Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Adventure Gaming: King's Quest V

King's Quest V was a landmark game, a big step forward for the series. While the previous game had been 16-colours and a text parser interface, Sierra really pushed the boat out with this one. The new 256-colour VGA graphics allowed them to create wonderfully detailed scenes, and the CD-ROM version gave them the space to use full voice-acting.

Your lovely home, soon to be miniaturised and put in a glass bottle by an evil wizard. Typical day in the life of a King!
It certainly amazed me at the time, and it was also a continuation of a series I had followed since the beginning. The story begins with King Graham finding his castle, and family, taken by a malevolent wizard by the name of Mordack. The motives for this are initially unclear, but a visit to a gypsy woman clues you in, it all links back to a previous entry in the series: King's Quest III. In this previous game, King Graham's son Alexander escapes from the clutches of an evil wizard by turning him into a cat. This wizard-turned-cat is named Manannan, and happens to be the brother of Mordack. It is up to you, taking control of the King, to save your family and defeat Mordack!

The gypsy fortune teller, giving you all the information you need for your quest!
Reaching Mordack is no small matter, and in true adventure gaming style the journey includes everything from quaint little towns and mysterious forests to ice palaces and island lairs. Each location is beautifully painted, with amazing detail, and many areas have their own unique musical accompaniment. As usual for the series, the various places and puzzles draw from mythology and fairy tales but aren't usually just straight up copies unlike in the previous games.

Cedric. Does anything more need to be said?
For your travels you are joined by Cedric, a talking owl, who is helpful at times but is unfortunately rather an annoyance on many occasions. There is something reminiscent of the infamous "Clippy" about him, although Cedric cannot so easily be dismissed! You end up speaking with all manner of other creatures as you progress, but this is with the aid of Cedric's friend, the wizard Crispin. He gifts you a piece of white snake so that you can communicate with animals and also his old wand.

Crispin the wizard, apparently going as Gandalf for the office Halloween party.
The wand was a more major part of the game when I first played it, as it formed part of the copy protection system. Before the internet allowed games to be tethered to an external server to activate and validate, the copy protection systems of games had to be a little more creative. At various points during the older versions of King's Quest 5, there would be occasions that required the use of the magic wand. To use it, you needed to match a symbol found in the manual. Thankfully this is removed for the CD-ROM version!

The main town in the early game, filled with people, shops and an unreachable birds nest in the foreground
As is typical for the series, the initial stages of the game allow for a lot of exploration. The first section consists of a town and it's surroundings, the dark forest, the desert and of course Crispin's house, where you begin. You can initially travel to a large number of locations, but there are certain limits to the order in which you can approach the puzzles. It's a little bit of a shame that the later sections become far more linear, with King Graham passing through some wonderful locations far too briefly.

This is also a game that comes into criticism for some of its puzzles. There are certainly a few occasions where repeated deaths are necessary to figure out how to continue, but these I would consider to be part of the Sierra experience! A good example here is the problem with the inn, where the criminally-inclined innkeeper locks you in the cellar. Firstly, avoiding the encounter will get you stuck later, and secondly it requires quite a lengthy puzzle chain to have the correct items to gain your freedom.
King Graham is a little tied up at the moment.
Other puzzles do require rather odd logic to complete, for example the method by which you escape the dark forest. The dark forest is home to a wicked witch (of course), but the forest itself is tricky and upon attempting to leave you get lost. The way to escape is to pour sticky honey on the floor (in a particular location), and then tempt a hiding elf towards you. He gets stuck, you grab him, and in return for the emeralds he shows you out of the forest and gives you a perfectly made pair of shoes.
I forgot to take a picture of the forest, but here's Graham escaping via some sort of elf-made tunnel.
The puzzles themselves are often devoid of context too, with Graham happy to just randomly pick up things from the ground, help passing strangers, and generally just wander around solving problems. The greater story of the missing family and any potential time constraints have little bearing on the early game. This isn't unusual for the series though, as in true adventure game style a canny player will know that you should pick up anything that's not nailed down (and even then with the right tools...), talk to anyone and everyone (be they animal, mineral or vegetable!), and of course save the game regularly! Of course in the first game you were merely Sir Graham, and as a knight searching for stolen treasure it was your job to poke around in other people's business. When you are a stranger in a strange land though, this becomes less justifiable. For the desert in particular (a region which requires careful exploration in order to steal from desert bandits), I can't remember ever seeing a reason for visiting, except for it being an adventure game and therefore there must be something there worth taking!
Some life-giving water, in the middle of a desert.
The bandit's camp. Stealing from thieves is okay, two wrongs make a right?

