Last Rant

Last Rant on Video Games: Woomy! [Splatoon]

If you've somehow not heard about Splatoon, despite listening to this podcast, then you should at least go check it out.  It's surprisingly fun and has remarkably deep gameplay for a title intended for children.  If you haven't been following, I play quite a bit and really enjoy the game, not to mention kicking around the subreddit.  If you've come to read my praise of the game, though, you'll be a bit disappointed.

An idea occurred to me a couple days ago, largely influenced by one of the more enlightening episodes of Extra Credits.  I've posted it a couple times because I think it's a really important concept, but I'll quickly break it down for the benefit of the video disinclined.

Basically, the idea is that many games have first order optimal (FOO) strategies.  These are options available to the player that have a high result to skill ratio.  Saying this another way, they're things you can do that are really easy, but make you feel like you're doing something useful.  A well-designed game will usually have at least one of these readily apparent to the player, and then other strategies that require more skill, but yield higher benefit.  The problem is when the higher level techniques require much more skill than mastering them yields.  This will cause many players to abandon attempting to learn the next level strategies and, therefore, to never progress through the game.

A great example of a FOO strat that's relevant to this discussion is grenade launchers in CoD.  While I hesitate to praise the series much (it's a lot of fun, but the constant churn has staled it a lot), I think these are great.  They allow low skill players to feel engaged against higher skilled players because of the instant kill, but, due to low ammo capacity and low fire rate, are clearly not the best option available.  New players feel like they're participating and, hopefully, don't drop out of the community in the face of others using more effective strategies.

Splatoon doesn't have the problem of an overpowered FOO, however.  This was a problem that, until yesterday, I didn't even realize existed.  I then played a couple matches with Zach and Ed; my suspicions were confirmed.  Splatoon lacks a clear FOO strat, and, to my knowledge, one at all.  Some weapons are agreed to be worse, but the "better" weapons all have pretty balanced traits. 

Additionally, there's the motion control scheme which feels super awkward to veteran gamers.  It certainly took me a long time to get used to it, but I agree with the majority of the community that it's the superior control scheme.  There's the novel movement mechanic to master.  There are tactical tricks at ledges, and a lot of maps to learn.  All of this equates to a pretty large learning curve to climb to compete with moderately skilled players.

What I'm leading up to with this is that, while a fun game, and while ranked matches do a pretty good job sifting you to players of roughly your skill level, you must reach level 10 before you can play in ranked matches.  A year ago, this didn't matter, since everyone was new.  Playing with Zach yesterday, though, made me really wish that unranked matches at least tried to create level-balanced lobbies.  He was constantly being destroyed (maybe not actually constantly; he did pretty well in a few matches) by people that have a year of experience on him.  Compared to other newbies, he was dominating.  The overall effect, though, seemed to instill a feeling of disenfranchisment because there was no clear way to compete with people who have had so much time to work on their game.

Now, I fear, we might be causing new players to leave the game simply because they can't keep up.  Especially with the holidays and a potential flood of new players, we're likely to see a huge number of people pick up a new game, only to put it right back down for something else.  This problem is generally applicable to competitive games (it was a large factor in me never really getting into SF IV), but Splatoon is supposed to be kid friendly, and I weep for their poor lost souls.

So, for the sake of the community, try to go easy on new players, and avoid driving them away from a great game.

Or, do as Reddit suggests, and initiate a trial by fire. ^_^

Last Rant on Videogames: Oh, How the Mighty are Magic

What's this?!  A post from Tyler?  No way!

Yes, I've gotten off my lazy arse to ramble for a bit.  Really, not much of a change, but it's in text again!  Now, on to this week's subject.

It is not often that I am nostalgic for games of my youth, and it is rarer yet that I find that nostalgia validated upon further inspection.  Generally, games that I don't remember well but remember fondly tend to be a bit disappointing.  No surprise there, really.  However, there is one game that holds a special place in my heart that might be objectively terrible.  Alex likes it, too, though, so it must be at least enjoyable.

Those who know me occasionally are pitched the request to play what I refer to as Heroes.  Once upon a time, when I was but a lad of 12 or 13 (my lad-esque qualities were waning by this point), my dad brought home a computer for repair.  Stuck inside this computer's CD tray was a game I would later dump several hundred hours into.  The disc bore the rather grandiose image of a blue genie doin' his genie thing.  I wasn't sure what to think, but I was lucky in that I had a computer to run it.

I popped the disc into my tower, a stately HP in awkward ivory, and let it install.  To this day, it complains about not having DirectX 6 or so.  After a rather silly intro, which I thought was amazing at the time, the game begins with some of the best menu music ever.  It's bright, colorful, loud, and ostentatious.  I can't quite tell, even know, how serious they intended it to be, but they got a great combination regardless of intent.

Heroes of Might and Magic 3 is a game about all of generic fantasy being segregated into their logical divisions (because dwarves love golden dragons) at war with each other.  There's a story of some sort, I suppose.  The queen of Erathia, one of the long standing countries, finds itself beset by devils and troglodytes while the elves and wizard guys are reluctant to help because it's expensive.

That genie earlier?  He accidentally pledged himself for the life of his master to an immortal, who happens to be the ruler of the wizards.  Oops.

At any rate, lets get down to the meat of the game.  When you first start, you're often treated to piles of text boxes explaining the story behind the scenario.  These are useless, but mildly interesting on some of them.  The world map is a sprawling expanse of forests, oceans, subterranean caves, and volcanic wastelands.

You, brave general, have a guy on a horse.  This is an avatar of that person and their potentially enormous army.  You may consume your green bar next to the hero's portrait to move around.  Essentially, you wander around the map, collecting resources and production points while revealing the fog of war.  At times, you'll come across large structures that are home to your rivals.  Your own larger structures allow you to recruit various hordes of monsters to help defend your kingdom.  The goal, usually, is to take as many of these creatures from your home towns, give them to however many heroes you have recruited, and stomp the life out of your opponents.

Life stomping is actually pretty fun, if a bit... broken.  Monsters are divided neatly into tiers, ranging from 1 (imps, centaurs, guys with pikes) to 7 (angels, devils, dragons).  Every tier, barring some neutral units, also has an elite version, which may be obtained by taking them to a point on the map specializing in upgrading units, or, more easily, just building the appropriate structure at home.

The combat is turn-based on a hex grid.  Units of the same type may be stacked, and the limit on the stack is so absurdly high I've never found it.  You can have 1000 halberdiers all attacking a single archer if you wish.  A stack has a speed, mostly determined by the type of unit.  This speed not only determines turn order, but how many hexes that stack can move in a round.  Attacking almost always results in a counter-attack from each enemy stack as it is hit the first time.  This lends some strategy to the combat, as you must decide which of your units must take that first hit each round.  Because of this, though, the correct option, if you can manage it, is almost always overwhelming force.

Units can do some special stuff, too.  Some prevent counter-attacks.  Some, primarily dragons, can hit multiple enemy stacks.  Ranged units are exceptionally useful, especially when defending against a siege.  Ranged attackers have limited ammo, though you'll rarely encounter the limit, and do half damage to enemies farther than halfway across the combat map.  Sieges against towns encounter defenses which may be purchased, including moats, walls, and archer towers.

While I enjoy having waves of hydras wash over my enemies, the real power in this game, especially as your avatars gain levels, is magic.  Heroes are divided into two attribute trees.  Might heroes level more readily in attack power (affecting your stacks' combat prowess) and defense.  Magic heroes instead get (spell) power and knowledge, every point of which yields 10 more MP.  Spells range from allowing your stacks to do maximum damage (almost all units do a range of damage) to throwing AOE fireballs to resurrecting your own units.  Some utility spells, such as Town Portal, will allow you to move around the map or summon a boat so you can cross water.  A single well-placed lightning bolt can make up for lacking a stack of 7th level creatures, so it's often my preferred path.

Your heroes may, in addition to learning spells and gaining the aforementioned attributes, also learn various skills.  Old witches in huts will teach you some, and your hero's type will affect which ones they have an opportunity to learn upon gaining a new level.  Wisdom allows you to learn more complex spells, luck affects how often your stacks will strike critically, intelligence will grant more spell points.  There are a wide variety of abilities, though Expert Earth Magic/Town Portal is a tad gamebreaking on large maps.  The right trees depend on your play style, the map, and the number of heroes you've got mucking about.

Of course, some skills are stupid, and we say bad things about them.

Additionally, there are an assortment of artifacts laying about the map that may buff your attributes, render your units immune to certain spells, or grant you knowledge of certain abilities.  The right allocation of artifacts (read "all of them!") can guarantee your victory in many situations.

In your towns, you may spend the resources you gather to recruit monsters and, once per turn in each town, build a new structure.  Some have prerequisites, but they mostly provide the units specific to each town.  All towns, unless restricted by scenario, may build a Castle, the highest level of defensive structures available.  This becomes confusing given that one of the town types is also called Castle.  Yeah...

All the towns have some unique structures, but my favorite is one of the Rampart's (generic woodland stuff; the most Tolkein themed).  The Treasury gives you a 10% bonus to your gold at the start of a new week, which can be pretty useful if you horde it appropriately.

The different types of towns seem to be a bit unbalanced, with Castle and Rampart on the top, and Fortress/Stronghold (I consider them roughly tied) and Necropolis on the bottom.  While I enjoy playing as most of them, it hurts when your most powerful creatures are clearly inferior to the enemies'.  I haven't actually bothered to do the math on it, but I suspect someone has dissected this.  All the towns have a unique flavor though, and their own theme music when you're viewing them.

Speaking of music, the tracks in this game are amazing.  Some are appropriated from public commons stuff, but it's a symphonic wonder, each action accompanied by a fanfare regardless of its actual relevance.  It's fun to listen to, and gives some slight reinforcement for playing the game.

In all, it's a fun game, but it's pretty unbalanced, and has some FOO strategies that may actually be universally optimal.  It's not hard to find these days, and has a pretty substantial fan base despite its age.

