds on the hospital exterior, and I’m pretty sure it’s the only screen where this track plays.

The gameplay could use a little polishing. Before I get into that, I think there are some well-conceived puzzles, and a few instances of great hinting, despite the challenge the devs imposed on themselves in not being able to make their hero talk to himself out loud about the various objects he’s holding (or for others to talk, when he’s shoving his things in their faces). A Dropsy hint, for example, is flipping channels on the TV and seeing a chef dropping garlic into a tomato stew. I much prefer seeing that on the TV while I’ve got a stew half-done, and thinking “I better find some garlic,” to seeing the garlic first and thinking “I don’t know what this is for, but my cursor arbitrarily changes when I hover over it, so I damn well better start figuring out how to touch it.”

But I wasn’t a fan of the modularity of the puzzles. The Steam store description extols the “open-endedness” of it but what it’s essentially doing is having a bunch of puzzles that don’t affect your overall progress apart from maybe removing a red herring from your inventory, at best. In Dropsy, most puzzles are sidequests, and each sidequest ends in a hug. If you want the “all the hugs” achievement, you gotta do them, and anyway it’s the game’s content, so you want to, for sure. But you know that feeling in puzzle/adventure games where you’ve been stuck everywhere for a while and you’re running back through the earlier maps trying to find a loose end… and then something clicks for you, and you’ve suddenly made progress, only to find out that your solution didn’t give you a new inventory item or change the world’s state in any way? Maybe because you need to do 3 modular puzzles together before you can advance, like assembling three parts of a disguise before using it? It feels like breaking through a wall only to find a second wall a foot behind it, so you have to go right back to combing through those maps again as if you hadn’t found anything. And that’s virtually every puzzle in Dropsy. You have to stick close to the main questline until you’ve gathered all three pets and have unlocked quick travel, or you’ll be making things really hard on yourself.

I did manage to beat the game without doing any annoying pixel-hunts for objects, which is fabulous, but I wasn’t able to reach 100% on the sidequests that way. Apart from inanimate objects I never considered hugging–I only ever thought to hug people (and some anthropomorphized stuff, like the robots and the tree with the face on it)–I notably missed a collectible statue piece that required pixel-hunting with the dog as the active character (to find it, I googled its location after finishing the game first without it). Normally the animal stuff seems pretty well signposted; little mouse footprints leading up to the crawlspace the mouse can get into, and things of that nature. The dog actually likes to run over and sniff at things that are (or later will be) of significance, which I thought was another cool hint mechanic and was something I paid a lot of attention to, but I never saw it happen for that missing statue piece. Could’ve been either my oversight or the developer’s.

Oh, and one last nitpick: some of the red herrings are quite rude. I spent a while near the endgame hopelessly using a coin on half of all the objects and people I could think of, trying to figure out what it was used for, only to google it and learn that there were four coins hidden and you only needed two (so even with that third, I’d still missed one). Same thing happened again with a second bone item. I like the idea of reducing pixel-hunting by having multiple places where the key item can be found, but it would have been nicer to just make the other two hidden coins and the other bone vanish from the world when I picked up what I needed. Those extras can drive someone crazy when they’re playing blind. At least the hubcap in Day of the Tentacle made itself clear that it was a joke item.

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.

Her Story

It’s a little hard to be in a position of reviewing something you still don’t believe yourself to have a solid grasp on, but then, here’s a game that makes an effort to keep itself vague, so that’s where we are. It’s nonspecific by design; maybe frustratingly so. People appreciate a degree of open-endedness, but when nothing is certain, and you can argue for any possibility you want, the explanations become, to a certain degree, meaningless. And what happened for me here was a bit like what happened to me with Umineko No Naku Koro Ni, a game where the audience can only try to solve various mysteries with the understanding that most of the things seen in the game simply didn’t happen, and had no meaning (at least as far as the mysteries were concerned) apart from possible symbolism. After both games I found myself reading fan theories that I thought were idiotic.

