The Breath of December

Iceface

I thought I’d post a few more game reviews before the end of the Winter sales. After that I need to buckle down and get working on some of these freelance projects! Since I work at a public elementary school, I have a whole week of vacation going on. That means plenty of time to write, since we didn’t plan on going anywhere (my fiancee has to work). The weather has taken a turn for the bleak and horrifying, as a thin layer of wet ice coats all and everything. We had snow yesterday, and it seems, in spite of 60 degree weather around the holidays, Winter is here at last.

Thankfully Haymarket Coffee and Juice Bar is a short walk from my very cold apartment, and now that I have a cozy working atmosphere, and a nuclear-strength cup of coffee, I feel better-equipped to laugh in the face of the season.

So here are the promised reviews. I’ve already posted some in-depth coverage of the grand strategy titles from Paradox Interactive. Deep games deserve deeper reviews. These are some other titles that I fell in love with in 2014 and 2015, and I would be pleased if they received some more attention. Here we go –

BannerSaga

This was my favorite game of 2014, and if you haven’t tried it yet, I would heartily recommend it. It’s an absolutely beautiful game, with hand-drawn graphics and gameplay that could be described as a mix of Oregon Trail and Final Fantasy Tactics. It also features a mind-blowing soundtrack composed by Austin Wintory, the genius behind the music in Journey. Here are some bullet points for you –

  • The game features an epic story about love, loss, war, community-in-exile, all taking place in a Norse mythology-inspired world. Think of big, apocalyptic narratives like Battlestar Galactica, Watership Down, the Odyssey, or the Book of Exodus.
  • The battles are very challenging, but tied together with simple, addictive mechanics. Unlike FF Tactics you don’t have a million classes and special abilities to parse through. Each character has one or two very useful, simple abilities.
  • You also are responsible for keeping a caravan of innocent villagers alive as you travel across the known world, balancing the needs of your warriors with those of your friends and neighbors.

It’s an intense, emotional experience playing this game. It’s not perfect of course, the combat system can feel non-intuitive, and there aren’t many serious consequences for letting your caravan die (unless you count sobbing uncontrollably). But it’s something special, and if you haven’t tried it, it’s only $5 on Steam this week! There’s also a sequel coming out in February, so there’s never been a better time.

SunlessSea

I’ve mentioned this one a couple of times already on the blog. Let’s assume that you don’t already know that I’m obsessed with the browser game that this is based on. Sunless Sea takes place in the same fictional world, and it’s probably a better experience all around, just because you aren’t limited by turn actions. You play the captain of a steamship, given free reign to explore a massive, underground ocean. You will discover strange locales, interact with even stranger people and… things with tentacles.

  • It’s very difficult at first, but very rewarding, as you get the hang of surviving voyages and pursuing profit.
  • The writing is unparalleled. Seriously, the strangeness and mood of this world will infect you after you’ve played for a little while.
  • It’s highly replayable. There are some storylines that you simply can’t pursue until you have crafted a lineage of captains, with inherited money and resources. I’ve gone through about 8 of these captains.

I really can’t think of anything wrong with this game, but one possible turn-off for people is the pacing. Your ship moves very slowly, and the designers did this intentionally so you’ll feel lonely and contemplative whilst you are exploring the Unterzee. I like it that way myself, and if you don’t, I think there’s a speed mod in the works.

LISA

Now for something very, very weird. Did you ever play Earthbound, back in the day? Do you remember its many quirks: the pop culture references, the weird characters, the New Age Retro Hippies? Most of all, do you remember its strong emotional impact? What if there was a game that had all of that, plus a really intense story that dealt with mature subject matter, and a classic post-apocalypse setting? That’s sort of what you get with LISA, the Painful RPG. It’s the masterpiece creation of one man, crafted on the now-ancient RPGMaker 2000 engine.

  • The story is brutal, and heart-breaking. One of the taglines describes the game as “the miserable journey of a broken man.” That’s pretty accurate, but the game is also hilarious. The jokes and the dialogue had me laughing out loud at times. When I was supposed to smile. I did, and when I was supposed to feel things, they were felt, hard.
  • The gameplay is real old-school, a lot like Earthbound’s turn-based combat. It’s just as hard, but just as fun too. You also have fresh new innovations like button-dial combos, and several different “magic” type abilities.
  • LISA is loaded with secrets and Easter eggs, and you’ll be addicted trying to find them all. Most notably there are something like 30+ characters for you to recruit and build a team from. Trying different combinations of characters is part of the joy.