A veritable King's ransom in gold (and then some), but we have what we need to better leave before we get trapped forever!
After you have pillaged the land for every possible useful item, you can finally leave the area and attempt to get to Mordack's castle. This begins with a lovely trek through the mountains, which is a relatively brief task. The snow-covered mountain trail is beautiful, as is the crystal cave (once you have used your powers of slapstick to get rid of the yeti). This is truly the most under-used location, a linear track with only a handful of puzzles. A shame, as the artists must have spent rather a long time on backgrounds which will be seen for so short a time! This is followed by another brief encounter, this time with a gigantic bird, before ending up on a beach, staring out at the sea.

Beautiful snowy mountains!

Exotic Ice Palaces!

Meet interesting people!

See the Crystal Caverns! (paid for by the Serenia tourist board)

There's not much to do on the beach, there's a crowbar to pick up (for some reason), and a partially deaf man with whom you can't communicate right now. The only thing to do is to take the boat, handily moored on the shore with nobody to claim it. The first time you take the little sail boat out, you drown because of a hole in the hull, but by this point you should be used to that! Thankfully since I know the game like the back of my hand, I know to patch it up with beeswax.
A lovely island, surely no harm can come to me here!
Now, you might think that you can sail your way straight to Mordack's castle (dead, eaten by sea monster), or perhaps you just sail in pretty much any direction (dead again, sea monster). There is only one correct path, which leads you to a rather pretty island with some pretty horrible residents. The harpies try to kill Cedric (this is a bad thing), and argue over you (also bad), but thankfully you can distract them with a song from your splendid harp (the second time it gets you out of trouble). After taking anything you spot on the ground (including a lovely conch), it's time to finally talk to that strange old man at the beach.

Harpies, looking as horrible as they sound.
Armed with the conch as a rudimentary hearing aid, the old man helps heal Cedric (this is a good thing), and enlists the help of a mermaid to guide you to Mordack's castle. Graham's sailing skills leave a lot to be desired though, and you end up crashed on the rocks just outside the castle. The music in this area, both outside and inside the castle, is brilliant. Generally it's my favourite location of the game, filled with menace and foreboding, it's exactly the sort of lair that an evil wizard should reside in.
Mordack's island lair
A rather cheerful pair of statues
Being a bold hero, King Graham has no issues with breaching the castle via the sewers (a proper maze section!), although Cedric stays outside to "keep watch", the big coward. Although the dark atmosphere and creepy music might make you think otherwise, this initial section is relatively light on ways to die (but you did remember to save, right?). Your last place of relative safety is the kitchen, where you meet the lovely Princess Cassima (who is just about your son's age, how convenient!). After a little chat, you can explore the rest of the castle.

Princess Cassima
From this point onwards, the puzzles are unforgiving and the deaths come quick. The evil wizard Mordack can appear in most areas and kill you with ease, and seemingly does this at random. Furthermore, his brother Mannanan (turned into a cat by your son), will summon his brother if he notices you. Even the furniture is watching you, and it does certainly up the tension (and the possible frustration factor). What's more, there is a random even where you can be captured by a brutish blue creature, and put in the dungeon. If you fail to get captured, you miss an item needed to finish the game.
A creepy bedroom for a thoroughly creepy man.

Mordack's wand recharging station.
The last item you need to finish the game is Mordack's wand, which you steal while he sleeps (you hide in the library for this, and hopefully read a spellbook while you wait). Mordack has a rather nifty contraption to charge his wand, and it's just what you need to put some sparkle into yours. After placing the two wands on the pedestals, only the best dungeon-mousehole-aged cheese will power the machine. The power transfers from his wand to yours, and all is set for the duel - to the death! (multiple deaths perhaps for you, but importantly one death for him).

