Tuesday, June 28, 2022

When I'm 64.


This might just set a record for the shortest post I've ever written.

I just logged into EverQuest II. There'd been an update, as there is every Tuesday. The servers were up but there was a small patch so I clicked through to read the notes.

The top line reads "The EverQuest II client and server architecture have been updated to 64-bit with this update." I'd forgotten all about that.

As a long-serving mmorpg player, naturally I expected problems, issues, maybe even chaos. Nope. Nothing. Smooth as ice cream.

I couldn't really tell much difference but then I'm not really sure what improvements or benefits I'm supposed to be getting from the change in architecture. It did seem that my loading times, when the load was using data from the client, were very quick but then that was never much of a bottleneck for me. 

Where I get delays sometimes is in the parts where the server sends new zone data to the client. I don't think that has much to do with whether there are 32 bits or 64. It it seems the same as ever to me. 

I'll keep an eye on it when I do something a bit more challenging than setting my Overseer missions or  putting crafting mats into my storage depots. When the next holiday, Scorched Sky, arrives on Thursday, maybe the new dungeon or Public Quest, if there is one, might be a better test.

Anyway, I just thought I'd mention it. It's nice to see something go the way it's supposed to, for once. Credit where it's due - a big Well Done! to Daybreak and their engineers.

Monday, June 27, 2022

My Favorite Demons


How many of you reading this have a favorite demon? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? 

I know someone put their hand up. There's always one.

Okay, doubling down, who has more than one favorite demon and can rank them?

Yeah! Now those hands are going down.

I guess it's pretty obvious I wouldn't be asking if I wasn't going to tell you that, yes, I do have favorite demons, plural. And I'm going to tell you who they are. And which I like best. In order.

Better. Which I like better. Grammar matters. Don't make me show you that Reese Lasangan video again. 

Too late!

So, two demons, then. I was hoping you'd think it was more but I was never going to get away with it.

Let's do this like they do at the Oscars. No, wait, not the Oscars... where is it they announce the results in reverse order? Don't say Miss World. This isn't the nineteen-seventies. Oh, never mind. We all know how it works.

Coming in at #2 (Of two...) the formerly unchallenged champion and still the only demon whose likeness I both own and wear on a T-shirt...

Luci!


The T-shirt in question features Luci's catchphrase. Can you guess what it is? Have a go. Go on. Do it. You know you want to.

So, Luci. Short for Lucifer, obviously. Although that's never confirmed. Could as easily be Lucille. 

And even as I write this, it occurs to me I'm selling myself short here. I just thought of two more demons I could add to the list. 

Do it! Do it!

Shut up, Luci. But okay, I will.

New, improved list of Bhagpuss's Favorite Demons. Now twice as long! (Still in reverse order).

#4 - Jack Kirby's Etrigan the Demon. I'm not the world's greatest Kirby fan although, as with the Beatles, I've come around to the general opinion of his genius as I've grown older. 

I'm not at all sure I ever read a whole Demon comic. If I did, I don''t remember anything about it. The character turned up in plenty of DC comics of a certain era that I did read, though. I always quite enjoyed his guest shots and cameos. 

A character that only speaks in rhyme is always going to make for interesting reading when handled by writers who aren't comfortable with verse. Although calling the doggerel Etrigan spouted "verse" is pushing it.


#3 - Lucifer. It seems a tad disrespectful to rank the actual Devil, Lord of Hell, etc etc. in third place and it does undersell just how much I enjoyed Tom Ellis's performance in the Netflix series of the same name ("Lucifer" it's called, that is, not "Tom Ellis", although frankly it might as well have been.)

I watched all 90+ episodes, following the show from Prime to Netflix when it switched. The quality was up and down and tonally it was all over the place. I preferred the earlier seasons to the later ones although I suspect when I re-watch it a few years from now that opinion will reverse.

The thing I find most curious about Lucifer is that he's a Neil Gaiman creation. I've never really seen Gaiman as much of a humorist. I probably ought to read one of the comics some day, see how many jokes he puts in.

#2 Luci from Disenchantment. We covered this already. Surely you can't have forgotten? It was like three minutes ago!

And now... the moment you've all been waiting for... the winner! Give it up for

#1 - Courtney from Dead End Paranormal Park!

