Category Archives: Personal and Opinion

Most posts fit in here. Things where I write from the heart about all manner of subjects. As is the norm on personal websites these days, I remind you once again that everything I say here is my own opinion and doesn’t reflect the opinion of my employers — past, present or future.

1948: Five of My Favourite Music Games

I’ve been a fan of music-based “rhythm action” games ever since they started being a thing around the time of the PS1 era, and while there aren’t anywhere near as many around these days as there were in their heyday, there are still some great ones out there. And, of course, those old games are, in most cases, just as playable today, so long as you can deal with some dated graphics!

Without further ado, then, here are five* of my favourites.

Bust-A-Groove

I can’t quite remember if this was my first ever encounter with rhythm action, but it was certainly one of my favourite games of the PS1 era. It’s also the sort of game that would probably never see a retail release these days: it’d be much more likely to be a £15-20 downloadable game. (In fact, why isn’t it downloadable on PSN? Get on that, Sony!)

Bust-A-Groove was an unusual and creative title that took the overall aesthetic of a one-on-one fighter and transplanted the hot versus action into the context of a dancing competition. Each song was based on four-beat bars, and in each bar you’d have to make sure you hit one of the face buttons on the PlayStation controller on the fourth beat. As you built up combos, you were given more and more directional inputs to squeeze in before that all-important fourth beat, but these didn’t need to be in time. You were usually pressing O or X on the fourth beat, but pressing Triangle would allow you to use one of your character’s special attacks (limited in the number of times you could use them per stage) and pressing Square would allow you to dodge an incoming special attack from the previous bar; failure to do so would put you out of action for a few bars and allow your opponent to get ahead.

Bust-A-Groove wasn’t perfect, particularly in two-player mode, where two equally matched players tended to reach a stalemate due to the way the game’s scoring worked. But as a single-player rhythm action game in particular, it’s still hard to beat — and it had some of the most memorable songs of any game I’ve ever played.

Frequency/Amplitude

I always get Frequency and Amplitude mixed up — one was the sequel to the other — so I’ll cop out and put them both in here, since they were fairly similar to one another, as I recall.

Frequency and Amplitude were early titles from Harmonix, who would go on to create the Rock Band series. And it’s clear where the inspiration for those later, more popular titles came from: Frequency and Amplitude had the “note highways” almost as we recognise them today, but with a twist: you were playing all the parts on your controller.

This wasn’t as ridiculous as it sounds; what you’d do is pick a “track” (as in, part of a song, not a whole album track or something) and bang out a decent combo on it. After a short period, that track would “lock” in place and continue playing, allowing you to move on to another one and gradually build up the texture of the music, effectively creating a dynamic remix as you played. Perform well enough and you’d be able to get all the parts going together; perform badly and it would sound like a teenage wannabe rock group attempting to perform a piece far too ambitious for them one lunchtime at school.

Space Channel 5 Parts 1 and 2

Yes, I know that’s two games, making my “five” rather dishonest (particularly after including both Frequency and Amplitude), but really, Space Channel 5 deserves to be considered as a complete… thing. Because it’s quite something.

I’ve often described Space Channel 5 as “the gayest game ever” (the second-gayest game ever being Final Fantasy X-2) and I stand by that sentiment. Gloriously, unabashedly cheesy and camp as fuck with a kitschy ’60s sci-fi aesthetic, Space Channel 5 sees the leggy pink-haired beauty Ulala strutting her way to fending off an alien invasion and eventually saving the galaxy from the machinations of an evil villain.

Space Channel 5’s gameplay is extremely simple, essentially boiling down to a game of rhythmic Simon Says. Flowing pretty much seamlessly from cutscene to gameplay, Ulala would be confronted with some sort of sticky situation to resolve, and would have to do so by copying the moves of whatever dastardly (or, in many cases, not-so-dastardly) foe she’s facing this time. The twist on the usual Simon Says formula is that you have to do it in rhythm as your “partner” did it, too, and there are some seriously challenging rhythms to deal with. Once you learn it, though, you should be able to rattle through the whole game in about twenty minutes or so, but it’s very replayable, much like an entertaining short movie. Space Channel 5 Part 2 also comes with a sort of “challenge mode” alongside the main story, and that’s a lot tougher.

Space Channel 5 Part 2 is also noteworthy for featuring a bizarre cameo from a low-polygon depiction of the late Michael Jackson… sorry, “Space Michael”.