Your family's captor, the wizard Mordack! (he seems to be a little angry)

It's at this point that Cedric wanders back in through a window, and inadvertently takes a (magical) bullet for you, redeeming himself entirely. Somehow this doesn't slow Mordack too much, and you end up in a shapeshifting battle. Each move he makes can be countered, until finally you douse his flame with a small rainstorm. Cue celebratory music, and your family is rescued (as is Cedric). Roll end credits!
Some mystical spells

Dodging the dragon's breath as a nimble rabbit.
Playing through the game again it becomes a relatively short experience, I managed to finish it in a little over two hours (128 minutes, approx.). There's probably an argument in there about game length and value for money, but for me the experience will always be well received, as it's qualities more than make up for the length. Besides, the game's length is only short because I remembered the puzzle solutions so easily. Without that memory, there are several puzzles that would have had me perplexed for hours without easy access to a hint guide or walkthrough.
Graham, back with his loving family.
The next game in the series would see Prince Alexander take up the reins again, hopefully he'll manage to avoid pissing off too many powerful wizards. It also sees the return of Princess Cassima, and is generally considered to be the high point of the series. But there are plenty of other games in my queue before that!
Game complete! With maximum points too.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Indie Gaming: Torchlight 2

Starting Torchlight 2 was a strange experience for me. I had tried the first game in the series some time ago, but had bounced right off it almost immediately. The style and tone of the game seemed to lean towards light-hearted humour rather than the diablo-like grimdark I was expecting.

The second game was not that much different, only this time the plot assumed some amount of previous experience with the series. Even now, I don't really have much appreciation for the world or it's oddly named residents, as it is a little light on in-game explanations.

Mechanically though, the game is sound. It took very little time for me to happily start bashing evil dudes and getting that precious experience points and loot. I've even restarted the game entirely to swap my character class, and despite repeating the first sections of the game I enjoyed it almost as much the second time around.

The large, open environments are certainly part of the charm. The entire game is reminiscent of Diablo 2, but with it's own style running throughout. Of course this is to be expected with some common staff between the two games, but it doesn't suffer for this comparison. The music in particular I found excellent, a perfect match for the atmosphere the game creates.

It can be difficult to create a fantasy world these days, you can easily fail by either sticking too close to a Tolkien-like formula, or by straying too far away. Torchlight 2 departs from the normality of generic fantasy, and instead opts for a collection of disparate peoples. You are introduced to them as you progress through the world, but I feel like none have quite the impact that they could, beyond being different for differences sake. Perhaps had I played the first game I'd be more attuned to the lore of the game.

It's the mechanics which make the game stand out more, and the way each level and dungeon has been so lovingly crafted. Even silly side-quests have a lot of thought put into them, such as the pirate-themed, Goonies-referencing quest to defeat the ghost of One-Eyed Willy, or the occasional mazes and other puzzle sections.

While the evidence is there of things borrowed from the previous games the developers have worked on, they have also learned from past experience and looked to improve upon other games of this type. Each character class has their own unique abilities, but the level of choice allows you to tailor your character to suit your play style. I prefer ranged combat and passive abilities to boost my character, and began with an Outlander (with dual pistols), before switching to an Ember Mage (elemental magic).

To a certain extent, it's all about clicking, timing and so forth, but it's that myriad of small choices that typify this genre, and Torchlight 2 does it rather well. You can sacrifice attack speed for range or power, or perhaps rely on tailoring your attacks towards your enemies elemental weaknesses. Do you rain fire from far away, or get stuck into the thick of the action?

I found the most fitting style for myself was the magic using route, which combines ranged attacks with great visuals. The range of spells is based largely on four elemental forces, and I've chosen to stick with mainly fire and electric attacks. As with many skill trees (although this isn't exactly a tree, but certain skills unlock at certain levels), there are some skills that appear more useful than others and certainly it seems prudent to level up a small variety of skills rather than trying them all. You can respec to a certain degree, but you can't rely on that too much. I imagine on harder difficulties it would require a little planning ahead to get the best balance.

