Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim - Introduction

The title screen, sans title for some reason
Ah, Skyrim. This is a game I've been putting off for a very long time. After playing my way through Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, I was very tired of the entire style of these games. I can appreciate their broad appeal though, as each world is crammed with interesting characters and quests that will take you dozens, if not hundreds, of hours to complete.

You can find salmon jumping in rivers
Skyrim is no different, and this time its world is a land of ice and snow, mountains and monsters all inspired by Scandinavian and Nordic mythology. It's a huge world, and certainly feels like the largest of the modern Bethesda games (the older ones having been procedurally-generated). I've barely scratched the surface but it certainly has a lot to offer so far.

Finding my way around Skyrim
As usual, while the game has much of the same look and feel of previous games, there are numerous changes. This time in particular it feels like they were more interested in tweaking existing design rather than wholesale changes, and you can see the influence of their Fallout game on the design. It is to Oblivion what Daggerfall was to Arena, if that makes sense.

Every game needs crafting these days
The game opens with your character on a cart, heading for execution for the minor crime of crossing the border. You share the cart with a couple of other unfortunates, and also one of the major characters: Ulfric Stormcloak. Stormcloak is accused of murdering the ruler of Skyrim, and attempting insurrection. You are talked at by the various characters, filling in the backstory as you make your way to your death.

Getting my first "shout"
Of course when you arrive at your destination, the event is interrupted by a dragon attack, something that hasn't been seen for generations. This allows you to escape with the help of a guardsman, and find your way to safety in the small town of Riverwood. This is by far the weakest point of the game that I've seen so far.
Skyrim looking beautiful at night
The execution seems to involve a handful of people, the town is already ramshackle before the dragon attacks so the damage it does is less than impressive. The exposition is dull and uninspired, and there's not much of a civil war feel even though people do occasionally talk about it. The set-piece issue is a holdover from Oblivion, and I saw it again with a later dragon attack. There's just no way the engine could handle a large number of actors in any scene, which is why the world is so underpopulated.
Little tips on loading screens
It's not as bad as Oblivion, but the limits of the technology (not just the engine, but having to be designed with the previous generation of consoles in mind) do show in such situations. The older games used their limited technology to create a huge world, filled with large towns and cities and plenty of people. However the limitations of that technology mean that it's all a bit of a trick, and every town and person feels crafted from a handful of cardboard cut-outs.

The awful skill menu
The newer games followed a model used by the likes of the Ultima games, in which the majority of characters in the game world have names, homes, routines and so on. The world is more hand-crafted and full of detail, and is generally much better for it. But you have to understand the limitations and work around them. There's no point in having such wonderfully created people when you can only fit six of them into what should be a thriving town.

Pseudo-nordic architecture
A lot of the game world I've seen so far would be far better as a "frontier", full of small colonies trying to newly establish themselves in a harsh environment. It just doesn't look like a world in which there's been centuries of civilization. This would also reinforce just why it's so dangerous to venture off the beaten track, and why there are mysteries and secrets behind every rock. Again, this is less of an issue than it was in Oblivion, but the design remains similar.

Getting my second word of power
Next time, I talk about how the game improves when you're allowed to roam around, and also the user interface.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Dark Souls: The Celestial City

Anor Londo is truly a city of gods compared to where I had been previously. Saved from ruin and decay, travelling through it makes you feel quite small. I do wish this was the hub area, rather than firelink. The crumbling ruins of that shrine felt very appropriate for the undead labouring on their journey, but now that I'm becoming the Chosen Undead, I feel like I should have a better base of operations.
Praise the sun!
Anyway, the opening moments of Anor Londo were quite tense. I expected something to come out and smash me around each corner, and was surprised the big guardian knights stood silent. I made my way across a large courtyard which looked like a boss area, and headed down into a bonfire room.

The firekeeper of this bonfire
This meant I could defeat the guardians of the nearby rooms and take what items were there with a minimum of fuss, they were difficult but beatable and with a bonfire near I had no fear. Following the path around I saw a glowing yellow fog gate, and could not pass. Something to revisit later. My only other option was to proceed towards the central stair, which appeared out of reach.

Up in the rafters
Firstly, a lightning-spewing gargoyle. The pair at the top of Undead Parish were the bane of my life so many hours ago, and yet this one was a cakewalk. How things change, eh? The stairway was indeed out of reach, so instead I had to break into what appeared to be a cathedral or something. Clambering over the butresses was made harder by the game which doesn't really handle such steep slopes very well, but I got in first time to be greeted by knife-throwing ninjas of some sort. All clad in white, there were a few in the rafters but even more on the ground floor.

