Saturday, 25 July 2015

Dark Souls: The Gargoyle Situation

I have made such progress since last time I posted, and perhaps even have enough for two posts but I'll try and be concise and keep it short. Last time, I was suffering from the ill-effects of poisoning and a few cheap deaths. It can be easy to get frustrated in Dark Souls, but once you overcome that obstacle it is a relief bordering on elation.
Beneath Firelink Shrine lies this spooky old ruin
Before the infamous rats, there's a shortcut back to Undead Burg. From there, it's a trivial matter to reach the Firelink Shrine again (enemies that were once tough, are now walkovers). So I could stock up on 10 estus and use that as a launchpad back past those rats. That way, even if I got poisoned, I could heal myself enough to progress on and hopefully make it to the next bonfire.

Which contains this imprisoned blacksmith (he doesn't want to leave)
My plan worked very well, and I didn't even get poisoned this time (typical). After this point, I could deal with the next section (thankfully the iron bull was a mini-boss, so didn't respawn). After defeating a couple of spear-using hollow soldiers, and avoiding a lot of crossbow bolts, I was stuck in front of a gate. The church, and the first bell, were ahead. I had no choice but to turn back and take the stairs down, and see if there was another way through.

upgrading my weapon
This section was relatively easy, filled with barely armed and non-armoured hollows. Their only advantage was surprise, which is little bother to a heavily armed and armoured knight. After a small progress down, there were several ladders up, and I found myself above the previous open area. I do enjoy how the different areas link up around each other, and that future paths often cross older ones. It does give a real sense of progress and scale.

Ruins in the distance... and ghosts?
Here to greet me was a new type of enemy, the Balder Knight. These are quicker, better armed and better armoured than the Hollow Soldiers I'd faced previously. They have quite a few tricks up their sleeves, even if looking at them all I can think of is General Grevious from Star Wars Episode II. Thankfully, there's not too many of them, so I can deal with them one by one.

The grand church, front entrance
The narrow walkways don't work well for me, with my broadsword that has a big arc of a swing, but the area does open up after a precarious little walkway. Greeting me on the other side a three Hollows, but at this point they cause no fear. To the left lies the church, but handy writing tells me a bonfire and a blacksmith are near (and boy, how do I need them!).

Wonderful view outside the church side entrance
A narrow path leads to a crumbling old tower, and descending the stairway reveals a bonfire. The floor below contains the blacksmith, and I waste no time using the titanite shards I've collected to upgrade my weapon (over the course of this section and repeated visits, I upgrade my broadsword to +5 and get a few other upgrades). The blacksmith is a friendly chap, and I also buy a repair box.

A great blacksmith, who also sells Titanite shards
After resting at the bonfire (safety first!), I take a look around. Another character sits by a gate nearby, forlorn that it won't open. There are warnings about dangers written on the floor, but this fellow seems mellow enough to me. He is covered in rather a lot of armour though, and I doubt he is a slow as he looks. There's nothing I can do to help him now though, so I retreat back to the blacksmith where there's a passage leading further down.

A huge imposing gate, but where does it lead?
This was a mistake, and I lose almost half my health thanks to a lightning bolt. Some strange an huge creature is guarding this path, and I am in no condition to face it just yet! Instead, I head to the church. Inside are several challenges, firstly there's a huge armoured bloke who I have to get outside in order to dodge his blows. He goes down easily enough though, so I move onto the next. Up the stairs is a wizard of some sort, alongside a horde of hollow that quickly crowd and overpower me.

A fat-looking knight, with a helm that looks like an onion
After recovering at the bonfire, I venture forth again and this time snipe at the wizard with my crossbow (avoiding his shots as best I can), and then tackle the hollows separately. Further upstairs is a prisoner, who offers me a reward for helping him. I let him out (what else would I do?), and make my way downstairs to the helpfully signed shortcut to the Firelink Shrine.

