Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Fire Emblem Conquest: Deathmarch

I stood alone on the battlefield that had once been a quiet town named Cheve with blood staining the ground around me. It wasn't so long ago that I'd made my fateful decision to pick sides in this war I'd fought battle after battle and come away from all of them victorious, but not without devastating losses.

This last battle was the worst of them yet. I'd gone in with my best warriors by my side and came out the other end with five fewer allies; six if you count the two who joined my cause mid-battle. They were some of my strongest and bravest, but now they were just another row of tombstones at my castle. With each new battle I fight, I find myself looking for them and wishing that they hadn't been so cruelly cut down in their prime.

I'm playing a game called Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest and while the mechanics are solid the story is total garbage. This is an impressive feat given the initial premise: you discover that the royal family which raised you is not your royal family of birth and must choose between the two quite suddenly and dramatically when the two countries go to war with each other. I played through the companion game, Birthright, where you choose to side with Hoshido, which is basically feudal Japan, and over the course of that game the polish and shine of the new mechanics lost their appeal in the face of a bad story and pathetic difficulty. I started playing Conquest shortly after, but eventually set it down.

Fire Emblem is an interesting franchise in part because of it's death mechanics that have been in the series from the start: there are no extra lives here, if a character dies, they stay dead for subsequent levels. Generally, players will play a stage over and over until they can win without anyone dying. If they lose a character they are invested in, most players will load their last save file. Even though the game had never completely shed this death mechanic, it still strives to tell a story with these characters. To this end, any characters that are important to the plot will "retreat" from battle rather than die. This takes them out of your future battles but allows them to appear in the story as needed.

This is a huge waste of potential for interesting narrative decisions! The plot never branches or changes significantly depending on who is alive and who is dead in these games, so why wouldn't you reset each level until everyone can get out alive?

I was thinking about what a shame this was one day when I realized that I'd never really let anyone die in my own playing of the games. Why not push the game's balance to its limits by leaving dead characters lie as long as I could clear the level? How few characters could I beat the game with? Determined to win the war no matter the cost, I found myself picking up Conquest once more.

We'd come to Cheve to quell a fledgling rebellion at the king's command and what we found was the Hoshidan army led by my character's brother, Takumi. The rebels themselves were small in number, but Takumi had brought trained soldiers to back them up. After they made it clear that they would not back down, we had no choice but to defend ourselves.

The first few waves of spearmen fell easily to my warriors and we drove them back to a nearby bridge, creating a handy choke point from which we could whittle them down. Unfortunately, my brother Takumi was a handy shot with a bow. Though Effie was a fortress with her bulky armor and high HP, she was no match for Takumi's 11% critical chance as he shot her full of arrows. Reeling from this loss, we drove Takumi back and I forced him to flee with the help of Mozu, a young war orphan who had joined my cause early on. I'd been training her up to be an ace archer in her own right and she'd proven herself to be indispensible when we were under siege in the port town of Dia.
Reinforcements showed up in the form of Charlotte and Benny and it looked as though the rest of the battle might go our way. That quickly changed when enemy mages advanced on us and, taking advantage of bad positioning, did away with Niles, a retainer for my character's brother, and Nyx, an elite Nohrian mage we'd rescued from Hoshido's clutches.

Our soldiers falling around us, we pushed our way into town, stopping only to tell villagers to stay inside and bolt the doors. They told us that many of their fellow citizens were loyal to the crown and everyone hated the loud rebels outside. We assured them we'd take care of them and be on our way.

The situation seemed to be well in hand when enemy reinforcements arrived, putting us in a poor position. Kaze (I'd spared his life once, earning his undying loyalty), Silas (a childhood friend who'd wanted to travel the world with me), and Charlotte (met her literal minutes before her demise) all fell as the reinforcements and the rebels attacked us from all sides. We pushed through, and managed to force the leader of the rebels, Scarlet, to kneel and put aside her weapon.

It was a victory, but it came at the price of almost all my best units. In a campaign that had thus far involved attempting to make the best of every bad situation that the cartoonishly evil king of Nohr sent us into, it felt good to have pulled out a victory for once.

Not content to let the player feel good about anything though, the game immediately launches into a story scene where an NPC general (who doesn't help you with any of the fighting) is killing all the young men of the town as punishment for the village's rebellion. Another character rushes on screen to let me know that the rebels themselves and the injured Hoshidan soldiers have been killed while receiving first aid. It's just another day in Nohrian army.

Before the start of the next mission, I'm treated to a scene where my character's father praises us for putting down the rebellion as my character grinds their teeth in frustration. They aren't listening. They're thinking about who they'll say goodbye to in the next battle. They're thinking about Effie, Niles, Nyx, Kaze, Silas and Charlotte.

Out of all the characters to join my army, this is all that remain at the end of Chapter 14.
There are 15 more levels to go.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

I Played: Stardew Valley

A serene, snowy forest.