The painting...
I picked off these enemies one-by-one, and admired the huge room. It was a shame it was such a quick part of the game, because a large expanse like this should really be more important. The huge painting at one end will surely be more crucial though, apparently you can enter it but I have yet to manage that feat.
A nice safe bonfire (2nd so far)
After making it to the central stairway, I was able to find yet another bonfire (this game has a really odd difficulty, some sections are huge and awkward, others much simpler). Another gargoyle too, but again that was no problem at this stage. Manoeuvring the stairs back up to the main walkway, I made my way to the gigantic castle/cathedral/centrepiece, and was greeted by yet more guardians and also some of the winged demons from earlier.

Looking back at Anor Londo from the big Cathedral
These batwing demons were less helpful though, and had lightning attacks. They did however have a lovely habit of falling off ledges. For enemies with wings they're terrible at actually flying. Next up was another climbing section, this time under fire from massive stone dragonslayer arrows. This part is apparently very treacherous, unless like me you always make sure to carry plenty of poison arrows. Three arrows apiece to the archers and they fell, leaving me able to make the climb unhindered.

Our good friend, Solaire
Inside the building yet another bonfire awaited me, and I was also greeted by Solaire! The knight who inspires many for some jolly cooperation had a brief chat with me and I was able to go on my way. The building itself is full of interesting rooms, Silver Knights and Mimics, and a Titanite Demon stuck in one room (how did it even get there?).

Here be dragons
After navigating my way through (and picking up some brilliant items that will require me to gain quite a lot of strength), I blundered my way towards the final fog gate and the boss room. I didn't quite make it that far though, as I got distracted by the Giant Blacksmith and got killed opening a shortcut.
Some lovely paintings
On my return to the bonfire, I regained my humanity and saw a summon sign, so got some help for my fight back through the building. He was rather brilliant at backstabbing and got me right to the boss. I summoned Solaire too for the extra help, and proceeded to the Ornstein and Smough boss fight.
The Giant Blacksmith
Fighting multiple enemies at once isn't an easy thing in Dark Souls, and bosses in particular are a problem. Their huge reach and area of effect attacks make things tricky indeed. Many hand make light worth though, and the three of us took down Smough in quick order. This causes the remaining boss to gain extra power (and recover health), making for a difficult second act. Super Ornstein fell eventually though, and I was free to explore this new area.

Meeting Gwyn's daughter
Lighting another bonfire was my next task, they really are liberally spread through this area. Next job was to claim the Lordvessel, which was handed to me by the daughter of Gwyn, who was a giant, or a god, or something. I see why this city is so large, it's because it's basically the equivalent of Mount Olympus.
Receiving the Lordvessel
With the Lordvessel in my hands, I could take it back to Kingseeker Frampt. Now I just need to fill it with Lord souls (no lesser ones will do), in order to relight the fire (no Take That jokes please).

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Dark Souls: Marble Madness

So I rang the two bells of awakening, and now some toothy serpent has given me a quest to get the Lordvessel from Anor Londo. Of course you can't just walk into Anor Londo...
Inside the entrance, after killing two snakemen
So here's the tale about Sen's fortress. It's a series of terrible traps, large lizardmen and dangerous drops. The enemies are tough, the ledges narrow and the only bonfire is hidden near the top. This was never going to be easy, and since I had based my character around being a walking tank, the nimbleness required for some of the sections was not good for me.
Swinging blades over every narrow walkway
I had a few runs at it blind, and managed to get about a third of the way through. I navigated past the first set of swinging blades, and got past the first rolling boulder section. After that things got a little dicey, and I ended up repeating this section a couple of times. This is one of the more annoying parts of the game. There's no real way to know where you're supposed to go, except trial and error. Unfortunately, such trial and error can lead to death very quickly.
The view after killing the portcullis giant, via secret ladder
I found myself resorting to a guide, to make sure I could find my way to the roof without dying yet again. This time my problem wasn't with navigating the boulders, but with the great swinging scythes that knock you off tiny ledges. Each time I would hesitate or make some small mistake and this would lead to a long drop and death.

narrow walkways above huge dark pits
One of my favourite things about Dark Souls though, is where your humanity and souls can be recovered from after death. Most of the time it's at the exact spot where you expired, but for events like falling it will often helpfully place your green glowing souls near to the ledge from which you fell. Crucially on one occasion, it didn't place it beneath the blades but before them, allowing me to recover before I tried to get past once more.