The altar in the church
His reward is a sun medal, which is probably useful later but seems rather minor for rescuing him. Near where he sits is the firekeeper, and since I picked up a firekeepers soul at the church I can use this to reinforce my estus flask (it now heals me more per use). Further down beneath the firelink shrine is a lift to the Old Lordran Ruins, which is a very spooky place but also has a blacksmith. Less useful now I have the one near the church though.

The wizard. Much like Conan, I hate magic (unless I'm using it)
All that remains is to ring the bell, which means taking on two gargoyles. My first attempt resulted in a quick death thanks to my lack of dodging. My second attempt was better, since I buffed my weapon with lightning (found in Undead Burg). My third attempt went even better and I almost killed them both (and got the Gargoyle Axe). I ran out of the buff though, and knew it would be too hard to do it on my own.
Lautrec, he seems suspicious. But doesn't everyone here?

Thankfully I could try summoning help from Solaire and others, so I thought I'd give that a try. I used up some humanity reversing my hollow status, and made my way back to the church. All was going perfectly well until I noticed the fog over the doors. It felt a lot like that part in The Matrix, just after Neo has Deja Vu and the windows are blocked up. I knew I was about to be invaded.

I did it! Praise the sun!
This is absolutely my least favourite part of the game so far. I had got everything ready for a run at the boss, and now I was having to deal with some joker who wanted to kill me. Initially the fight went well, and I got in a solid hit. Unfortunately for me, his weapon was massively overpowered and in two hits I was dead. In frustration I gave up for a while.

The tower, and the bell ahead
The following day I tried again, hoping that this time I could get through without invasion. I managed it, and summoned both Solaire and Lautrec. This time it was a walk in the park, and the frustration of previous attempts was replaced with the joy that I could progress further in the game. After ringing the bell, I could also speak with a strange man called Oswald.

Half-way there now... right?
With my newfound souls, I upgraded a few stats and some armour, and then decided to visit a few places and see if I was powerful enough to proceed anywhere. In Undead Burg I killed an armoured knight and claimed a ring, but my other attempts in the graveyard and elsewhere were in vain. Instead I opened the door to the Lower Undead Burg, and had a wander through there (and found the shortcut back to Undead Burg).
Oswald the pardoner, another odd fellow
So I feel like I have accomplished much, and yet at the same time accomplished so little. I am still based around the same few bonfires that I was before, there are still enemies I've seen and have yet to be able to conquer. I feel like I am a world away from killing that Drake, for example. So I hope my progress through Lower Undead Burg (which looks terrible compared to previous areas, it really looks like shoddy work in terms of level design) will grant me a bit more progress and a lot more power.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Dark Souls: The Demon, The Drake and the Deaths

Today has been a lesson in frustration, with moments of progress in between. Some people suggest that the deaths in Dark Souls are always fair, that in dying you learn how to do better next time. I would definitely say that's not always true. There are only so many times you can succumb to a similar death without thinking that there's not a lot of ways you could have done things differently.

Undead Burg (This spot has three bastards with firebombs)
Anyway, I had spent a little time in the Undead Burg, gathering a few levels and some equipment (box of holding for spare items, repair box to fix my weapons, that sort of thing, from a strange merchant hidden away). There were a couple of areas I just couldn't go, one which required a jump that I couldn't make (even with no armour, I didn't seem able to get across the gap). The other was an item guarded by a rather large armoured knight, to whom I could only do 14 damage. I think it's best to come back to him later, when I've progressed a bit more (much like the graveyard back in the opening area).
Loot from the weird bug, this will come in handy eventually
Instead of this, I spent some time clearing my way to the tower, at the top of which was a boss fight. It took me several repeated attempts to get there with at least a few estus flasks, but this did allow me to grind a few levels and learn the area very well. Upon reaching the upper level of the tower, I noticed a player-written note saying "secret here". It was next to some barrels, and upon smashing them a small gem-covered bug-like creature ran from me. I missed it the first time, but thankfully it respawned and I could kill it on the second attempt, gaining four items which would be useful in upgrading my weapons.