There’s now an “epilogue” DLC called LISA the Joyful. I wouldn’t want to ruin any of the story by telling you about it, but it’s a great ending to the series. It’s more serious in tone than the base game, but if you liked that, you’ll definitely want to try the Joyful.

Pillars

A lot of these games I’ve posted about are kind of weird, and “niche.” But this one has gotten a lot of positive buzz. I just wanted to chime in and say it really is worth checking out. It was created by Obsidian Entertainment, and it’s one of the big Kickstarter success stories. It’s meant to evoke the feeling of classic old RPG’s like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, or my personal favorite, Planescape: Torment. BE AWARE that I haven’t actually finished playing it yet, but I’ve immersed myself enough to get a good feel for it.

  • The story and characters are well-written and interesting. It’s not really the cliched “save the world” type of adventure. You’re mostly just trying to learn about this curse your character is afflicted with.
  • The gameplay takes the best from old and new. Most of the classes and RPG tropes are quite familiar, but the designers do really interesting things with them. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about Bards before!
  • It’s difficult, in a fun, strategic kind of way. It reminds me of my Baldur’s Gate II days, when I would die in almost every fight. How else are you supposed to learn your enemy?

Pillars of Eternity is part of a family of old school renaissance games like Wasteland 2, and the much anticipated Torment: Tides of Numenera. These are equally worth your time and attention.

That is all! I’ve been reviewing a lot of games lately, and when I return from the writer’s fugue that is surely approaching, I hope I’ll be able to share more about my freelance work. Until then…

Header image from State Library of New South Wales

 

 

Screwing with History for Fun and Profit

Ironclads

Here’s the next part of my Xmas game reviews. Last time I covered the marvelous complexities of Crusader Kings II, and now on to the sequel, Europa Universalis IV. I’ll also cover Victoria II, which is sort of the grand finale to a trilogy of awesome games (even though it’s the oldest of the three). Quickly though, I must address the question: why is this a good time to try these games out? They’ve been available for years after all, so what’s the deal?

First of all, they’re wicked cheap right now, duh. But also, many of Paradox’s titles are continuous works in progress. With each new DLC comes free patches and changes to the basic mechanics. They are always tinkering with their product, always rebuilding. And they listen to their customers (usually) and respond to what they like and don’t like. A Paradox game is a living, breathing experiment in game design where something interesting is always happening.

ALSO, if you’re not sold on the base games, the modding community is HUGE for each entry in the series, and they have done some stellar work. I wish I had mentioned it for CK2, but there are some mods out there that are arguably better than the basic experience. I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones mod. That’s true for EUIV and Vicky 2 as well, speaking of which-

EUIV

This one came out in 2013, I tried it out in 2014. This is kind of like Paradox’s big name game, or at least it was before Crusader Kings created so much buzz. It focuses on the time period from 1444 to 1820, a time of empire-building, exploration, the shaping of the modern world, and so on. It’s a grand strategy game like CK2 (real-time with pausing, lots of menus, a map composed of provinces). Here are some of the big attractions (for me) when it comes to EUIV.

  • It’s the most accessible of the different Paradox games. It has a great tutorial, and it’s usually pretty forgiving as long as you don’t pick a tough starting nation (in this case, DON’T start with Ireland). Hardest thing to pick up on are the battles. My tips, don’t lag on technology, and numbers aren’t everything.
  • The mechanics are very deep, mostly easy to learn but hard to master. I would say EUIV has the most interesting and detailed system for diplomacy that’s out there.
  • In spite of the title, this is a well-researched historical setting where you can play almost any country in the world from that time period. Sure the Europeans make for a rich and interesting play-through, but have you ever wondered what might have happened if the Native North  Americans had banded together and drove back the European colonists (successfully that is)? You can play to find out.
  • You can convert games from Crusader Kings II, making for an epic 1000+ years of alternate history.
  • If you try some of the DLC’s, you can create your own custom maps and civilizations, although they still play out on our familiar planet Earth.

EUIV also has, at this point, quite a bit of downloadable content to choose from. Here’s what I think of each of them, using the three-star system I employed last time.