In case you missed it, Dead End Paranormal Park is a ten episode animated series new to Netflix this month. Well, new to the UK version of Netflix, anyway. Not sure if it's been out before in other territories. Probably has. We get everything late. (Not really but sometimes it feels like it.)

Described on IMDB as "Two teens and a talking pug team up to battle demons at a haunted theme park", it's a show in which two teens and a talking pug team up to battle demons at a haunted theme park. No, wait, that's not it at all.

It's a show about friendship, acceptance, loyalty and honor. It made me tear up a couple of times and want to knock the leads heads together once. Slap them? Give them a sound telling off? Sit them down and discuss the implications of their actions with them in a safe and supportive environment? That last one, I guess, only with more shouting and hand gestures.

Courtney is a supporting character with a powerful redemptive arc, to which she refers at least once in a not at all fourth-wall-breaking metaside. (I just made that one up. Good, isn't it? Try to use it if you can. Let's see if we can get it to catch on). 

We meet her in Episode One as the lackey of a powerful demon lord, who's trying to steal the souls of Our Heroes, and leave her at the end of Episode Ten, happily crushed in a group hug by the self-same trio she tried to annihilate back at the start (Spoiler, but you'll thank me later.). Along the way she gets all the best lines and throws some welcome grit into the sugar.

The show itself is rated PG, which suggests to me that whoever rated it knows some very liberal and hip parents. Either that or they really weren't paying attention. 

Also, not all shows are rated equally.  Or even using the same process, as far as I can tell.

DEPP (Ooh! I just realised what the acronym is!)  has just a single warning, for "Threat". Umbrella Academy, has a whole bunch of advisories as you'd expect, including one for "Discrimination", something that's a major plot point and a core story element in several episodes of Dead End, where it doesn't get a mention. 

Hmm. We seem to be straying from the point, always assuming I had one. Wait! I did!

All I really wanted to do was draw attention to a good show that I imagine most people reading this won't have noticed yet. Although I could be wrong. Maybe I'm the last to know. Wouldn't be the hundredth time. It's kind of buried in the "Netflix After School" sub-basement but if you enjoyed Final Space or Kid Cosmic or Kipo you deffo might want to give it a try.

Dead End is based on a comic, just like pretty much every show I like these days. Think that means anything? As soon as I'd watched the final episode I went to Amazon to see about buying some of the Deadendia graphic novels but they're "Currently Unavailable". Seems like a missed opportunity. Anyone mentioned it to marketing?

The last episode concludes with an obvious set-up for a second season. Here's hoping they get one. Better yet, give Courtney a spin-off series of her own!

Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Ghost Of Henry James


There are times when I can see the value of Twitter. Little things pop up all the time, none of them worth a long discussion but all too weird, worrying or just plain funny to leave alone. A quick couple of sentences, a picture, a link would do it. Just what Twitter was made for.

Things like this, for example. I mean, it's not something I'd normally get into. I'm not a big Final Fantasy fan. I've played three titles in the series: VII, XI and XIV. There's no chance I'm going to play the upcoming XVI so why would I mention it at all?

Well, because these days, when Naoki "Yoshi-P" Yakuda makes a pronouncement, it has the potential to unbalance equilibrium across the entire mmorpg gamespace. He's not just the producer of the latest instalment of the long-running franchise, he's also the much-revered savior and showrunner of Final Fantasy XIV, arguably now the pre-eminent mmorpg in the West and certainly one of the most influential. People listen when he speaks and not just fans.

I'm already on record as not being a Yoshi-P cultist. I've always found him to be a difficult figure, my wariness going all the way back to the FFXIV: A Realm Reborn relaunch, when he consistently made statements I found to be uncomfortably paternalistic and patronising. 

I still have issues with a good deal of what he says although I am now willing to ascribe some of that to cultural and language differences, some to issues of my own. I broadly approve of much of what he's actually done with FFXIV. It tends to be more the way he talks about it that sets my teeth on edge.

In this case, though, my reaction was more a dumbfounded "Wha...?" Judge for yourself:

"Yoshida stated that the motion capture and voice acting are all done by Europeans. He went on to say that they purposely did not include any American accents in the game. “However, even though the script is written in English, we made sure not to include any American accents. We decided to do this to prevent Americans from playing the game and getting mad by saying something like, “I was looking forward to playing a game set in fantasy medieval Europe, but why are they speaking American English?” To prevent this, we made sure all dialogue was recorded using British English.” "

Unpack that, if you can. 