Equipment is as usual for such games, plentiful and varied. The basic stuff you find in abundance merely serves to provide a contrast for those more exotic pieces that occasionally fall into your lap. On top of that, there are a few ways to boost the usefulness of your existing equipment. Item sets give you bonuses for matching items from that set, but they generally are minor. Enchanters can be found to boost the stats on your items in a particular way for a stack of gold (for example, you might find one that will enchant items with fire three times, adding damage to weapons or resistance to armour). Finally there are the sockets. Some items come with sockets, and you can find ways to increase the amount of sockets, and they can be very useful. Socketable items range from the basic elemental types to rarer and unique ones. It's a minor variation of the Diablo II formula, but provides a similar experience. It's better in some ways due to unique weapons sometimes being able to be socketable, and I've usually tried to get at least one socket on each item I use (some have four!).

So far I've made it perhaps about half way through the game, two thirds at best. The game can get a bit repetitive at times, but I feel that's an issue I have with the genre in general rather than this game in particular. Sometimes the large maps with only a small variety of enemies can overstay their welcome. The big set-piece boss fights are very good though, and I only wish the filler content was a touch better at times.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Civilization V: A Few More Turns...

So I recently bought a lovely new laptop, one that can play most relatively modern games (nothing too fancy, but so long as I don't push the detail levels too high everything is fine!). The first thing to do when playing around on a new computer is to install a few games and check out how well everything runs on the new hardware, so I installed and played a few games that are part of my backlog.

Then I hit Civilization V.

I'd bought the game a long while ago, in some steam sale or other, and had been buying the DLC when it got really cheap. I knew my old laptop would struggle with it, but this new one should easily cope. Over 1000 turns later, I think the testing phase has long finished!

I still haven't formed a full opinion of this fifth version versus the previous games I've played in the series (Civ2 and Civ4). With all the DLC I have, it certainly presents an awful lot of interesting mechanics, but I have yet to fully grasp the benefits and drawbacks of the different possible playing styles.

Currently with Egypt, I'm just about the world-leading power, something I have accumulated by generally avoiding war and accumulating new technology and culture. A culture victory seems very far away though, so I might just try for the spaceship victory. I potentially could go to war, but I'm not overly sure how easy that would be.

Until then, I wonder whether picking "marathon" for my first game was truly the best choice...

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Winter's Greetings, Seasonal Salutations and so forth.

It has been months (months!) since I last updated this blog, and to be honest I feel like I've let my loyal readers down (all two of you). I am hoping to have a few more reviews, and general thoughts about gaming in the coming months (starting January, perhaps).

My current list of games to finish and write about is still slowly increasing, although thankfully I have avoided spending much on the winter sales so I can hopefully get things under some amount of control.

I have recently been playing Torchlight 2, and will probably write about that at some point, although I feel bad now for having dismissed the first Torchlight after only ~20 minutes of play. Anyone care to comment if it's worth going back to take a look?

The other game that has completely consumed my time is GTAV, which unfortunately is on my shiny new PS4, so I feel it doesn't quite conform to the usual content of the blog, which has been primarily PC gaming focused. I am toying with the idea of extending the blog towards television, films and the like, so perhaps I will update more often if I can discuss a more varied set of topics.

So until next year, I hope you all eat more than you should, have plenty to drink and generally have an enjoyable time, wherever you might be.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Kickstarting: Star Command

All pictures from http://www.starcommandgame.com
Star Command interested me immediately as soon as I'd heard about it. In it's current mobile version, it puts you in charge of a small starship, and lets you explore strange new worlds and so on and so forth. The Star Trek influence is perhaps most strong, but the game has plenty more to offer. It's a little bit X-COM, a little bit FTL and also vaguely reminiscent of Star Control.

You begin by gathering a crew together, and assembling your choice of ship and it's components. You have a limited ability to upgrade your ship and it's rooms, all based on a token system. Those tokens are also used when hiring new crew members, and come in three varieties: Red for weapons/tactical, Blue for science/medical and Yellow for Engineering/Repair. The colour coding is maintained throughout crew uniforms and room d├ęcor, for easy reference.

I have played through a few missions and have enjoyed the touch-screen interface and even enjoyed the mini-games required for ship weapon firing (unusual for me, I usually detest mini-games!). The game has a great atmosphere, putting you in a variety of interesting situations with various aliens that you meet along the way (usually involving some sort of fight).

The art style and music are top-notch, and the background art in particular is brilliant. There are plenty of little humorous parts too, generally when reading the descriptions about equipment upgrades.