The Taurus Demon hides behind that other tower until you get closer
Now it was time to take on the boss, on the wall between two towers I met the Taurus Demon. I knew how to kill him, I had to climb up a tower and do a diving attack on his head. This proved a difficult task, as it takes about three or four of these attacks to kill him (and hacking at him when I had the opportunity). Getting past him to climb back up the tower was tricky indeed, but it can be done. Obviously I found this rather difficult, and it took repeated attempts before this paid off. In the end though, victory was mine!

I did it!
All that was left was to head onwards, but first I returned to the bonfire to spend my souls (I had over 7000 at that point). After again having to clear my way to the tower, but thankfully not being required to kill the demon again, I progressed forward towards the next tower, and found myself beside a bridge. On the opposite side of the bridge were three enemies, so I avoided that for now and checked the pathways around the near side. I found a locked door, and a strange man.

The bridge of fire and death
Solaire was his name, a fellow knight out here trying to accomplish the same task as me. He has a rather unhealthy obsession with the Sun, but otherwise seems like a nice enough fellow. He even told me of a way to summon him for tricky fights (something I will need in the future, I'm sure). A bit of jolly cooperation, as he would put it.

Meeting my new friend, Solaire
With nothing more to say, I left him to tackle the bridge (still no bonfire), and just as I was a little over half way, a huge Drake decided to burn the entire bridge. This killed the enemies, but also took a big chunk of health from me. I dived down the only stair nearby, and found myself a shortcut back to the Undead Burg bonfire. Once rested, I went back to the bridge, but this time on the underside.

Praise the sun!
Now this section is perhaps one of the most frustrating experiences I've had in the game so far. From the shortcut, you can only head under the bridge (unless you can handle the fiery breath of the drake), and there are ample opportunities to be pushed off the bridge to your death. Coupled with this, you have these rats. Good god these rats are the most horrible enemies I think exist in this game. Every other enemy can be dealt with, they have a pattern to learn, or a weakness. These three rats are in a small room, that is close to a cliff, and I try and kill them one by one by the cliff which has lead to my death on a couple of occasions (falling).

That goddamn dragon makes this bridge a nightmare.
Why try and tackle mere rats one by one? Well, if they get a hit on you, they can poison you. Unlike many RPG poisons, this one is quite deadly, and I have yet to find a way to cure it. Over the course of a few minutes, it will constantly sap your health, and so I end up using all of my estus flasks and then have to return to the bonfire (or continue, and die as I did on a few occasions). I have to press forward, but this poisoning means I have to retrace my steps so often it just becomes frustrating and tiresome.
This fellow surely holds some fine loot, but I'm in no condition to take it yet
If there was some way of protecting myself from the poison, or curing the poison, I would be able to learn how to deal with these rats. Alas, I think I will be spending rather a lot of time back and forth in this small section of the game, frustrated until I can finally manage to get far enough past this point that I get a shortcut to avoid it. I am told by a friend of mine that there will be an entire section of poisonous creatures to face later on, which I can only dread.

The Iron Bull, best killed from a distance.
Three paragraphs on rats, but I'll leave with a paragraph on a couple of interesting enemies, one of which I managed to kill. After the rats is a tower, atop which is an armoured knight that looked far too difficult for me, so I decided to avoid him. The other pathway lead to an armoured bull, which could easily kill me. Instead, I dodged it and went up some stairs above. After defeating a few regular hollow soldiers, I could lob firebombs at the iron bull until it was dead. Simple really, but that only lead to further rooms and corridors, further enemies and no respite in sight. After an inevitable death, it was back to the bonfire to begin again. But that will have to be another day.

Dark Souls: Late To The Party

So I picked up this game the other day, you might not have heard of it, it's a sort of action-RPG. It's called Dark Souls and I've died a few times already, but that's not really anything to worry about.

The game and fans love to talk about death, but death is not a permanent condition in Dark Souls
My previous knowledge of Dark Souls was when it became that super popular game that everyone was talking about, a console RPG at a time when I didn't have a console, it was then ported to the PC and I still didn't really get it. I'm still not entirely sure I get it, but at least I've seen enough to give it a shot and see how I do.
One of the guys from the intro, which no doubt will be a boss
My interest was piqued by a video series from the Extra Credits guys, where they're playing through Dark Souls and giving an overview of the design and various interesting bits of information. Not a classic LP by any means, but one that is far more interesting to me than any proper LP could be. Seeing the game in action, and having two people with a design background and an easy-going demeanour narrating it, made the game much more appealing to me.

