2440: Baffled by Food

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Andie’s been watching a show called Great British Menu, and that show frustrates me in a number of ways. Firstly, it’s one of many, many shows that overuses the “Great British” thing. It’s okay to just say “British” sometimes. (You definitely don’t need to say it at all when talking about the “great British public”. It’s just “the public”.)

The main way it frustrates me, however, is I just don’t understand the appeal of the food these people are cooking. The show claims to celebrate the “total transformation of British cuisine during the Queen’s historic reign” (and they don’t let you forget that, repeating it roughly eleven thousand times each episode) but all I see is food that has become less about, well, food and more about, as they put it “theatre”.

I’m a simple man when it comes to food. I like a good ham, egg and chips. I like a chilli. I like a spaghetti bolognese. I like a steak. I like a good roast dinner. Those are all good dishes that taste nice. They may be “uninteresting” to the refined palate, but they do fine by me, and more importantly, they are easily scalable according to how hungry you are and how many people you’re catering for.

The “total transformation of British cuisine during the Queen’s historic reign”, meanwhile, seems to be all about compressing and pureeing everything, then sticking it in a box with some dry ice underneath so the plate of food ends up resembling a rather sparsely populated ’80s rock concert more than, well, a plate of food.

One of the things the chefs on the show are fond of doing is offering “a new take on [x]”. In the last episode I saw, there was “a new take on bacon and eggs”, and “a new take on Eton Mess”. Again, both of those things are fine as is. I certainly don’t need an onion puree and an onion tuile, whatever the fuck that is, with my bacon and eggs — even if I did like onion, which I don’t. And I definitely don’t need my Eton Mess to be “interactive” by being hidden inside a meringue shaped like a cricket ball.

I don’t know. I’m probably just being grumpy about this, although I have had food with “theatre” and enjoyed it — when I went to the Ninja restaurant in New York, the food there was served with plenty of theatrics and dry ice, but importantly, they gave you an actually decent plate of food as well. The stuff the chefs on Great British Menu come up with looks like something you’d serve as a starter to a Spartan.

If this is how British cuisine has transformed during the Queen’s historic reign, then I’m just grateful that the local chippy is still open for business.

2439: Rescue on Fractalus

I’m bored, tired and ill, so aside from wheezing and feeling sorry for myself today, I distracted myself from negative thoughts by making a video about one of my favourite games of all time: Lucasfilm’s Rescue on Fractalus.

A lot of people tend to assume that Lucasfilm’s games output began with their fabulous SCUMM-driven adventure games from Maniac Mansion onwards and ended with some limp-wristed Star Wars spinoffs, but they were actually pretty active in the early days of computing. Not only that, their games became known for being some of the most technologically advanced titles out there, with Rescue on Fractalus being an early example of spectacular first-person perspective flight, shooting and rescue action.

Rather than using polygons, which were only just starting to be explored on home computers by Braben and Bell’s Elite in 1984, Rescue on Fractalus, which came out earlier in the same year, made use of fractals to generate its three-dimensional landscapes. The effect was a much more “organic”-looking landscape than what we’d come to expect from polygon-based titles in their early years, and remains an impressive technological achievement considering the power of the host systems even today. Sure, it may not be perfect by modern standards — the frame rate is janky, there’s a lot of pop-in, the game doesn’t quite seem to know how to respond when you collide with a solid object — but when you consider this was first released to the world in 1984, I think we can forgive all these things, particularly when the game itself is so solid.

In Rescue on Fractalus, you fly a craft called the Valkyrie down to the titular planet, whose atmosphere is so toxic it makes a Gawker publication look like a bereavement support group. A number of pilots have crash-landed, and it’s your job to save them by finding them, landing nearby, waiting for them to come up and bang on your airlock door, letting them in and then speeding off on your way. This is a simple process in the early levels, but as you progress, you start having to contend with mountaintop laser cannons, kamikaze flying saucers, aliens impersonating pilots on the ground and even flying by night, necessitating even more reliance on your ship’s instruments than normal.

I loved Rescue on Fractalus back when I first played it because it provided one of the most convincing, dramatic representations of flying an advanced spacecraft that I’d ever seen. The realistic cockpit view with instrumentation, the wonderful two-channel “whistling” sound of the ship’s engines — entirely unique to Rescue on Fractalus, making it instantly recognisable to hear as much as see — and the fact that the game involved more than just “point and shoot” captured my attention as a child, and it’s a game I still delight in playing even today.

But those aliens hammering on the windshield still scare the shit out of me.