My main reason for backing the game is to see a full PC version, which unfortunately has been delayed. The main reason for this though is the vastly improved scale and scope of the PC version, which has the full name of "Star Command: Galaxies". This should mean a user interface more suited to a mouse than a touchscreen, and more opportunity to explore and upgrade your ship. Modding support was also a kickstarter goal which was reached, which can only be a benefit for this sort of game.

To bide my time between now and whenever in future Galaxies comes out, kickstarter backers were given a copy of the mobile version and will receive a port of the mobile version for PC/Mac when that is released (hopefully before the end of 2014).

The promises have sounded fantastic so far, and given that they have excelled themselves in delivering on a great mobile game I have high hopes for the PC version.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Quest For Glory II: Trial By Fire

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Quest For Glory series is one of my personal favourite game series of all time. It blends elements of adventure gaming with solid RPG mechanics, and remains entertaining even through repeated playthroughs.

Gate Plaza, home to Ali Chica and later the Fire Elemental.

I've completed the game numerous times previously, so for this playthrough (Playing alongside both The Adventure Gamer and The CRPG Addict) I'm continuing the challenge from the first game: Finish with maximum character attributes. I managed this quite easily in the first game, but this one was a greater challenge. The first game has a maximum of 100 points for any attribute, this one has 200, but it's not the increased numbers that pose the challenge, but rather the reduced opportunity to train in certain skills.
Having 100 for everything makes the game quite easy.

152 Gold sounds like a lot, but adventurers have a lot of expenses!

I began by working on the easy stuff, and since I know my way around the game like the back of my hand, it progressed very well at first. The early parts of the game are quite slow in regards to plot development, allowing the player to become accustomed to the different location and local intrigue. There are a number of time limits in the game, which can be an issue but generally it wasn't an issue to finish the main quest items and leave time for training.

Dinarzad, the money changer (and fellow thief)

Keapon Laffin, funny guy.

Your initial trouble in Shapeir concerns four elementals that will destroy the city without your intervention. There's generally only one way to defeat them, and they show up in a specific order with limited but plentiful time to vanquish them. Generally, there is little difference in how you defeat them depending on character class.
Ali Fakir, Saurus seller.

The Dervish in the desert, by the oasis. A whirl of his beard fetches a good amount of coin from Keapon Laffin (an infinite amount thanks to a bug, later fixed in a patch but still present in the GOG.com version)

One of the things which makes the first game in the series really stand out is the way each class finds different ways to solve puzzles. Often this was brute force for the Fighter, spells for the Magic User and something a little more crafty for the thief. This second game has far fewer moments like this, and whilst it has class-specific content (well, it relies on certain attributes so someone with a multi-class can do them all), that content is rather brief. The biggest exception to this is the endgame, which is very well done.
From left to right: Houdini, Aziza, Ad Avis, The Dark Master, Zara, Erasmus, Erana, Merlin.

Elementary, dear wizard!

For the Magic User, you get a (somewhat meaningless) upgrade to Wizard (all the cool wizard stuff comes next game) at the Wizards Institute of Technocery, or WIT. You select your sponsor (only the whimsical Erasmus from the first game is available, but it's worth trying to pick the others that have pictures in the main hall), and after an initial very easy test, it's on to the test proper. To continue the elemental theme, you have four challenges each relating to Earth, Wind, Water and Fire. If you've remembered to buy all the spells from Keapon Laffin, this shouldn't be too hard.

Shema's dance, a somewhat odd inclusion to the game!

The poet Omar, definitely not the Sultan.

The thief has to find a fellow practitioner of pilfering peoples prized possessions for profit. A few thief signs later, and you find that the money changer has another side to her. She'll let you know where to break in, and fence your goods too (on a strictly platonic basis, despite the flirting). The easy one is Issur the weapon maker's shop, who has a big stash under an anvil. Harder is the second and only other place you can break into in Shapeir, but it's very much worth it and a challenge to get every last item.
Abdulla has a fondness for exaggeration.

The fighter gets a raw deal, and only has the Eternal Order of Fighers initiation, which occurs at the tail end of the Shapeir section of the game. It's not a great bit, and if you do it incorrectly you can foul up your chances of making Paladin. (See also, attacking the Griffin. A tough fight, but counts as a dishonourable action).
Once you've proved yourself in Shapeir, you might get to practice your skills with Rakeesh the Liontaur.