Harvest Moon is a game that first appeared on the SNES in 1996. Unlike many of its contemporaries, instead of shooting aliens or questing through medieval lands to save the world, this game gave you a run down farm, tools to manage it, and a small, sleepy village nearby. Future games in the series expanded on this concept, giving you more hobbies to pursue, more animals to raise, more crops to plant, and more villages to get emotionally attached to.

Somewhere along the way, for whatever reason, Harvest Moon began to stagnate. The core of the game was still there, but many of the same rough edges refused to be smoothed down: watering large numbers of crops was a time intensive process that never got easier, feeding animals was the same, the villages you lived near began to all blend together except for when there were stand-out examples of NPCs being total jerks to you, and even the open-ended nature of the game lost its ability to hold my interest.

Enter Stardew Valley: a Harvest Moon-like game made mostly by one person which addresses every complaint I've heard and made about the series over the years - and more. Sprinklers and building upgrades allow for automated feeding of animals and plants, NPCs are dynamic and grounded in a more modern (but still sufficiently rural) life, and you're presented early on with a focus of improving the town either through collection quests or the power of capitalism. There's also a large number of small mysteries that really add to the character of the setting as well, ranging from subtle context clues in NPC dialog about the shape of the political landscape outside your sleepy valley, to a man who appears in the rain and waits for you to be ready for the pendant he holds close, to the exotic Void Chicken.

I've sunk over 70 hours into this fine game over the last three months and there's still more for me to do and discover. There's even a much anticipated patch coming in the near future with even more content. I can't wait to play more, and with the promise of multiplayer farming in the future, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this game to anyone who wants to kick back and live the farming life for a while.

You can purchase Stardew Valley on Steam for $14.99

Words to live by.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

I Played: Mighty No. 9

Some levels are definitely better than others, but all feel like they're from a Mega Man game.
Mighty No. 9, the much anticipated spiritual sequel to Mega Man games of yore, has had a troubled development to say the least. Numerous delays and unreasonable detractors aside, the game is now out and I've beaten it so how is the game itself?

Well, to start with the obvious, the character models are a bit too static. During the numerous cut scenes of the game, characters who are on screen barely emote and even when speaking their mouths don't move. I know this sounds like a nitpick, but it's really jarring.

Speaking of dialog, the characters don't have much interesting to say; and sometimes their lines don't make much sense considering who is talking. Early on in the game when you first absorb an enemy, the main mechanic in the game, the character who created the main character is astounded that you can absorb enemies. Of course I can, doc, you should know. Little disconnects like this are persistent and frequent. It'd be one thing if there was an option to turn off all the dialog, but there isn't.

Those are the only major complaints I have about the game though. Sure, I have other nitpicks: the choice of 2.5D graphics over 2D sprites leading to ambiguities about the environments, a few poorly placed enemies and platforms throughout the game that lead to frustrating deaths, none of the boss powers are ever that useful to the player, etc. But the core jumping and shooting gameplay is there and when you chain it together with your dashes, it just feels good.

Mighty No. 9 isn't the train wreck or betrayal that some like to pretend, but it certainly isn't the lofty heights of your best memories of growing up with the blue bomber. That said, lots of people complaining about this are remembering a specific Mega Man game and not a lot of the middling entries in the series. This is more Mega Man 8 (or 5 if you prefer) than 2. If you want an okay Mega Man type game with a fun dashing mechanic, you could do a lot worse.

You can find Mighty No. 9 on almost any platform with an MSRP of $29.99

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

I Played: Boxboy

This official art explains the mechanics better than I could with words.

Boxboy is a deceptively simple puzzle platformer for the 3DS. You play as a small box with tiny eyes and two small legs who has the ability to create boxes, the same size as himself, which he can toss around as he pleases to make stairs, platforms, or hold down buttons. The game starts off slow and introduces one mechanic per set of 8 levels and though the game is extremely simple at first, by the end you'll be scratching your head figuring out how to clear some of the final puzzles.

If you're looking for a game to fill an occasional five minutes of down time, this is the game for you. With nearly 200 levels, bonus medals, costumes, and a marathon mode, there's a lot of content in this small, adorable and clever package. Boxboy is stacking boxes now on the 3DS eShop for $4.99

Friday, June 17, 2016

I Played: The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures

I don't have screenshots from this game,
but it was pretty much like this.
Except we weren't this coordinated.
And we died a lot.
I haven't been able to finish a game since February. Seriously. But this past weekend I put aside time to play through The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures with some friends. We played the whole game from start to finish over two days and it took us a little over 25 hours according to the in-game clock.

