2020: Original Content

0021_001I’ve been watching a fair bit of Netflix’s original content lately. I’ll freely admit that I’d been resistant to the idea of an online service’s exclusive content through irrational prejudices, but I’m pleased to have been proven very, very wrong indeed.

Let me explain those irrational prejudices first.

I grew up in a bit of a golden era of TV, full of popular shows ranging from Friends to Star Trek: The Next Generation via Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. These shows ran for a long time, attracted passionate fanbases and, in many cases, were big-budget productions that put out some impressive stuff on a week-by-week basis. Conversely, in the early days of Internet video, Internet video series tended to be done on the cheap; there’s nothing wrong with that per se, of course, but that cheapness didn’t just extend to production values — it also extended to quality of talent in all aspects of the production. A side-effect of the whole “suddenly everyone is a content creator” aspect of Web 2.0 or 3.0 or whatever it is we’re on now.

So, then, I didn’t make much of a habit of watching regular Internet video series for quite some time. To this day, there are very few YouTube series that I follow, and I generally preferred to grab a DVD or Blu-Ray box set of a favourite TV series and binge-watch it over the course of a month or two. No waiting for new episodes, no having to watch according to someone else’s schedule — just literally content on demand.

With my lack of involvement in Internet video, then, I maintained the assumption that Internet-exclusive video would be cheap, shitty productions that weren’t really worth bothering with. I even continued with this assumption as people started praising Netflix’s first original series House of Cards — largely because the subject matter didn’t really interest me — but just recently, I’ve finally come around to it, and I’m impressed.

The two shows that have made me a believer in Internet-exclusive content and convinced me that Netflix is absolutely a contender in the original TV programming department are Bojack Horseman and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I watched both on the recommendations of other people, and both have been highly enjoyable, not to mention well up to the standard of the stuff you get on TV or in DVD box sets.

bojack1

Bojack Horseman is an animated show about a washed-up ’90s sitcom veteran who just happens to be a horse-man. Not like a centaur, he’s just literally a dude with a horse’s head. Over the course of Bojack Horseman, we’re introduced to a number of different characters, some of whom are regular human beings and others of whom are, like Bojack himself, anthropomorphised animals. This is a wonderful source of comedy: for the most part, the animal people act just like normal humans, but just occasionally — just often enough to be funny without feeling like a forced joke — they’ll exhibit some sort of behaviour that their animal counterpart would do.

Bojack Horseman isn’t just cheap laughs, though. It’s one of those “adult animation” shows that looks ridiculous and silly on the outside, but which has a heart underneath. Bojack is a deeply flawed yet somewhat sympathetic character struggling to come to terms with the fact that he 1) isn’t as famous as he used to be and 2) might actually be a horrible person. The series explores his character in great detail — partly through the eyes of his biographer Diane — and we learn a great deal about him. He’s certainly much more than — and I’m sorry — a one-trick pony.

kimmy-schmidt

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, meanwhile, is a live action show from the pen of Tina Fey. It concerns a young woman who was kidnapped and kept underground for fifteen years by a ne’er-do-well claiming to be a “Reverend” saving them from the Apocalypse. Since Kimmy was kept sheltered from all of existence for these fifteen years, she knows pretty much nothing about how the world works, and gets into numerous entertaining misadventures in New York as a result.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, like Fey’s other work, is sharp, quick witted and frequently scathing. Kimmy is lovably naive without being irritatingly stupid, and the supporting characters are all strong in their own right — albeit often being somewhat exaggerated caricatures. It’s a show in which not a great deal actually happens from one episode to another, but the whole thing has a ton of heart and soul to it, and the entire story arc is nicely and neatly wrapped up by the end of the run. I wouldn’t be averse to another season of it, but the beauty of it as it exists right now is that it doesn’t really need one, since it’s told Kimmy’s story pretty much from start to finish over the course of 13 episodes.

And that’s sort of the beauty of what Netflix is able to do here. Without the pressure from networks and advertising, the teams coming up with this stuff have a lot more freedom than they would if they were composing for traditional television. This, in turn, allows them to be a lot more experimental, daring and interesting with what they’re coming out with, and we’re already starting to see what a positive effect that has on output.

I’m over my prejudice towards Internet-exclusives, then — though a ton of YouTube-exclusive stuff is still a load of old wank — and am now much more inclined to check out Netflix’s original content than I would previously have been. I’m sure there’ll be plenty more of Bojack Horseman and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s calibre in the future, and I’m looking forward to watching them when they appear.