Elite Beat Agents

Elite Beat Agents is one of the best games on the Nintendo DS, and, surprisingly, one of the most effective examples of storytelling I’ve ever seen.

The titular Agents are tasked with jetting off around the world to save people from various mishaps, and they do so by dancing at them. Exactly how this solves the problem is anyone’s guess, but it seems to work, even going so far as to fend off an alien invasion accompanied by Jumpin’ Jack Flash in the wonderful finale.

The game uses licensed tracks (albeit cover versions in most cases) to complement the on-screen action and help tell their stories, and there’s at least one instance where the combination of music, subject matter and events in the story are genuinely emotional. You know the one if you’ve played it. (Also, it’s in the video above.)

But aside from all this, Elite Beat Agents is a strong rhythm game that makes excellent use of the DS’ touchscreen and stylus — and is a challenge and a half even for the most seasoned rhythm game pro, to boot. It’s just a pity we never saw the sequel over here.

Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f

I include Project Diva f (and its PS3 counterpart F, though I greatly prefer playing on Vita) on this list rather than its (apparently superior) sequel largely because I haven’t played said sequel. Project Diva f is a great game in its own right, however, and made me all sorts of happy the first time I played it, largely because it reminded me of the old PS1-era games.

It’s no Bust-A-Groove, though; no regular beats for you here. Instead, you’re expected to play Project Diva f’s levels like a percussion instrument. Depending on the piece in question, you might be accompanying the vocals, lead guitar and synth, rhythm section or even playing some completely different counter-rhythms that complement the main bulk of the music. The lower difficulties are deceptively easy; the higher difficulties are as challenging as playing an actual instrument.

It’s satisfying though. Pulling off a “Perfect” score on a difficult level is a wonderful feeling, and it’s something that will only come with practice — remember that, when games didn’t hand victory to you on a plate? Yes, in order to get good at Project Diva f you’re going to have to do more than just try each song once or twice; you’re going to have to actually learn them, so that eventually you don’t even need to look at the incoming note patterns, you can just perform them. When you reach that stage, then you’re a true Miku master.

Senran Kagura: Bon Appetit!

I won’t lie, I’ve lost count now, but I’m pretty sure we’re not doing “five” any more. Oh well.

Senran Kagura: Bon Appetit! is a game in which the ninja girls of Senran Kagura take time off from fighting each other and worrying about youma to indulge themselves in a cooking competition organised by pervy old ninja master Hanzo, who apparently wants nothing more than to watch his granddaughter and her friends literally cook each other’s clothes off in an attempt to secure a Super-Secret Ninja Art Scroll that will grant one wish.

It is as ridiculous as it sounds, but there’s actually a really solid, fun — albeit simple and straightforward — rhythm game underneath, with some wonderful pieces of original music; for those less familiar with Senran Kagura, it has consistently great soundtracks, and Bon Appetit! is no exception; good job for a music game, huh?

Not only that, but the game actually makes an effort to put all this ridiculousness in context with story sequences just like those in the mainline Senran Kagura games. It does take great pains to point out that you probably shouldn’t take Bon Appetit! too seriously or expect it to be acknowledged in the “canonical” Senran Kagura narrative, but it’s more than just a generic rhythm game with the Senran Kagura characters hastily slapped atop it.

It’s lewd as fuck, though; if you thought the clothes-ripping action of the main games was a touch on the suggestive side, you’ve not experienced anything until you’ve seen the cast posing provocatively and naked atop various delicious-looking desserts. But that is what Senran Kagura does, and by golly, we love it for it.

Love Live! School Idol Festival

The most recent addition to this list (which I’ve been keeping in my head prior to this post), Love Live! School Idol Festival is one of a few games that have got me playing games on my phone again for the first time in ages.

The basic rhythm gameplay of School Idol Festival is solid, and designed well for touchscreens — the icons you have to tap are all arranged in an inverted arc across the screen, making it easy to hit them all with your thumbs even when holding on to your phone. The songs are a lot of fun, too, capturing a lot of the energy of the show — and, of course, making use of some of the show’s most well-known and loved songs.