A Mimic, contained a Lightning Spear
Finally I made it to the roof, and after a little dodging of fireballs I made my way to the bonfire (you have to drop off the edge of the roof, which is a little scary). Secure in the knowledge that I could respawn at the top of the tower, I surveyed the area. There are three giants on the roof: The one that raised the portcullis I had despatched earlier (up a ladder via a hidden door), the one loading the boulders I killed with arrows from a place of safety, and finally the one throwing firebombs.

Targeting the Firebomb Giant with my bow
The firebomb one wasn't hard to kill, the tricky part was finding the best spot to fire my arrows. Once this was done I could freely wander about and pick up the various interesting items scattered around. This felt like a pretty easy bit to be honest, even the sniper in the tower was no match for my recently upgraded +10 longbow, and the other enemies felt like pushovers at this point.

Nice view from the top of the fortress, the first bell in the distance (seems like so long ago!)
The only thing left was to get to the boss, which went pretty smoothly. I summoned Iron Tarkus to help me out, then went and killed the Iron Golem. The only difficulty with this boss fight is the relatively small arena size, but the golem moves slowly and my Raw + 5 Gargoyle Halberd had enough reach to consistently hack at its legs. I stayed for a little while to help out a couple of others with the fight, and after getting those souls I levelled up a couple of times before heading out to face Anor Londo.
The Iron Golem ahead, entrance to Anor Londo caved in behind it.
The trip itself was a little freaky, after the boss fight there's a glowing circle in the middle of the area. Sometimes there's a glitch where the lock-on circle remains on the floor after killing an enemy, so initially I thought it was that. Then I noticed it was slightly golden rather than white, and when I moved closer I could press "A" to interact with it. Slightly hesitant, I pressed the button and waited.

The cutscene shows four winged demons land, and I thought this was going to be another fight, but one of them grabs you and takes you up to the city above. It's all a little Wizard of Oz, but the arrival in Anor Londo was an amazing sight.

The rather glorious sight of Anor Londo
After many hours spent in dark dungeons, sewers and suchlike, the huge bright grey-white buildings were awe-inspiring. The only eerie part was the apparent emptiness, and even on closer inspection the enemies are spread rather thinly. What they lack in numbers the make up for in ferocity, but that's a tale for next time.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Dark Souls: Journey Into Darkness

Sometimes in Dark Souls, things just click into place. On this such occasion, I had vanquished two long-term foes. My progress, once stymied by demons and death, could proceed again. As usual, the game would put far darker foes in my future.

First to be swept aside was the Gaping Demon, the fang-mouthed abomination that lay at the base of the Depths. I sought others to defeat it, and helpful people who had passed this point before gave good advice. The pattern of its attacks are not so hard to predict, once you know what to look for, and so I was able to slowly chip at its health and finally triumph.

Being a phantom is rather fun
In celebration, I utilised the White Soapstone, and was summoned as a helpful phantom to assist others in defeating the beast. Helping others succeed where I had struggled was immensely satisfying. If this was not enough of a reward, I also received thousands of souls and some Humanity.

The best thing
This put me in a good position to tackle the Catacombs again, suitably levelled up and with some upgrades to my weapons I now had a Divine +3 broadsword, perfect for getting through this deadly area. I swiftly made my way back down the the bottom, where the spinning wheel-riding skeletons lurked. After summoning Paladin Leeroy, I managed to sneak past them and head to the boss area. With the NPC follower, the fight was brutal and short. The power of summoning again shows it's worth.
Down in the Catacombs, about to face Pinwheel
The demise of Pinwheel gave me yet more souls, and I was now of a level where I could face Blighttown. It is unfortunately one of the most terrible areas in the game. Dark, filled with poisonous monsters and awkward ledges, it strikes fear into most who visit. The danger is compounded by frustrations beyond the creatures within the game. Flying bugs find their way to attack you through the floor, your characters movements are hindered by the uneven and sometimes moving surfaces.

Horrible dark treacherous ledges and ladders
Even after making your way past the rotten wooden platforms and down to the base of the structure, the nightmare is not over. At the base, the map opens up into a large poisonous swamp. This vile and watery pit is host to yet more deadly foes, and with the poison slowly burning through your veins, any mistake and your next move can be your last.

Descending to the swamp
Exploring Blighttown helps reduce the fear of it though, and the poison-dart wielding snipers don't respawn, so I should have an easier go of it each new attempt. I managed to make it all the way to the Firekeeper soul at the base before succumbing to death, and my next attempt was more fruitful.