2019: Hero of Daventry: Some King’s Quest First Impressions

0020_001Following on from my post the other day, I downloaded the first episode of King’s Quest on PlayStation 4 today, and gave it a bit of a go earlier. Andie seemed to be enjoying it, so I paused for a bit while she went and had a nap, then we went and had dinner. Will probably play some more tomorrow.

First impressions are very good indeed, though. The game has a gorgeous art style, wonderful animation and a spectacular voice cast, including Christopher Lloyd, Josh Keaton and Maggie Elizabeth Jones.

Most notably, though, the game is very much aware of its heritage. I was concerned that a new developer taking on such a legendary series would lose some of the magic of the original — or worse, try and retrofit their interpretation over the top of the existing format, or “reboot” it — but my mind has been very much set at rest so far, with a story and characterisation that feels very true to King’s Quest’s lightly comedic (but, at times, surprisingly dark) fairy-tale nature.

kq1

Of particular note in the animation regard is how much care and attention has been lavished on protagonist Graham. Although he’s now a beautifully animated 3D model with a dramatically billowing cape as opposed to a tiny pixel dude with yellow skin, there’s a bunch of wonderful little touches in the new game as callbacks to the original King’s Quest games. Make Graham walk instead of run, for example, and his slightly cocky strut looks just like the crude walking animation of the original game’s sprite. And in one sequence, you jump into a river; the animation as Graham flails about in the water is pretty much exactly the same as his old sprite did any time you wandered into a body of water and forgot to type “swim”.

And, pleasingly, the new game incorporates the original series’ fondness for killing you off in a variety of horrible ways — though, given the game’s narrative framework of an elderly Graham narrating his past adventures to his granddaughter, any unfortunate demises are represented as Graham either making a mistake in his memories or cracking a joke.

kq3

The use of old Graham as narrator allows the game to do something that a lot of modern adventure games these days don’t do: use a narrator. This is one thing that made Sierra adventures unique and distinct from their biggest rivals LucasArts — in every one of their games, the narrator was as much of a character as the characters who had actual dialogue. In most cases, the narrator wasn’t a participant in the narrative, instead taking an omniscient viewpoint of what was going on, but there was a very clear sense of authorial voice that was often distinct between Sierra’s different series. The narrators of King’s Quest used flowery language and occasional cringeworthy puns — a habit Graham has picked up in the new game — while Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry used lowbrow humour to good effect. Gabriel Knight, meanwhile, took the bold step of having a narrator with a very strong Creole accent explain what was going on — stylistically appropriate, though initially jarring if you were used to the somewhat cleaner, more easily understandable tones of the American narrators of Sierra’s other games. (Once you became accustomed to her drawl, however, she delivered some delightfully sarcastic zingers at Gabriel’s expense throughout the game.)

kq2

Pleasingly, old Graham’s narration pays attention to what you are doing and has a variety of responses for when you try to do the same thing over and over again. There’s no Discworld-style “That doesn’t work!” here; instead, keep trying to do something that’s clearly wrong and old Graham will come up with more and more fanciful reasons about his futile attempts, until eventually his granddaughter stops him in most cases. There’s also a delightful running joke about That One Adventure Game Item You Use For Everything when you discover a hatchet which comes in useful for a while. After its final task, however, Graham leaves it behind, with old Graham putting special emphasis on the fact that he would “not need it ever again”. (Prior to this, of course, you were free to attempt to use it on anything and everything, with suitable comments from both Graham and Gwendolyn along the way.)

So far, then, I’m delighted by how King’s Quest has turned out. It’s smart, funny, beautiful and captures the essence of the old games while bringing them right up to date. I’m looking forward to see how the remainder of this first episode continues — and how the series as a whole develops over time.

2018: How to Win at Omega Quintet

0019_001I finally finished getting the Platinum trophy in Omega Quintet this evening, and feel I’ve had a thoroughly satisfying time with that delightful game. It remained fun for all of the 170 hours I played it for — excluding the Order Break-happy bosses in the DLC dungeons, which can fuck right off — and I’m pleased that Compile Heart has got off to a running start in the PS4 era.

One things I noticed, though, is that there aren’t many guides out there for Omega Quintet. GameFAQs doesn’t even have an FAQ page for it, though the discussion boards are quite active. As such, it’s fairly likely that there are people out there who want some hints and tips about how to get good, particularly as in its later hours (and particularly post-game) Omega Quintet can get quite challenging.

