Saturday, 12 July 2014

Indie Gaming: Gunpoint

Gunpoint is a stealth-hacking game where you play a freelance spy. Honestly, if that's not enough for you to want to buy it already I don't know what's wrong with you.

It begins, as many things do, with a murder. Your task is to solve that murder and make some money while you do it! Armed with a variety of interesting technological gizmos and a lot of snark, you do jobs for whoever asks and pays.

It's a noir-like detective story at it's heart, with the gameplay essentially puzzle-like, as you figure out the best way to achieve your goals, which is generally to hack a computer and steal some files. The puzzles generally involve a sequence of hackable circuits that are connected to doors, alarms, lights and so forth. To add a bit of danger to the mix, there are various types of armed security guards to get in your way.

The game allows you to find your own path: choosing to avoid the guards or take them down, racing through the levels in a blaze of glory or taking the more thoughtful route. I generally favoured the quiet, slow and non-violent approach, but sometimes to make an omelette you have to shoot some guys...

I really loved the game, and my only criticism is that it's rather short. I had a great time on this particular storyline, and any future cases for Richard Conway, Freelance Spy would be well received. Thankfully, there is an easy-to-use level editor, and Steam Workshop support so that you can continue playing other peoples creations or perhaps build something yourself.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Indie Gaming: Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

It's difficult to know where to begin describing this game. On the one hand it's a fairly simple adventure game (of sorts), with beautiful pixel-art scenery and understated but fitting music. On the other hand, it's all contained in a rather bizarre packaging.

There's the spinning record motif, the mysterious character called "the Archetype" the intrusive mentions of twitter, the episodic nature of it, the horrific interface. One particular moment actually ties in with the actual current date (moon phases), although thankfully there are two ways of getting around this.

The game begins with you controlling a mysterious Scythian warrior, on a quest involving a book of immense power, a dark evil, saving the world, sacrifice, and the rest. It's played out in a basic but interesting fashion, moving back-and-forth through the sparse areas of the game to visit areas and complete tasks.

The first task is to get the Megatome, then to get the three Trigons (Triforce reference?), before defeating the (evil?) Gogolithic Mass at the top of the mountain, Mingi Taw. The scenery, music and general pace of the game creates a wonderful mysterious quality which is unfortunately undercut by the more goofy elements and interface woes.

The simplistic character models leave a little to be desired, although it does work well for the Trigons and Gogolithic Mass. The main character and the few NPCs are in dire need of a few more pixels to give them a bit more definition though. The artwork is generally good, and thematically sound though.

What I found truly frustrating was the interface and non-core game elements. The interface was obviously designed with touch-screen devices in mind, but I feel like I would have been less than impressed with it even on an ipad or similar. Various points will ask you to share your experience on twitter, something I will never understand, and the Archetype character and vinyl record motif do nothing but distract from the far better parts of the game.

I can understand the Archetype being some sort of attempt at a meta-narrative, especially as he appears in-between each segment of gameplay. But I think the game would have been far better served concentrating on it's core concept, and fleshing that out somewhat. More challenges, more varied combat encounters, a greater build-up towards the conclusion, etc..

The biggest shame was the emptiness of the world, and the simplistic nature of much of the gameplay. Perhaps I'm being a little harsh on indie developers, but there were large areas of the game which you visit multiple times and yet on many occasions they would contain at most one item of interest. This meant there was rather a lot of slow walking around completing objectives.

There's a great core to the game, and it provided a couple of hours of good entertainment despite the frustrations I had with the interface and various other elements. I'd have loved to see more from the world they created, and a bit more variety too. It's a regular in various indie bundles though, and surely worth whatever low price I paid for it.

Alone In The Dark (1992) - An adventure game?

A 3D logo! Impressive for 1992.
 Alone In The Dark is the classic example of early "survival horror" gaming. It's a genre popularised by Resident Evil, and generally involves a lone protagonist in a B-movie horror setting. More modern examples tend to concentrate on gunning your way out of trouble, but Alone In The Dark was no third-person-shooter. Bullets and guns are hard to come by, and some of the malevolent creatures you meet are indifferent to your attempts to kill them by conventional means. (here's a retrospective over at IGN)
The game has some wonderful visual moments, and I love the book-based credits.

Perhaps we have this all wrong, and Alone In The Dark is in fact the first 3D adventure game?

Decerto - setting for this Lovecraft-inspired horror adventure

I began this line of thought after spending time over at The Adventure Gamer blog, considering what actually defines an adventure game. Certainly there is a lot of variation, from the text adventures of the early years to the lavish 3D series that are produced today. For many fans of the genre Lucasarts and Sierra are the classic examples, as they produced their finest works during a golden age for the genre in the 90s.

Someone, or some-thing, watches you arrive

At their heart, adventure games are about puzzles. But they are reliant upon a narrative structure to provide context for these puzzles. The puzzles are there to lead you through the narrative, to bridge the gap between an interactive novel and a simple puzzle game.
As a quirk of the engine, moving/interactable objects were all 3D. So this suit of armour stands out as something to remember.