But arguably the more interesting thing about School Idol Festival — and the thing that keeps players coming back to it day after day — is its comprehensive metagame. At its core, it’s a fairly standard Japanese style collectible card game — collect cards of varying rarity, sacrifice cards you don’t need to level up cards you do need, increase the rarity of cards and assemble a powerful team — but the attachment to Love Live! makes it very endearing, and the game even goes so far as to include fully-voiced (in Japanese) visual novel-style story sequences as you make progress. The metagame also affects your performance; better cards will allow you to obtain better scores, and different cards have different “skills” that trigger over the course of a song and provide you with bonuses or other benefits.

You’ll obviously get the most out of School Idol Festival if you’re already familiar with Love Live!, but even if you’re not, it’s a solid rhythm game in its own right — so long as you like super-happy, cheerful, saccharine-sweet J-idol music. And I’m not sure I trust anyone who says they don’t!


 

Okay, okay, I’m done. Whatever.

* Hah.

1947: Some Great Anime Soundtracks

Writing in the comments of yesterday’s post, Mr Heaslip reminded me that I’ve been continually impressed with the quality of soundtracks in modern anime.

I tend to listen to a lot of soundtracks when I’m doing other things — particularly when I’m doing work of some description. I prefer soundtracks in this context because lyrics can be distracting — particularly if you’re trying to write something — plus, given the right one, they can lend a certain air of drama to proceedings. And it doesn’t have to be work, either; there’s nothing that livens up a tedious motorway drive like a storming, over-the-top soundtrack.

The majority of my soundtracks come from games, unsurprisingly, but since I started really getting into anime a year or two ago, I’ve begun tracking down soundtracks for various anime series, too. So I thought I’d share a few favourites today.

This is Swordland from Sword Art Online, the “trapped in an MMO” show that was popular but somewhat divisive. I enjoyed it a great deal — at least partly because it reminded me of .hack, a series of games and anime that I love the idea of but am yet to actually work my way through — but I will acknowledge the arguments that it was cheesy as hell and moved way too fast for its own good. Those things didn’t put me off as much as some other people, but as I think we’ve established over the course of the last 1947 days, I have a much higher tolerance for bullshit than many other people.

Anyway, I’m a fan of this piece because it sounds authentically “gamey” — plus, for all the series’ faults, it knew exactly how to give a sense of drama to a big fight scene, and that included having a suitably epic soundtrack.

Contrasting completely with the above, this music is… well, I don’t know what it’s called as my Japanese reading comprehension isn’t quite up to the task, but it’s the music that plays during the “Previously on Love Live!” bit at the beginning of each Love Live! episode.

Not a lot to say about it really, other than the fact that it nicely captures the feeling of sheer joy that Love Live! encapsulates; it’s happy, cheerful, summery, uplifting and heartwarming, just like the show as a whole.

KissXSis was pretty dumb all round — it was thinly-veiled… no, completely unveiled fanservice for the most part, but it had some entertaining moments and some fun characters. The two titular sisters were an enjoyable study in contrasts, and the supporting cast made for an enjoyable ensemble to spend some time with.

The thing that stuck with me long after finishing watching the show, though, was the ending theme — and this adorable dance animation that was shown in partial form during the closing credits, and which was rendered in its full glory for, I believe, the Blu-Ray release.

Yuru Yuri was an odd show in which pretty much nothing happened for its entire run, but it was immensely endearing purely for its characters. It was one of those shows where you feel like you’re “friends” with the cast by the end of it, and for that I’ll always think of it rather fondly.

I can’t actually remember the context of this song in the series — or indeed if it actually appeared in the series at all, or if it’s just a character song from a soundtrack album — but either way, it’s a nice little song that I like a lot.

DanMachi, also known as Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? thanks to questionable transliteration, is the current hotness in anime, with many calling it this year’s Sword Art Online. It seems to be overall a bit more consistently well-received than Sword Art Online, however, thanks in part to its main heroine Hestia being a much more interesting and fun character than SAO’s Asuna.

Like Sword Art Online, DanMachi has a gorgeous incidental soundtrack accompanying the action. There are some awesome battle themes, but in the interest of a bit of variety, here’s a lovely, more pensive piece reflecting the affection between Hestia and protagonist Bell.

To Love-Ru is another show that was pretty dumb and mostly fanservice, but I still really enjoyed my time with it. I found it particularly interesting in that it changed format significantly over the course of its three distinct seasons, with the main heroine from the first season being largely relegated to occasional background roles by the third. (I wasn’t super-happy about this, as I adored Lala, but the new “main” characters made up for her relative absence somewhat.)