Last Rant on Videogames: Heroes and Hostages

I've been talking a bit lately about returning to a game of my youth.  Way back when, the other hosts and I went to a cyber cafe and played long hours of Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat, shouting at each other across the room and generally having a grand ol' time.  Given that we were the only ones there most days, I don't find it hard to believe that they went out of business, but it was one of my first encounters with the now bloated genre that is FPS games.
In preparing for this article, and to back up some wild claims I planned on making, I stumbled across this list, which is fairly complete, and highly informative.  That said, Counter-Strike doesn't even make an appearance.  Given that this was one of the most defining entries to the genre for me, I am a little surprised.  I suppose it might fall under the tactical FPS genre, but I feel they're all fairly similar.

At any rate, I feel that, while it's definitely not the first, it might have been one of the most defining games for what we see in modern shooters today.  I've played my share of Call of Duty, and have never found it terribly engaging.  Yes, I'll play indefinitely, but that's only because I have some primal craving for competition.  Really, though, I've felt these games somewhat lacking.  I always feel sluggish, have a far harder time aiming than it seems I ought, and randomly get caught on obstacles outside my peripheral vision.

Counter-Strike, by contrast, feels clean and fast.  Maybe it's just that I have a far easier time with computer controls, but there's a certain amount of frenetic energy in every match that I just don't get in a Slayer round, even though there's arguably more happening there.  Zach pointed out that it's probably because of the size of the maps, and I would further add the effectiveness of almost every weapon over the range of the map.  I think it would be folly to claim that the weapons behave realistically, but you can drop a guy from a fair distance away with a shotgun if you're persistent, which is a feat you should be able to accomplish if you were actually attempting it in our version of reality.

Let's break it down a bit.  The weapons come in multiple flavors, and are grouped for you.  I'll explain the mechanics of acquiring them in a moment.

Pistols are low in damage and fairly high in firing rate and accuracy.  They're side arms, and are used as such.  You won't generally have much use for them unless you need to reload in the middle of a fire fight, but having a good one can save your hide on occasion.

Shotguns are shotguns.  Have you played an FPS?  Then you're educated.

Submachine guns are good in this game at what they're supposed to be good at in real life.  They're the every-man's weapon.  They're great at mid to close range and allow you to spray bullets indiscriminately while more specifically armed teammates do the rest.  There's rarely a bad situation for one, unless the other guy's got a sniper rifle and you haven't noticed him.

Rifles come in two flavors, but are lumped under the same category.  Similar to SMGs, there are assault rifles.  You can think of them as the big brothers of most SMGs.  They've got a bit better accuracy at a distance, and some let you zoom your sight a bit.

Snipers, on the other hand, do massive damage from a range with insane accuracy.  Additionally, all guns fire in the exact center of your screen within an error tolerance, so it's quite possible to noscope everyone if you're good enough.

Finally, there's a machine gun.  Just one.  It never runs out of ammo.

There are also some grenades, of the flash, smoke, and HE varieties.  Buying some armor will often save you.  Really, I didn't need to tell you any of this, though.  IF you've ever played an FPS, you know this.

Counter-Strike, then differs in that every action may affect your bank account in some manner.  By default, you have a limit of $16000, but you'll be hard pressed to get there very often.  Killing guys gets you more money, as does completing some of the map objectives.  By default, you start with a small amount and participate in what is known as the "pistol round."  Because you have so little money, the only thing you may buy is a new pistol, and everyone tries to kill each other with them.  It can be one of the more amusing moments in the game, but since the winning team of each round is awarded bonus cash, it can really decide the opening momentum of the game.  The weapons between the opposing sides, Terrorists and Counter Terrorists, don't differ much, but I feel that the Terrorists have a better pistol available.

When you get enough cash, you can start buying your preferred loadout for the map.  Some people love their shotguns, while others hang back with rifles and let others do the dirty work.  It partially depends on which team you're on and the map style.

In the standard Source game, there are only two game types, but near infinite maps if you're willing to look.  My preferred game type is CS, in which the terrorists must prevent the counter terrorists from escorting some number of hostages to escape zones.  I feel there's a bit more strategy involved in this game type, and can lead to some interesting experiences.

The other game type involves the terrorists attempting to plant a time bomb and make sure it detonates before the counter team defuses it.  You can totally be killed by the bomb.  Watch out for that.

Really, though, it comes down to really fast matches and a lot of action.  The downside is that each round is permadeath, so if you suck, you can expect to spend a lot of time not playing.  That said, the online scene is fierce.  The game's been around since '99, and most people who are playing it have been for a long time.  It took me a bit to ramp up to a point where I could feasibly participate, but thanks to copious TF2 and a non-trivial amount of time playing against the remarkably decent bot AI before venturing online, it wasn't too bad.

By the way, this game has bots, and they're pretty good.  If you're like me and have some irrational phobia of playing online, you can do that pretty much forever.

It's usually $5-10 on Steam, and not super graphically intense.  If you've got a decent computer, you can prolly run this without much trouble, and it satisfies and itch I didn't know I was trying to scratch.

That said, if you prefer more specialization in your actions, I might recommend just picking up TF2 instead.  It's pretty awesome, and free.

Last Rant on Videogames: It turned out to be more of an informal gathering than a challenge

No post last week and now this one's late?  I could give an excuse.  The last couple of weeks have been hectic; we've gotten a new cat, I've been participating in extracirriculars, and some odd events have come up.  Nothing too major, though.  Really, I'm just lazy.

That said, better late than never.  Even my own lassitude can't stop me from writing occasionally, only delay it.

I've mentioned this game a few times on the show, and I think it needs a small boost in its player base.  Still.  The game is Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, an insidiously addictive mix of what Alex would call housewife games and a generic fantasy RPG.

In a world where monstrous creatures and fey wildlings near some conveniently placed, and rather expansive, mountains, a young knight in training, but somehow not a squire, is about to embark upon an epic journey.  And by epic, we mean pretty generic, but cool, we guess.

The premise is that you fill the role of a character whose class you get to choose.  You're called a knight most of the time, which is a bit confusing given that knight is actually one of the classes, which you may or may not actually be.  Each class has its strengths and weaknesses, but they're not how you traditionally associate them.

That's because this is a game of resource acquisition.  Kinda.  You see, you spend most of this game in combat.  Thankfully, it's not random, so you know when a fight's coming.  However, you enter every fight with full health, so that's not really a concern.  Depending on your skills and equipment, you may also start with some mana. 

Your four battle resources, mana, are all flavors of the classic elements.  In order to garner yourself some more mana points, you must match three or more gems of the appropriate color on the board.  You get however many you matched, in addition to some bonuses based on your skills or equipment.  If you get four in a row, you nab an extra turn, and if you get five, you get the extra turn and a wildcard for any color and a bonus number of points.  You can deal damage to your opponent (I'll get to that) by matching skulls.  You can also pick up bonus experience and gold, but that matters less for winning a combat.

So far, it sounds pretty bland.  You've seen it before.  Where this game really shines is that each class learns different abilities to affect the board.  My personal favorite turns a large number of gems into red gems and skulls, making certain you can dish out some damage that round.  Red generally powers damaging/combat abilities, green and yellow play intermediate roles, and blue usually helps with healing.  While this role for the elements isn't particularly new, it does lend a bit of strategy to what is otherwise a mind numbing diversion.

You and your opponent take turns matching gems and making use of your abilities to put an end to each other.  You can learn new abilities by capturing enemies, done by solving a puzzle, forge weapons, done by collecting runes and getting really lucky, pay money to train skills, buy new equipment, and generally minmax your way to victory.  It's a lot of fun, even if every combat is essentially the same.

This game has two main failings.  If you've been following some of the links, you may have gotten my impression of the story. 

Spoiler: it's super generic.

Great spoilers, I know.

Basically, some undead guy is threatening your kingdom, but you're constantly getting sidetracked, usually by orcs or something.  Eventually, you'll have a showdown with him, and... you win or something?  It's actually a pretty clean cut ending, and some of the characters are amusing, but the story itself is nothing to write home about.  I don't know how many of you are abroad while reading this, but save yourself the postage.  We have the Internet.

My second complaint about this game is that the combat is essentially random.  On occasion you're given a wonderful setup to exploit with one of your ability combos, but it's pretty much up to luck to guide you to victory.  This makes it mildly frustrating when you keep losing combats because you only get to make two moves while your opponent gets to make ten moves in a row.  Thankfully, the penalty for a loss is pretty light; you just have to try again.

Though it's definitely flawed, the idea is genius.  It's a ton of fun, and disturbingly good at picking at your neuroses.  Humans have this tendency to notice patterns, and this game exploits and abuses the fact that we enjoy doing so.  It's definitely worth a look, especially if you own a 3DS since it's on the VC there.  However, this game came out on damn near everything.

From what I've heard, the sequel is superior in just about every way, but I haven't yet gotten around to letting that game consume my life for a while.  It's pretty well suited to "pick up and set down" styles of play, but you'll have a hard time actually setting it down because you were so close to beating that damn centaur and if you could just get that one combo off maybe you could win and...

You might see where that's going.  Give it a try if you feel like wondering where you lost a few hours.

Last Rant on Videogames: Burn Into Glory

Despite what my compatriots may say about the matter, I enjoy racing games.  I've always gotten a lot of enjoyment out of them, especially when they feed my compulsion to fully complete a game by giving me plenty of unlockables.  My first exposure to the genre, other than F-Zero and Super Mario Kart, was Cruisin' USA.  It's a bit clunky by today's standards, but the old arcade cabinets with pedals and gear shifters were, and still are, incredibly fun.  Enough so, in fact, that one of my first N64 games was Cruisin'.

However, as the tone was set by these more arcade-styled games, I grew to substantially prefer such games to the arguably more realistic racers.  I'm still a fan of Mario Kart in its many incarnations, and the most realistic one I've played for longer than a few hours is NFS: Most Wanted.

There is one of these games, in particular, that I have gotten way more use out of than I think the developers anticipated.  I think they hoped for it, though.  That game is Burnout 3: Takedown.  If you watched that video just now, that's a pretty good portrayal of the game.

Basically, you race and brawl across various routes that are geographically themed.  The twist here, as most racing games seem to have one, is that you can cause your opponents to wreck.  Gloriously.  The game rewards you heavily for it, too.  In order to reach top speed in any vehicle, you need boost.  You get it by taking risks while driving.  Driving into oncoming traffic? Boost!  Almost hitting a civilian? Boost!  Driving like an aggressive asshole behind your opponent? Boost!