2438: Gunslinger

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Eager for a short palate-cleanser after polishing off Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force last night, I sought the counsel of my online friends. Mr Alex Connolly was first to answer the call, suggesting Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, a game which I recall had everyone very excited a few years back, and a game which someone — possibly Mr Connolly himself — had provided me with a gift copy of at some point in the recent past.

I have no experience with the Call of Juarez series as a whole, or with Westerns in general, but I was willing to give it a shot (no pun intended) as it had been so well-received on its original release — particularly for the amount of content it offered for its budget-tier price.

I liked it enough to play through the whole thing today, but I was left with mixed feelings. There were some things I really, really liked about it, and a couple of things I absolutely detested.

Let’s start with the positives, chief among which is the story and the way it is handled. Presented as the recollections of ageing bounty hunter Silas Greaves, the game unfolds over the course of a series of levels punctuated by attractive cutscenes featuring the Silas of today and the companions in the saloon that he is telling his tall tale to. During gameplay, Old Silas narrates the action — with his descriptions reflecting what you’re doing and the choices that you make along the way — as well as performs most of the dialogue on the cast’s behalf.

Gunslinger particularly plays with the “unreliable narrator” trope through Silas presenting alternative explanations of what happened — sometimes saying “well, I could have done this…” at which point you have to play through the hypothetical situation before it rewinds to what actually happened. Silas also posits that much of the history of the Old West as told by “dime novels” isn’t quite what happened, and in fact he just happened to be present for some of the most notorious events in the region alongside the most notorious outlaws of the period. Indeed, in the game you run into everyone from Jesse James to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, though with Silas’ flair for the dramatic, you can never quite be sure if he was telling the truth all the way through his story.

Gameplay-wise, Gunslinger adopts a somewhat arcadey mould by featuring a combo system and points being awarded for kills. Kill bad guys in rapid succession and your multiplier climbs; dispatch them in ways other than just filling their torsos full of lead and you get additional base points multiplied by the multiplier. This isn’t much of an issue in the story mode — though points convert directly to XP, which can unlock various passive skills that make Silas’ journey a bit easier — but is brought to the forefront in the Arcade mode, where you’re tasked with attaining high scores in short, narrative-free levels.

Gunslinger’s style initially appears at odds with its gameplay mechanics, because you’re using Old West weaponry — six-shooters and rifles that are painfully slow to reload, breaking the “flow” of combat somewhat. Unlock a few skills, however, and you’ll find things become much more fast-paced and frantic, particularly once you obtain the ability to repeatedly hammer the reload button to reload more quickly. By the end of the game there’s a nice rhythm to the combat for the most part, and the story provides sufficient incentive to continue exploring.

There are two real things I didn’t like at all about Gunslinger, however. First of these was the prompt “You’re straying too far from the story…” that pops up if you walk more than three feet in the “wrong” direction during a level. This is simply bad game design; the levels should be designed in such a way that the player is confined to the “story area” without feeling like they’re confined. If there’s open space, let them use it! This became a particular issue in the final level as the Sundance Kid bore down on Silas with a shotgun; it was impossible to get more than a few feet away from him to hide without this annoying message popping up, which also happened to break Silas out of a sprint any time it appeared, too.

The other thing I didn’t like was the dueling system, although it was stylistically appropriate for the genre. In duels, you have to move Silas’ hand back and forth with the A and D keys so that it’s hovering over his holster, ready for a quick draw, while simultaneously manoeuvring an erratic, drunken mouse pointer over the enemy you’re facing off against. Once the enemy draws, you have a split-second to click the mouse button to draw your pistol and shoot them dead before they do the same to you. Trouble is, even with high “speed”and “focus” ratings obtained by performing the aforementioned manipulations, it often seemed to be a matter of luck as to whether Silas actually drew his gun as you expected and managed to get off a shot. Supposedly you’re able to dodge the bullets that come at you in this mode, but I don’t think I ever successfully achieved this; all my duels were won by what felt like dumb luck and perseverance. Perhaps there’s more to it than that, but I didn’t like their execution at all.

Aside from these issues, I enjoyed Gunslinger a lot. Its story was presented in an unusual, effective manner and its levels were well designed with plenty of variety rather than all being set in drab, brown “Old West” type settings. I’m not sure whether I liked it enough to play through it again on the harder difficulties, but I’ll probably check the Arcade mode out, at least. As for the mode where you can voluntarily subject yourself to more Duels? I think I’ll pass!

2437: Ultimate Fencer

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I finished up Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force this evening, including getting the Platinum trophy, and I’ve come away thoroughly satisfied with what is possibly Compile Heart’s best game to date, although it’s a close-run thing between this and MegaDimension Neptunia V-II.