As for the Paladin, well, you aren't officially a Paladin until the very end of the game, so the class specific content is really more a case of trying to be a good and honest person. Not too difficult really!
Julanar, trapped in a tree in the desert. Help from a hero required!

Once the Elementals are out of the way, there's a little quest to solve to get the ingredients for a dispel potion. It wouldn't be a Quest for Glory without a dispel potion recipe, and as usual some parts are easy and others harder. One potion cures Ad Avis' apprentice Al Scurva, One is for the Emir Arus Al-Din, and I can't remember if the third one is required at all. Just a spare I guess!

I guess this part is optional, but helping Al Scurva here does give you a warning about Ad Avis (not that it does you much good)

After you've managed to free the man from in the beast (familiar eh?), it's time for the caravan to Raseir! You can actually walk to Rasier earlier in the game (takes a hell of a long time though), but you're not allowed entry so it's amusing but pointless. The caravan is beset by bandits and such, but thankfully you're a mighty hero and so you arrive in Raseir without much delay.

Dawn, the caravan rides today!

The caravan is beset by a horde of brigands, but that's off-screen.

The aftermath.

Raseir itself is a shadow compared to Shapeir, empty streets and broken tiles. Darkness hangs thick in the air, and evil men rule with an iron fist. The only place of interest initially is The Blue Parrot, a bar owned by the rather despicable Signor Ferrari and filled with film and TV references. Ferrari has a job for a thief, but otherwise has little interest in a hero.

The Blue Parrot. Lovely plumage.

The room isn't quite to Shapeir standards.

Your main job here is to come to the aid of the Emir's daughter, Zayishah, meet the resistance leader (who happens to be Shema's cousin), and fall into Ad Avis' trap. The first merely requires your change of clothes and visa (don't worry, you won't need them!). The second occurs by the accident of you getting arrested and thrown in jail, and the third is a consequence of your escape from jail.

My reversal spell does nothing!

Ad Avis is working with a prophecy, the same as you. He seeks the Iblis, a powerful creature that he wants to use to defeat his master (who we will meet in the future!). Of course, such prophecies are often misinterpreted, and whilst you initially are forced to do his bidding (damn his spells getting past my Reversal spell!), once he has the statue of Iblis, you find yourself a ring.

Dither too long, and Iblis is released with terrible consequences!

In the ring? It's only a Djinni! Much like Aladdin's Genie of the Lamp, he will grant you three wishes. One has to be used to teleport to the Iblis and foil Ad Avis' plans, but that leaves you two to wish for great fortune or a boost to your skills. At this point I must reveal that I had failed in my task to maximise my attributes. I had foolishly not maxed out Communication before leaving Shapeir, and Raseir left scarce ways to improve it. The other problem was Climbing, which was 100 from my imported character but alas, there is not a single place I could find to improve that skill. I had thought I would be able to use two wishes to max out Climbing, but it turns out that isn't possible. So instead I spent it on Communication and Climbing, leaving them at 239 and 150 respectively.

The Djinn bids me farewell. Not in picture: Ad Avis falling to his death.

Disheartened, I headed for the endgame anyway. Initially, I attempted the thief endgame, which is quite different to the others. I enjoyed sneaking through the harem, one of the more amusing parts of a generally very funny game (especially if you like puns). But the battle with Ad Avis was tricky. I decided to try a mixture of the Fighter and Magic User methods, storming the main doors to defeat the guards, then using my magic to defeat Ad Avis once and for all! (Until next time!).

Let the celebrations begin!

Three more games, in fact. Plus a new game: Hero-U!

My reward for my troubles was the eternal gratitude of the peoples of Shapeir and Raseir, a bunch of money, being adopted by the Sultan as his son, and getting a flaming sword from the Liontaur Rakeesh! Not bad for a few weeks work.

Those final stats, negative experience (another bug), shameful 150 in climbing!

I seem to have lost all my money somewhere, but I have plenty of pills so I'll be fine.

I have unfortunately failed in my challenge though, and I'm really not sure what to do about that, other than perhaps playing the VGA remake, where they kindly added in ways to boost your climbing skill.
Pictured: Not actually the next game! QFG3 would be named Wages of War, and it wouldn't be until QFG4 before we see the Shadows of Darkness.