To Love-Ru was another of those shows that was unrelentingly cheerful throughout. It knew exactly what it was — silly, lightweight, occasionally (all right, frequently) pervy fun that had no intention of making you think too hard. This particular track, known just as “Good Morning!” reflects the show’s character pretty nicely.

Welcome to the NHK was an awesome show with a wonderful streak of honesty and bitterness at its core. Contrasting starkly with the relative darkness of the protagonist’s hikikomori lifestyle was the fictional anime show many of the characters were obsessed with, whose theme tune ran something like this.

Purupurupururin…

Oh, Lord, Clannad. So many feels. Anyone who’s seen the show probably doesn’t need any further words when they hear this piece of music. And if you haven’t seen the show, rectify that right now. Bring tissues. Not for that. For all the crying. Because there will be lots of crying.

1946: Hey, Hey, Hey Start-Dash

Love_Live!_promotional_imageI feel I should probably address something before continuing onwards in my life: I started watching Love Live! School Idol Project a little while back having left it stewing in my Crunchyroll queue for months, and I’m having an absolute blast watching it.

For the unfamiliar, Love Live! is a show about a group of girls who decide to form a “school idol” group in order to raise the profile of the school they love so much and save it from closure. In many ways, Love Live! is essentially K-On!: The Next Generation, in that it features an all-female cast with a broad spectrum of personality types, has music as its main theme and centres around a low-key but nonetheless meaningful “conflict” — in K-On!’s case, this was the disbanding of the school’s light music club; in Love Live!’s case, it’s the closure of the whole school.

Love Live! also possesses the same sort of heartwarming but occasionally manic energy that K-On! did, with very little in the way of conflict between the core cast members. There’s a little as the cast is gradually assembled over the course of the first seven or eight episodes, but this is generally quickly resolved in favour of more light-hearted banter, inspirational training montages and the occasional boob-squishing when Nozomi is around and wants something.

Love Live! is an unashamedly happy, positive, colourful and cheerful show, then, and it is by no means particularly deep or thought-provoking. Despite having the opportunity to critique idol culture, too, it doesn’t appear to particularly run with this, instead presenting a somewhat more idealised (or should that be idolised?) view of the girls’ journey to stardom. That said, it doesn’t skimp on representing the fact that the girls work hard to achieve their dream, and acknowledges the fact that different people come at this sort of thing in different ways — and in order to work well as part of a team, you sometimes have to make compromises or take on challenges you might not otherwise have done by yourself.

img_mainIt’s an appealing cast of characters all round, though since I’m partway through the series I am hesitant to declare anyone “best girl” and potentially call down the wrath of the Internet on me for picking the “wrong” one.

Honoka makes for a good “protagonist” of sorts, though really this is a show about the ensemble cast rather than a single protagonist as such. She’s ditzy, silly, cute and fun, and she complements her permanent companions Kotori and Umi nicely.

Kotori is certainly a highlight for me — primarily for Umi-chan… onegai! — while Umi represents the rather sensible “class rep” type that I find rather appealing. Elsewhere in the cast, Nico is endearingly chaotic and rather tsun, and is wonderfully set off against her fellow third-year, school council president Eli. Nozomi, meanwhile, is an enjoyable study in contrasts, initially appearing to be the demure, quiet, shy “shrine maiden” type, but occasionally letting this facade slip somewhat as she goes full-on Katsuragi and starts feeling up her bandmates. Maki is super-cute — I have a thing for redheads, as many of you know — and arguably the character I find most appealing on a shallow, superficial level — plus she plays the piano, which is cool.

Of all the cast, I feel like I know the least about Hanayo and Rin — though Rin’s “-nya”-ing at the end of sentences is a character trait I find adorable whenever any character does it — but since, as previously mentioned, I’m only partway through the complete run so far, there’s still scope to find out a bit more about them.

I’m enjoying it, then. And I’m pleased that I’m finally in a position where I understand what’s going on when people go “Nico-Nico-Ni!” — although your own feelings on that matter may vary, of course.

1945: Mobile Free-to-Play: Another Tale of East vs. West

Brave Frontier has some lovely and distinctive artwork; screenshots in this post are all from it.

Brave Frontier has some lovely and distinctive artwork; screenshots in this post are all from it.

I’ve been highly resistant to mobile free-to-play games for some time now, a fact I primarily attribute to the extremely well-paid but soul-crushing period I spent reviewing them for the industry-facing sites Inside Mobile Apps and Inside Social Games, both of which have subsequently been folded into AdWeek’s SocialTimes blog.