You might begin to see a theme.

It's a ton of fun, puts you right back in the action when you crash, offers several game modes that capitalize on the chaotic mayhem inherent in the game's engine, and has hours of content.  If you like driving really fast, crashing, and seeing massive wrecks caused by your own hand, you'll love this game.  It also has a pretty killer soundtrack of high energy songs to fuel your rampages.  The one I mentioned 2 weeks ago is one I was introduced to by this game.

As I mentioned last week, though I got a new computer.  I also picked up the Ubisoft Humble Bundle.  One of the games in it was a sequel to this, my favorite of all racing games.  I'm talking about Burnout: Paradise.

Take everything (well, almost everything, but I'll get to that) I just said about Burnout 3.  Imagine it in a large, sprawling city similar to L.A. or Hollywood.  Big highway overpasses, crowded urban areas, a mountainous area surprisingly devoid of population.  Toss in a couple of abandoned areas full of debris for flavor and things to jump off of.  Then, imagine you can drive around this city at will, exploring its nooks and crannies, learning the shortcuts, finding all the hidden goodies.  Then, add races and road rages similar in style to the original at every intersection.  It brings a tear to my eye.

I've heard a lot of negativity about this game, but at the low price of about $4 (the average of what I paid for all the games in the aforementioned bundle), I could take the risk.

Not only was I not disappointed, I was quite pleasantly surprised.

It's a damned solid game.  It helps me scratch my exploration itch by making sure there's plenty of collectibles to find in the city, and it incentivizes learning the terrain so that you can more ably cream your foes.

There are also several types of boost collection in this game.  The old style from Burnout 3 is called aggression; you gain some boost by taking risks, but a huge amount and a higher max from taking down an opponent.  Stunt gives you more for, unsurprisingly, doing stunts; jumping off of stuff, awesome spins, and crazy drifts all count towards your total in this category.  Speed is the trickiest.  You have a shortish bar that fills doing any of the normal crazy stuff you would only do in a videogame.  Once you get it full, you must use it all or be forced to fill it again.  If you manage this feat, you have accomplished what the game calls a Burnout.  If you've filled your gauge while doing this, you get to keep boosting and can chain these together.  On vehicles that have this, you often do really well until that one tight turn.

One of the new, at least to me, ways to play is in a stunt mode.  Cars with stunt boost, obviously, excel at this type of event.  You have to accrue some number of points by engaging in reckless driving.  Certain activities, like ruining one of the game's billboards or staying airborne for long periods of time, add multipliers to your current run, which lasts until you crash or do nothing interesting for a while.  I mentioned a bit ago that there are abandoned areas full of debris.  One such spot is reminiscent of an old air yard and has some suspended cement tubes you can do flying barrel rolls through.  It's pretty sweet.

In addition to a small army of secret places to find and billboards to smash, you also unlock new cars.  The method of doing so is, thus far, twofold.  One is to upgrade your license, which is accomplished by just beating a certain number of unique events.  The other happens when you finish certain events.  You are informed that a rival in the new car will be driving around town.  Occasionally, the AI will deem you worthy to see them.  What then?  What else?  You take them down and drive off with their wreck.

There are, I think, about 35 cars you get in these manners.  Almost all of them also have unlockable upgraded forms that can only be achieved by finishing a solo race in that car.  It's enough to make my inner completionist twitch compulsively.

The game does have a few downsides.  The largest of them is that the ability to restart a race, while extant, is so obscured that it almost might as well not exist.  Additionally, the soundtrack is a bit lacking compared to its predecessor.  They did add a handful of classical tracks, though, which are fun to burn to.  If you don't like the music (I'm starting to get sick of it after about 15 hours or so), you can always turn it off and play something else.  It's a pain, but at least it's an option.

So, would I recommend this game?  Yes.  Very.  Also Burnout 3, but they're very similar.  We've mentioned a few times recently in our sequel binging that if you aren't done with a game yet, even though the game has finished, you might just go play a sequel.  This definitely falls into that category, but I would claim Paradise as the superior model.  Also, it's a bit old now, so it's fairly cheap even when it's not in a Humble Bundle, and available on a variety of platforms.

Keep burnin'!

Last Rant on Videogames: Quadrilaterally Inclined

In the interest of time, of which I seem to have little recently, this one's going to be brief.  This is fitting, I think, given the game I'll be talking about this time.

In the wake of getting a new computer, I also picked up a modest pile of games.  One might call it humble.  At any rate, one of these piles was actually donated to me by +Daxten Reiter, in some sort of crazy "charity" thing, wherein the proceeds benefit "philanthropic" organizations.  At any rate, among these was a game that caught my attention while reviewing my new prize.

What caught my attention the most was a light British accent commenting on Kryptonite.  The pieces of a planet rather than the actual element.  The game is Thomas Was Alone, a game about rectangles (of all dimensions, including squares).  It's a short game, and I've played some Flash games on a certain site that are equally ambitious, though lesser in their implementation.

Basically, your rectangles represent the corporeal forms of newly aware artificial intelligences, a pile of self-generating code that accidentally became sentient.  The first of these was the eponymous Thomas, a rectangle of middling abilities and a rather empiric bent.  Because the game is short, and reasonably cheap, I'll skip a lot of the details that make the game.

The boring part, the mechanics, are rather simple.  It's a platformer with fairly simple puzzles, most of which involve coercing your pointy minions into various formations so as to allow the lot of you to reach the outlined portals at the end of a stage, conveniently shaped for each of your polygonal friends.  You jump, mostly, and certain of your companions move in special ways, one functioning as a trampoline and another as a barge.

What really takes this game from being mediocre to enjoyable and compelling is the narration.  As I mentioned, you have an English accent describing the thoughts and motivations of all these squares to you.  You begin to see Thomas's fervor for knowledge, Chris's general disgruntlement, John's conceit over his superior... athleticism.  Over the course of the game, which will run you around 6 hours, you become quite attached to these little shapes.

There are even some heart-wrenching moments.  Over rectangles.  Seriously.

It's quirky and a bit funny, which, as I've often said, can make a game much brighter in my memory.  The music's fantastic, too.  It mostly goes unnoticed, but on occasion you will sit and mull over a puzzle and the sound of it hits you like a refreshing breeze, lending some frivolity to your machinations or some gloom to your joy, depending on where in the game you are.

The game is split up into chapters, though you mostly won't notice them going by.  Each chapter, however, is prepended with a statement from a former staff member at the company that accidentally created our lovable shapes, setting the tone for that chapter.  Later in the game, there's some remarkable foreshadowing to reinforce the game's moral.  Which, as far as I have gathered, is that teamwork is awesome and we should totally make some functioning A.I.s.

While I have said it is reasonably cheap, it runs $10 on Steam, which is more than I would have paid for it.  There exist some pretty awesome free games that address similar concepts almost as ably, lacking only the voiced narration.  I don't think that's a good reason to snub this one, though, and I definitely enjoyed it.

The long and short of this is, if you have some time to kill over a weekend or something and feel like exploring a strange and vast world through the... vertices of a newly sentient block of pixels, I would recommend picking this one up.  It feels good the whole way through.  It raises your expectations, defies them, and, ultimately, gives you the happy ending you wanted.

Last Rant on Videogames: Over the Counter Culture

First, I'd like to apologize about my last post; it was lacking compared to what I normally write.  I was in some sort of fugue state the entire week I tried to write it, and I just couldn't make it better for some reason.

Anywho, I've been listening to this song a lot lately, and it struck me as a good name for this particular post. That said, that's not at all what I'm talking about. Instead, let us discuss used games.

As those who read/listen regularly may know, I'm... cheap.  Stingy.  Miserly.  A downright parsimonious parson.  The vast majority of the games I play either come off of Steam for cheap or are borrowed from others.  Somehow, though, I've managed to accrue a fairly large collection of physical games.

There is a touch of irony in this, especially as I continue to buy physical games even though I'm such a proponent of digital distribution.  The sad truth is that I both love videogames and am motivated fairly strongly by continuing to have enough money to do other things.  Like eating.  Food is good, it turns out.  Additionally, a lot of publishers (and the systems that support them) have yet to catch on to the idea that they could be reaching a wider audience without much work.  Must be exclusivity agreements.

However, owing again to my unwillingness to spend money, especially on frivolous things like my own entertainment, I'm usually behind the gaming curve.  Both this and (I finally came back to it) the fact that I have a number of physical games are aided by the fact that there exists a fairly vast network for selling used games.  So long as I don't care that I'm not playing the latest and greatest (on a console, at any rate), I can get last year's hot items for a lot cheaper than I would have if I had bought them initially.

There are, obviously, pros and cons to this.  In fact, this has been a matter of some contention with the newest console generation in conception; used games greatly affect the gaming market and culture, and it's certainly not a trivial issue to those with a vested interest in sales.  I should like to talk about how used games are a wonderful thing before moving into the dark bowels of negativity.

If I haven't stressed it enough, cheap entertainment is always a good thing.  I often mention that I cannot mock another's activities overmuch for the reason that we all choose ways to waste time.  Some people waste time much more productively than others, but I strongly believe that a large amount of human endeavor is the result of people staving off the dark beast of boredom.  If you can manage this in such a way as to not go bankrupt, or, as Ed said recently, sustain your chosen method of time wasting, you have won at life.  Granted, there are multiple endings, so there are definitely ways to improve upon that.

This relates back to it being cheap, but, as I am proof, having your games cheaper increases circulation.  Every person who speaks favorably of a used game increases the chances that someone will buy it new.  If you're in it for the art (not the actual art, but more for intellectual fulfillment), just getting people to play your game is enough.  To that extent, I believe reselling of your games should be encouraged.  I could actually think of a number of interesting mechanisms that could lend incentive to this, though I doubt they'll ever be used.

A rarer condition might be the circulation of limited copies.  This is definitely an issue with older games, some of which might run you a few hundred dollars.  I was ecstatic when a copy of Ehrgeiz finally made it to my FLGS of the vidjmagame variety.