  • Conquest of Paradise (***) – Maybe it’s my American background, but this one just speaks to me. The added content and flavor for the Native Americans alone makes this one worth it. It also comes with expanded options for Colonial Nations (start your own Revolutionary War!) and a “New World Randomizer” which replaces the Americas with a collection of new continents and islands.
  • Wealth of Nations (**) – The expansion that focuses on trade. It’s pretty good, all around. The new features are fun, and are worth it if you’re planning on a mercantile sort of game. The basics of trading are already pretty fun though, in my opinion, and you aren’t missing that much if you skip this one.
  • Res Publica (**) – I kind of wavered with this one between one or two stars. It adds a lot of cool options if you’re playing the Dutch. There’s also a new government type and some national ideas, but that’s about it. If you’re into the Dutch, go for it, otherwise there ain’t much to it.
  • Art of War (**) – It is as it sounds, the war DLC. Honestly, all of the best features for this came with the free patch. The rest is all about stream-lining the process of building armies and giving you more diplomatic options to start shit with people. In terms of content, it expands the 30 Years War and the Napoleonic Wars to a greater degree, so that’s fun. But like with Wealth of Nations, warfare is already fun, and this expansion doesn’t improve on it that much.
  • El Dorado (***) – It’s kind of like Conquest of Paradise, but for Central and South America. It expands the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas, and lets you do some fun things with them. It also comes with the Nation Designer, which alone makes it worth the purchase.
  • Common Sense and The Cossacks (?) – These are the more recent 2015 releases, and I haven’t tried ’em yet. They haven’t gotten great reviews unfortunately, although a lot of that seems to stem from a misunderstanding about new mechanics. Time will tell if they are worth your moolah.

Vicky2

Oh yeah! Look at Beefy Otto von Bismarck leading the way to victory! Victoria II is the timeline-sequel to EUIV, although it was released in 2010. It covers a span of history from 1842 (I think?) to 1939. You can play through the Industrial Revolution, and eventually get wrapped up in the World Wars. The graphics are a little more flat, but they also feel appropriate to the old-timey historical setting. Vicky 2 plays more like Europa Universalis, with a stronger emphasis on managing a complex economy (this is when Capitalism and Marxism both became a thing after all).

It’s a lot of fun, and you can pick up the basic game right now for $5. There are only two DLC’s, focusing on the American Civil War and the colonization of Africa. They both enhance the game is numerous ways, and I would recommend picking them up. Steam (and Humble Bundle, among others) will frequently release all of this content as a bundle, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

Vicky 2 is, in some ways, the most complex of all the Paradox titles. But it’s also the most forgiving. It features an incredibly complicated system that simulates a world market, your country’s economy, and the political system that drives it all. But many of these systems are automated, so you can kind of let the game run itself, and then take over gradually as you learn more about how it all works. Even when you have (inevitably) pissed off your populace to such a degree that they rebel against you, it doesn’t result in much more than a changed form of government (socialism and communism, unfortunately, kinda suck). The warfare and diplomacy is a little more clunky compared to EUIV, understandably. But there are also some exciting possibilities that are specific to this time period, like the concept of Great Powers, spheres of influence, and global crises. And you get to build trains, SO MANY TRAINS!

So check it out, it’s not that much of a time commitment (although I would play the tutorial), and like the others, it makes for a rich playing experience. There is one other Paradox game in this “family” that I haven’t mentioned, and that is the Hearts of Iron series. This focuses on World War II, and it’s kind of all about… war. I tried the most recent one, Hearts of Iron III, and I wasn’t all that thrilled with it. There’s a new one coming out, and who knows? Maybe that one will be awesome. I will probably let you know if that’s the case.

Before the big winter sale closes up on Steam, I hope to post more mini-reviews of my favorite games of 2015, so my readers can have some recommendations for 2016. Until then.

Deus Vult!

Dunluce

Guess what? There’s a big sale on Steam right now. For those of you who are not familiar, Steam is an online marketplace for DRM-free games, and it has some unbelievable sales right around this time of the year. So I feel compelled to do some more mini-reviews of PC games, to better guide friends and canny bargain-hunters this holiday season. In particular, I’ll be focusing on two of my all-time favorite strategy games, Crusader Kings II, and Europa Universalis IV. These games are some of the flagship titles of Paradox Interactive, a Swedish group of developers and publishers who are devoted to making deep, complex, interesting games, the kind that you can devote hours and hours to playing. But I realized something as I looked over the Steam page for both of them: there’s so much downloadable content, that even on sale at 75% off, they’re a bit pricey. So not only will I be addressing the worth of the base games, but I’ll touch on each DLC, and let you know which ones really enhance the experience.