I describe this period as “soul-crushing” not because I disliked the work or the people I worked for — on the contrary, it was an enjoyable opportunity to work with some fun people — but because it was just so utterly disheartening, as a fan of “games as art”, to see the cynical money-machine games being churned out by the boatload, with no-one truly having the confidence to innovate, instead simply reskinning established systems with a different theme and hoping no-one would notice.

Amid the dross churned out by companies like Zynga, King and their ilk, there were the occasional little gems, though, and they almost always hailed from our Eastern cousins in Korea, Japan and other nearby regions. Eastern mobile game development was by no means infallible, of course — titles which grew to inexplicable popularity, such as Rage of Bahamut, were often just as vapid as their Western counterparts — but on the whole, when a genuinely good free-to-play mobile game hit the app stores, it was, more often than not (and with a few notable exceptions) of Eastern origin.

Screenshot_2015-05-18-22-02-50

This feisty lady is the pride of my party at present.

Fast forward to today and I find myself enjoying not one, not two, but three separate free-to-play mobile games, and there’s a fourth that I had some fun with but have left alone for a while now. All of these games are, once again, of Eastern origin; meanwhile, offerings from established Western big hitters like Zynga, King, Nimblebit, Gameloft and EA all fail to hold my attention because they’re still relying on the same old crap they were a few years back when I was reviewing them.

So what’s the difference with these Eastern-developed games? Well, primarily it’s the amount of effort that appears to have been put into them — and the fact that they’re fun.

Brave Frontier, which I’ve talked about in a few previous entries, for example, is an enjoyable battle-centric RPG in which you assemble a party of collectible heroes, power them up and send them on quests — either story-free “Vortex” quests which are themed each day of the week and allow you to acquire specific items more easily, or a lengthy, story-driven campaign that, while cliched, has actually proven to be surprisingly compelling so far.

Puzzle and Dragons, meanwhile, takes the Puzzle Quest formula of combining casual colour-matching puzzle gameplay with Pokemon-esque collection and levelling mechanics, creating an engaging, enjoyable game that blends the best bits of RPGs and puzzlers.

Love Live! School Idol Festival, on the other hand, not only serves as wonderful fanservice for the anime show itself — which I’m currently in the middle of watching, and am enjoying a great deal — but is also a really fun rhythm action game.

Finally, I don’t play much of Valkyrie Crusade any more, but it made enough of an impact on me to want to write about it in a bit more detail over on MoeGamer.

Screenshot_2015-05-18-22-07-52Interestingly, all four of these games are based on the same basic system — something which I criticised Western-developed free-to-play mobile games for above — but manage to distinguish themselves from one another by the additional elements they stack on top of this basic structure. Western free-to-play games, conversely, tend to adopt one system and stick with it, without adding anything in particular to the formula.

There are a few common systems in use in Western mobile free-to-play games.

There’s the “citybuilder” genre, which superficially resembles simulation classics like SimCity and Transport Tycoon, but actually requires no strategic thought or knowledge of human geography. Instead, these games effectively act as a simple toy set in which you wait for timers to expire, then tap on buildings to get money out of them, which you then subsequently invest in more buildings so you end up with more timers to wait to expire and then tap on. Paying up in these games can skip timers — which are often ridiculously lengthy — and allow you to get more currency without having to actually “grind” to acquire it. Examples of this type of game include Nimblebit’s Tiny Tower, EA’s The Simpsons: Tapped Out and numerous attempts to stomp SimCity into the ground, Fox’s Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff and Gameloft’s My Little Pony. Farming games such as SuperCell’s Hay Day and Zynga’s own FarmVille are also pretty much the same as citybuilders, too, except they involve building up a small farm instead of a whole city. Mechanically, however, they’re exactly the same.

There’s the “casual puzzler” genre, which generally rips off PopCap’s Bejeweled by challenging you to swap coloured gems/sweets/fruits/farm animals around to make lines of three or more like-coloured gems/sweets/fruits/farm animals, at which point they disappear and more take their place. These generally involve a linear sequence of levels, and paid options in the games generally take the form of additional “lives” to continue playing after failing a level several times — lives otherwise regenerate over a long period of real time — and, in many cases, power-ups to make the game significantly easier, to a game-breaking degree in some cases.