The pale underbelly of this issue, however, is that by not buying new copies, you're hurting the developers.  As the consumer (yes, a single monstrous entity), we have the power, and some might say the responsibility, to encourage developers by buying their stuff.  I wouldn't say I fall too heavily into that camp, but there is a certain amount of credence in that argument.  In fact, Extra Credits, a show that inspired my early attempts in the podcast to discuss something more useful during the episodes, harps on this quite a bit.

As an aside, if you don't watch Extra Credits and like videogames, you should.  For great justice.

As a counter to this, a lot of companies are moving towards more rigorous content control, but I don't think it's a terribly great move for either party.  Nintendo reps agree.

I think the biggest problem I have with buying used games is that you have to wait for them to be used.  Then, if you're me, you have to wait another year or two for the price to drop to a reasonable level.  Console aren't really that much more expensive to own (some might argue cheaper), despite what I've said, but $50-60 is a bit much for me.  By the time I get around to owning an acclaimed game, everyone's already played it.

I'm not super big on popular culture in general.  In fact, I actively try to avoid other people and whatever's going on outside my admittedly broadish interests.  However, I do have friends, and I like getting to discuss stuff with them.  Sometimes that stuff is an awesome new game.  There's a bit of a gestalt experience you miss out on throughout gamer culture if you choose to not jump aboard the next big game.  It's left me with quite an urge to go play BioShock Infinite, and before that, Skyrim.

Don't even get me started on console exclusivity.  I weep for my losses.

In the end of it all, I feel like it's beneficial to the community to allow, and maybe encourage, people playing your game regardless of the means.  The more people we have playing games, any games, the more we can overcome the stereotype of what it means to be a gamer.  There's a lot less stigma now than there used to be, but it's still there, and I hope that a larger, more diverse population will help eradicate it entirely.

Now, if only we could do the same for tabletop gamers.

Last Rant on Videogames: A Tale of Two Links

So, I mentioned a while ago that the Oracle games were on sale.  Unsurprisingly, I bought both and have been playing them.  I've gotten far enough in them that I'm going to talk about them briefly, because that's what I do!

This is one of the few Zelda games with what I would refer to as a gimmick.  Essentially, you play two completely separate games, but you can transfer items and powerups between them either by the old GB Link Cable.  If you don't know what that is, you're not missing much.  Basically, way back when, wireless communications weren't really a thing, so you needed an awkward cable that always got lost to link to GBCs.  Pokemon made copious use of it.

That's not super important, but it's kinda neat.  Basically, you have a game system based off of the old Link's Awakening system.  It looks a lot like the original Zelda; it's isometric-ish, 2D, fairly exploration heavy.  The games are unique from each other in terms of story and map, but share common controls and some items.  Some shared items include a bracelet for lifting stuff, seeds of varying effects, and the ability to jump.  Yeah, that last one's an item; it's a dirty feather.

I'm going to keep this one short, so here's the quick rundown.  Basically, Seasons is more action oriented while Ages is more puzzles oriented.  Both are pretty good games, actually.  I have said on more than one occasions that I prefer Seasons, but I don't think I ever gave Ages a fair shake.  After playing them through, Seasons first, I think I actually prefer Ages.

In keeping with the puzzly theme, Ages has complicated dungeons, a bit of weird time travel stuff to be doing on the world map, and not a lot of directed instructions.  Seasons, by contrast, focuses more on making you jump a lot.  The puzzles usually have pretty obvious solutions, and the dungeons are a bit more straightforward.  I found, upon my second playthrough of Ages, that I substantially prefer the dungeons in Ages.  They have more strenuous puzzles and more interesting design.  The last one also does a great job of tying together elements from all the previous ones.

Really, though, if these games stay as cheap as they were, both are easily worth the price.  While I do like the dungeon design in Ages more, the game is really only marginally better than Seasons, and both stand well on their own.  I got at least 15 hours out of both of them (though I don't think time is a good indicator of quality).  They're quite fun, and solid entries to the series.  If you like Zelda games and have never played these ones, I highly recommend grabbing one.  Or both.

Last Rant on Videogames: Alcubierre Was Wrong!

This may not make sense to some of you, but I'll link some stuff and it'll be clear.  This eventually has to do with videogames, I swear.  See, this guy named Miguel Alcubierre came up with a solution to Einstein's field equations.  This is kind of a thing that physicists do from time to time.  It's extremely difficult to find a solution, and there are rather a large number of them.  This and the fact that these equations describe the fundamental working of the universe as we know it, in additional to the weird way small particles behave, have given rise to new parallel world theories.

Not that this really has anything to do with parallel worlds, but it does have to do with a weird byproduct of the solution Alcubierre found.  Basically, in this solution, if there existed some weird form of matter that had negative mass, we could construct a ring of it, charge it (kinda) and warp reality around it.  You could have a ship inside of such a distortion traveling through space as it is compressed in front and expanded behind, and basically go faster than light.  Granted, we have never encountered negative mass.  And using the drive might destroy the universe eventually.  Also, NASA's totally working on it.

However, the actually subject of this has nothing to do with all that, other than showing that FTL, or faster than light if you're not a huge sci-fi enthusiast, is possible.  I mentioned last week that I picked up FTL in the Steam sale.  I realize that, as always, I'm a bit late to get onto big things.  It seems that months ago the entire Internet community was ablaze with commentary about it.  However, I didn't really get it.  I generally like Rogue-like games.  I've mentioned before that I like my Minecraft on hardcore.  Permanent character death has always appealed to me, though it's certainly not for every game.  Ocarina of Time would be a hellish first playthrough.

So, I read some reviews, the official site description, watched some gameplay.  I tried really hard to get excited about it.  However, I just couldn't justify spending any money on a game that I probably wouldn't play.  Something in all the hype was lost, and it just looked like a bland game about space.  Which, actually, puts it above a lot of other games for me.  Space is pretty cool, and not just thermally.  I generally like the fluff in those games, though.  I spent hours reading the setting stuff in Mass Effect, and read the entire dictionary in Until the End of Time.

I ignored it for a year.  However, I visited Ed in Germany this summer, and he was playing it a bit.  I was enthralled by watching it.  It was entirely different the the adventure in micromanagement that I had expected.  It's still pretty heavy on that, though.  I don't know what I got out of watching him play it that I didn't earlier, but it definitely influenced my opinion.

Still, I sat on it for a while, due to have plenty of other things to occupy my time.  Like making a podcast, developing a game, writing a book, and trying to freelance software.  It's amazing how busy unemployment can be.  At any rate, the sale passed around and I bought it.  I can now see what the hype was about.  I've played free games on a certain site that I still lurk that give me equal amusement.  The music pushes this game in to the "I feel alright paying for it" category, though.

Briefly, let's run down what it is.  You have several different ship layouts to choose from at first.  Really, you only have one when you start your first run, but you unlock more as you do stuff in the game.  There are several species, all with different strengths and weakness as compared to humans.

Always it is with the humansTvtropes will destroy you, by the way.

Then, you go through a mostly randomly generated galaxy while fighting pirates, rebels, miscreant aliens, and rescuing/dooming people.  The combat is more tactical than frenetic, especially as the game gives you the ability to pause.  You can collect scrap metal from wrecks to upgrade your ship, which you'll need to do fairly copiously before you reach the end.  The Rebel flagship you must destroy is way stronger than I've managed so far.  And that's on easy mode.  I don't think they know what that means.

Excellent ambient music of the vaguely house variety back up amusing text and a feeling of isolation, despite seeing people every 30 seconds.  Your crew must scurry about the ship putting out fires, manning and fixing systems, and, in the case of one particular Mantis I had, being excellent at mashing buttons so I can fire faster.  Just like Pokemon.

I think the reason the hype didn't really catch me is because it's hard to describe.  The game has a unique feel, though it has elements I've seen before.  It's an ambient gestalt that mesmerizes.  I spent 6 hours solid on my first night; I hadn't realized any time had passed.  It's rather fun, and, in a way, cathartic.

I only hope that one day we, too, may die horrible deaths among the stars.

Last Rant on Videogames: Aqueous Air

First, a brief aside.  I generally drop these on Mondays, and have done so with relative consistency since I started.  However, I started a new job last week.  Normally, this wouldn't matter, except I ran out of backlogged posts without realizing it.  So, in the true American tradition, I'm blaming external consequences for my own failure (it's still totally my fault, though).

At any rate, it's time for a quick vocabulary lesson.  For those of you who didn't remember much from whatever chemistry classes your were forced to take at some point, or those of you who never did, "aqueous" means, essentially, dissolved in water.  How, then, may we have aqueous air?  Is this some sort of cryptic hint?

Of course it is!  Really, I expected better.  This last week has been full of the glory that is the Steam Summer Sale.  Twice a year, around the solstices, Valve unleash Steam Claus on the world to gift all good gamers ridiculously cheap titles.  This is an amazing time, both for consumers and developers.  Consumers get games cheap.  I picked up FTL and the full soundtrack for under $4 on Saturday, and have definitely already gotten more than the reasonable return on enjoyment for that.

The Steam sales are also the highest selling times for developers.  In addition that they get to sell vast numbers of their games, though at reduced profit, more people are playing the games.  Aside from the immense satisfaction of knowing that someone is enjoying your work, people who play games tend to talk about them, thereby further increasing sales.  I believe I've already posted it before, but the Dustforce team published their sales figures for the first chunk o' time of being on the market.  Relevancy? A vast majority of their sales after initial release came from Steam sales.  I think a large number were actually from being packaged in the Humble Indie Bundle a few times, but that doesn't diminish the power of sales to spread your games.

I've harped before on how expensive gaming is.  There is a weird dichotomy in life.  In order to have enough money to freely do things you enjoy, you have to give up the time you would need to do those things.  Conversely, in order to have time, you really can't have a job.  Such is life, I suppose.  This time of year, though, the normal shackles of societal obligations are cast off, and cheap games are had by all!

That said, if you have the time, hop onto Steam and grab yourselves some cheap games.  There are daily deals, usually 60% or so off of the normal list price, and flash deals.  The flash deals are my favorite; they feel a bit like an auction house.  Basically, the community votes on which games they want to be on sale next, and the majority winners go on 75% discount for 8 hours.  It's incredible.  Bastion, Supergiant Games' rather amusingly coincidental super-giant game, was just over $2 at one point.