It’s an Occam’s Razor thing. Within the wide sea of things we aren’t told or can’t confirm, if we make radical and unnecessary assumptions, we’re being foolish. If we say the women in Her Story aren’t twins, we have to explain why the detective, whom we don’t know anything about, wouldn’t have checked a hospital record to corroborate a testimony, or wouldn’t have checked to see if a tattoo was real. Even if the tale of these twins is on par with stories about amnesia (as far as the degree of required suspension of disbelief goes), committing to that suspension is a natural part of enjoying fiction, and if dissenting from it involves ignoring pieces of context and logical expectation, it’s just far more appropriate to go along with the story we were told. And even if there are little things that aren’t resolved: isn’t it possible that not everything happens for a reason, that the game’s designer isn’t infallible and wrote a few mistakes in, that an indie game wasn’t flawlessly executed?

Considering that you can simply delete the “blank” tag from clips you’ve watched to find new videos by searching for “blank” again, thereby trivializing the entire searching process (which is to say, the only actual game mechanic), I’d say it’s clear that the designer was not immune to blunders.

Where that leaves us is that I can only play along for so long with a game that’s deliberately vague, and not get too hung up on exactly what happened, whether or not I failed to connect a dot or two somewhere. However: while I’ve been pretty cynical in the discussion up to this point, I want to differentiate between “enjoyment of the game” and “interest in determining what happened”. While I would rather slit my wrists than slurp up the dregs of web articles and fansites to get to the bottom of every idea, I had a great time actually playing the game.

Uplink demonstrated that just letting a person mess around with a computer interface is a fantastic way to build immersion, seeing as we’re all doing that already. But I’ve never seen the “FMV game” genre used to positive effect before. The mechanics are really well suited for the chilling feelings it gave me: for example, suddenly loading up a new clip and having the mood take a complete 180 from endearing into creepsville. Or the sounding of background music as I come out of a fresh video clip, which must’ve been tagged as revelatory in the game’s code. The flashes of a woman’s reflection on my screen, and sirens, which were a bit of a red herring for me, but the impact was strong.

It’s also a great game for keeping pen-and-paper notes like a real goddamn detective, an approach that has never backfired for me (oh, wait–I think I said it did in La-Mulana… fine, almost never). Charting your own course through a bunch of random computer files is a unique experience that I liken not so much to any existing video game as to going through unbound and out-of-sequence journal pages I found in a basement, written by my dad thirty or forty years ago.

It could be better. Putting aside the more obviously subjective stuff, I think the keyword searching functions poorly toward the end, when all you have left to find are no-content clips of someone saying stuff like, “Yes, that’s right.” Taking out the “database checker” program would’ve helped with that, as its presence, essentially as a progress bar, naturally incentivized pointless completionism. Though, what I really wanted was to be able to use the database checker to rewatch the clips in sequence once I was done. Unfortunately, that’s not a thing either. But the game is pretty short and has lasting impact, so you’d be silly to skip 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 2: Scholar of the First Sin

A lot has been said about what made Dark Souls work so much as a game. I said some of it myself. And Dark Souls 2 is great, because most of that is still there. Some things are different.

I enjoy feeling like I’m “colonizing” a world, which is why lit sconces which last forever are a nice idea, and so is bringing most of the NPCs together at one convenient hub. In the case of Souls games, I feel that the world should resist me to some extent, and occupy a sort of fixed geographic reality in my head, but I’ve always liked kicking down ladders and opening up shortcuts the most, and quick-travel in particular invalidates the purpose of a lot of that. I don’t like that you can freely warp all around in DS2. On the other hand, I’d like to see more purely physical forms of making my mark, like a stonecutter NPC who cuts a tunnel through a mountain or carves staircases out of the rock in exchange for some favor. It’s not all for the sake of my convenience, but the feeling of accomplishment and ownership. It could even be accompanied by a very Souls-esque unwelcome twist, like bringing stronger monsters into the opening areas of the game.

Despawning enemies once you’ve killed them a dozen times is another new and somewhat interesting idea, but I think what it mostly does is incentivize a grinding period, especially in that first run where you’re not intensifying any bonfires and you really benefit from clearing out a high-traffic passageway. Why not a difficult-to-pull-off Dark Hand-esque effect which taints a specific spawn of an enemy, so it would never reappear there until you reapplied the effect to another? That could be really fun, especially with the ability to gain a few charges or slots of the technique, to repress the two or three most troublesome foes along the way to a boss.