It's a unique title in the Zelda franchise because it depends largely on a hardware gimmick. In order to play with four players, you need to have a Gamecube to play the game on, four Gameboy Advance units and four GBA-GCN cables for hooking everything up. If you want to go the extra mile, you can substitute the Gameboy Advance units for four more Gamecubes with Gameboy Player attachments, though each of those will need their own TV, of course. When all was said and done, we had two Gameboy Advance systems and two Gamecubes with Gameboy Players. For what it's worth, the Gameboy Players were way better for our marathon sessions and for coordination between players. Having hidden information on your own screen was rarely better than everyone being able to direct you when you got lost in a cave.

The game itself holds up fairly well, despite its age and hardware gimmick. At its best solving puzzles as a group was a lot of fun in a way that single-player entries can't pull off. On the downside, the Zelda combat system works much better as a 1 on 1 duel, where the player carefully measures his opponent and waits for an opening. In Four Swords Adventures, giant mobs of enemies are often thrown at your group and they just barrel straight towards you for the most part, encouraging button mashing and desperate hope. For my part, the game thoroughly made up for stumbling on combat with two levels that take place entirely inside towns with few if any enemies to fight; they were levels of pure puzzle solving bliss.

If you can surmount the hardware issues, I'd highly recommend grabbing one or more of your friends and playing though this game (though preferably not all in one weekend). You can get a copy of your own on Amazon starting at $32.99 as of this writing.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

I Played: Until Dawn

Life is all about choices.
Until Dawn is a game that emulates teen horror movies where you make choices as a means of advancing and altering the story. Your choices can literally mean life or death for the various characters as well as altering their relationships with each other. Beyond that, the premise is that of a group of teenagers heading up to a remote cottage on a snowy mountain for a party weekend. Saying much beyond that would be giving too much away to future players. Suffice it to say that while this isn't the tightest of 80s horror movie plots, the interactivity and branching story paths more than make up for the occasional stumbles and elements that don't quite work.

Ultimately, this is an interactive movie that I'd recommend to anyone who finds the synopsis above even vaguely interesting no matter what their level videogame skill. All the interaction comes in the form of quick time events (with various levels of quickness depending on the context) which makes for a very accessible game. I hope we'll get to see more games like this in the future and I hope that you'll find the time to give Until Dawn a try yourself.

You can buy a copy of Until Dawn for just under $40 on Amazon or if you've got a PS4 let me know the next time we hang out and I'll lend you my copy to help spread the word.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

I Played: StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void

For Aiur!

I grew up playing the original StarCraft and its expansion Brood War. I can't begin to count how many hours I sunk into multiplayer, largely playing games within the game that people had made using the map editor to turn a competitive RTS into a co-op RPG or a tower defense game or something else entirely. So when StarCraft II was announced when I was in college, I was pretty excited. Well, the third part of the StarCraft II trilogy has finally come out and I've been slowly working my way through the final part, Legacy of the Void.

StarCraft II has some really tight multiplayer and I've found it immensely enjoyable to watch it played at a professional level. However, it was initially a bit of a disappointment for me because of the campaign. I can understand the change, it's much easier to gloss over many events from the previous game in order to make the story line accessible to a larger audience, but that doesn't mean I wasn't disappointed when the two principle characters, Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan, were substantially different people from the end of StarCraft's expansion. Luckily, their drama was largely wrapped up with the previous expansion pack and Legacy of the Void is free to focus on the Protoss and their struggle against the larger antagonist that has been building in the background.

Right from the start, you get exciting events for old players of StarCraft, namely the re-taking of Aiur, and the player's goal and your stakes are quickly established. The formidable skill of Blizzard's mission design team is on full display here and missions never feel stale or boring. The pre-rendered cut scenes are also gorgeous and exciting as is expected for a Blizzard game. Even down to the smallest details, such as units exploding on the game map, the tiniest details have seen loving care.

Of course, there are two problems with the game and they are unfortunately very visible. A myriad of characters join your cause throughout the campaign but they rarely get more than 2 missions to really shine and develop their characters. Even those who show up early and get more cut scenes often simply repeat the same information before eventually changing their tune off-camera. Thinking back on the game, your robotic ally is the only one who undergoes any sort of interesting development on-camera and even then most of it is discussions about his off-camera time.

The only other thing that stands out is the botched threat of the antagonist. After the early missions, you and your friends zip around the galaxy trying to recruit help to your fight, but the looming threat of destruction is never really in your face. Characters talk to you in worried voices about planets falling quiet as destruction rages across the galaxy, but you never see much of it; it's always told to you by other characters. Had we been able to see this opponent taking over the galaxy, a la Mass Effect 3's War Asset Map or something similar, the threat would've felt real. It's a simple problem of telling and not showing.

Overall, it's a solid entry into Blizzard's long running RTS series and if anyone reading this has been holding out on StarCraft II after sinking hours into the original StarCraft, it's time that you looked to fixing this oversight.

StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void is out now on PC/Mac and is currently best bought as this set which contains all the campaigns: StarCraft II: The Complete Trilogy