I was particularly impressed by how much the two new narrative paths diverged from the original Fairy Fencer F’s storyline — while they involve many of the same dungeons, locales and characters, the important stuff about the story is very different indeed, right from the characters’ personalities in some cases all the way to their motivations and eventual goals.

I found the fact that the game wasn’t afraid to be a bit dark to be very much in its favour. Its colourful Tsunako character designs would suggest an adventure similar in tone to the Neptunia series, but in actual fact Fairy Fencer F is lighter on the comedy, heavier on the drama and even tragedy at times. That’s not to say there isn’t any comedy at all — what comedy there is tends to be well-timed in order to lighten the mood after some particularly heavy exposition — but it’s not the main point of it all.

This seems to be a direction that Compile Heart is moving in with its recent releases, and one that it seems to feel comfortable with. The Neptunia series has been expressing greater confidence with storytelling as it has proceeded, too — while the first game felt a bit like a string of amusing events loosely tied together with the semblance of an overarching plot, mk2/Re;Birth2 took a much darker tone with some truly odious villains (and one of the series’ most notoriously unpleasant optional endings) and Victory/Re;Birth3 had a much stronger sense that it had been composed as a complete story rather than a series of episodes. As for MegaDimension Neptunia V-II, that had its darker elements — particularly towards the end — and consequently, narratively speaking, was the most “structurally sound” of the series.

I didn’t play the original Fairy Fencer F when it came out, but I’ve now experienced that game’s story thanks to Advent Dark Force’s Goddess arc. It’s clear that Compile Heart wants to experiment with more ambitious narratives, but thought, quite rightly so, that Neptunia probably wasn’t the best place to do it (although that said, mk2’s Conquest ending is effective precisely because it is so tonally dissonant with what you’ve been conditioned to expect from the rest of the series). Fairy Fencer F jumps in headfirst with a likeable cast of rogues, many of whom are a bit morally ambiguous, and which Advent Dark Force does a good job in exploring over the course of its three distinct narrative paths.

Perhaps most striking about Advent Dark Force is that it isn’t afraid to let main characters die — something that would be unthinkable in a Neptunia game, regardless of how dark the overall plot got — and it demonstrates this early on. In most of the narrative paths, which take place after a “time loop” at the end of the common route, then diverge in three very different directions, protagonist Fang seeks to atone for the deaths he directly or indirectly caused in the common route, with varying degrees of success. Each path features a different combination of characters from the complete playable cast, with some of these characters dying or even being on the “other side” in different routes.

Of particular note is the character Sherman, who — mild spoiler, sorry — is the villain in the original Fairy Fencer F story, but in the Vile God arc he spends a significant amount of time being the protagonist in Fang’s absence. In the Evil Goddess arc, meanwhile, he has a more complex role that I’ll leave for you to discover.

One of the other great things about the additional routes in Advent Dark Force is that it gives some of the “filler” characters from the original something to do. Fairy-loving scientist Harley, for example, doesn’t have a whole lot to do in the original game’s narrative, but in the Evil Goddess arc in particular she plays a leading role. Likewise, in both the Vile God and Evil Goddess arcs we see a lot more of the taciturn child assassin Ethel, including how she became the person she was and how it came to be that she could only communicate through the word “kill” with varying intonation.

After having finished all three routes, I’m left with the feeling that I have when I finish a good visual novel: I have a good, solid understanding of all the characters, the situations in which they found themselves and the world which they inhabited. And, if the post-credits sequence in the Evil Goddess arc — clearly intended to be the “true” path — is anything to go by, then I have little doubt that we’re going to see more of these characters in the future. I certainly wouldn’t complain about more Fairy Fencer F games if it gives Compile Heart a chance to spread their wings and explore more ambitious narrative themes — particularly if the game itself is as good as Advent Dark Force ended up being.

I’ll say one more time for now: if you’re still ignoring (or worse, deriding) Compile Heart games and call yourself a fan of JRPGs, you’re missing out on some great experiences. Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force is a good entry point to start exploring their work for yourself if you feel a little overwhelmed by the amount of Neptunia out there already; if you enjoy good, traditional JRPG stories, solid combat, wonderfully loathsome villains (one of them even does the ol’ “ohohohohohoho!” beloved of ’90s anime) and a colourful, immensely memorable cast of characters you can’t go wrong with this one.

2436: Default Tone

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Earlier today, I was browsing through the digital editions of the old magazines I downloaded from AtariMania and came across a short series of articles written by my Dad about “going online”.

This was pre-Internet “going online”, however, involving a 64K Atari 800XL, a 300 baud modem and an external interface for plugging in such devices, and as such involved dialling up bulletin board services (BBSes) directly to access their information and files.