Despite the stigma around this company and its slogan, I think it's accurately applied to the events Steam runs, and really its whole distribution service.  Gaseous water, empowering players.

Last Time on Videogames: Sandboxes and Simulators

While S&S is harder to say and sounds distinctly dirtier than D&D, it's actually a genre mashing that I think goes fairly well together.  Run around and do anything?  Check.  Do it realistically, or within some very tight bounds?  Well, that's all the difference between a sandbox and a simulator.

Sandbox games, for those who have been devoid of an Internet connection until just now and therefore don't know, basically allow you to do anything you want.  This is generally a core aesthetic or gameplay component, and may actually be the entire point of the game.  If this sounds awesome, the rest of the world agrees with you.  GTA, being one of the first decent ones that achieved popularity, spawned a multibillion dollar franchise and numerous clones.  The imitators, however, were not as good.  More recently, however, some better ones have been made, but I don't know that they have the ability to challenge the giant.  One might argue that Saints Row is a knockoff, but the less pointed gameplay appeals to me more.

Simulators, for the purpose of juxtaposition, generally give you a very specific set of rules to follow.  Additionally, there tend to be concrete goals and not a whole lot of do-what-you-want-ery.  There are simulation games for basically every activity, from trucking simulators to fishing games.

While I generally dismiss games of this ilk as boring and poorly made, at least as far as videogame standards are concerned, there are a few good ones.  One that we'll likely get to eventually, and one that filled quite a bit of time in my youth, is Pilotwings 64.  Basically, it's a light density flying simulator.  It gives you multiple vehicles and a fairly expansive terrain to explore, and sets you loose.  You have to accomplish some missions first, but the rewards for many of them simply give you access to a new vehicle to cruise around aimlessly with.

While this game is neither a true simulation nor is it dense enough to be a real sandbox, it's pretty fun.  Thinking about this recently, however, has gotten me to think more about what makes a simulator distinct from a sandbox game.

After much pondering (about 5 minutes), I've decided that simulators are only called such when the game mechanics are so incredibly detailed that they're no longer an abstraction of reality.  With videogames, some actions should be incredibly complex for the character to perform.  The player, however, shouldn't need to know how to do these things.  That's the point, really.  So, to make it easier to engage the player, we map crazy backflip-sword-swipes to a single button.  Bam!  Instant abstraction.

Simulators make individual actions easy, but there are about 500 things you need to keep track of, making more complex tasks scale at least linearly, if not exponentially.

Sandboxes, by contrast, have the same open worlds that simulators sometimes show, but they're much more dense.  There are a lot of things for the player to interact with, usually in the form of destruction and mayhem with modern incarnations.  Minecraft, for example, can be treated as a sandbox game.  You can do basically anything, especially in creative mode, and every single block can be interacted with.  Barring bedrock, I suppose.

I was basically just thinking about how a simulation is really different from a sandbox game, but I don't think they are in terms of mechanics or gameplay.  I think the focus is mostly on aesthetic.  In sandbox games, the emphasis is placed on a feeling of empowerment and expression.  Simulators focus more on immersion.  It's really a matter of taste, but the popular preference is almost overwhelmingly for games oriented to be sandboxes.

I wonder whether this would change if simulators had higher production quality. 

Last Rant on Videogames: You are The Dedz

As always, I'm a little late to the party. I was an early installer of the now fairly well publicized DayZ mod for Arma II.  However, due to my computer being barely able to run the thing, I mostly let it sit for a while.  However, I actually played it after a while.  This mostly involved me waiting for my character to turn while each leaf on each tree was lovingly rendered in the light breeze.  As has generally been the problem with anything more processor intense than Terraria, my computer can only barely run any given game at its lowest settings.

This article's not really about DayZ, though.

The moral of this story is that even though I could only just manage to walk around, my first few experiences with the game were quite fun.  The first time I lived quite a while.  I wandered around the wilderness, avoided zombies, and saw another player get totally destroyed.  Sadly, that incarnation ate it when I decided I was probably far enough away from the remnants of a town to start sprinting.  Those zombies have unfortunately good eyesight.

My second time through, I managed to find some food, in addition to the bandages and painkillers you spawn into most servers with.  I had managed to go half an hour without even being attacked, which is remarkable as I was walking normally most of the time.

Sprinting in this game, by the way, makes you incredibly obvious to lurking undead, so you had best get used to a leisurely pace.  It's quite nice, actually.  The game is generally so tense when you're doing anything meaningful that just walking between locations or exploring the vast island is pleasant.  If you have the computing power for it, it's also gorgeous.

Anyway, I ended up walking past what I thought was a corpse but was instead a zombie in repose.  He chased me along the shoreline for a some time.  I was mostly busy listening to the crashing of the waves while sprinting away from my predators, but he was apparently busy gathering a posse.  By the time I bothered to look around again, about 5 minutes into my attempted escape, there were seven of the things behind me.

Ahead, though, was salvation!  A lighthouse!  I had no idea at this point whether they could follow me in, but I decided it was better than being eaten alive.  I managed to maneuver by laggy avatar into the structure and found that the door was simply a texture rather than an interactive object.  This is, sadly, a rather common problem in this game.  However, there existed a ladder, which I dashed up as fast as I could.

Once there, the zombies just gathered at the base of the lighthouse.  I hunkered down, munching on one of the cans of beans I had salvaged from a conspicuously empty town.  Eventually, some of them got bored and wandered off.  One of them just stood in the same spot the entire time.  The one that first chased me, however, would not give up, and decided to take a nap.  Upon returning to his prone position, his remaining cohort followed suit.  I tried to sneak off of the lighthouse, but was gunshy.  I woke them up the first time and had to wait for them to slumber once more.

This continued for a bit, and eventually I was ready to make a break for it.  However, I failed a bit at interacting with the ladder and just fell down it instead.  Humans apparently have bones made of sugar cubes in this world, and both tibias shattered on impact.  Bleeding, crippled, and running low on supplies, I bade farewell to the cruel island and clicked "Respawn."

My third adventure went much better but ended similarly.  Damnable weak legs.  At least that time I managed to find both a gun and some ammo.  Also a truck.  Another player tried to steal said vehicle while running from a horde of zombies, but ended up failing and stumbling past me.  He didn't last long.

While these were certainly enjoyable experiences, they couldn't have taken place over the course of the same life.  Each one was unique from the perspective of my character, and each one was unique to me.  Certainly I went into each subsequent one with more experience, a better plan, and more knowledge of the terrain.  However, knowledge that my death was permanent made each attempted life more important.

I'm some sort of masochist when it comes to games.  In large world games, with a focus on exploration and survival, I'm a huge fan of permanent death.  I play Minecraft on Hardcore when I'm not online.  DayZ enforces permanent character death, and feels much more coherent for it.

I'm certainly not qualified to talk at length about the psychology and ideology surrounding death.  It's a vast subject.  However, in games, permanent death tends to make people play more cautiously.  Resources are limited and each dangerous action is a calculated risk.

How close should you stand to the lava?  Can I sneak through that many zombies for a can of beans?  Do I have time to take the shot before that guy sees me?

Normally, these questions are brushed aside.  Lack of permanence means that death is only a minor inconvenience.  I like the way games feel when players take risks seriously, though.  Maybe I just like overthinking things, but it lends a different flavor to any game within which it is present.

While I wish there was more of it, I don't think popular demand exists.  Some people seem to love the brutality of DayZ, but most people prefer to go on shooting sprees in CoD every 30 seconds.

It's interesting to imagine how the scope of games would change if virtual lives are ephemeral.

Last Rant on Videogames: The Selling Point

With all the E3 commotion dying down, at least for a moment, I've been thinking a bit about what it is that makes a person actually want to buy a game machine at a fairly heavy cost.  Barring the Wii, which I bought only slightly before the Wii U was announced, I haven't really owned a modern console for a long time.  Thinking on it, the last time I had one that was really part of the current generation was probably during the GameCube's run, or possibly the PS2.

Ideally, I would want all the major consoles during any generation.  I seem to be a bit of an aberration in that I like almost all games.  I have a preference for particular genres, but most everything amuses me, setting the bar pretty low, or at least fairly wide, for games that I want to play.  While I fully understand the reasoning behind exclusive titles, ever since the PSX I've felt like I've missed out on some sort of cultural phenomenon every time there's a decent game on a console I don't own.  Unfortunately, prohibitive costs prevent me from owning three $300-$500 machines for the express purpose of playing games.

When it comes down to it, I'm cheap.  I have an inordinately hard time spending money on myself, which makes it hard to justify spending so much money on a machine I won't use all the time.  Because i have no particular need to own any current generation consoles but still want to play games that I haven't yet conquered, I do a lot of PC gaming.  At some level, spending over $1000 on a computer seems much more reasonable to me.

Now, you may be wondering why I wouldn't just cough up $400 for a console rather than $1600 on the gaming computer whose parts I'm scavenging from NewEgg.  While monetarily it may seem the wiser move, I'm under the impression that I, and most other people, use their computers quite a bit.  Having a machine that can run multiple programs and be useful in both my productive and leisure endeavors is incredibly useful.  I may be able to play some awesome games on the XBox, but I can't write an essay on it, nor can I do my programming from it.

Really, having a computer powerful enough to run a cadre of decent games is a convenient side effect of having a machine that can easily handle my daily computing needs.  Since I've started buying my own consoles, I've had a hard time seeing why I should get a new console when I can run almost everything published up that that point on my computer hooked up to my TV via HDMI.  Steam certainly doesn't make the decision to by a new console any easier.  Given that a large number of the games I would want to play are usually ported to or from PC, I can snag them over Steam, and usually at a cheaper price than for a console due to their rotating sales.

I'm not necessarily advocating that everyone switch to PC gaming.  Buying a machine that can easily crunch current games at their highest settings is rather expensive, and will need to be replaced within 6 years.  If anything, that gap is getting shorter. 

However, there just haven't been enough new games on any console to really keep my interest.  It doesn't help that I also enjoy tight 2D platformers over many other genres, and developers for modern consoles don't think anyone is willing to buy them any longer.  I continue to buy Nintendo consoles only because I love Zelda and there's usually a handful of other games I'm willing to get on the system over its life cycle.

Handhelds, though.  I'm all over that.  Except the Vita.  Poor thing doesn't get any love.