CLMTC0ZWwAAKX1W

Here are some helpful tips, then. These all assume that you have progressed at least far enough in the game to have the full party of five.

  • Arrange your party either in a straight line formation, an “M” or a “W” shape. Whoever is in the middle slot (I recommend someone like Otoha or Kanadeko, since they have high Stamina) should have Takt paired up with them. The reason for this is that this means Takt can cover the maximum number of party members with Group Defense if the party is hit by an area-effect attack.
  • Speaking of Takt’s defense abilities, always use them. Not only do they reduce damage, they also cause status ailments to be resisted by all party members being hit by the attack, even if you accidentally hit Pair Defense instead of Group Defense on an area-effect attack. Neither Pair nor Group Defense will block stat drains, however.
  • In the early game, stick with the girls’ default weapons — spear for Kyouka, fists for Kanadeko, hammer for Otoha, gun for Nene and fans for Aria. In Disc Analysis concentrate on unlocking and upgrading the relevant weapon skills; you can always branch out later.
  • Also in the early game, consider specialising each girl. Kyouka’s high Vitality (speed) makes her ideal as a “buffer” since she usually goes first in the turn order, so equip her with skills like Scorch Choir, Chorale, Bastion and Charge to allow her to buff up the entire party’s stats. Aria, meanwhile, makes a good healer due to her high Divinity, while Nene makes a good “mage” with her high Knowledge stat. Otoha and Kanadeko are your de facto physical attackers, so concentrate on getting their weapon skills up to scratch as soon as possible, then choose elemental skills that complement and support the others.
  • Go for big bonuses when you can. You earn bigger bonuses the bigger the number of hits in a single combo (i.e. before an enemy gets a turn), the more enemies you defeat simultaneously (on a single turn; doesn’t have to be in a single action), the more HP you Overkill an enemy by, the more Links you get (more on those in a sec), the higher your Voltage is (more on that in a sec, too) and the more Requests you complete if you trigger Live Concert Mode.
  • Links are your way to earning lots of experience, EP (money) and Approval (which unlocks quests). Pay attention to the type of attack the interface says a skill “links” to, and use them in this order whenever possible. The more links you chain without a break, the bigger your bonus at the end of a fight.

CKw4FlHWcAApAwT

  • Links also help with earning Voltage, but the most reliable means of bumping up the Voltage meter is to get lots of critical hits. To do this, use area-effect attacks and reduce the enemy stats as much as possible. If the damage numbers that pop up when you hit something are red, that’s a critical hit and will earn you Voltage. Note that only physical (Mic) skills will critical; E Skills will not, so even though some E Skills hit lots of times over a wide area, they’re not good for earning Voltage. They are, however, good for earning bonus actions through the hit count.
  • Consider Chain Skills when picking discs to set on each girl. Some are more useful than others. By far the most useful of all is Cosmic Fan, which you obtain late in the game. This requires four different girls to cast Cremation, Legato, Aubade Crush and Absolution. It hits for a bunch of times, but its main benefit is that it reduces all the stats of everything it hits — and it covers a wide area. If you have the slots for it, give all five girls Cremation, Legato, Aubade Crush and Absolution, because this way you can case Cosmic Fan five times in succession if turn order lines up correctly and you use Harmonics.
  • Speaking of Harmonics, use it whenever you can, but don’t waste it. Manipulate the turn order by using abilities or items with low wait times, and don’t forget to use Takt’s Pursuit to knock enemies back in the turn order. Ideally, you want each Harmonics to have all five girls ready for action, preferably to hurl out some Cosmic Fans and debuff the enemy into oblivion.
  • Order Break is the most annoying thing in this game, and it’s not immediately apparent what triggers it if you’re not paying attention. The specific conditions vary according to the party of enemies you’re fighting — certain enemy lineups in the post-game will even cause an immediate Order Break at the start of a battle, even if you got a Surprise Attack in on them. The most common conditions for triggering Order Break are reducing an enemy below 50% of its HP, Guard Breaking an enemy and defeating an enemy. Consequently, you want to try and avoid meeting any of these conditions until you’re in a situation where you can unleash the Harmonics combo from hell to obliterate everything in a single turn.

