Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Journey's End

It's been a while since my last post - travel, holidays and work have all taken their toll, but I finally got around to a session and finished Journey: The Quest Begins this evening. It's an odd game, if it's really a game at all, and my feelings on it swung wildly from love to hate as I played it. It's basically a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book set to PC. It's all text based with static images for each scene, and once you've read the text you get a set of actions that you can choose to perform, or decisions to make. That's it - exactly like a CYOA book but without the page turning, and save games instead of fingers jammed in multiple pages in order to go back on previous decisions. It started out great - the graphics are nice and the writing is excellent, and I found it really enjoyable to wander about this new land. I even didn't mind it the first time one of my characters got destroyed without warning because I was happy to go back and try new things and read more... The first time... the subsequent times were less happy. And therein lies the big problem with the game - there is only one correct story running throughout it, and any deviation from that will result in a game over. All of those choices are really illusionary because there is only one right option. Even worse, the game is happy to let you carry on playing, thinking you chose correctly, but really you're walking dead and just don't know it...and might not know it for a long time later until you're suddenly blocked because of a choice you made hours ago and there's no way to go back and fix it. This is where you'll be using saved games a lot...I hope you saved at every location under a different filename? (Hint: I didn't.) The most egregious example of this was the end game - and I've read numerous people on line ranting about the same thing. Your wizard only has a limited supply of reagants to cast spells, and the game will let you think that your clever solutions to earlier problems where you used spells to escape from danger was all fine and dandy and was the correct way to play the game. It's only when you get to this penultimate screen that the game kindly tells you that you've run out of the necessary reagants and therefore you're dead. That's it. You don't get any option to get out of it another way, you're just dead. When you do die, the game offers you hints as to how you might have solved the puzzle, meaning you can usually load up a save game and do it correctly this time, but in this case the game's hint is that you shouldn't have cast so many spells earlier in the game. Great. Thanks. There's no way of you knowing at which point you cast the wrong spell or could have done things differently, so it's right back to the beginning for you to try and make your miserly way back through the game. Except there was no way I was doing that, so I cheated. And the cheating took me hours! I had to try and hex edit the save files, but there was no obvious storage place for the reagant amounts. I ended up having to cast a spell, save under a different name, then compare the save games to try and find what had changed. Of course, you can only cast spells at certain points in the game, so I had to start from a saved game miles back so I could identify the point and then go from there. Ugh. It was not easy, but I made it in the end and finally managed to get back to that penultimate point in the game, and this time made it through. And then I got to the final screen. Yay. The other thing that the game has a habit of doing is suddenly expecting you to remember an insignificant detail that popped up hours back in the story line - maybe one person's name out of the tens of unimportant names you're given, or a greeting in a language you had no idea was important enough to write down. The final screen has you trying to remember the colour of the reagant residue left on your mage's fingers after he cast a particular spell way back in the game, and then mixing the different coloured reagants to recreate it. There is absolutely no reason why you'd know this information. All through the rest of the game when you've needed to cast a spell you just click on its name and 'bam', it works. True, the game does tell you the colour of the residue after every spell, but there's never any hint that it's information that you should be paying attention to. It's also different in every game, so there's no way you can just look it up online. Oh, and just to make it more fun, it's not just the colours you need to pay attention to in order to mix the correct spell, there's also suddenly a 'fine' and a 'course' version of each colour, solely to double your frustration. In other words, even if you had for some reason remembered the colour of the residue, there's still no way you'd be able to know if you should be using the course or the fine powder, or a mixture of both - oh, and don't forget the random 'pinch' of a third reagant that's necessary but impossible to know about beforehand. The only way I could do it was to brute force try every combination until I hit on the right one. Yes, it took forever, but therre was no way I was letting the game beat me after all that! So yeah, I started off really enjoying the game, but soon grew to loathe it, and it's a shame that I can't recommend the game to anyone because of the sheer unavoidable frustration that it causes. The writing is lovely, though (even though it owes a heavy debt to Tolkein), and it's almost worth playing through the first few scenes just to get a feel for how fun a text adventure could be, before it all goes horribly wrong. It reminds me of a game I haven't played - King of Dragon Pass. (Can you be reminded of something you haven't done...maybe preminded? Hey, I've invented another new word!) I look forward to playing that one many years down the line.