Last Rant on Videogames: Inside the Cylinder [Terranigma]

The recent subject of my gaming focus in the last weeks, aside from copious copying con Kirby, has been a game I've never heard of outside of randomly finding and playing it years ago.  Given its pedigree, I have no idea how it flew under the radar.  While it definitely has its flaws, this is an Enix title from back in that company's reign over stat heavy games.  It's bizarre, frantic, funny, and provokes a bit of introspection.

The game is Terranigma.  I've put off playing it for some time because I wanted to do it for the show, but it doesn't seem that it's ever been republished in any form.  What's more, this title never got an official North American release.  The only official English version was the European release.  This is mildly disappointing, since this is one of the most memorable games from my early teenage years.  Along with Soul Blazer and the mechanically similar Illusion of Gaia, the game's thematic focus is on reincarnation and the protection of the world from dark deities bent on dominating creation.

To be honest, I had misgivings about the fond memories I had of this game when I started playing again.  You start in a calm village during the presence of what the villagers call "crystal blue."  Basically, they're soap bubbles that fly overhead.  The town is peaceful and everyone seems to be getting along fine.  Ark, your character, is being woken by his childhood friend and unofficial girlfriend after sleeping in for too long.  Being the town hooligan, Ark sets off to cause trouble and, with varying amounts of sincerity, apologize for the last week's misdeeds.  Eventually, he is goaded into breaking down a door in the village Elder's house that was never supposed to be entered.  Upon doing so, your peers bail with excuses of mild maladies, leaving you alone to explore the old man's basement.

At the bottom, you find the game's menu.  Seriously.  It's actually an interesting concept.  The basement contains a small box, which in turn contains a pocket dimension that has acted as the prison of a small pink winged... bat thing named Yomi.  Yomi bequeaths the box and his dubious quality as a servant to Ark.  The menu in this game is contained within the box.  When you access it, Ark wriggles inside and navigates the contents through Yomi as a cursor.  Instead of a list of text, there are objects in various rooms that serve various functions.  There are instructions on the various techniques you can perform, game settings, rooms full of your arms and armor, and a tiled room full of miscellaneous items.  You can't actually walk around it aside from the introduction, but it's a neat way to do a menu.

At this point, however, the world start falling apart, and it's all your fault.  With the exception of the elder, all the townsfolk, your friends and family, are frozen in some sort of crystalline state.  The old guy sets you off on a journey to return their souls to their bodies by conquering several towers across the land.  Ark is now the first person living in the village, with the implied exception of the elder, to set foot outside.  This is where it started to get a little less amazing.  Outside has a weird fishbowl lens effect that's quite distracting while walking around.  The underground is a barren wasteland filled with lava and strange crystals.  The towers are externally identical, though contents may vary.  This section basically serves as a tutorial for the game, though it starts to get monotonous rather quickly.

The combat is a lot of fun, however.  There are a fairly wide variety of moves available, and different moves are more effective against various enemies.  Combine this with the fact that our hero's favored weapon is a spear, one of my favorite and seldom used fantasy weapons, exploring dungeons is pretty entertaining.  The world maps throughout the game are SNES era FF-esque.  It's a big, roughly 40 degree from perpendicular view of the landscape.  I do rather like Ark's little traveling ensemble.

After returning everyone to normal and getting a sweet cape from your sweetheart, you find that you must resurrect the entire planet.  All life is gone, and it is up to Ark to play god and bring everything back to life.  Yeah.  Things just got really heavy.  Ark proceeds to play god and resurrect all life on the planet.  There's a lot of implied incarnation going on here.  What's more, it's actually an acknowledged fact that this happens, as there are people later who have the ability to remember stuff between lives.  This isn't just a bunch of charlatans, either.  One guy uses his keen memory to help guide entire societies to betterment.

It was about the point that I was wandering around the first topside dungeon (you live underground, it seems) and I was having doubts about continuing the game.  It was fun, but the plot seemed to be going nowhere.  I stuck with it, however, and I was treated to some amazing things.  I said earlier that this game has a rocky start.  That's only because you're seeing the side of the cliff you jumped off of to get to the sea of awesome.  There are many wonderful scenes in this game.  You help manage economies, meet alternate reality versions of people you know, get killed by yourself in a manner that doesn't constitute suicide, wake up in after a nice night in the inn to a completely destroyed zombie town, and have super fun time adventures with a lion cub.  There's a particularly dramatic scene with a mountain goat.  This makes more sense knowing you can talk to animals for a while.

The combat never really changes, but the enemies do, so your tactics may vary a bit over the course of the game.  Honestly, I use the rushing-jumping attack 90% of the time, and that seems to suit me well enough.  There's a lot of stuff to collect and a fair amount of flavor in the world that could go unnoticed if you're not into looking for that kind of thing.  Basically, it's a combat-heavy LttP style game with some decent puzzles and super heavy themes.  You're basically god.  Except for the two things that are more godly, but you stab them in the face eventually, so it's all good.

This game continues to stand out as a rather enjoyable romp with a light to medium treatment of some heavy topics.  The experience is fun and engaging, and the ambiance is palpable at times.  If you happen to have some sort of Super Nintendo device, or a close facsimile, I recommend trying to find a cart.  Or do what I do.  Not that that's an endorsement of any kind.

Last Rant on Videogames: Riddle Me This

I talked recently about the Phoenix Wright series and how amazing it was.  Additionally, I was left in some state of awe as to how few people had actually played it.  I realize there are a lot of people who won't touch Nintendo products with a 10 foot pole, but there are, contrary to popular opinion, some pretty good third party games on their systems.  As part of advocating awareness of such games, let's talk about puzzles!

If you don't know what I'm going to be talking about after that, congratulations!  You're my target audience today.  Professor Layton is a wonderful little game series for the DS and 3DS.  The premise is thus: you take on the role of the professor as he and his companions, usually Layton's ward, Luke, as he sets about unraveling massive conspiracies and the causes of apparently supernatural events.  The professor, tenured at Gressenheller University teaching archaeology and helping the befuddled dean exist on a daily basis, is a man after my own heart.  With the mindset that no puzzle is without an answer, he thwarts all adversaries and obstacles by sheer logic and a bit of trickery.  Really, he's the Doctor without a second heart.  I'm pretty sure he regenerates, too.

The plot is generally incredibly grandiose, though rather short.  The only reason the games last a reasonable amount of time is because Layton has a serious problem.  You see, our poor boy here has a serious puzzle addiction.  Unfortunately, everyone he meets is an enabler, throwing puzzles at him for little to no reason, and without provocation.  You chased a cat?  That reminded this old man of a puzzle!  You wear a hat?  Puzzle time!  Now, when I mentioned this to Zach, he seemed rather nonplussed at the idea.  I should point out that this game uses the word "puzzle" quite loosely.  Really, it's taken to mean any logic problem possible.  Some are, in fact, jigsaw puzzles.  More often than not, they're riddles.  A number of them are word problems, some are MindTrapian in nature, and some give you copious opportunities to try solutions until you find the correct one.

The game gives incentive for a thoughtful and thorough approach rather than brute force.  Every time you get a wrong answer, you lose a portion of the Picarats a puzzle is worth.  Picarats are the imaginary currency of the game, used to unlock more stuff after the main game has been conquered.  For the completionists out there, it's definitely a motivation to get it right the first time.

If you're stuck on a puzzle, you can expend a hint coin to help you out.  In later games, you can have up to 4 hints, usually in increasing order of helpfulness.  The first three cost one coin and the last costs two, but will generally give the answer away.  Most of the games have a cap of 200 coins.  Collecting coins is similar to navigation and interaction with NPCs.  In the style of old point n' click games, you navigate colorful scenes and memorable caricatures of people by tapping the lower screen with the stylus.  You can move from scene to scene by tapping arrows around the scene, and talk to people by poking them.  There aren't really dialogue trees, so if you're out puzzle hunting, you're likely to hear the same comments multiple times.  Hint coins are found by prodding interesting features of the environment.  At one point, the developers lampshade this by having one of the professor's companions ask him why he always taps light fixtures upon entering a room.  Additional puzzles and some niftiness associated with each individual game can be found in this manner as well.

The stories follow the same general route, though the scenery varies dramatically.  Layton receives some call to action and sets out, followed closely by at least one of the companions he'll pick up that game.  The plot thickens as strange events occur, and Layton quickly finds himself entangled in a web of intrigue.  More often than not, the current catastrophe is paranormal, and Layton, while not immediately disbelieving the evidence, is skeptical of the true nature of events.  In all the games I've played so far, there's nothing more supernatural than Luke's oddly specific affinity for animals, a near empathic bond used as a plot device for no real reason other than to have some more side games.  Oh, yeah.  There are quite a few side games, usually 3 different ones per title.

In the end, the events are totally explainable and founded in the real world.  
However, feasibility is not really an issue, as the explanations have ranged from hallucinogenic dust to building a steampunk replica of London under the Thames that's also a giant spider robot.
 Super realistic, guys.  Layton proves, at the end of the day, that logic triumphs and archaeologists are awesome.  The games are so ridiculous, it's amusing.  While there's always a bit of peril, it's obviously intended to be camp, and it comes across wonderfully.  Full of quirky humor and mind boggling puzzles, these games are great fun.  Additionally, they have such a simple formula that it's hard to see it ending.

While the now 6 games in the series might not be enough to run out and get a 3DS, 4 of them are on the DS and prices on that are coming down.  If you really like logic puzzles and would like a story for them to be framed in, it might be enough to make you get the console.  The newer games are still $40, but the entire series can be found on the Amazons for under $100.  Given that each game is probably about a 10 hour endeavor, I'd say that's a pretty good use of your money.

Last Rant... Kinda: Age of Booty

I suspect at this point that it is no real secret that I took a German adventure recently.  My oft mentioned friend, Ed, lives out there as part of his term of service with the Air Force.  Coincidentally, based off of our talking about it in the Doom episode, Ed bought Age of Booty for the PS3.

While it was not quite what I expected, it certainly meets a lot of my requirements for a fun RTS without micromanagement.  Between coordinating with other players and dodging enemy ships in our now dubbed "Trained Monkey Survival Mode," the game was a blast.  There also exists a large pile of downloadable maps, which lends some more variety to what is otherwise a simple game.