Maybe some American of my readers can add a gloss. Do people in the States really find hearing an accent similar to their own in a video game set somewhere other than the USA disappointing or confusing? I would have thought it was so universal an experience as to be entirely unremarkable. And even if it's true, is a British accent somehow more acceptable, even when it's no more appropriate to the setting?

Seriously, there's so much going on here it's hard to get your head around it. At the most basic level, none of the characters in the proposed setting are going to be speaking any kind of recognizeable English to begin with so why are we even giving the accent consideration? 

You might want to argue that, as is routinely the case in movies,various moderrn accents could stand in for contemorary ones but this is "medieval Europe" we're talking about, a place and time where people would have been speaking in dozens, scores, maybe hundreds of languages and dialects, almost all incoprehensible nowadays to anyone other than a scholar of the period. How can it possibly add authenticity, even spurious, fictional authenticity, to have every one of them speaking "British English", whatever that even is?

What's more, it's not even the historical Europe. It's "fantasy Medieval Europe". There will, one imagines, be magic and non-human races at the very least. Even if anyone was worried about linguistic authenticity in the first place, something that seems exceedingly unlikely, those concerns are going to crumble into irrelevance the first time an elf or a goblin opens their mouth.

My strong feeling is that it's a made-up problem to begin with but even if Yoshi-P has demographic research or metrics from previous Final Fantasy games to back up his belief that Americans get mad if they hear their own accents in medieval fantasy games, it's really the assumption that using "British English" is somehow going to fix all this that floors me. 

I'm going to take it that a century of jobbing British actors prostituting their accents in Hollywood, aided and abetted by a seemingly endless stream of artistically dubious but commercially successful television series exploiting the supposed nostalgic charm of a rigid and hierarchical class structure have somehow conspired to imprint a particular set of aural tropes, now conveniently labelled "British English" on the rest of the world.

I can understand, albeit with some embarassment, how such expedient choices have led the world to believe Britain is nothing more than a Victorian\Edwardian theme park, held in perpetual temporal stasis for their entertainment, but how and when did the elongated dipthongs of a public school educated, drama school trained, upper-middle class voice or the dropped consonants and glottal stops that pass for working-class diction come to represent the authentic sound of "medieval Europe?"

All I can say is that I hope Yoshi-P has thought this through. Even if he's right about American sensitivities, something I very much doubt, has he given due consideration to the sensibilities of his European customers? How do they feel about British accents? Do they prefer them to American ones? Are they "looking forward to a game set in medieval Europe" where every cut-scene sounds like an out-take from Downton Abbey?

I suppose there's a chance French and German speakers may get their own localized versions but there are more than forty countries in Europe and hardly any of them have English as a first language, British or American. As for we Brits, I suspect most would be fine with a mix that included some regional American accents. It would certainlybe preferable to some of the supposed "celtic fringe" tones all too often assigned to the shorter fantasy races.

It's hard to see this idiosyncratic solution suiting anyone other than, perhaps, Yoshi-P's home audience, who might, for all I know, find British accents more authentic to the period and the setting than American. But won't there be a Japanese-voiced version for the home market, anyway?

All of that and I haven't even touched on the even weirder revelation that all the motion capture work has also been assigned to European actors. Americans apparently can't even get the fantasy medieval European moves right.

And... that was eleven hundred words. I guess Twitter wouldn't have helped after all.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

New Dawns, Fresh Pastures, Different Shores - Chimeraland Goes Global


High on the lengthy list of topics I meant to post about last week but didn't find time for was this announcement from Pixel Soft and Proxima Beta. They're the developers and publishers, respectively, of Chimeraland, the monster-collecting-survival-building-crafting-whatever-the-hell-it-is mmorpg I was playing the hell out of at the beginning of the year.

Back then, the game was only available in several south-east Asian territories but there was no IP blocking and it was reasonably well-translated into English so I gave it a go and fell in love with it. I forget whose servers I was playing on. Singapore? The Phillipines? The ping was decent so I didn't pay a lot of attention.