CLKrjCJW8AAhx6u

  • Speaking of the Harmonics combo from hell, here’s how to kill pretty much everything in the late game with ease:
    • Level up all five girls’ hammer or fan skills to at least proficiency level 7. The quickest way to do this is on the lower levels of the Training Facility dungeon, which are also good for earning a lot of experience. Hammers are recommended in preference to fans, but it will depend what equipment you have available.
    • Learn Takt’s Special Fanfare skill if you have the skill points for it, and assign this to Level 2 Live Concert. Special Fanfare significantly increases damage from Special Skills, so it’s important for finishing battles quickly.
    • Make sure all five girls have all four Cosmic Fan spells. (Cremation, Legato, Aubade Crush and Absolution).
    • If you’ve kept developing Nene as a mage-like character (Knowledge-focused equipment), also give her Flame Typhoon and Raging Vortex.
    • Give all the girls Earth Assault.
    • Make sure all the girls have the main area-effect skills for the weapon whose proficiency you’ve levelled. Important ones are Ultimate Crush and Howling Earth for hammer, Light Crescent and Herd of Artemis for fan. If you have the skill points to spare, upgrade these and the Cosmic Fan spells as much as you can.
    • Fight a weak enemy somewhere and end the fight with Voltage level 5. Note that if you return to the Office, your Voltage will be reset, so if the tough enemy you want to kill is out in the world, you’ll need to defeat a weak enemy in a world dungeon (Verdant Greenbelt is a good bet), while if you’re in the Training Facility, you’ll need to defeat a weak enemy on an early floor, then move directly to the floor the fight you’re struggling with is on without returning to the Office first.
    • Surprise Attack the enemy you want to beat if possible. This should see all five girls’ turns lined up at the start of the battle. If there’s a gap in the turn order, escape if possible and either reduce the Vitality of the speediest characters by removing Vitality-boosting equipment, or boost the vitality of the slowest characters (Nene is usually the problem here) with amps or equipment.
    • If you’re fighting a boss or quest mob, Surprise Attacks may not be possible. In this case, you’ll need to manipulate the turn order using Takt’s Pursuit and defending. Try to line up all five girls without triggering Order Break, so take care you don’t do too much damage to the enemies in the process.
    • Assuming you got the turn order lined up (preferably with a Surprise Attack) immediately trigger Harmonics and cast two Cosmic Fans. Do not cast Cosmic Fan through the Chain Skill menu, however; cast each individual component one at a time on the same target, which should be somewhere in the middle of the enemy party. The reason for this is that Cosmic Fan’s Chain Skill menu option does not input the commands in the right order to maximise your Link bonus. The order you should choose is: (Girl 1) Cremation, (Girl 2) Legato, (Girl 3) Aubade Crush, (Girl 4) Absolution, (Girl 4 again) Cremation, (Girl 5) Legato, (Girl 1), Aubade Crush, (Girl 2) Absolution. After this, Defend with everyone. This will have several important effects: it will lower the enemy’s stats enough to let you get critical hits more easily, it will boost everyone’s action count to at least 6 or 7, possibly the maximum of 8, it shouldn’t do enough damage to trigger Order Break, and the Vitality debuffs it applies will hopefully allow you to get another immediate turn with all five girls lined up.
    • If you do get this second turn — which most of the time you should, assuming you don’t trigger Order Break — trigger a Level 2 Live Concert Mode (which should have Special Fanfare attached to it if you have it) and then immediately trigger Harmonics again.
    • Now follow this sequence, which assumes everyone is equipped with a hammer. Make sure all the E Skills target the same enemy in the middle of the formation in order to trigger Cosmic Fan:
      Kyouka: Cremation
      Otoha: Legato
      Kanadeko: Aubade Crush
      Aria: Absolution, Cremation
      Nene: Legato
      Kyouka: Aubade Crush
      Otoha: Absolution, Cremation
      Kanadeko: Legato
      Aria: Aubade Crush
      Nene: Absolution, Cremation
      Kyouka: Legato
      Otoha: Aubade Crush
      Kanadeko: Absolution, Cremation
      Aria: Legato
      Nene: Aubade Crush
      Kyouka: Absolution
      Nene: Flame Typhoon, Raging Vortex, Earth Assault (for extra Link bonuses and to increase the hit count)
      All other girls in succession: Earth Assault (to bump up the hit count)
      If you’re at Voltage level 2 or higher: Aria: Solitary Rhapsody (otherwise ignore this step)
      All other girls in succession except Otoha: Ultimate Crush, Howling Earth, if enough action points left use Break Prototype on the strongest enemy to maximise hit count.
      Otoha: Ultimate Crush, Howling Earth, if enough action points drop in a Break Prototype on the strongest enemy, then finish with Shrine of Hope on an enemy that has Guard Break (which will probably be all of them after that mauling, but prioritise moth- or plant-type trash enemies, since these have the weakest Magnetic Fields) and which also allows the area of effect to hit everything. (Shrine of Hope gets significantly more powerful the higher the hit count is, hence the overblown combo leading up to it.)
    • Everything will probably be dead after that. If you left a boss-level enemy standing but killed all the trash, you’ll probably suffer an Order Break, so defend through it as much as possible and cleanse any debuffs or stat reductions as soon as you can afterwards. From here try to keep the boss debuffed with a combination of Cosmic Fan in Harmonics when possible, and Aria’s Solitary Rhapsody and appropriate E Skill. It’s also a good idea to Paralyze and Seal the boss using water and earth skills respectively, and any skills that have SP Break are useful too; if you can actually make the boss run out of SP, it will only use basic attacks on you, which can still hit hard without stat debuffs, but which won’t inflict ailments on your party.

