Friday, 5 July 2019

Princes and PlayStations

Ugh, was it really January when I last posted? That optimistic beginning to a year full of gaming and blogging? And work. A year full of work. Lots of work. Don't worry loyal readers...reader...anyone? I still have every intention of keeping up with this blog, it's just that a slight tweak to my job role has quadrupled my workload, so that's been fun. It hasn't meant I haven't done any gaming, as we'll see in a sec, but in my spare time I've been prioritising gaming over blogging, so we haven't seen many words appear here.

So if I have been gaming, what I have been up to? Well, unfortunately not the games I'm supposed to be playing on the list. I haven't got any further with Deathtrap Dungeon or Heroes of the Lance. I did wonder about giving them up and rolling again, but I got pretty far with Deathtrap Dungeon before I paused, and I love a bit of D&D, so I think I'll stick at them for a while longer (though I'm not sure when I'll actually get back to them). There has been another change, though, that's slightly shifted my focus. I may have mentioned it was coming a while back, but Sony this year stopped providing PS3 games in the PS Plus service - they now only feature a couple of PS4 games per month. Now, I don't own a PS4, so I'm essentially only paying that monthly fee in order to keep access to all of the old PS3 titles that I've got as part of Plus. So I figure I'd better darned well get around to playing them. I'm also acutely aware that the PS5 will be along soon and that one day Sony are going to just turn off the PS3 servers and I'll lose everything, so I need to get through that backlist if I'm ever going to play these games. Annoyingly, as far as I know, there's no easy way of telling which games in your download list are part of the Plus service, and which you've bought. Even if you can tell, there's no way of sorting the list by that criteria, so the only answer is just to play everything. That was kind of my strategy anyway, but I'm trying to focus on it now. I'll quickly run through everything I've been up to, but I won't be doing full reviews of the games so far.

So, yeah, PS3 is definitely my focus for heavy stuff, but I've also dipped into a couple of really light PC games when I wanted a 5-minute game. I've finished a couple of those, which are West of Loathing and Spectromancer. West of Loathing is a commercial release from the team behind Kingdom of Loathing, a free browser game. I used to play Kingdom of Loathing waaaay back - I want to say at university, but it must have been later than that because it was in Flash. I dunno, it was a long time ago, anyway. It's an RPG/adventure game crossover with really sparse stick-man graphics. The main draw is the humour; it's a really funny game. There are absolutely still some solid gameplay systems behind that, but it's such a warm-hearted, funny game that it keeps you coming back. The game's not for everyone, but I'd still recommend it to anyone, because sometimes you just have to give things a try. It's not perfect by any means, but it's generous enough that you can't help liking it.

The other game was Spectromancer. This was an early computer card game overseen by Richard Garfield (of M:tG fame), but it didn't do particularly well. I played it a bit when it first came out, so had already made it a little way through the campaign and I've now finished it off. It's quite different to Magic in that you don't have a hand of cards that changes throughout a match. Instead, you have a deck of cards that are all face up on the table and each turn you choose on of those cards to play. You also don't have 'Land' cards to generate mana, but instead gain one mana per turn in each of your 'suits'. The playfield is also completely different. Here, you only have 6 slots where you can play a card, and the opponent has the same. Each turn after a creature was played in one of those slots it will attack. If there's a creature in the slot opposite then it will damage that creature. If there's not, then it will damage the opponent. It's as simple as that really. There's a little strategy, but not really that much, so it's quite a simple game to get your head around and play. Unfortunately, that simplicity also means it gets boring quite quickly. It was fine for a while, but I don't think I'd go back to it.