Looking out at the swamp from near the entrance to Queelags
I found my way to the bonfire at the base of Blighttown, located in what appeared to be a large storm drain. The tunnel behind me lead to a circular chamber, with no way to ascend. Above was surely the Depths, but I had descended even further still. In the distance a strange webbed lair drew me in, this was Queelag's Domain, and I would have to kill her to ring the second bell.

Covered in eggs? Horrifying.
Queelag is a fusion of demonic spider and witch. Either would be a formidable opponent, but together this arachnid-human nightmare forms a challenge that requires careful tactics. Her attacks are fire-based, including the spider vomiting lava across the floor. The best option is to run, and make quick strikes (much like the Gaping Demon), but she scuttles across the area so fast you may spend all of your time evading and none of it attacking.

The final blow has been struck!
On my third attempt, I turned human to try and get some assistance. I was invaded on the way by Maneater Mildred, a red phantom. She fell easily, but was available to summon for the Queelag fight. She provided an excellent distraction for Queelag, who spend her time concentrating on only one of us, allowing the other to strike. Several times I nearly succumbed to the attacks, but was finally victorious.
Queelags sister? I killed the guy nearby by accident, didn't realise you could talk with him. May have missed some interesting stuff there.
Beneath Queelag's domain lay the second bell, and once it was rung a gate opened in the distance. This was the one that the rotund knight was waiting by (near the Undead Parish blacksmith). It leads to Anor Londo, where I should be able to find the Lordvessel (as I found out by talking to the rather strange Kingseeker Frampt, at Firelink Shrine).

So much lava, so many demons in the distance (I saw at least one Capra and several Taurus)
Also beneath Queelag's was a hellish domain, a lava filled chamber full of demons and no doubt I would have to venture into it. Not today though, today was for celebrating victory and for reinforcing my weapons and armour before the next expedition.

This goofy guy is Kingseeker Frampt. He eats stuff and gives you souls. This game is weird.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Swindle: Procedural Pilfering

The Swindle Title Screen
The Swindle is a steampunk sidescrolling steal-em-up, with the objective of hacking your way into the police computer system to destroy Basilisk, an AI that could prevent burglary forever! On your way to ridding the world of such a troublesome thief-catcher you'll need to amass enough cash to buy the required upgrades you'll need for your audacious attempt. Also, you have only got 100 days. Clock is ticking...
Your mission, if you want to accept it...
I'm glad I waited a while before writing this mini-review, because several changes have been made to the game since release. Originally, the game was super-hard, unbelievably so. Upgrades were expensive, cash was hard to come by, and the amount of security on each level increased rapidly. By comparison, the game today is still very challenging but feels far more fair. Now when I die I can blame the errors I've made rather than the harsh difficulty curve.

Created by Dan Marshall, also of Ben There, Dan That (great adventure game)
Even so, you will die often. Your characters are fragile, and a single hit or long drop is enough to lose a heist. Losing a character isn't the end though, it just loses you whatever you'd gathered on that heist and also the multiplier you'd accrued. You are the mastermind, your thieves are mere pawns in your game. Each successful heist gains you a multiplier (success means getting almost all of the cash on a level), and that multiplier leads to a bonus on your cash at the end of each level. Accumulating a high multiplier is vital to getting all the upgrades you want.

Mission selection
The immediate comparison is something like Spelunky, as both have a similar initial feel and procedurally generated levels. They diverge pretty quickly though, as the nature of the games become quite different even early on. The Swindle might initially feel the same, but the reality is that you must generally try a much slower pace, take time to consider your options before heading in because while death is not permanent (for your mission anyway, even if your thieves can die), the time limit of 100 days (and 100 levels) becomes quite limiting if you have many unsuccessful heists.

The golden-brown Slums district
Your equipment and upgrades carry over onto your replacement burglars, so setbacks should feel minimal. However, each loss can make you lose focus and quickly lose several thieves and several days without gaining any money. So sometimes it's best to just leave a level with a lesser amount of cash, rather than risking everything to gain a few more pounds.

Heist Successful!
So far I've only made it to the third area (New Belgravia), so the latter stages of the game are a mystery. Each area provides different challenges, different robotic guards, traps, locked doors and such, so there's always new things to learn and new things to overcome. The cash rewards go up exponentially with new areas though, so you must make a choice between easier levels (and a better chance of increasing that multiplier), or harder levels with more computers and more cash (but harder security).
The blue-tinted Warehouse District
So far so good, and while I'm not sure I'll ever complete it (I never managed Spelunky), I am enjoying being a master thief. Well, perhaps not a master yet, but give me time.

Upgrade menu