A few months ago there was a beta, in Canada only, presumably testing further Westernization or localization or something. At the time, I ummed and aahed about what that might mean for my future with the game but it wasn't anything I really needed to do anything about so I didn't. I just forgot about it.

Now it's set to launch globally, which I guess means I'll have to do something after all. Even doing nothing is a choice.

Should I

a) Ignore the whole thing. I haven't played for months. It's dead to me.

b) Stay put on SEA. I have a character there, a home, everything. Sunk cost and all that.

c) Start over on a new, Western server. New paint smell, fresh start, the buzz, all the good stuff.

Don't look for a button to vote. This isn't a poll! Of course I'm going to start over.

Let's review.

Option a) Well, that's just stupid. When did I ever consider my relationship with any mmorpg "over"? As long as they keep your data and the servers stay up you can always go home again. Suck it, Thomas Wolfe!

Option b) is just a wussy variant of option a). Dude, your character's not going anywhere! Doesn't matter if you play her or not. Doesn't matter if you roll another on a new server. Get a grip!

Option c) Duh! Yeah! Why wouldn't you?

There is another factor to consider. The upcoming global release is on Steam. That really does make it a no-brainer, a slam-dunk, a racing certainty. Whatever outdated cliche you prefer.

This morning, prior to writing this post, I wishlisted Chimeraland on Steam. I also made a new account on the official Chimeraland website, using the same email address as my old one, which I'm sure won't cause me any problems at all. No, really. It won't. Trust me.

The main purpose of doing that was so I could pre-register and thereby claim my share of the "Limited Time Props" they're handing out to celebrate various registration milestones. 

The use of the word "Props" in this context doesn't give me enormous confidence in any new translations we might be getting for the Western version of the game, by the way,  but then neither does the description on the Steam page, which looks to inhabit the same uncanny verbal valley as the SEA rollout did. Suits me. I like the slightly askew phrasing of these things. Adds a little mystery and we all want some of that in our lives, don't we?

The targets for pre-registration are ambitious, to say the least. There's a progress bar that goes all the way to ten million. Good luck with  that! Currently the total stands at one and a half million, which isn't at all bad.  

It's going to be interesting to see how the game lands on Steam. As I argued at length in my many posts a few months ago, Chimeraland is a very good mmorpg. It's sprawling and scruffy but it's stuffed to bursting with interesting things to do and see. The gameplay loops are satisfying, the goals are achievable, the monetization seemed all but invisible to me. Then again, monetization is almost always all but invisible to me, given the way I play, so probably don't take my word for it.

Do take my word that it's fun, though. And also the word of several other readers and commenters who dropped in to say they'd tried it and enjoyed it. It's a particularly good fit for anyone missing the likes of Landmark or even Star Wars Galaxies, open world mmorpgs with free-build, non-instanced housing. It's not like there's a lot of competition in that area, after all.

How much time I'll get to play this time around I can't begin to guess. If it launched next week I doubt I'd find the time to do more than drop in for a quick look but if it arrives when the nights are drawing in and the weather's getting colder, I might be able to give it a solid run.

As yet, there's no release date. Somewhere around October would suit me. Whenever it is, you can bet you'll hear about it here. It's not like I kept it to myself last time...

Friday, June 24, 2022

Blue Scarves And Red Motorcycles


Two demos left. Let's hope they're good ones.

First up: Monorail Stories, the bonus entry I grabbed at the last minute, mostly because I liked the thumbnail. It's yet another Kickstarter project. Out of curiosity, I checked to see how that went. It funded with €8k on a €5k bid, with just over three hundred backers. Stelex Software, the developer, is based in Switzerland, which may well make it the first Swiss video game I've ever played.

The game has a faintly science-fictional feel to it. An unlikely monorail stretches rigidly between two mountain cities, high in the air above a lake. Or it could be the sea. Hard to tell. 

I doubt it matters. All the action takes place inside the carriages as they shuttle back and forth. The two protagonists, Sylvie and Ahmal, are commuters. They never meet but their interactions with other passengers cast ripples that affect their lives all the same.

That's the set up, not that you get much chance to experience it in the demo, which is, as Paeroka said, extremely short. It took me twelve minutes to finish and I went out of my way to explore the whole train, speak to everyone and interact with everything. If I'd stuck to the plot I might have done it in half the time. 