CKEd2bFWgAAgA7G

The last bit in particular, although complicated and requiring some preparation, will make the difference between fights that drag on for half an hour and fights that are over in two turns. If you’re stupid enough to go for the Platinum trophy like I did, you’ll need to master it for efficient Approval Rating farming in the post-game!

Well, now I’ve written 2,000 words that have probably baffled most regular readers of this blog — sorry! — I hope, if you stumbled across this blog while Googling things about Omega Quintet, that my tips have proven at least a little helpful, and I hope you continue to enjoy this great game!

2017: Quest for the Crown

0018_001It’s weird to see a new King’s Quest game on sale. I haven’t tried it myself yet — I’m probably going to — but the early buzz surrounding it is very positive indeed, even sans involvement from series creators Roberta and Ken Williams.

For those not quite as old and jaded a gamer as me, King’s Quest was one of the very first graphical adventure games. I hesitate to call it a “point and click” adventure, because although it supported mouse control, you actually had to type things in to a text parser in order to actually do anything. As the series progressed, it gradually and noticeably improved; by the fifth installment, it had made the full transition to a more conventional point-and-click interface as well as offering a “talkie” CD-ROM version; the seventh installment abandoned traditional pixel art in favour of some distinctly Disney-esque animation, and the eighth… well, most people don’t talk about that one.

For me, King’s Quest as a whole is an important series to me. It represents one of the earliest game series I played, and also some of the earliest games I actually played to completion. They also represent an early form of using the video games medium as a means of telling a story — albeit a very simple one in the case of the first couple of games; from the third game onwards it started to get quite ambitious — as well as a wonderfully vivid realisation of the world of fairy tales.

Back in the days when King’s Quest first appeared, it wasn’t at all unusual for games to take heavy inspiration from existing works of art. Numerous games made use of famous classical tunes for their “themes”, for example, and others drew liberally from popular mythology for inspiration. The original King’s Quest games were no exception, as they saw you running into everyone from Rumplestiltskin to the Big Bad Wolf — and, in many cases, dying horribly at the hands of fairy tale monsters.

Despite the fact that it drew heavily on popular mythology, though, King’s Quest had a feel and an atmosphere all of its own. Like the best fairy tales, it presented a world that appeared colourful, happy and vibrant on the surface, but which was mean, horrible and out to get you underneath. The King’s Quest games were notorious for having a wide variety of means for the protagonists to die throughout them, ranging from being eaten by a giant to tripping over your wizard master’s cat while being too far up the stairs, and subsequently breaking your neck when you hit the ground. So frequent (and frustrating) were the death scenes in King’s Quest and other adventures from the same stable Sierra that main rival LucasArts made a specific marketing point of the fact that it was impossible to die or get stuck in most of their games — with the Indiana Jones games being the only real exceptions, and even there it was pretty difficult to die.

But as frustrating and irritating and, at times, downright illogical as the old-school King’s Quest games could be, they represent one of my formative experiences. They’re something that helped me understand a medium that, as you’ll know, is very important to me. They’re something I shared with my family, since many of us used to play them together and try to solve them. And they’re something that I will always have fond memories of.

It’s for this reason that I’m really happy to see King’s Quest making a comeback — and, moreover, to see that it’s being received very well so far. I’m excited to give it a try for myself very soon, and I look forward to seeing how the subsequent episodes develop over the course of the series.