Crusader Kings 2

CK2

Crusader Kings II is a grand strategy game set in the Early to Late Middle Ages (the base game covers 1066 to 1453). Unlike most strategy games, you play the head of a dynasty with medieval holdings, anywhere from a small county to a huge empire. You play out your initial characters remaining lifespan, and then move on to their descendants. I picked up CK2 a few years ago around this time, because I was intrigued by the mix of strategy and role-playing elements. My first attempts at learning the game were… frustrating. It seemed really slow and the mechanics were totally obtuse. But I stuck with it, and once I adapted to the pacing and learned the rules, I was completely addicted. Here are some general tips for those who are thinking of trying this game out –

  • Accept the pacing– Sometimes you have to wait for things to play out: your kids won’t come of age until their 16th birthdays, that peace treaty won’t expire for another 5 years, my character just won’t die, etc. Play the game on the fastest setting, and familiarize yourself with the different characters and countries who live around you, and it’ll feel a lot faster.
  • Start with Ireland – That little island where my ancestors came from is a good place for beginners. It’s isolated, safe, and sort of its own little microcosm with almost every county being ruled independently. If you only have one county to start with, the game might feel even more slow, but just save up your resources for mercenaries, and things will start happening quickly. Good goals for an Irish game are to create the a-historical Kingdom of Ireland, and maybe even dominate the British Isles.
  • Accept and Enjoy Failures – This game has a tendency to generate wonderfully random and ridiculous stories, and a lot of these rise out of failure. I don’t mean the kind of failure where you lose a battle, and thus your entire kingdom (I find that kind of failure stressful). More the failure to grasp the subtler points of mechanics. My first game took place in Ireland. By the end I had really screwed Ireland up, and I didn’t really understand how or why, but it was awesome. My ruling dynasty was Norwegian-East African, half the island had converted to Greek Orthodoxy, and as a result I had a dozen factions forming that were divided on ethnic and religious lines. I also inherited about half of Spain at one point, don’t remember why, but I gave it up to my vassals.

So it’s a crazy game, and if you give it a chance, you’ll love it like no other. Now I’ll go over the DLC, because unless you have cash to burn, you don’t really need all of it. I’ll give each expansion a rating based on one-to-three stars. One (*)means skip it, two (**) means buy it if you don’t mind spending the money, and three (***) means it’s necessary for full enjoyment of the game.

  • Sword of Islam (**) – This is the Muslim expansion for the game. It opens up more than half the map for choosing characters, and it adds a ton of options for playing Muslims. It’s a good expansion, but it doesn’t really affect the game outside of the Muslim sphere, so if you’re not interested in playing those characters, skip it.
  • Legacy of Rome (***) – The Byzantine Empire expansion. This one wins three stars because of all the great features that enhance the base game. Retinues are a standing army that you can build up over the course of the game, very useful. The Faction System makes for more intrigue and plotting, always fun for everyone. Also, the Byzantine features are pretty sweet.
  • The Republic (*) – Play or create merchant republics, a la Venice or Pisa. This one just isn’t that great, the mechanics for a republic are not as much fun, and there isn’t really anything added outside of the republican play-through.
  • Sunset Invasion (*) – Adds a big event in which the east coast of Europe gets invaded by the Aztecs. I would skip this one, it’s pretty lame, and it makes playing Ireland a lot more frustrating (guess where the Aztecs land first).
  • The Old Gods (***) – A huge expansion that extends the timeline back to 867 AD, adding nearly another 200 years to a play-through. This is the best DLC, hands-down, and the reason that a lot of my friends have gotten hooked on the game. It’s the vikings, they’re too much fun. You can raid, get wrapped up in tribal feuds, and sacrifice enemies to Odin (including the Pope, if you’re lucky). It also opens up other pagan groups for play, and the remnants of the Zoroastrian faith hiding out in Central Asia. Don’t miss this one.
  • Sons of Abraham (**) – Adds a bunch of options for the Abrahamic religions, and introduces Jewish characters to the game. I really liked this one for the opportunity to play the Jewish Khazars, and the chance to create a medieval Kingdom of Israel (this was my favorite play-through). Still, it’s not essential by any means.
  • Rajas of India (**) – This one is kind of like Sword of Islam, but bigger. It opens up the Indian subcontinent, and allows you to play Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain dynasties. I didn’t find it to be mind-blowing, and is very India-focused.
  • Charlemagne (**) – Another giant DLC in the fashion of the Old Gods. It pushes the start date back roughly another 100 years to 769. It’s not quite as good as Old Gods, the time period is less interesting, and there aren’t as many new mechanics overall. An extra 100 years of gameplay might seem tempting, but trust me, the basic 400 years is plenty.
  • Way of Life (***) – This one gets 3 stars because it’s cheap, and fun. It adds some new lifestyle mechanics where you can have a “focus,” which means your character can pursue personal projects, seduce people, fight duels, and so on. It makes the slower parts of the game less slow, so that can only be a good thing.
  • The Horse Lords – I haven’t tried it yet! This one is about steppe nomads (the mongols for example). It adds a lot of new mechanics, expands the map, and you can try to control the Silk Road! It’s gotten great reviews, but it’s also not on sale, due to its recent release date.