Basically, you have firepower, speed, and armor.  They all do what you expect, except that additional cannons, and to some extent, armor, slow your ship down.  Generally, our strategy was to have Ed max out his cannons while I wandered about with my weakly little ship collecting more resources for further upgrades.  We couldn't find any online matches at the time, which was sad, but it was rather a lot of fun, both cooperatively and competitively.

Coincidentally, the developers are planning a new expansion-esque thing for this game that includes support for the Android OS.  With this, they are promising cross-platform compatibility.  I could not be more pleased.  If you're feeling like some pirate action, it's $5 on Steam at the time of writing.  Go pillage some villages!

Last Rant on Videogames: What You Wanted Wasn't What You Got

It seems we're talking about series a lot recently.  There's a lot to love there, especially if there's a universe of information that's acknowledged between series.  As some sort of geek, I love a good myth arc, though that's not a prerequisite for something to be entertaining.  The point is that having a series or franchise allows the writers or developers to convey a large amount of information in a short amount of time to an audience that has been along other parts of the same ride.

Some series get a lot more love than others, though.  I think I have the misfortune of overlapping with Geremy's discussion of this particular one, but it was serendipity that I happened to start playing games from it at the same time, so we'll just have to put up with that.  Pokemon is a monstrous behemoth that engulfed the childhoods of many people in my age bracket.  I maintain that it is one of the most complex stat-based battle games ever devised; the original had over 100 distinct characters, some of which grew into others, which might have doppelgangers that were distinct from their counterparts.  Additionally, you had to build a team of 6 of these and memorize a mildly complicated system of weaknesses and strengths.  And they were collectible.  It's amazing.

For as long as I can remember after the Internet becoming truly prevalent, there has been demand from the masses for a Pokemon MMO.  Nintendo has adamantly refused, though I'm not sure on what grounds.  The more recent generations of the games have a Wi-Fi marketplace of sorts where you can interact with other players.  The difference would be that you also have these players running around the game world together.

For me, the draw of such a game would be exploration in an open and potentially dangerous world with a team of versatile and obedient monsters.  Aside from a lack of specific goals and tasks, the Pixelmon mod for Minecraft satisfies this particular itch.  My one lamentation is that my hardware isn't really great for running a server and actually playing the game.  A real 3D Pokemon MMO would be fantastic, however.  I can't help but wonder, though, whether the Internet would quickly ruin the thrill of exploration with its rambling about the hidden areas.

At any rate, while rumors of such a thing occurring were first fueling the fires of ravening demand for it, we got a different game.  I'm a little surprised by finding out recently how popular this game was, as I never heard anyone talk about it until recently.  Maybe they, like I, were too ashamed to admit owning and enjoying it.  Provided I've got my timing right, I will have mentioned on the show recently that I started replaying the Pokemon Trading Card Game for the Gameboy Color.  There was no great demand for it and no one expected it, yet it came to be.  And it was good.

If you're unfamiliar with how the game works, I suspect you can find some rules with relative ease.  It's very simple, and easily exploitable.  Once one side has momentum, it's relatively hard to stop it.  It was even worse early on as there weren't a large number or variety of cards to work with.  This game, however, automates the tedium of a card game and lets you enjoy the parts that you actually care about: building an abusable deck and proceeding to utilize it to great effect against other people willing to play against you.  The game gives you some more cards every time you stomp someone, and they're willing to keep playing regardless of which broken deck you use.  Find me some opponents outside of a video game that will let you do that.

Part of what has driven the Pokemon machine over the years is how addictively collectable they are.  Even the original games were sold in such a way as to encourage owning two copies, or for the more social, actually interacting with people who did own another copy.  That's gotten much easier as anonymous Internet interaction has been integrated, but there's still a near manic need to finish a Pokedex when the little creatures are so easy to come by.  Jokes about 10-year-olds with gods in little balls aside, even the legendary Pokemon only require patience to catch.  The card game capitalized upon this perfectly.  While the game was, in my opinion, mechanically flawed, the cards themselves were visually interesting and fun to have.  The Gameboy game gives you all the joy of trying to complete your card collection without spending money on them, and letting you use them to stomp opponents.

There is a bit of wonky art, though.  Nightmare fuel.

Sometimes a gem just falls into your lap.  You just have to dust it off to realize what you've found.

Last Rant on Videogames: Objectionable Practices

It seems inconceivable to me that anyone who plays videogames with some regularity hasn't heard of the Phoenix Wright series by now, but every day someone learns something new.

I fell in love with the first game in this series after the first 15 minutes.  In a vaguely dystopian future, you take on the role of a lawyer in a legal system where someone decided bureaucracy and due process were terrible ideas.  Apparently, because the cost of legal proceedings became so exorbitant, all trials have 3 day limits.  Also, it's based more on the Japanese legal system than the American flavor, so there's a lot more arbitration by the judge.  By a lot more, I mean it's all that.  There's no jury.

Phoenix Wright is a young attorney just cutting his teeth.  Not to long into the game, for potentially spoilerriffic reasons, he's left on his own to run the firm he was a part of.  With the help of his mentor and her younger psychic sister, you must gather evidence and fight to prove innocence of your client at all costs.  There's plenty of melodrama and crazy plot twists, all wrapped up in a logic and puzzle oriented package.  The whole presentation is tremendously enjoyable and gets to be fairly challenging in later chapters.  Each subsequent game follows the same formula with a continuous story.  Nods to continuity make the sequels fairly enjoyable, and the cases are usually quite interesting.

Nothing beats the feeling of being on a roll in court.  Really, quick, here's a breakdown of the mechanics.  The game alternates between the "evidence gathering" mode and the "courtroom craziness" mode.  Generally, you start each chapter in the first mode.  You go around, talk to people, and poke about various scenes for clues.  The actual movement is done via a menu system, essentially just presenting the player with a series of scenes to interact with.  At any point, a scene may be occupied by a character with a list of conversation topics.  Additionally, you can use your stylus on the DS versions, or just move the cursor with the D-pad on the GBA versions, to look for evidence around the scene.  At various points, you may need to present that evidence to get someone to talk.  After you've gathered all that you can, Phoenix takes over and declares that he's done for the day.  In the later games, your psychic sidekick's adorable niece gives you a family heirloom that lets you tell when people are lying or otherwise withholding information, so you can be assured that Mr. Wright always has a trustworthy client.  Dodged a bullet there.

When you get to court, you listen to witness testimony, cross-examine, and present evidence that contradicts the their statements.  At some points, you start positing scenarios, and fire out 6 or 7 steps in a logical chain of events in a row, all with wonderfully dramatic background music pumping up your enthusiasm for lawyering.  Your rival lawyers are pretty camp, and have fairly complex characters that are revealed over the course of battling them in the courtroom.  After a day in court, you usually have to go sleuthing again to find something that will help finalize your case against the opposition.

The meat of this game is presenting an interesting narrative while giving the player enough clues to logically deduce the next series of events.  There's always some room for error, so you can take a couple stabs at the more convoluted events.  Additionally, the game allows you to save at basically every point where you have control of advancing the text, so you can always get through a day in court without any missteps.  The actual gameplay focuses on logical puzzle solving, and it's quite a thrill to see the pieces fall into place.

If you've never played these games, you can get them on the Wii VC, the GBA, or the DS.  Zany stories and lovable characters populate a world of insane lawyer battle.  If that sounds at all interesting, I highly recommend you give Phoenix Wright a try.

Last Rant on Videogames: Indie Cred

I think it should be no secret that I love the indie gaming scene.  My Steam library has no small number of games that a lot of people have never heard of, which is a shame.  It's not a shame due to their being there, but because they really ought to see the light of day.  As such, I'm going to talk briefly about why indie games are awesome for everyone and plug a few mildly obscure ones in hopes that someone reading this might play them.

Being an attempted indie game developer myself, I've looked in a fair number of places about how well a decent game might be expected to perform.  While my efforts have largely been fruitless, I have found a few useful sources.  Primarily, Hitbox, the team behind Dustforce, published their sales figures.  So far, this has been the only place I've managed to find anything resembling reliable information about publishing an indie game.  The results here are encouraging, though.  A team of four people sacrificed almost everything for a year and a half, and made enough money to give themselves, all of them, at least two years to work on a new game.

Published on Steam, the game saw most of its sales after initial release from various indie game packs which Steam makes available fairly regularly.  To me, this is an amazing example of capitalism at work.  A good product is made and rewarded for it by the consumers, driven mostly by incentive oriented sales.  It's a beautiful thing, especially since there's a huge backlash against the heavily mass-produced games we generally get out of the AAA industry.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with that term, the AAA industry refers to the cadre of huge publishers that drive the console game market.  Companies like Nintendo, Square-Enix, Ubisoft, EA, and, to some extent, Valve make up this group.

Since the advent of 64-bit hardware and beyond, we've seen a trend in demanding that new releases be as visually stunning as they are mechanically detailed and, in appropriate cases, narratively driven.  Unfortunately, the drive for increasingly better graphics, while it has definitely had nice results, also drives up the cost of game development.  Whereas you used to need a team of 3 or 4 people to do the art for an entire console launch, at least a dozen are now required, and they're working much harder and for longer to make the assets necessary for the same length of game.  Additionally, we're starting to see games that focus on spectacle, the impressive visuals in a game, over actual gameplay or narrative.

A prime example of this for me was FF12, which was gorgeous, but a combination of worthless protagonists and boring gameplay made it impossible for me to slog through.  With that series, I've seen a number of arguments that this trend started as far back as FF7, which I'm inclined to agree with.  While that particular game didn't hold up well to a recent replaying, it at least had an interesting plot with a number of foreshadowed twists that kept the player engaged.  Contrast that with the next entry, FF8, which had a surly main character, interchangeable party members with only barely distinct personalities, and a plot so convoluted and full of hastily buried plot holes that I'm surprised I ever finished it.  I've got to mention that I really like FFX, though, so it's not all bad.