2016: What an Achievement

0017_001I was chatting with my friends earlier this evening about the matter of achievements and trophies in games. As long-term readers will know, my opinions on these metagame awards that were introduced with the last generation of games consoles have gone back and forth somewhat, but on the whole I feel I’m starting to come down on the side of liking them.

The reason for this is simple: after nearly 10 years of them being A Thing in gaming, a lot of developers are getting the hang of how to use them effectively — and the reasons for using them.

There are, in fact, several reasons for the existence of achievements. From a developer perspective, they provide feedback on just how much people are playing games and what they’re doing. This is why so many games have a “started the game” achievement — look at the rarity statistics on PSN and you’ll see that there are a surprising number of people who have booted a game up for long enough to add the trophy list to their profile, but not actually started to play it. I couldn’t even begin to contemplate what the reasons for doing this might be, but it happens; as an example, the wonderful shoot ’em up Astebreed gives you a trophy for completing the interactive prologue sequence — something you have to do before you can even access the game’s main menu — and yet only 91% of players have accomplished this, suggesting either that 9% of players simply turned the game off for some reason or other during the prologue, or were unable to complete it. And I’m not sure that last option is even possible.

CJex_cVXAAAFJlV

From a player perspective, a well-designed trophy list provides a metagame to layer on top of the existing game structure. They can provide challenges for players to complete and encourage them to explore a game in full rather than simply making a beeline for the credits — and, again, those rarity statistics suggest that relatively few people who pick up any game, regardless of length and quality, make it to the end, which is kind of sad — or suggest new ways to play.

A good example from recent memory that I’m still engaged with is Compile Heart’s PS4 RPG Omega Quintet. I have gone for the Platinum trophy in most of Compile Heart’s games to date (largely the Neptunia games) because I have a keen awareness of how the developers probably use them for statistics, as mentioned above. I see attaining a Platinum trophy — which for those unfamiliar with PSN is the trophy you acquire when you have achieved all of the other trophies in a game — as a mark of support for the developer; a sign that someone out there cared enough about a game to play it to absolute death. (Omega Quintet’s Platinum trophy, incidentally, has a 1.1% rarity rating, which is not altogether surprising as going by my own experiences it’s something of a beast to attain.)

CKys-zPWUAES5s7

And in Omega Quintet’s case, that Platinum trophy really is a sign that you have explored everything the game has to offer, because it’s a good trophy list that runs the gamut from “deal 1 million points of damage in a single combination attack” (something that gets significantly easier the further in the game you go) via “complete all the quests” (something which you can miss in a single playthrough if you’re not fastidious about cleaning up quests before advancing the story) and “see the True Ending on Advanced difficulty” (having figured out the conditions to do so, of course — hint: get Aria and Otoha’s affection levels to 4 to guarantee this) to “defeat Double X” (a superboss who sits at the bottom level of the optional Training Facility dungeon and provides one of the stiffest challenges the entire game has to offer)

The interesting thing about Omega Quintet’s trophy list is that by the time I finished my second playthrough (during which I achieved the True Ending on Advanced difficulty) I had only accomplished about 50% of the available trophies. Deciding early on that I wanted to go for the Platinum, I jumped into the post-game (the ability to keep playing the game after you’ve beaten the final boss and seen the end of the story) to explore what these additional challenges might be.

CKw_OBRWcAIOjoj

Nearly 50 hours of gameplay later, I’m still playing, though the end is finally in sight. In those 50 hours, I’ve beaten the 13-floor Training Facility dungeon, pretty much mastered the game’s combat system — the extreme difficulty of the Training Facility encounters, including Double X, demands that you know what you are doing, otherwise you will get your ass kicked, even if you grind all the way up to the level cap of 999 — maxed out the affection values for all my party members, mastered all the weapon proficiencies with Kyouka and have come pretty close with a couple of the others, completed all the sidequests and recovered all the hidden archives. This latter one is particularly interesting, as the archives reveal an absolute ton of story context that isn’t made explicit in the main narrative, largely because it’s not directly relevant to the main cast’s personal stories, but instead provides some interesting background lore and worldbuilding context. You stumble across some of these as you simply explore the main game, but quite a few of them are hidden in post-game content.