Next up on the randometer is...Code-name Iceman! It's a Sierra graphic adventure by the same guy who did the Police Quest series. I actually read a play through of this not that long ago, so I probably know the solutions to half the problems - looking forward to giving it a go and hopefully powering through it. I also need to get back to Tomb Raider. Win 10 seems to have settled down after its early hiccups, so I've no excuse not to.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Raided

I had a bit of free time with no family around at the weekend, and managed to complete the 'new' Tomb Raider on the PS3. I've been playing it alongside the original game (until Win 10 borked my DOSbox - not sure what happened there, but I hope it's not going to be a big issue...I'm wondering whether it might have been more sensible to stick with Win 7 for a bit), and it's been very interesting to compare them. The new game has clearly changed direction, following Uncharted and similar games away from level-as-puzzle, and toward an open world (-ish, the game is still made up of very clearly defined areas that you can travel between, rather than being truly open). I guess they wanted to make it more story-driven, but for a game that's supposedly all about setting up the origin story for Lara Croft, they made a right hash of it. The characters are all stereotypical cut-outs, and you never feel any connection to them or feel any sense of loss when they invariably get murdered. I did enjoy the combat, but it didn't feel particularly Tomb Raidery, it was just a pretty standard cover shooter. I think it's actually handled much better in the original Tomb Raider (in concept rather than execution) where it's more about your battle with the wildlife as the only inhabitants of these undiscovered places. Once those combatants are gone, it's all about the loneliness and the sense of exploring the space. The sound design of the original Tomb Raider is beautiful - really enhancing your sense of being the only human in this place - it's all echoing water and wildlife and the wind rushing through these ancient carved corridors, rather than the bombastic and cinematic of the new game. That's where a game doesn't have to be like cinema. We don't have to constantly rush on to advance the plot. With games - in an aspect strangely more like staring at a painting in a gallery rather than going to the cinema - you can stop and explore your surroundings. That's what Tomb Raider has always been about for me, the ability to look around and work out where you want to go next, and how you're going to get there. The Secret Tombs in the new game were a slight nod towards this, but it's telling that the developers didn't feel brave enough to include this more sedate, puzzling aspect in the main game story - perhaps they were worried that gamers would then get stuck and be unable to progress with the storyline?

I also found it slightly odd that while we have Lara as the great female protagonist, at the same time we have her rescuing a weak female damsel in distress. Was it really necessary to follow that trope? The story could have gone a million other ways. (And on a similar subject, I'm also not entirely sure why every enemy had to be a burly (often Eastern-European sounding) male. Sure, you can maybe spin it out as "they're the only ones the cult allowed to survive", but a little variety might have been nice. Ha, maybe a few more examples of dangerous wildlife would have done it - sure, shotgunning gorillas in the first game was never politically correct, but it felt thematic.

Oh, and my final point is about the verticality. The first Tomb Raider games really gave me the willies - sorry, I don't know a better term for it. That brief sensation of physical panic when Lara looks down - or almost falls off - from a high ledge. The simple graphics, but strong physicality of those early games invoke a strong unconscious reaction in me that the modern game just didn't at all. I don't know if it's because in the modern game, you never had to look around and climb down from anywhere once you'd reached the top - the radio tower highlighted in the video is a case in point - once you reach the top of an area you'd always just magically zip-line down or the game would cut to you at the bottom. I don't know if the developers felt it would be boring to climb down the same thing you've just climbed up, but they're not the same thing at all. Climbing down is difficult, and it involves always looking down - reinforcing the sense that you're in a high, dangerous place, and forcing you to constantly consider your own mortality. Again, I think perhaps the developers were worried about the pace of the game and that modern cinempathetic (hey, I made a new word) gamers wouldn't have the patience for it - but please, developers, have a little faith in us and in your game. Have the confidence in your creation to let us explore it. If it's an enjoyable, exciting place to be, then we're not going to get bored by it.

It's not that I didn't enjoy the game - I did - but it didn't feel like a Tomb Raider game, and I missed that. Luckily, I've got all the old games to enjoy, so it's back to Tomb Raider 1 for me now (as long as Win 10 lets me).