The destruction of the fight from the intro, where stone dragons fought beings born of fire (Lord's souls?)
So the other day I notice it's on sale over at the Humble store for a mere £4.99 (75% off), and I figure for that price it's worth it even if I end up hating it. Armed with my feeble action-game-playing skills and a certain amount of foreknowledge of the game (from that aforementioned LP), I decided to jump in and see how things would go.

First impressions: I'm actually surprised how well this runs on my laptop (it is a gaming laptop, but it's not got a great video card, I intended it more for strategy or RPG games rather than anything that would require any graphical prowess). Mind you, it is a port of an older xbox360 game, so perhaps I shouldn't be so suprised? Either way, it decided to start in a window so I had to sort that out to begin with.
The Darksign, marking you as undead - not related to The Ring.
Actually in the game proper, I found the controls a little unintuitive. It's a game that rewards precise control and yet I still sometimes find it difficult to appropriately move my character to directly face the enemy, and there seems to be no easy way to finely turn on the spot. I'm glad I had already seen how the inventory and upgrading systems worked, and would definitely recommend watching a video before starting in order to have some of the interface explained.

Chracter creation options, which alter your starting stats and equipment.
The character creation is typical of many RPGs (see also my post on Pillars of Eternity), where you get plenty of options but some can be rather vague and for a new player it can be very hard to know what is an appropriate character class/build to go for. I went for the Knight, which I had heard was generally a good choice (an easier one for a new player, as they have good starting equipment). Dark Souls does give you plenty of freedom when upgrading though, so to a certain extent a bit of grinding and levelling up should get around poor early choices (I hope).

The first sections are essentially a tutorial, you are guided through a series of corridors and experience a few enemies mostly in single encounters. There's a lengthy intro cinematic, and then you get your exposition fed to you in small batches when you meet NPCs. I won't go into too much detail here, but essentially you are marked as Undead, and sent to an asylum to wither away. As you wait in your cell, a knight drops a body down from an overhead opening, and after meeting your gaze, disappears.

This church-like building is the boss area for the Undead Asylum.
The body contains the key to the cell, and from there you are guided by messages written in glowing ink (these are permanent, but most through the game are player-written and part of the multiplayer element). Escaping your cell, you head towards a church like building where a huge demon tries to kill you. The sense of scale is great in this game, the Asylum Demon is a hulking giant compared to your character, and it really works well to convey it's relative danger compared to the "hollow" undead that you meet along the way.

The Asylum demon! At this stage (broken sword, no shield), you best run towards the door on the left (as highlighted by those torches on the wall).
Of course you need to beat this demon, and while it is technically possible to do it at the first meeting, you are intended to take a side-route and learn more of the mechanics and gain your proper weapons and a shield. Once you've done this you meet another knight, who gives you your quest and an estus flask. Your quest is to ring the bell of awakening, which sounds like a simple task, and the estus flasks act as a refillable health potion (limited number of uses before refilled).

When the knight dies, you gain souls, and this is one of the many ways the game tells you that most (all?) of the characters you meet are just like you, undergoing the same changes and the same struggles. You get souls from the enemies you defeat, but you also drop your carried souls when you are defeated. You also notice that enemies will sometimes heal themselves using estus flasks, just as you might. The souls themselves act as the currency, both for levelling up and for item trading and so on.

Before that though, you must defeat the Asylum Demon, which I managed on my second proper attempt (after I got the hang of those estus flasks!). I used my sword two-handed (more power, can't use a shield), and dived onto the beast from a ledge above his head, doing a huge amount of damage. This made the ensuing fight very easy (I didn't manage it the first time, I waited too long and he knocked me off the ledge). After that, it's a brief walk up the hill to a rocky outcropping that looks like an abandoned graveyard.