What struck me when reading my Dad’s wide-eyed wonderment at being able to phone up a computer in Birmingham, read messages and download programs (a much more cumbersome process than we take for granted today, involving downloading the program into a “buffer” and then saving it to floppy disk or cassette afterwards) was the fact that any time he mentioned interacting with other people — usually through the BBSes’ approximation of a “forum”, which allowed people to post and reply to short, simple text-based messages — he was struck with how pleasant, polite and enthusiastic people were. These BBSes were generally run by enthusiasts rather than professional, commercial organisations and consequently tended to attract people in a similar vein.

Fast forward to today and I witness this somewhat sad, plaintive monologue from PR superhero Tom Ohle of Evolve PR:

I’m with Tom here, but I’m at a loss as to how we got from the enjoyably enthusiastic experience my Dad described in these articles to a situation where the default tone on the Internet is aggressive, confrontational, cynical and negative.

This isn’t universal, of course — there are still plenty of community groups that are made up of genuine enthusiasts, and interestingly enough many of them are still centred around the Atari community — but even among such community groups you find trolls, naysayers and people who are always keen to see the negative in everything.

This is particularly apparent in the gamer community, who are seemingly never satisfied by anything — blockbuster triple-A games are too formulaic, indie games are too weird, imported games are too “censored” — but it happens right across the Internet, make no mistake.

It’s usually explained away by the John Gabriel Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory:

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And for a while that was plausible. But it’s not as simple as that any more: the rise in services such as Facebook means that people are quite comfortable being total fuckwads even with their real name attached to the nonsense they’re spouting. And it seems to be the default tone these days, which is disheartening; it’s actually unusual when you find a community that isn’t full of complainers.

Perhaps it’s a consequence of throwing everyone from all different backgrounds all together into a melting pot, resulting in inevitable culture clash. Or perhaps the world of today really does engender negativity rather than positivity — I know that I certainly don’t feel particularly happy about the way the world is these days, though my way of attempting to counter it is instead to focus on the things that I do love.

Whatever the explanation, I feel it’s sad how things have developed since those innocent days of dialling up that BBS in Birmingham and having to explain to my mother why we were on the phone for so long. I feel we’ve gone backwards rather than forwards, and that it’s probably too late to do anything about it now.

All an individual can do, I guess, is try their best not to be part of it.

 

2435: Memories: Read

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I finished Read Only Memories earlier. I liked it a lot! I posted a review on Steam, but I thought I’d post it here too because I’m feeling lazy.

Read Only Memories is an adventure game in the ’90s mould, seeming to draw specific inspiration from titles like Snatcher and Rise of the Dragon, and set in the same world as the (later, and wonderful) VA-11 HALL-A.

On the whole, it’s a great experience. The pixel art aesthetic really works for the game and has clearly been designed by people who know what good pixel art looks like. Everything about the interface, including the font, is well-designed to look like a retro adventure game, and the FM-synthesis soundtrack complements it nicely.

Puzzles are relatively thin on the ground but in a couple of cases are more interesting than “use the thing on the thing”, which is worthy of note, though the final puzzle in the game seems to play by some inconsistent rules that can lead to failure seemingly by no fault of your own.

The story is well-written and filled with interesting characters, plus deserves note for having a number of possible solutions to various situations, though not all will lead to the “best” ending. The game encourages you to consider the consequences of your actions and the things that you choose to say, even though those consequences may not become apparent until much later. I very much liked that your behaviour over the course of the whole game affected some later events rather than choices having an immediate impact on what was going on.

The overall plot is one of tolerance and understanding, and strikes a good balance between casting the player (whom you can name and gender as you desire, since you never see them) as an “everyman” sort of character prone to putting their foot in their mouth when confronted by groups they don’t quite understand, and presenting a solid message about acceptance, learning to trust one another and personal growth.

The only real criticism I’d level at the game is that its handling of gay and transgender characters feels a little ham-fisted, with their presence and the “reveals” of their identity seemingly being calculated to go “SURPRISE!” rather than simply blending them into the setting. Big burly, manly bartender dude? SURPRISE! Next time you meet him, he has another big hairy dude all over him calling him “hon” at every opportunity (though that said, I couldn’t help but like Gus). Meet an eccentric, long-haired, bearded TV producer? SURPRISE! They’re a lady! That and the presence of a non gender-specific character demonstrates just how awkward using singular “they” as a pronoun is in dialogue.