If Alone in the Dark were a 2D, Sierra-style, point-and-click game, it would easily fit in to the adventure game genre. I would argue that it is merely it's appearance and control scheme which separate it from traditional adventure games. However, Grim Fandango shares a similarity in general appearance (albeit much more modern) and nobody would have any qualms about describing it as an adventure game. (see also: Quest for Glory V, Kings Quest 8, Simon The Sorcerer 3D, etc.)
The attic, where you begin. It requires you to think on your feet from the start though.

The other possible method of differentiation would be the game's use of combat. Adventure games have generally avoided action-based conflict, but there are plenty of examples that use action sequences or have combat throughout. Most notably of these is the Quest for Glory series (generally considered an RPG hybrid however), but combat is also seen in Mask Of The Betrayer, and the Space Quest series has had it's fair share of action or arcade-style sequences.

Letters and books contain clues for puzzles, as well as plenty of interesting information about the setting and plot.
It's the puzzles and puzzle-solving which I think truly place it in the adventure game category. You have an inventory, you pick up items throughout the game and you use those items to solve puzzles. The game lacks dialogue, but does have plenty of books, notes and such which provide clues and context for the plot.

A fully functional inventory system, with 3D display for your items!
Overall, I think this makes for a rather compelling case. However, I wouldn't necessarily extend this to the entirety of the survival-horror genre, as each game will have a different focus. Certainly the amount of combat in the Alone in the Dark series was highly variable.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Secret of Monkey Island (1990, VGA version)

I apologise for the GIFs, I may have gone slightly overboard with them.

The Secret of Monkey Island is the first in an adventure game series beloved by almost all adventure game fans. I am no exception, and even though I have played through the game many times I was still more than happy to play it again.
Really? You look more like a flooring inspector.

Wouldn't we all like to know.

Speak for yourself.

Trickster, over at The Adventure Gamer, is currently playing his way through so I thought I'd join him. No doubt he will be quite detailed in his journey through the game so I would highly recommend you go and read his words!

Getting fired
I have no words

It's not hard to see the attraction of the game, a pirate-themed comedy adventure starring a hapless and yet affable man by the name of Guybrush Threepwood. His quest is simple, to become a mighty pirate! Of course it's not that simple, and his initial trials lead him on a journey of mystery, danger and rescue.
Don't we all
There's much I love about the game, but the main focus for me has always been Governor Elaine Marley. She's the love-interest, but much more of an interesting character than Guybrush. As the Governor of the pirate-haven that is Mêlée Island™, she comes across as confident and self-sufficient. After Elaine is captured by LeChuck, Guybrush rushes into action, and yet is always a step behind the Ghost Pirate. When he finally does catch up, all he does is disrupt the existing plans of Elaine, but of course manages to save the day despite his inept handling of the situation.

Training with... THE MACHINE
An example of recurrent fourth wall breaking

As much as a few hours work and thirty pieces-of-eight counts as training, anyway.
Taking on The Sword Master

She shows up in subsequent games too, but I do feel like the character never quite gets enough to do, or enough to say. It's one of the few flaws of an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining game.
Terrible winged devil!

Super-salesman Stan!

Second-hand ships, low prices for a reason.

Such flaws are of course minor issues, there's really very little about the game to dislike. I could mention things like the need to wander back-and-forth between locations and how it comes across as needless padding, but those sort of issues plague so many games that it would be unduly harsh to single out Monkey Island for it.
A little dig at Sierra here
Just an average day then.

Meeting the friendly Monkey Island™ Cannibals.
I must admit to not being the biggest fan of the insult sword-fighting, something which the game is famous for. The general mechanism is good, and the need to adapt your responses for the Sword Master is fantastic. Perhaps it is merely a result of replaying it multiple times, but the humour of the insults is a lot weaker than the rest of the game and so that particular section can feel a bit of a slog when you have to fight so many pirates to acquire the right phrases.
The only way to navigate the hellish maze: by getting a head.

Even the inventory colour changes when you enter Hell
LeChuck's ghost ship! (How is the ship a ghost? Voodoo something I bet)
The biggest flaw in my eyes (or should I say ears) is the periods of silence during the game. This is a problem with the time at which the game was produced, and yet it stands out when played today. The music that does exist is brilliant, but that makes the silence in-between even more apparent. There's a lack of of ambient sound too, and it's a real shame. The recent remake added in a bit more on the sound front, including full voice acting, which I seem to recall getting a mixed but generally positive reaction from fans of the series.
Is this a rescue? Or am I just in the way (I think it's the latter)
That's one heck of a punch...
It really sends you flying!
Finally, I must give massive credit for the creation of possibly the greatest adventure game antagonist, the fearsome Pirate Captain LeChuck. He terrorises the Caribbean throughout the series, in various forms both undead and demonic. His brash, arrogant nature and never-stay-dead attitude are a nice contrast from well-meaning, bumbling fool Guybrush. All of the "Meanwhile..." sequences he stars in throughout the games are a particular highlight of mine.