Many of the multiplayer changes are great, specifically the ease of matching up with other people, and the many new spells, with friendly AoEs and sharing passive buffs and so on. Players are encouraged to help each other, which is probably great for advanced challenges like No Death runs, but acts against the traditional experience of really learning to understand the subtleties of a boss before being able to defeat it. I might suggest staying away from help during the first playthrough, but with some of the covenants being more appropriately cleared at low Soul memory, and with specially-awarded NPC gear being tied to summoning them to help with bosses at every opportunity, it’s easy to feel penalized for trying to go it alone. I also think that the ability to freely restore humanity and flask charges on the spot just by helping another player in their own world for a little while feels almost like an exploit.

Many of the bosses also feel too easy. Some show a lot of variety in their moves and combos, like The Pursuer, or Fume Knight, but there are always a bunch more like Old Iron King, which are kind of a joke. Other times, the difficulty comes from just doubling up on the dangers. I felt pretty tense fighting Darklurker, but I checked a wiki after my fifth death and found out that with AoE pyromancy, double the targets just meant double the damage inflicted, and once I knew that, I was done that fight in seconds.

There’s still room to die a million times while exploring, but I came away feeling like some of those deaths weren’t my fault. It could happen all of a sudden. You lose all your health in one shot, or you get grabbed. You open a mimic chest and die immediately. On the other side of things, if your adaptability stat is raised high, you’ll have so many invincibility frames that you’ll roll through something that your instinct tells you should’ve smashed you into pieces, and the only thing you can really say about it is “lol, okay”. The stat was a bad idea. The thought of doing a low-level playthrough and having fewer iframes than other players is frankly a bummer. There was nothing like that in the original game. There was one roll and it was all you had.

I could talk forever about every little tweak and system here, but I’m trying to keep this short. A few others need some mention, though. Durability was actually something I really liked the changes to. In DS2, gear repair isn’t something you have to concern yourself with the tedious aspects of. All gear is freely and instantly repaired when you sit down at a fire, unless it was fully broken, in which case it costs a meaningful amount of souls to fix. It becomes an aspect of gameplay, rather than just a tacked-on feature that is largely ignorable, as it was in DS1. It ties into other systems. Enemies that degrade your items are a real concern. There’s a secret weapon you get by “breaking” another weapon with a large boulder on the end of it, uncovering the true weapon underneath. Rings of sacrifice will break and remain in your inventory instead of acting like consumable items and simply disappearing, which I think is good: after all, I never once used a ring of sacrifice in the original Dark Souls. I’m neurotic about wasting things when supplies are forever limited. It’s not to say that the system couldn’t possibly benefit from further experimentation: the costs are static; it’s set up so the cost of repairing a ring of sacrifice will become relatively less compared to the amount of souls you’re protecting over time. Maybe instead you might require titanite to repair a ring. Maybe if you used the ring to protect or recover a bloodstain with hundreds of thousands of souls, you might need to repair that ring with a titanite slab instead of a smaller chunk or shard. Food for thought.

A few quick systems I’m less impressed by: Dyna and Tillo, who are more RNG-based than anything in DS1. Lengthy grind-based challenges, like collecting Loyce Souls. And the changes to illusory walls, so you have to tap the interact button to open them. It felt esoteric in a way that wasn’t really conducive to discovering things for yourself. I don’t know–maybe it was always like that. But I did like Pharros’ contraptions.

I have to admit I gave up on parrying, despite doing a bit of training and pulling it off a couple times. The variable wind-ups just bugged me and ruined what I enjoyed as a purely reactive technique in the original Dark Souls. I’m glad to hear that the change is being reverted for DS3, which makes me even less willing to grow accustomed to it as it stands now.