Ultimately it doesn’t hurt the overall plot at all, but these instances stick out like sore thumbs when they happen as they just don’t quite feel like they’re in keeping with the tone: the implication elsewhere in the plot is that society has moved beyond discrimination by gender and sexuality, and instead onto discrimination against those who are “augmented” in some way, either through cybernetics or genetic hybridisation. To specifically draw attention to gay and transgender characters in this way as the game does feels counter to this implication, which is otherwise well handled.

This game’s spiritual successor VA-11 HALL-A handles gay characters much more elegantly by them simply… just being there, no big deal, no big fuss about who they are, no sense that the game is holding you down and urging you to admire how progressive its views are.

I played this game before the big update that adds voice acting, and if you’re interested in this game, I’d encourage you to do the same. The few parts of the game that do already have voice acting (just the intro and epilogue at present) are immensely jarring with the rest of the game’s presentation, and the delightful beepityboopityboop noise that dialogue makes throughout the rest of the game is a much more powerful stimulus to the imagination than a voice actor whose interpretation of the character may not match the one you have in your head after reading the text.

Overall, Read Only Memories is a game I give a solid thumbs up. The issues I mentioned above are minor in the grand scheme of things, but hopefully the team will learn from them — and from the things VA-11 HALL-A did better, despite being produced by a different team — and produce even greater works in the future.

2434: Crewsin’

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I’ve been spending some time with Ubisoft’s The Crew for the last few days. I actually picked it up shortly after release but didn’t play it all that much. With the recent announcement that the base game would be free throughout September (you can still claim a copy here at the time of writing) I thought I’d give it another go.

What is The Crew? Allow me to elaborate in video form, because I can.

I’m left wondering why I didn’t play The Crew more when it first released, because it occurs to me that it’s what I wanted from a driving game for quite some time: the elusive ideal of the “caRPG”, or an RPG with cars if you prefer less clumsy portmanteaus.

The Crew ticks all the boxes that I wanted. For one, it has a plot that is reasonably interesting and features some characters that, while a bit cliched, occasionally have some entertaining things to say — the protagonist offhandedly complaining to his FBI handler that he really wanted a shower because he’d been in his damn car for days was a nice bit of self-reference to the fact that The Crew doesn’t have any on-foot missions. The plot itself may be Fast and Furious-level nonsense, but it works in context.

Secondly, it has a levelling system that is actually meaningful. Unlike games such as Forza Motorsport, which largely seem to have a levelling system just to show how long you’ve been playing, The Crew’s levelling system actually works like one in a more conventional RPG — some gear is level-locked, your cars get more powerful as you level up and there’s an MMO-style “endgame” once you reach the cap, further improving your abilities by getting better and better loot.

Which brings us on to the third point. The Crew is also a loot-whoring game, which is something I never thought I’d say about a racing game, but it’s true. Any activity you complete rewards you with loot, with better results giving you better gear. You get immediate feedback on whether the gear is better or worse than your current setup by means of an “item level”-like system for each of your cars, and events have recommended vehicle levels so you never tackle anything that is going to be way too difficult for you.

In case you’re still not quite convinced about The Crew secretly being an RPG, well, there are different classes of cars, too. Fullstock cars are exactly as they came out of the garage. Street cars are modified street-legal cars for road races. Dirt cars are suitable for offroading and stunts. Raid cars are powerhouses that can take a beating and dish one out too. Perf cars are extremely fast. And there’s plenty more where that came from — even more with the Wild Run expansion, which adds several “extreme” specs to the list, too.

And then there’s the multiplayer, which to be honest I haven’t tried all that much yet. There’s a sort of passive multiplayer a la Test Drive Unlimited as you zip around the open world, occasionally passing other players by. You can queue up for PvP-specific missions. You can recruit people to help you out with story missions, which then have to be played fully cooperatively — race missions, for example, mean that your teammates just have to make sure that you win by fair means or foul, whereas missions where you have to wreck a fleeing vehicle are likely to be much easier with company.

And on top of all that, The Crew makes driving around its vast open world interesting by 1) having some lovely scenery and 2) scattering Project Gotham-style skill challenges around the roads, tasking you with everything from slaloming around markers to simply getting as far away from your start point as possible. Each of these reward you with loot and experience, making them the equivalent of “trash” enemies in a more conventional RPG.

I’m enjoying the game a lot. Handling is enjoyably slidey and arcadey, just how I like it, and there’s a ton of stuff to do, yet enough structure to ensure that you never get overwhelmed with too many options at any one time. And it feels like the best use of Ubisoft’s open-world formula to date, with plenty of hidden things to find that reward you with experience, loot and even hidden cars to uncover.

The Crew is free for the rest of the month on PC. Be sure to claim your copy here.