I'm sure most everyone reading this has heard of this, but the most recent Tomb Raider game sold incredibly well, better than every previous game in the series combined.  It was still a financial failure.  This is an excellent example in the problem that the game industry has created for itself.  We, the consumers, are not entirely without fault in this, either.  Increasing demand for visual masterpieces has driven the cost of development so high that it's incredibly difficult to make a profit on a game that isn't either an old engine or extremely well managed.

This is where indie games come in.  They come in a variety of scopes, but these games are generally produced by less than ten person teams.  While they don't necessarily do much in the way of realistic 3D graphics, they can still be visual rapture and generally focus much more on actual gameplay and overall aesthetic rather than pure presentation.  Braid manages to do everything extremely well, despite its lack of a 3D environment.

A lot of indie games tend to be 2D, though from the perspective of a programmer, there's not a good reason for this other than that the art is hard to obtain.  Sure, there's a fair amount of math that goes into determining the player's view, but that's all been done before and is freely available to anyone with an Internet connection.  Instead, it's much easier to design a 2D game.  Because the cost of producing a game in a small team is so much lower than in the AAA market, new ideas can be tried without the same level of risk.

You know what?  It works.

There have been quite a few indie games that manage to incorporate new ideas in interesting manners, and have been commercial successes.  Even games that are just tight platformers, like the previously mentioned Dustforce, manage to find their niche and let the developers continue to make more fun for the masses.  There's a big surge in indie development, and I don't think it's hard to see why.

Rather than continue to extol the virtues of this type of game development, I'm gonna throw out a list of some indie games I've enjoyed that you might, too.

First up is Guns of Icarus, a short game about defending your blimp-style airship from sky pirates in a post-apocalyptic world with a variety of guns.  You run about your decks fending off foes while keeping your ship in repair.  Depending on your performance, you get a variety of new artillery to choose from at the end of the level to help you succeed in delivering your goods to a hope starved world.  It's a fun experience, though the short narrative between levels represents some of the worst of what indie games are known for.  Still, it paints a bleak picture and is rather a lot of fun, so you should check it out!

My next highlight might be familiar to anyone who watches Extra Credits, but the demo might have me sold on it.  The game is Pulse.  In it, you are blind, but blind in the same way as Toph; you see the world through a sort of echolocation.  I should note that this game violates the "indie games are 2D" rule.  Certain objects in the environment make noise, allowing you to "see" where the immediate vicinity.  Additionally, running gives you a short field of vision around yourself.  The environment is populated by adorable little bunny-esque creatures and large bipedal dinosaurs that would love to nom on you.  The focus is on survival and progress, though there's a fair bit of exploring to be done if you're brave enough.  The Kickstarter ended recently, so this game should be coming out in the nearish future.

The last one I really want to mention, though I haven't played it as much as it deserves, is Flotilla.  It's a Rogue-like game in space.  For those who don't know, Rogue was a dungeon crawler of sorts featuring permadeath.  Also, ASCII art.

Coincidentally, check out ADOM.  It has a high learning curve, but it's a lot of fun if you're in the mood to die a lot.

Back to the game I'm ostensibly plugging.  The game is Flotilla, a game of random encounters in space.  Basically, weird stuff is in the universe, you encounter it, and it's hilarious.  Occasionally, you'll have to fight other people with space craft, which is where most of this game's challenge comes from.  You have a fleet of customizable ships that you must pit against opponents.  Movement takes places in a 3D grid.  In turn based combat, every move is decided in advance.  You tell your ships where to move and how to orient themselves.  At the same time your opponent is doing the same.  When both sides are ready, the turn happens and lots of shots are fired.  It's really quite enjoyable watching your ships be blown to bits, but it can be a bit frustrating as well.  It plays out a bit like a round of combat in Burning Wheel.  It's a lot of fun, but takes time to master.

Though I'm done giving specific plugs, I feel I should mention Bastion.  It's awesome.

Last Rant on Videogames: Blatant Cashins on Others' Success

I don't believe I've mentioned on the show before a particular tidbit.  I'm a huge fan of the Professor Layton series.  Silly contrivances for making the player solve puzzles aside, the games have a wonderful art style, decent plot, and a colorful world.  The music is relaxing, the puzzles usually challenging, and the characters, while more accurately caricature, are all unique and memorable.  I'm waiting in great anticipation of the North American release of the Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright game.  Surprising very few, I also glean a certain amount of enjoyment from Phoenix Wright as well.

Today, I'm rambling a bit about a game that was probably vastly overlooked and, I think, unfairly treated by those who actually picked it up.  The title is Doctor Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights.  I think that if you're familiar with the Layton games, you might see how this relates to the title of the post.  Herein lies the problem this game makes for itself.

Before I delve into what this game is and what I think of it, I must say that it seemeddoomed to perceived mediocrity simply due to its title.  It's obviously trying to mirror the Layton style in this regard, and I'm under the impression that no small number of those who picked it up were expecting a rather patent abuse of that game's style.  I wonder, then, why they bothered to pick it up in the first place.  I, for one, was goaded, though only slightly, by Alex to grab it as a way to tide us over until the next Layton release.  What we got, however, was something entirely different.

The vast majority of reviews I've read for this game panned it for not being what we expected: a terrible Layton clone.  This seems something odd to fault it for, considering that it would have been faulted for being just that.  While the title is similar, the eponymous doctor hardly bares any resemblance to Layton himself.  i almost wonder whether it was a coincidence that the games ended up with similar English translations.

At any rate, I was pleasantly surprised by what I got.  The title is for the 3DS, though it makes scant use of that system's notable features.  It does, however, open with an amusing and fairly well-rendered 3D cutscene.  Doctor Lautrec is a misanthropic archaeologist driven to collect a set of living treasures occupied by spirit guardians while accompanied by an assistant who is around for the apparently sole purpose of telling him whether a treasure is guarded.  He combs the sewers of Paris looking for these dangerous baubles in competition with a failing entrepreneur and self-proclaimed rival.  His leads come from a mysterious and beautiful bar keep, and is aided by the bar's most devoted patron, a layabout millionaire.

Lautrec eventually finds himself allied with a mysterious waif who ends up being quasi-royalty and must defend her against a vague criminal syndicate.  Also, there's a group of knights living underground in a vaguely futuristic tunnel system ostensible powered by the living treasures.

Really, the premise of the game is amazing, though the implementation is a bit lacking.  While the stories are fairly well presented, they aren't told sequentially since you can select quests in fairly arbitrary orders.  This isn't much of a problem, but occasionally you're presented with a story in which the characters act as if they don't have the information revealed in the previous quest.

The biggest problem here lies within the quests themselves.  Each one follows a painfully formulaic pattern.  You begin by receiving a quest from the bar keep, Milady, in the form of a cryptic clue.  Lautrec and his assistant, Sophie set out to solve the puzzle.  Unfortunately, the puzzles either require an inordinate amount of knowledge about French history, or moon logic.  Alternatively, they're not puzzles at all.  Most of these puzzles are solved by the duo tossing out possible locations which you, the player, must run to and examine.  After you visit the right one, you either get more to run to, or you're told to find the entrance to the sewer.

Looking for the entrance is mildly amusing, especially with the 3D effect on.  You get a pre-rendered area of the game's envisioning of Paris to visually scour for a symbol.  Once you find it and zoom in on it, you get to enter the labyrinth, which proceeds to give you another round of formulaic dungeoneering.  The mazes consist of some occasionally, though not usually, clever puzzles that mostly involve moving blocks and evading guards.  Along the way, you can collect treasures to bolster your stash.  This is important to do for reasons I'll explore in a moment.  Aside from the physical conundrums, you're occasionally given more traditional style puzzles to solve.

For a game ostensibly about solving puzzles, this is where I feel it falls short the most.  I was already enjoying the game fairly thoroughly until I found out that there are only four types of puzzles to solve.  You get the inventive "spot the difference" puzzles, a game vaguely resembling Minesweeper, a crossword where you just have to place the words in the right spots, and an ordeal wherein blocks of various shapes must be arranged within a confined space.  None of these are terribly original, nor are they challenging.  The further you progress, the more complicated each type becomes, but it never really changes.  As I've talked about before, you're rewarded for progression with changes in depth rather than changes in scope, which makes it hard to maintain interest.

The most exciting part of the game comes when you collect either the secondary or primary Treasure Animatus, the living treasures.  The system seems daunting at first, but due to some unexplained mechanics that you quickly discover, it's actually quite simple.  Since the treasures try to fight off would-be explorers, you must first subdue them.  To do this, you must place treasures you posses, along with special gems that pass as weak treasures, on pedestals around the center one upon which your target sits.  Every time you place a treasure, your treasure and the prize trade blows.  There's something of a 5-way rock-paper-scissors going on, so you can plan your placement accordingly.  Placing your treasures near other ones they're weak to or strong against affects the damage you deal to the center one.  The pedestals can also have certain effects and limitations, though none are terribly exciting.  The true challenge here is figuring out how to do enough damage to subdue the hostile treasure without killing it.  Barring special circumstances, once a treasure takes enough damage, it dies and becomes an ordinary item without a guardian spirit.  There are a couple different models for each element of treasure, and the attacks are mildly interesting to watch.

The problem with all of this is that it never changes.  It's exciting and even - dare I say it? - fun for the first couple hours or so.  The overarching plot and the discovery of the other characters' backstories kept me playing well past this point.  However, my fatigue with essentially performing the same task ad nauseum led to the actual nausea that phrase implies.  I got too bored with running around the same locations, tackling minorly different dungeons, and solving the same damned puzzles that I just gave up.

It's sad, too, because I feel a fair amount of polish went into this game.  The visuals are pretty nice, almost every scene has pretty good voice acting, including your rival with the best French accent in a videogame I've heard for a long time, and the plot's not bad, if a little hackneyed.  The eventual mundanity of what starts as a fantastical premise kills whatever interest I may have had in the game.

I maintain, however, that this game was never really trying to be a Layton ripoff.  Nothing about this game plays remotely similar, and the only resemblance I can see is in the titles.  However, Layton is much better executed, even if the premise of Lautrec is more immediately interesting.  I suppose this is a case study in the power of a simple story told well over an amazing story told poorly.  If you've considered picking this game up, I recommend giving it a pass.  There's not enough there to warrant the more than 40 hours it will consume to reach completion.

However, as a friendly suggestion, you could play Layton instead.  Puzzling!