Then there’s the “midcore strategy” game, which, in the same way as the “citybuilder” genre bears only a superficial resemblance to the original SimCity, bears only the most cursory of resemblances to actual strategy games. Midcore strategy games generally involve building a base through a similar means to a citybuilding game — yes, that means more timers to tap on, this time to get resources — and recruiting units, which also take varying periods of real time to build. There’s usually a competitive element to them, though, where you can take your recruited units to another player’s base and throw them at it in the hope that they might be able to do some damage. While these sequences tend to resemble classic real-time strategy games such as Command & Conquer and StarCraft, the lack of input you generally have means that coming up with a “strategy” is next to impossible, so it becomes more a matter of a numbers game: how many powerful units can you afford to throw at your foes? Payment options in these games are generally similar to citybuilders — speed up timers, buy currency, acquire exclusive units and buildings to give yourself an advantage over other players.

There are other types of Western-developed mobile free-to-play games, but these three types are by far the most widespread. The thing they all have in common is that the paid options deliberately break the game; they’re effectively paid cheats. The most egregious example of this is the ability to simply buy in-game currency rather than having to earn it: it effectively removes any need for the player to develop any sort of “money-making engine”, which has been a core part of simulation and strategy games involving resource management since the early days. But “power-ups” such as those seen in King’s games are almost as bad; in some cases, these power-ups even allow you to completely skip a level, meaning you’re effectively paying not to play the game. (Powerups like this are inevitably paired with unreasonable difficulty spikes or nigh-unbeatable levels, forcing many players into a position where they feel they have to pay up if they want to continue playing.)

The three Eastern games I mentioned above, as I noted previously, are all ostensibly based on the same system, known as gacha. This is a system based on those capsule toy machines that you see in supermarkets, and which are rather popular in places like Japan. Essentially, using either a currency earned in-game or one that you purchase with real money, you can “draw” something to add to your collection — a playable character in Brave Frontier’s case; a monster to add to your party in Puzzle & Dragons’ case; a card depicting one of the Love Live! cast in the case of School Idol Festival. Generally speaking, the things you draw using the “hard” currency — the one you can pay for — are better than the ones you acquire using the currency you earn in-game (which usually takes the form of a “social currency”, earned through interacting with other players in a rather limited manner). This may sound game-breaking in the same way as buying a power-up in Candy Crush Saga or buying currency in CityVille, but there’s a key difference: you still have to do something with the things you acquire by paying, and they’re not an immediate “win” button. Sometimes you’re not even able to use them right away.

Take Brave Frontier as an example. While it may be tempting to simply throw money at the game in an attempt to recruit an entire party of five- and six-star heroes, this simply won’t work early in the game due to the “cost” limit placed on your party, which increases as you level up your player. Not only that, but these five- and six-star heroes still start at level 1, so you’ll still need to actually play the game in order to level them up and get them fighting at their maximum potential; otherwise, they simply look cool.

Notably, these games generally also allow you to acquire the “hard” currency at a slow rate and enjoy a trickle-feed of these high-quality heroes/monsters/adorable wannabe idols. And, in fact, this makes acquiring one feel more meaningful and more of an event; it actually makes it feel less like the game is trying to force you to spend money, and instead inviting you to do so if you’d like to enjoy more of the same. I don’t mind admitting that I tossed a fiver at Brave Frontier during a special “you might get one of these special heroes!” event the other day because I’ve been enjoying playing it; I certainly haven’t, at any point, felt like I need to spend money on it to enjoy it, however; my current party (which is pretty kick-ass, I have to say) has been assembled entirely for free.

The big contrast between Eastern and Western philosophy with these games, then, appears to be the attitude towards getting the player to pay up. Western games, in my experience, are fond of creating what is rather horrendously called “fun pain”, which can be alleviated by paying up; in other words, inconveniencing the player in an otherwise fun experience to such a degree that they reach for the credit card just to shut the game up. Eastern games, meanwhile, appear to provide paid items as an optional extra that is, under no circumstances, required to have an enjoyable experience with the game.

The other thing that’s interesting is that Eastern games appear to be more open to the idea of combining different gameplay types together — Puzzle & Dragons, for example, combines an interesting twist on match-3 puzzlers with RPG and gacha mechanics, while Valkyrie Crusade features gacha, turn-based RPG combat, deckbuilding and optimisation, and even citybuilding, the difference in its use of the latter aspect being that while you’re waiting for your wait timers you have other things to do rather than twiddling your thumbs or reaching for the credit card.