As a carrion bird, ravens became associated with the dead and with lost souls.
At the edge of the cliff, looking into the sky, a gigantic raven flies down and grabs you, depositing you at the outskirts of Lordran, and from there the adventure really begins. You find yourself near a bonfire (always handy), where you can fill up your estus flasks and chat to a strange man. He, like many of the NPCs you meet, is rather cryptic and creepy in how he speaks, but gives you a bit more information about the world.

It seems you must ring two bells, one is found up above in a church, the other is far below in a charmingly-named place called Blight-town. A bit of classic RPG work here, where a simple-sounding quest quickly becomes more complex as you progress through the game. It gives you clear goals, but also lets you know that it's not going to be a cakewalk.

The raven hangs around near the graveyard.
My first task is a little exploration around this starting area. I know the bonfire is a safe space, so I can use that as a hub and explore around it. Most of the nearby enemies are rather pitiful, and make good practice for me to get used to the combat system. Each enemy type has different attacks depending on their equipment (much like the player), so you have to learn how to approach them, and how best to approach a group.

I would argue it's overconfidence that's the real killer in Dark Souls
I do wander into a particularly nasty area though, as there is a graveyard with lots of tricky skeletons in it. The bonus for running through this area is that I could grab a few items before I died, which were a couple of souls (you acquire souls as usable items, as well as through combat) and the mighty Zweihander sword. This sword requires a lot of strength to use though, which is beyond me at the moment.
Praise the sun!
I grind my way through to the next bonfire (Undead Burg), and after a little while I have just enough strength to use the Zweihander, although it's still not really a useful weapon for me yet. If I can get enough strength, I could even use it one-handed (!), so that might be my goal for the future. All of the enemies (apart from bosses) respawn after you rest at a bonfire, so this allows you to grind a bit for souls to use for upgrades. Each upgrade increases your level, and each level increases the number of souls required for the next upgrade, so it forces you to push forward after a while because of the diminishing returns.
The Zweihander, which I so desperately want to use
So far so good, and I'm enjoying this game. I know a little bit about what's coming up, but there's also a huge amount of the game to go yet. I hope I can continue my progress without getting too frustrated, because at the moment it's all good. Next time perhaps I'll meet another boss and perhaps get enough strength and endurance to properly wield that fantastic sword.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Space Quest I: The Sarien Encounter (VGA remake, 1990)

Space Quest I, the start of Roger Wilco's adventures, going from lowly janitor to space hero and back again (and repeat).

This is the remake of the first game in the series, and I'll be replaying it for the good folks over at The Adventure Gamer!

So go check it out there, since there's no point in me posting it over here.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Pillars of Eternity: Character Creation and the Crisis of Countless Choices

Is this the spiritual sequel to Baldur's Gate that I've been waiting for all these years?
No spoilers here for Pillars of Eternity, I've barely started it. I seem to have got stuck on the character creation. Not because it's bad, but rather because it has so many options I can't quite make up my mind! Instead, I'll ramble on about RPGs for a bit and the gameplay posts will come later on.

The introduction: You are travelling with a caravan to a new settlement when you get stuck in a mountain pass.
If there's one thing I really do love about RPGs, it's the character creation. Good character creation can add a wealth of possibilities to a game. As a first impression though, it can provide a daunting plethora of options, many of which might be completely unknown to the player. How important every statistic, every class, every spell, every choice can have unforeseen consequences for the future of your character.

First choice: Male or Female? No idea how much this affects things. I chose Female this time. I've also missed a screenshot where I chose my race, and I've gone for a strange looking "Coastal Aumaua" who are taller and stronger than most others it seems.
Class: A large selection, with some familiar and some new. I pick Paladin. Usually a warrior type, but with a bit of magic and a sense of self-righteousness.
Sometimes a character creation is reliant on rules not fit for the game itself, or badly fit in. This can lead to superfluous skills which might seem highly valuable to a new player but in fact are a dead end. Fallout 1 and 2 had it's skills like Doctor and First Aid, which at first might seem highly useful in a radioactive post-apocalypse, but in fact have very limited use due to the vast amount of healing items available. Specialising in the wrong character can make the game punishingly difficult, and may reduce the enjoyment of the player.