Those are the two PC games. I'll just quickly run the PS3 ones, as this post has already taken me too long! First up was Ni No Kuni, which is a sprawling RPG with a dash of Pokemon thrown in. It's made by Level 5 in combination with Studio Ghibli, so it looks absolutely gorgeous. It really is like playing a cartoon at times. I played through it with Max, and he loved it. At one point he even tried to learn to play the theme song on his recorder at school! I think it was probably a bit too slow-paced for him at times - he just wanted to get ahead with the story, so I took over the grinding (of which there was a lot). The main story arc and core systems were good. Combat did have some depth, but to be honest it was the kind of depth you could completely ignore and just button-mash through. The monster-raising feature was a little broken. At its heart, leveling up your little monsters was fine, but it would have been way better if your reserves had leveled up as well as the main team (even if it had been a bit slower). It takes a looong time to level creatures up, and there are hundreds of different creatures you could choose (with each one having different evolutionary paths, so if you wanted to see them all you'd need to capture and level up multiple copies of each creature). We just stuck with the same monsters all the way through the game, which served us absolutely fine, and they still had more levelling to go even after we finished the game. The later creatures may have more powerful final forms, but there's no way I'm dropping my current high-powered creatures in order to start leveling again all the way from zero. I don't have time for that. Actually, that goes for characters as well. A new character joins your party toward the end of the game, but I never used them once. I already had a team I'd been developing for most of the game, why would I break that up to start again with someone new? I don't know. There might have been one point in my life when I'd have done that kind of thing (I did spend hours grinding with Aerith in FF7 to learn all of her limit breaks even though she **spoilers** dies not long into the game), but now it just seems wasteful. If you want me to use someone new, then drop them in at the same level as my existing party so I can try them without penalty. Anyway, that's enough time ranting. It was a good game overall and I enjoyed playing through it with Max. I've even gone and bought the sequel on Steam, so I'll get to that some time in the next 50 years.

The other two games on PS3 were Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. They're old PS2 games, but I have the remaster bundle on PS3 that I'm playing through. I played Sands of Time on PC when it first came out and absolutely loved it. It's a fantastic game that played beautifully while introducing a lot of new concepts. It doesn't quite hold up as well as I remembered, but it's still great fun to play and I'd recommend it to anyone. The sequels are, unfortunately, just not as good. Warrior Within came out at the height of gaming's dark emo period, and even at the time it raised quite a few eyebrows for just what a tonal change it was. Sands of Time was tonally bright and breezy, while Warrior Within is absolutely over the top dark and gloomy (or 'mature' as teens would have it), with a ridiculous metal soundtrack pounding away. That all wouldn't have been too bad, though, if the core gameplay was still there, but they seemed to completely misunderstand what it was that made the original such a fresh and great game. For example, the dagger of time that allows you to rewind your last few seconds of gameplay is at the heart of modern Prince of Persia. It allows you to perform special moves, and if you mis-time a jump or try a path that doesn't work, you can just rewind and try again. That's fine, and is present in all three games. In the first game, though, they are generous with the sand needed to perform these feats, constantly refilling your tanks so you can always rewind your mistakes or experiment with special moves. It's a joy to try something, rewind and try something else. You can't spam it, because it does run out, but when you want it it's there. In the sequels, your sand is limited and only given to you at specific times, so you have to hoard it and only use it when absolutely necessary. It changes it to a last-ditch escape button, which the developers probably thought would make things more tense and exciting, but it just sucks all of the joy out of it. In the Sands of Time, rewinding is an amazing power. Enhancements in games are often called powers, but this was a POWER. We, as gamers, had never seen anything like it before, it challenged the very idea of a game as a linear narrative. It was mind-blowing and so exciting to use. Why they chose to restrict the use of that power in the sequels is just beyond me. No matter how dark and edgy your game is, never stop making it fun. As a result, the games are much more frustrating with many more deaths and slow reloads required. They also introduced 'Dahaka chase' sections, where you're chased by a creature and must escape. Essentially, it turns the game into a QTE but without the button presses flashing up on screen. Personally, I loathe those kinds of sections where the only way to get through them is to keep failing until you've learned the patterns required to succeed. I'm not talking about skill and practice, that's fine, I'm talking about problems that you can't know the solution to until you've failed. For example, a crossroads where the left path is death and the right path is survival. You only have time to make one choice - if you picked the right one, well done you, if you picked the left one it's a slow reload and you have to do the whole event again. It's just not fun. By all means make it hard, but at least give me the chance to get through it on my own merits the first time through. That's a long rant, suffice it to say that I didn't enjoy Warrior Within anything like as much as Sands of Time. The third game, Two Thrones, was meant to be a return to form - with the main character being literally half new prince and half old prince - and I was looking forward to it, but so far it seems to be a bit too close to Warrior Within for my tastes. It's not terrible, but I'm looking forward to getting it over with and moving on to the modern reboot and seeing how they handled that.

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