Who you gonna call?
I'm sure LeChuck will bother us no more!

So there passes the first chapter in the life of Guybrush Threepwood, but it shall be a little while before the second is undertaken by The Adventure Gamer (and also my replay). The second game remains my firm favourite in both the Monkey Island series and also the entire Lucasarts/LucasFilm Games catalogue. More on that another day!

Happily ever after, and a little advice for the player.
I think I will.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Dishonored: Knife of Dunwall

Dishonored is one of my favourite games of recent years. It had a brilliant blend of mechanics and aesthetics borrowed from the likes of Bioshock, Thief 2 and Half-Life 2. Few games capture my interest so much that I replay them in their entirety, which I decided to do before delving into the DLC.
The crime that eclipsed all that had come before

My replay of the game focused on non-lethal, "ghost" runs throughout the game, which I generally managed outside of two levels (avoiding assassins is particularly tricky). The changes in the game from such a "low chaos" playthrough are minor, except for the final level and ending, but I enjoyed the different challenge and reacquainting myself with Dunwall and it's residents was very welcome.

The chaos, in part caused by Daud

What set the game apart for me is the focus on mechanics and gameplay. The game is built around your character having a set of tools (both mundane and magical) to accomplish his tasks. The levels are filled with alternative routes and little environmental details which sometimes require two or more playthroughs to see. Never did I feel that the narrative got in the way of the game, and having your actions reflect in the tone and content of the final stages of the game was very well done.

Wanted men

In an age where we have the ability to purchase so many games for such low prices during Steam sales or Humble bundles and the like, it can be easy to build a list of games which one will never play. The time required to get through such a backlog can seem insurmountable, and replaying a game can seem like a waste when new games loom into view. Dishonored is a game which I am glad to revisit, and would heartily recommend anyone to play it to completion twice.

Whale, Whale, Whale, what do we have here?

With this in mind, I was eager to see if the DLC could live up to the main game, and retain the magic that has me praising it so much. The first: The Knife of Dunwall, which puts you in the shoes of the infamous master assassin Daud: Killer of Empress Jessamine.

And soon, the whole factory

The game begins with the usual cutscenes, the Outsider, and a repeat of the killing of the Empress. The assassination is from Daud's point of view, which is a nice touch, but you are a mere spectator which is a little frustrating. I wanted to get back into the action, but the beginning is a little slow.

The Delilah, a whaling ship and so much more

During this introduction, you are told of "Delilah" by the Outsider. Somehow her life is intertwined with yours, and the crisis that the city faces. It's up to you to track this person down, and to discover what link she has to everything that is going on in your city and your life. Perhaps tracking her down can bring redemption for your actions in killing the Empress.

Enhanced Eyes (Void Gaze in this DLC)

Much as it is in the main game, the main plot arc is a little lightweight. It's an excuse for the usual thievery, sneaking, fighting, and so on that makes this game so enjoyable. The environmental storytelling is much better, every location having it's own feel. The grimy industrial whaling slaughterhouse is a wonderful contrast from the relatively clean and upper-class Legal District.

Delilah, self-portrait

The missions themselves are large, sprawling areas that allow you to traverse them in a number of ways. As with the main campaign, the game can be completed without killing if you so choose, and your chaos score (high or low) impacts upon the following DLC: The Brigmore Witches (to what end, I do not know, but it's the next game on my list!).

A target, for information and for justice

There are a few changes to the tools available to the master assassin, and your main powers, compared to Corvo. Some of these changes are more welcome than others, but certainly I didn't miss Devouring Swarm or Windblast which were amusing but of limited use. There is slightly more focus on stealth-related abilities over a gung-ho approach, but sometimes it requires quite a lot of patience not to start killing rather than choking or avoiding your adversaries. I still find Blink to be the most useful power available, and didn't bother using some of the available powers or equipment at all.

The Flooded District, and Daud's lair

Summon Assassin was a strange choice indeed, something only for combat encounters really. For anyone wishing to complete the game without such incidents the power seems rather useless. I would have preferred a bigger part for Billy Lurk, your faithful assistant assassin, perhaps even allowing for some cooperation at times.
Plans, past and present.

My real disappointment with the DLC is it's length, it felt very short, even with the amount of exploration available. There are only really three missions, and I suppose they could be completed quite quickly if you were of that disposition. The ending also leads directly into the next DLC: The Brigmore Witches, and I can't help but feel it might have been better to have released both DLC as a single expansion pack.
The Overseers attack

I would definitely recommend the DLC for any fan of Dishonored, I fully enjoyed the extra missions and the extension of the game. What I'm really looking for is a full sequel though, which I hope the success of the game has warranted. What the DLC (so far) has demonstrated is that the team behind the game are more than capable of creating more wonderful environments in this world, and the mechanics are just as interesting through a different character. Wherever they decide to go with the series, I hope it works out.