Subclass: You have to pick an order, I went for a "good" one. I had thought there might be a choice of God to follow, but I guess not.
Your basic statistics: Here at least some guidance, the game highlighting which stats are most useful for your chosen class.
Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights used the Dungeons & Dragons rules, which are suited for tabletop/pen-and-paper roleplaying and not very well suited to a computer RPG. The systems are designed around larger possibilities than a single-player cRPG can manage, and certain skills may never come into use. The Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir was the best I've seen at using these otherwise superfluous skills, making certain characters like Rangers useful (allowing you to notice enemies on the world map before they can see you, avoiding them with stealth and still getting experience for this!).

Culture: Again, this is a bit opaque. I don't know much about the world yet but I have to pick which culture I associate with. I chose Aedyr, an old slightly crumbling empire.

Background: A little vague boost here to your character, here I gain +1 to Stealth and Survival skills for being a "Drifter", which seemed appropriate for someone tagging along with a caravan to a new settlement. 

Pillars of Eternity is trying to tread that fine line, in giving the player a wealth of options, whilst also trying to guide the player with as much information as they can. While I appreciate this information, it can still feel quite daunting. The game seeks to guide with the basic character statistics (strength, intelligence, etc.), and will recommend which ones are most important for the class you have chosen. For every other choice, there is a lot of text explaining the possibilities, but such things are a touch opaque when I know so little about the world. What effect will +1 survival have on my playthrough? Or +1 Lore?
There are various cosmetic changes you can make to your character here, unfortunately the number of portraits is small, so you can only pick one with a vague similarity to your character (choosing human would have made this a bit easier, but the non-human races have far fewer portraits). Some of this can be changed later, which is a marvellous boost. The voice choices all seem to be the same actor, which is a bit crap (but they are rarely used, generally just a bit of shouting in combat).

Here is my completed character: Level 1 Paladin, Morgana. Until I decide to restart with someone entirely different.

What would be a missed opportunity is to allow for a vast array of starting choices, but have them proceed to have minimal impact on the game as you progress. If your starting choices have minimal impact, it is perhaps best to begin with a blank slate and fill in the character through encounters and dialogue during the opening area of the game. On the other hand, if your myriad choices will have definite impact on a playthrough, then it is imperative that the consequences are felt as soon as possible, so that if a player decides they've made a terrible choice the restart is less painful.

A tree blocks the path of the caravan, and my character is suffering from some form of mild nausea so it's off to the forest to pick berries, rather than chopping the downed tree and getting out of here. Note the big glass-like green protrusions surrounding this camp, I'm sure they will be important!

For what it's worth, I truly hope that the first choices that Pillars gives are ones that will shape the rest of the game, because if the game is truly great I will want to play it multiple times. As it happens, I've already played it four times (sort of), because I can't decide what sort of character I want to play as. Do I want to be an honest paladin, a bitter druid, a mysterious spellcaster, or something else? I'm always tempted to pick the noble paladin as a first-time playthrough of most cRPGs if only because it's what I'm used to from various Ultima games (in which the player is literally the paragon of virtue, the hero who gets called whenever there's a threat to Britannia).

Here's the inventory screen, and my very own Giant Miniature Space Piglet (a callback to Minsc's Boo, a Miniature Giant Space Hamster from Baldur's Gate). I also get an Obsidian Dragon if I prefer (Kickstarter backer perks). Not sure what these animals do, except for follow you around.

So far I've only played through the opening section, which contains a brief tutorial (which will be mostly unnecessary to anyone who has played Baldur's Gate or a similar infinity engine game), and consists of a few fights and some snippets of dialogue to introduce you to this strange new world. Hopefully this week I will delve into the game and discover how much my choice of character will affect how I approach the encounters and quests that the game throws at me.

And so my adventure begins, accompanied by a reluctant hunter and a blue piglet.