A demo doesn't have to be four hours long to make a convincing sales pitch, though. I think sometimes we forget that "Demo" is short for "Demonstration" and this one does an admirable job of demonstrating the whole package, gameplay, aesthetics, mechanics, visuals, soundscape, the lot. All in just over ten minutes.

I really liked it. It reminded me strongly of The Longest Road On Earth although it felt less elegiac, more down to earth. There's only so much philosophizing you can fit into the carriage of a commuter train, after all, even if it does shuttle between cities gnomically named "L" and "M".  

The demo offers a single scenario that's easy to summarize: Sylvie leaves her lucky scarf on the train; Ahmal finds it and puts in the Lost Property box; Sylvie gets her scarf back. Within that simple set-up there's a surprising amount of space for player agency and plot development. 

As Ahmal, you can choose to keep the scarf for yourself. I didn't try that so I can't tell you what happens if you do. I could go back and replay it to find out - it's not as though it would take long - but it's a mean thing to do and a choice I would never have made, so I'll pass. 

As Sylvie you get to talk to everyone on the train as you ask if they've seen your scarf. Among other things, it leads to a surprising revelation from one passenger that you may well find disturbing, although possibly not as disturbing as the insight you get into the worryingly poor recall abilities of the average railway employee. I'd hate to have to ask one of these guys for the first aid box.

The game is fully voiced to a good, professional standard. The writing is solid. The mechanics are all firmly in place. The controls feel comfortable and intuitive. It's pretty to look at and I really liked the music, which complements the visuals admirably.

It's hard to be certain on such a short exposure but if the completed game maintains the levels of quality in the demo, the prospects for the finished game look very good. I've wishlisted it although it's the kind of game I'd probably wait for a sale to pick up. It doesn't really give me a "Must! Play! Now!" kind of vibe.

The final demo was for a game called Yoko Redux: Dreams of a Blue Planet. It didn't feel an awful lot longer than Monorail Stories, so I'm surprised to find, now I check, that I actually spent almost forty minutes with it. 

Some of that was replaying a couple of short sections to see if something different would happen and yet again I had to keep tabbing out to save screenshots the old-fashioned way because no-one seems to bother checking whether the Steam screenshot function works in demos. That probably added a few minutes  but I guess at least half an hour must have been genuine gameplay.

I'm kind of on the fence about whether I liked Yoko Redux or not. Visually, it's an exceptionally highly stylized game, as the screenshots make plain, but it's extreme and uncompromising in other ways, too.  

There's absolutely no concession when it comes to the backstory, the setting or the plot. The demo begins with a cut scene that explains nothing before dumping you in media res to begin your first mission. Nothing tells you who your character is, who they work for, where they are or why they're doing what they do. 

It's by no means clear even what the character you're playing is. It could be some kind of construct, a mechanoid, an android, a robot, a hard light hologram... or maybe you're human and the artist doesn't care to show it. 

Not that it matters. The mechanics are familiar and straightforward - click to move, click to use. If you can interact with something it's indicated in red and the interactions available are handled automatically. Anything you need to pick up, you pick up; anything you need to use, you use. 

The same simplicity extends to the puzzles, most of which involve finding keys or passwords and opening doors. In fact I think all of them do. At one point you have to phone someone but it's only to get yet another password. 

There are no actual conversations, although the character you play talks to himself all the time. For me, along with the graphics, which I absolutely loved, and the music, which once again matches the visuals perfectly, the voice acting was the demo's greatest strength. Tyler Ross, credited with "Narration", has the kind of voice I could happily listen to reading the phone book, as we used to say back in the days when phone people understood what that meant.

I didn't run into any bugs in the demo but once again it suffers from the issue I complained about yesterday, where dialogs repeat when you go back a second or third time. More worryingly, there were a couple of flagging problems, where not having inspected things in a specific order meant dialogs didn't appear when logically they should. That's something that needs to be fixed before the game goes live.

There were a couple of examples of fourth wall breaking, one of them so spectacularly egregious it pulled me right out of the narrative. I'm more than happy to get metatextual in my games but this seemed more like a passive aggressive designer taking out their frustration on the player. Or it did until I got to the ending...