There are exceptions to both of these rules, of course; there are great Western free-to-play mobile games just as there are horrible, shitty, exploitative Eastern free-to-play mobile games. But on the whole, in my experience, it would appear to be the Eastern-developed games that have the right idea — creating a fun experience and hoping at least a few people will be happy to pay up in gratitude for a fun experience — while the Western free-to-play mobile market, more concerned with making a quick buck, seems to be floundering somewhat.

1944: Betrayal at House on the Hill

Today’s pre-lunch game was Betrayal at House on the Hill, a game that I got a while back and have only managed to get to the table once so far. I was excited to try it again, as I really enjoyed our first shot at it, and was also interested to see quite how differently the 50 different potential scenarios would make it on a subsequent playthrough.

For the unfamiliar, Betrayal at House on the Hill is an interesting board game that starts as cooperative and later becomes asymmetric competitive. In the first part of the game, all the players take on the role of explorers looking around a creepy old horror-movie house, finding items, experiencing strange events and encountering “Omens”. The more Omens that are found, the more likely it is that “The Haunt” begins, and the combination of the Omen found and the place where it was picked up when The Haunt is triggered determines which one of the 50 scenarios you then move on to for the second part.

In the second part, things vary considerably between scenarios. Sometimes the player that becomes the traitor — who isn’t always the person who revealed the last omen, and isn’t always known to the table right away — remains on the board attempting to directly interfere with the efforts of the other players. Sometimes they’re removed from the board and take on more of a “dungeon master” role, controlling hordes of monsters. Sometimes there are a variety of special mechanics to the various rooms in the house. And sometimes it’s a fairly straightforward hack-and-slash sort of affair.

The scenario we played involved the one who found the last omen being caught under the spell of a rat god. His job was to make it to the “Pentagram Room” in the basement, then complete a ritual. Meanwhile, the other players’ job was to stop him, either by killing all his rat minions that spawned around the house, or by killing him outright — though once he got into the Pentagram Room and started performing the ritual, he could no longer be attacked.

The interesting thing about the way Betrayal at House on the Hill handles this asymmetry is that it keeps certain pieces of information secret from each side. There are two separate books, in which the two “sides” find out what their objective is, but not usually what their opponent is trying to do. There might be some hints or special rules that provide a clue, but it’s usually not spelled out explicitly. In this way, part of the challenge of the second half of the game is determining exactly what your opponent is trying to do, and how best to stop it while completing your own objectives as efficiently as possible.

It’s a really cool game with a lot of atmosphere and a great sense of unfolding narrative as the house gradually reveals itself and strange things happen to all the players. And it’s ridiculously replayable, too; even if you play the same scenario twice, the randomly generated nature of the game map and the items and events you’ll stumble across in the process means that it will be a different experience every time.

Plus it plays relatively quickly, which is a blessing for groups like ours that tend to meet on a weeknight when we’re not devoting entire weekends to gaming. In contrast to titles like Arkham Horror, which are magnificently atmospheric and a lot of fun to play but take three or more hours to plough through, Betrayal at House on the Hill plays comfortably in 90-120 minutes, depending on the scenario, making it a good game for those looking for a fun horror fix without having to, say, sit in their friend’s “sweaty balls chairs” for hours at a time.

I had a great time this weekend; hearty thanks to Sam, Tim and Tom for making my “birthstag” celebrations memorable and enjoyable.

1943: Meat, Meat, Meat

Went out for dinner this evening as part of my continuing combined stag and birthday celebrations. We went to a Brazilian place in Southampton that I neglected to remember the name of, but which a quick Google reveals is called Fogo Gaucho.

Fogo Gaucho is a place that I’ve been curious to try for a while, as it sounded like an intriguing dining experience. It’s a place where you pay a flat rate for your meal (plus drinks) and then simply sit at your table while you have lots of different bits of meat brought to you. In between said carnivorousness, you have the opportunity to visit a buffet and fill up your plate with some other bits and pieces like veggies, potatoes, rice and Brazilian stew, but the highlight of the experience is undoubtedly the meat.

And it was a fine selection of meat, too, running the gamut from spicy chicken thighs to some wonderful cuts of beef steak and lamb. At the start of the evening, the serving staff ask how you prefer your meat (rare, medium and so forth) and remember it, cutting pieces of meat from giant, majestic skewers that are according to your liking and then inviting you to pull them off the skewer with a pair of thoughtfully provided tongs.