Soul Memory was another unfortunate idea. In the long term, meaning the point where I’d expect to have 4 million souls or more and move into NG+, either I decide to max out all my stats, or I wear the Agape Ring 99% of the time to prevent gathering any souls at all. Would it have been possible to prevent tweakers at very low Soul Level from hunting newer players without making the grim totality of all souls ever gathered weigh on everyone like an arrow of time, like entropy? I think so. Maybe the matchmaking could only measure the number of souls dumped into a character’s level plus the cost of upgrades into their equipment, or a system which applies a score to pieces of gear, with high-scoring pieces found only later in the game, all for the sake of using that as another matchmaking variable–the player who farmed for the ghost blade maybe has more going on than the guy with just the basic hand axe. Or maybe Soul Memory should be simply considered as a secondary variable between matchups of players of the same Soul Level first, so tweakers play with other tweakers first. But ultimately, tweaking is too small of a concern to the health of the game to have messed with everything else.

Places feel disconnected, and not just because of the quick-travelling and warping into the shrines and the memories of old trees. The environment artists really knocked it out of the park, and I love the gorgeous vistas of ancient ruins, but in the original game it was all far more cohesive. You didn’t see anything quite like the view from the wyvern’s room of Aldia’s Keep in DS1, but you saw the Undead Parish, so meaningfully far away from Anor Londo. Coming up a long elevator ride from the Earthen Peak tower overlooking a poison swamp, and seeing lava all around you, just doesn’t make sense–it hasn’t tried to make sense. The endless rows of tall trunks of numinous trees deep below the earth in The Great Hollow weren’t so detailed in appearance, but it meant something, having just bravely ventured down only one such tree. It made you understand the nature of the world, and it made you feel small.

Dark Souls 2 is in many ways an enhancement, an iterative improvement from the original. Exploration is still a delight, and the game is huge. I still want to keep playing, to find things I missed. The PC version of DS1 was a shoddy port in a handful of respects, which is clearer than ever when the better-looking DS2 performs just as well on the same hardware. But you can also plainly see where the heart isn’t quite there.

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.

Tales from the Borderlands

This one was Telltale done right. Really good. Compared to Game of Thrones, I felt like I was far more involved. For one thing, there’s a lot more freedom to act in the Borderlands world, both in terms of licensing and in tone. I know they won’t kill off Ramsey Snow, but they could always go kill Moxxi. You can act out and get away with more. And it became clear at the end that some of the interactions I’d had with certain characters could’ve gone down a lot differently.

I’d be hesitant to replay the game, especially with no option to skip lines of dialogue, or to set the controller down without having to frequently rapid-tap some button to pretend I’m participating in a cutscene. The QTEs would be a lot better if they were only in there when they provided options. Are there really any Telltale players who wouldn’t be alright with just watching a movie until it’s time to talk again?

Still being a Telltale game, there are some occasional hiccups and areas that could’ve used a quality pass, but it’s really not too bad this time.

The Borderlands series isn’t for everyone. I’ve watched a couple friends get burned out on those games. In the flagship shooters, the storyline has just sort of been there. And I’ve personally felt that the forced attempts at being wacky fall flat a lot, in the same way I thought the Lego movie was sort of charming but not funny at all (see “Everything Is Awesome”). We get it: Torgue likes explosions. But there’s a lot of extremely funny stuff, too, and the Telltale collaboration is the cream of that crop. It’s got a fairly classic but polished story structure, and makes good use of the multiple protagonists/perspectives (including having a conversation with yourself). And it’s twisted: if you’re going to do a QTE, it may as well be to peel a psycho’s face off.

If there was a standard Borderlands shooter that kept the stuff that really worked, like neat builds and cooperative skill synergy, but where they dropped a lot of the MMO questing loop stuff and had players take turns taking action with Telltale-style choice mechanics outside of combat, that could be quite amazing.

There was great use of a money-spending mechanic, generally for cosmetic purposes, but which let you show some personality throughout your run. And while I haven’t played The Pre-Sequel, I liked a lot about how the existing characters were used: the existing Vault Hunters are fearsome figures whose actions (and the size of their bounties) completely dwarf yours. Even Borderlands 2 couldn’t manage to do that, where your low-level characters made the original heroes look like fools. It’s a nice touch.

Oh, and the soundtrack! Leave it to Borderlands to put the Dub in the Steppe, and leave it to Telltale to license some fantastic stuff for each episode. The orchestral menu theme really stood out for me, too. It’s really hard to come away from this displeased.

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.