The ending casts doubt on everything that went before and in such a way as to make it clear you're being messed with. There are five or six dialog options, all of them almost identical other than the spelling and syntax. I picked the one with the most fractured language. 

It took me back to the beginning of the demo, only now everything was glitched and corrupted. A large sign on the floor suggested "Give Up". Seemed like good advice although as it turned out I had little choice. There was nothing else I could do.

Far from finding the abrupt and jarring conclusion offputting, it made me considerably more interested than I had been up to then. Some of the aspects I hadn't enjoyed now seemed to make more sense but crucially I found myself wanting to find out what was going on, whereas before I hadn't much cared. 

Reading the full description on the Steam page, something I didn't do until after I finished, I have a much better idea what game it was I just played. As with Hill Agency, though, this seems like a demo that does scant justice to the finished game. I'm not convinced that's the best marketing angle.

I've wishlisted Yoko Redux just so I can keep an eye on it. I don't think there's much chance I'd pay full price for it but it's the kind of game I'd be very happy to see turn up in an Amazon Prime bundle. Look forward to my full review about three years from now!

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Do Alligators Dream Of Electrodogs?

If you were browsing Steam's selection of Next Fest demos, looking for something to play, Brok the Investigator and Hill Agency: PURITY&decay wouldn't necessarily strike you as having an awful lot in common. One features a cartoon alligator in the title role, the other has an indigenous Cree/Néhinaw protagonist; one benchmarks "classic 80s/90s cartoons", the other "Ghost in the Shell, and Blade Runner". Hill Agency emphasizes thinking and investigation; Brok offers "Beat'em up" and RPG elements."

Perhaps most significantly, Brok promises "A deep and emotional narrative-rich experience", while Hill Agency comes freighted with advisories: "Violence, sexual assault, human-trafficking, drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm and suicide, body disorders and body hatred, racism."

Despite those wildly differing pitches, the two share a number of key elements. They're both set in the deep future, quite specifically so in the case of Hill Agency, which opens in 2762. Brok is a little vaguer about the timeframe but it's far enough from now for animals to have replaced humans and for the environment to have collapsed, driving everyone who can afford it to live under domes.



In both futures machine technology and AIs have taken some semblance of control. Meeygen Hill, the eponymous owner of Hill Agency, inhabits a "cybernoir Indigenous future", while Brok lives in "a futuristic "light cyberpunk" world".

Each of the two leads scratches a living as a private investigator, picking up cases from people who either pay late or don't pay at all. They both live and work from homes they share with extended family, an arrangement that comes with all the privacy and respect you'd expect.

Both demos eschew anything even close to an explanation for how the world came to be the way it is. They each adopt one of my favorite science fiction techniques, presenting the narrative as though it takes place in a contemporary setting as well known to the player as it is to the characters. Context explains much; conversation, interior monologue and in-game reference material fill out the rest as you play.

Finally, both games employ a similar set of mechanics to bring a case to its conclusion, requiring you to collect, collate and present evidence in order to satisfy the client. There are other similarities but those should be enough for now. 



To avoid creating any spurious sense of competition as I discuss them in detail, I'll get the verdict out of the way at the start. I enjoyed both these demos but I only wishlisted Brok. 

Of all the demos I played during the most recent Next Fest (I still have two more to try.) Hill Agency was the least polished. I spotted a few typos and ran into a couple of bugs. Nothing game-breaking but indicative of a project in need of considerable work.

It's an impression reinforced by the way the game looks. While it's a very interesting aesthetic choice and one that appeals to me personally, the highly sylized visual approach with its denatured color palette and the somewhat awkward character movement leaves the whole affair with a vaguely unfinished air. 

 

More worryingly, the demo scenario bears remarkably little resemblance to the kind of game I was expecting from the description on its Steam page. One thing you'd really hope for from a demo would be a clear impression of how it would feel to play the finished game. It's hard to see how that could be the case here, given the extreme disparity between what you get to do, hear and see and what the game's sales pitch leads you to expect.

The Brok demo, in contrast, is slick, polished, well-designed and thoroughly entertaining. It offers precisely the experience you'd hope from the Steam page and the website. It's also huge, almost long enough to be a standalone game, something that gives me great confidence the team behind it is capable of producing something very substantial as a finished product. And it ends on a cliffhanger that really makes me want to find out what happens next. Can't really ask more of a demo than that.