The meat was delicious. It was all seasoned in various ways — pork ribs had a tasty, sweet coating, for example, while one of the cuts of lamb had a garlicky flavour to it. The spicy chicken thighs, meanwhile, were, well, spicy, and the beef steak cuts were wonderful, with the varied cuts provided really allowing you to appreciate the difference between different types.

The most common criticism of the place is that the meat is all a bit salty, and I’d concur with that; I don’t know if that’s a hallmark of Brazilian-style cooking or if it’s a deliberate choice intended to get you having more drinks — drinks cost extra, remember — but either way, it didn’t bother me too much. It was a great meal — and great value if you make sure to go when you’re really hungry — and I’m pleased to have discovered this place. Now I have somewhere fun to take people who come to visit!

Now I’m very tired, so I will call it a night there. More games tomorrow!

1942: Thoughts on XCOM After a Four-Player (Tutorial) Game

It’s my combined birthday/stag weekend this, uh, weekend, and so we kicked off the celebrations with a shot at XCOM: The Board Game. Since my three companions for the weekend have not played the game before, we had a go at the tutorial scenario, which I had already familiarised myself with beforehand. The tutorial essentially gives you a predictable setup, then walks you through two complete “rounds” of the game before continuing as the “Easy” difficulty until it concludes either with your victory or crushing defeat at the hands of the aliens.

My immediate reaction to the game after having tried it with a full complement of four people is that this is clearly how the game is intended to play. I enjoyed the couple of solo attempts I had, but it is a lot of things to keep track of at any one time, since you’re effectively doing the work of four people. When you’re against the clock, as you are in each round’s timed phase, this is very difficult to do effectively — though not, I might add, completely impossible.

With four people, meanwhile, everyone can specialise and concentrate on their own area, hopefully contributing to the overall war effort against the invading aliens. The Central Officer can concentrate on reading the game app and distributing information as well as allocating his “satellite” resources either to orbital defense against UFOs or special abilities and technologies. The Commander has overall control of the budget, and if there is a dedicated person controlling nothing but that role, it’s a lot easier to keep track of how much you’re spending during a turn, which is important because overspending carries some pretty harsh penalties!

The Chief Scientist, meanwhile, has overall control over technology research. Up to three technologies can be put into the research queue each turn, and technologies, once completed, effectively become extra special actions for one of the four players. Many of them have some sort of “automatic success” ability, allowing you to make combat or completing mission tasks easier or more resource-efficient, while others have other special effects that manipulate the game flow in some way, perhaps allowing you to “rescue” units that would otherwise be destroyed or gain resources that you wouldn’t be able to collect normally.

Finally, the Squad Leader takes control of the ground forces, and is responsible for completing missions — which bring the team closer to unlocking the final mission and, consequently, the victory condition for the game — and defending the XCOM base, which is one of the two main means through which you can lose the game. (You lose either if your base is destroyed, or two regions on the board reach the “danger zone” on the panic tracker.)

Once everyone had the rules sorted — and, unlike many Fantasy Flight games, they are pretty simple, elegant and easy to learn quickly — the game flowed nicely, and managed to become extremely exciting and tense. One of our number commented that he doesn’t usually find dice-centric games particularly exciting as they’re rather chance-based and it’s difficult to become invested in something you don’t have complete control over, but the overall setup of XCOM means that it develops a very clear sense of “narrative” as you progress through the game, and consequently those dice rolls become much more meaningful. By the end of the game, we were making up names for our Interceptor pilots; praising “Simon’s” brilliant defense of Europe and chastising “Pancho Gonzalez” for failing to defend South America adequately and ultimately costing us the game just before we could complete the final mission objective.

It’s a great game. I’m looking forward to trying it without the training wheels tomorrow, and probably failing to repel the alien invasion in spectacular manner. Unlike many co-op games, it all but eliminates the “alpha player” problem, where one player dominates the table talk and effectively runs the game by themselves by telling everyone else what to do. Because of the “timed phase” mechanic, there simply isn’t time for any one person to dominate the discussion; everyone has to take responsibility for their own area’s actions, and everyone else has to trust them to make the right calls. It’s a really interesting means of handling co-op, and it works really, really well.

Bed now, though. It is late.