In other words, without the trophies to give me a nudge in the direction of this additional content, I might not have gone looking for it. One might argue that the game not necessarily signposting this sort of thing is a problem, but if the trophy system is there — and it’s compulsory to use on both Xbox and PlayStation  — it may as well be used to push people on to explore things further. Combine that with PSN’s “rarity” feature and there’s a really nice sense of… well, achievement when you know that you’re one of the 1.1% who has seen everything Omega Quintet has to offer.

CLBJINSWoAASbZh

(Just two more trophies left to go: kill 10,000 enemies and get 1 billion approval rating points. I sense that the challenging DLC dungeons and bosses — including the fearsome Banana Demon pictured above — will be my main means of achieving this!)

2015: Ziggurat Vertigo

0016_001One of the best — or worst, depending on your perspective — things about PlayStation Plus is that there are regular deals on a wide variety of games, seemingly almost at random. During these sale periods, games drop to Steam sale-tier prices (i.e. £2-3 for a typical indie game) and consequently make trying some new things out a rather more appealing prospect than it might be under other circumstances.

So it was that I came across a PS4 game called Ziggurat the other day. I didn’t know much about it, but it sounded like it might be fun, so I grabbed it for £3 and gave it a shot. Turns out it is a lot of fun — and nothing to do with a not-particularly-good iOS game by the same name that I played a while back. (Thankfully.)

bannerZiggurat is the latest in the interminable line of “roguelites” out there; that offshoot of the roguelike genre that keeps the “permadeath” and “procedurally generated” parts and ditches the heavy-duty stat crunching and turn-based exploration in favour of something a bit more immediate, accessible and, in many cases, action-packed. Sometimes it works better than others; procedural generation is something that is very impressive on paper, but in practice it can often lead to levels that are chaotic messes with no real sense of “design” about them, just some tiles splattered around the map at random. This sort of thing is fine in an ASCII roguelike, but less fine in a game with actual visuals.

Thankfully, Ziggurat eschews the totally random approach and instead constructs its levels in a modular manner, somewhat similar to how board games like Advanced Heroquest and Descent construct their dungeons. Rooms are linked together by corridors to make an enclosed map; you start in one place, have to find a “portal key” somewhere in the level, then take it to the boss room, fight the boss and continue to the next level. It’s a simple, tried but true structure and fits well in the context of the game.

ziggurat-03

There is a sort of plot to Ziggurat, but it’s of the “back of a napkin” tier from old-school arcadey games from the 8- and 16-bit era. You’re some sort of wizard, and every so often the opportunity arises to fight your way through the eponymous Ziggurat to become a super-awesome elite wizard. It’s more likely that you will die, though, which is okay, because the “sacrifices” of unworthy novices pay tribute to the old gods, or something like that. It doesn’t really matter.

What you do need to know is that Ziggurat is pretty much a spiritual successor to Heretic and Hexen, two games that came out back in the golden age of 2.5D sprite-based first-person shooters. Heretic and Hexen were noteworthy in that they were first-person shooters that opted for a fantasy setting rather than the (then) more common space marine situation. (Military shooters were still somewhat niche interest at this point, and multiplayer was something that was only really played by people who had IPX networks at their workplace.) Despite the fantasy setting, though, neither Heretic nor Hexen were role-playing games; they were action games through and through, with most of the weaponry on offer having clear analogues in more conventional modern and futuristic weaponry.

Ziggurat follows this pattern nicely. You start with a basic magic wand that is a rough analogue to the peashooter pistol that was the default weapon in games like Doom and its ilk. As you progress, you’ll acquire spellbooks (shotguns), magic staves (machine guns) and alchemical weapons (rocket/grenade launchers). Each of these weapons requires a different colour mana (ammo type) to power, with the exception of the pistol… sorry, wand, which recharges its mana over time if you stop firing.

maxresdefault

The interesting addition to the Heretic/Hexen formula — and something that Hexen II touched on — is a progression system. As you defeat enemies, they drop “knowledge crystals” which provide experience points. Filling your experience bar causes you to level up and be able to pick from cards that depict “perks” of various descriptions. These are randomly drawn each game and range from immediate benefit (heal life, regain mana) to ongoing buffs (recover health when you enter a new room, increase the amount of mana you can hold for a particular weapon) to temporary buffs (magic wand does double damage in your next combat). Once you’ve picked one, on subsequent level ups you generally get the option to buff up a perk you’ve already taken or add a new one to your collection. There are even some perks that allow you to choose from a wider selection of perks on subsequent level ups, so there’s a fair bit of variety.