Okay! I guess EUIV will have to wait for another post. In summary for CK2, the only expansions you really need, if you’re buying any at all, are Legacy of Rome, the Old Gods, and Way of Life. The Horse Lords looks good, but I plan to wait until the Spring when it will likely be on sale.

Image by Carlos ZGZ, no known copyright restrictions

November’s Cold Chain

Bonesy

Greetings all,

I have taken sort of a month off, and there are a number of reasons why. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, I was hired for two different freelancing gigs! Hurrah! I would rather not share the details of these projects until they are (hopefully) on their way to being published, but I will tease out a few details. For one of them, I am one of several contributors working on a sort of “monster manual” for a house-made RPG. The deadline for this came up a lot sooner than I expected, so I’ve spent the last few weeks hammering away at it. The other project is an adventure module for the Pathfinder RPG, to be published by a third party company. I’m excited to be working in Pathfinder again, and this will be a less daunting project than last time (in that I don’t have to write a novella-sized adventure).

So I had the rather unrealistic notion that I would work on these two projects, maintain a writers blog, and lots of other things besides –

  1. Familial obligations around the holidays
  2. Assist in the planning of my wedding (I proposed to my partner before I started writing this blog, but still, YAY!)
  3. Apply to Grad School (I am an educator/childcare specialist by trade, I want to join the big leagues as a public school teacher)
  4. Work two jobs (after-school and substitute teaching, sometimes I work 50 hours a week!)

Yeah, no, I can’t do all that stuff at once, and as much as I love working on Castle Mordrigault, it’s kind of low-priority compared to these other things, BUT, I’m not giving up on it. I just recognize that I need to slow down the new posts, probably to once a month. Once we arrive at spring, I imagine I’ll have more free time.

But as long as I’m taking the time to hang out at my favorite coffee shop and write, I thought I’d share some thoughts on what I’m consuming these days. I also realize that I promised some recommendations based on great world-building, so I’ll get to that too.

80Days

  • 80 Days – How have I had time to play games this month!? I’ll tell you how! I take the bus everywhere, and I get a lot of reading/gaming done in transit. I decided to check this one out because I heard the lead script writer was amazing, the very talented Meg Jayanth. I was familiar with her work from Sunless Sea (she wrote some of my favorite islands in that game), and her other Storynexus project, Samsara. After playing 80 Days, I now consider myself a full-blown Jayanth fan, and I’ll be following her work closely. This game is so good, SO GOOD! It’s a post-colonial, steampunk alternate-history retelling of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. It’s probably the most replayable, addictive text adventure I’ve ever played (although it’s not strictly text). And I love the world-building, of course. As a woman, and person of color, she brings a fresh, interesting, and thought-provoking look on what what the world could have been (or maybe should have been).

FlintPart2

  • Flint – I know, I know, Niall needs to shut up about Fallen London. But this is a very special time in the Neath, and I must spread the word. One of the games lead writers, Alexis Kennedy, has written a massive, two-part “Exceptional Story” for those players with a certain subscription. It’s all about exploring one of the settings most mysterious locales, the Elder Continent. The subscription is $7, and if you buy it in the middle of the month, you’ll get to play both parts of Flint (nearly the length of a Choicescript game), AND whatever special story they write next month. And of course, the rest of Fallen London, which is amazing and totally free. I just finished playing Flint and it was really, REALLY good. Like, after playing through it for 20 minutes, I felt kind of drunk on great stories. The ending was slightly anti-climactic (maybe I just made the wrong choices) but I feel like they’re going to continue the story later anyway. So, if I haven’t convinced you to try FL yet, this is the time!

And to close, here is a reading/viewing/playing/listening list that I composed for the last post, with the intention of reviewing each one. I’m just gonna list them here, but you should assume that because they’re here, they are objectively amazing and you should check them out. I tried to include something from a different medium each time.

  • The Scar – Novel by China Mieville
  • Finder – Comics/Graphic Novel series by Carla Speed McNeil
  • Grim Fandango – PC adventure game by Lucasarts and Tim Schafer
  • Eclipse Phase – Role-playing game by Posthuman Studios
  • Welcome to Night Vale – Radio Show Podcast created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Image courtesy of Powerhouse Museum, no known copyright restrictions. The phrase “November’s Cold Chain” is borrowed from the Tom Waits song, “November.”