Structurally, Ziggurat isn’t quite as freeform as Heretic and Hexen. Rather than fighting your way through a linear-ish level, you freely explore the level, uncovering rooms one at a time. Rooms will generally be either a “special” room of some description — perhaps with traps, treasure or the portal key — or a standard room with a swarm of enemies to defeat. If you encounter enemies, you’re deemed to have started “a battle” and are locked in the room until you defeat all of them. There’s a decent mix of enemies, ranging from carrots that charge at you screaming to ghostly maidens that fling some description of otherworldly shit at you. Like the classic first-person shooters of yore, different weapons are more or less practical against different enemy types, though a generous auto-aim facility makes aiming and shooting with the controller less of a chore than it is in some games.

A pleasantly old-school throwback in Ziggurat’s overall structure is the fact that you have a score, though you don’t find out what it is until the end of a level or the end of your game. You score points for all sorts of things, ranging from collecting items to clearing rooms — and, obviously, the longer you survive, the higher your score will be. There’s even an “Endless” mode to challenge for those who are gluttons for punishment — though I’m yet to make it past the second level on normal mode!

Ziggurat is a lot of fun, then, and if you’re looking for something relatively quick and throwaway to play — and you miss the ’90s era of first-person shooters — then you could do far worse than give it a shot, if you’ll pardon the pun.

2014: Making Connections

0015_001Although I’m not pretending to have any real understanding of social interactions in general — in fact, as I often mention, I go through life feeling like I really do’t know what to do in a lot of “everyday” social situations — I find the way little communities and cliques develop to be fascinating, both to observe from the outside, and to be a part of from within.

I have a few examples in mind. First, and most prominent, is Twitter. I’ve drifted from group to group a bit since I originally joined Twitter a number of years back. Originally, my use of Twitter was primarily to have a means of talking to my online friends with whom I used to interact on 1up.com. After “The Great Exodus”, when 1up’s specialised forums were mashed together into a NeoGAF-style monstrosity of just “Games” and “Not Games”, a significant proportion of the community left the site’s forums, and many of them found themselves on Twitter. Over time, people changed, moved and became involved in different things. Some gave up on Twitter altogether; others started using it for professional purposes; others still “rebranded” themselves.

I fell somewhat into the latter category. After suffering a fairly serious instance of doxxing and harassment back in 2013 — see, it’s not just women it happens to, contrary to what the media would have you believe — I left Twitter, initially intending not to return, but after realising what a pile of crap Facebook is for actually interacting with people in a meaningful manner, I returned. After realising that the interminable social justice yelling on Twitter was setting off my depression and anxiety, I left again. This time when I came back (they always come back) I decided to “reinvent” myself a bit, and follow fewer of the people I felt I “should” be following, and instead focused on people who posted things I found interesting or enjoyable to interact with. Consequently, these days I find myself on the fringes of “anitwitter”, a subculture on the social network that discusses, posts screencaps and generally enthuses about anime and games. I, as you might expect, fit right in.

Elsewhere on the Internet, the Discord server I mentioned the other day (which, dear reader, you’re still welcome to come and join) has been developing slowly but surely, but it’s our Final Fantasy XIV Free Company server that is perhaps the more interesting example. Taking cues from the in-game friend who introduced me to Discord in the first place, I added an “NSFW” (Not Safe for Work) channel to the server. It immediately became the most active channel in the place, though initially people weren’t quite sure what to post in there, i.e. whether or not it was okay to post filth. (It was, though someone stumbled accidentally into it and complained a bit at being confronted with a wall of hentai, so we’ve since made it invite-only — community management at work!)

What’s interesting about the NSFW channel is that the usual boundaries of “politeness” that are up when interacting with other people online in real time — in my experience, anyway; I tend not to hang around with the sort of people who hurl insults and abuse at one another — are nowhere to be seen. I don’t mean that people are rude to one another; quite the opposite, in fact. The NSFW channel is a place where everyone can be open and honest about the things that they like, and where no-one judges one another for the things they talk about and post. (Or, if they do, they keep that to themselves.) It’s pretty refreshing and liberating, actually, and makes it abundantly clear that there should probably be more places for people — particularly, it has to be said, men — to be able to talk about things like sex, fetishes and all that sort of thing without fear of judgement or anything like that. I shan’t go into any further details than that, but suffice to say we’re all having a jolly old time in there.

Anyway, yeah. Online communities. Just as interesting as real communities, I think you’ll agree…