The basic format of both demos consists of taking a case, investigating it, then presenting your findings to the client. The natures of the cases are wildly different and I'm pretty sure that if anyone was to guess from a precis of their plots which belonged to which, they'd get them the wrong way round. 

Brok takes an apparently simple lost property case only to find it spiralling into a dark and dangerous adventure involving drugs, stolen guns and a policeman being doped, stripped and dumped in an alley. Meeygen Hill is tasked by her irascible Aunt with finding out what happened to a child's toy, Meeygen's nephew's missing Electrodog. (Spoiler! He trashed it so his aunt would buy him the latest model.) About the only thing the two have in common is that no-one gets paid.

The Hill Agency demo is wholesome enough to deserve a PG certificate. All you do is stroll around the block you live on, chatting to local kids and people you already know about whether they've seen the Electrodog. Everyone's friendly and co-operative as you put together an almost cosy picture of life in the neighborhood. Well, everyone except the aunt herself, who clearly thinks finding a missing toy is about the limit of your abilities.

The investigation itself is fairly perfunctory, most of the value coming from what you learn about the world Meeygen inhabits. The ending is very sudden and quite disconcerting. When you finally think you've worked out what happened to the E-dog you present your evidence to your short-tempered client, at which point she just goes "Hmmm..." and the demo ends. I wasn't even sure I'd come to the correct conclusion but if I was wrong I'll never know.

The strength of the Hill Agency demo is all in the setting, which I found intriguing. Achimostawinan Game, the developers, are correct when they say this particular future has never been seen before. Well, I certainly haven't seen it, anyway. 

That said, for a time almost three-quarters of a millennium from now, not all that much seems to have changed. My routine complaint about near-future settings is that they assume far too much change in too short a timeframe but this goes way too far the other way. Both technologically and socially it looks like it might be nearer a hundred years from now than a thousand.

In part, I think that may be because the demo just doesn't include most of what's in the broader  description, specifically the elite society living in the Risen city, accessed by a space elevator. There's not even any real sense of the "thriving Indigenous (Néhinaw) Metropolis" because all you see are a a few residential locations that look as though they could be part of any contemporary North American dormitory town right now. 

The re-indigenizing of the North American continent is a very interesting concept but the demo doesn't really have much of a chance to focus on it. There's a smattering of Cree language, as promised, and the characters have what I take to be Cree-appropriate appearances and outfits but of course having a science fiction setting undercuts all of that. Everyone in SF looks and speaks differently so the impact is dissipated.

All of that said, it's still an enjoyable demo, although the mechanics need a little polish. The characters are amiable, the writing is approachable and the graphics are striking. The rough edges can be sanded down and the mechanics can be tweaked. I don't worry too much about that. The trouble is, I don't feel it's given me much of an impression of what the full game might be like. If anything, it may have done the opposite. That's a real problem for a demo.

I'm confident I know exactly what Brok the Investigator will be like on release, which is why I wishlisted it. It's going to be solid, well-written, well illustrated, charming, funny and satisfying. Assuming it comes out at a sensible price, it's also going to be great value for money.

It's already clear it'll have an intriguing setting, about which I want to learn more, personable characters I'll want to spend time with and puzzles I'll enjoy solving. It will have mechanics that let me play the way I want to play, choosing my own difficulty levels and letting me solve puzzles my way. It will even have considerable replayability, unusual for a genre which revolves around finding out who did what to whom, when and how.

As a demo, this one's got everything, really. I can't fault it. As I mentioned in my last post, it's quite possibly the longest demo I've ever played but at no point did I find myself getting impatient or hoping it would finish. On the contrary, I found the story involving and the gameplay fun. The time zipped by.

According to the developer's description, Brok the Investigator is "15 to 20 hours long on first playthrough" although if that's an accurate assessment I must have already played at least a quarter of the game just in the demo. Seems unlikely. 

Partly it's because I really took my time but even the playthroughs on YouTube, where everyone clearly already knows exactly what to do and where to go, mostly take between ninety minutes and a couple of hours. The game uses a branching narrative structure, with different paths depending on the choices you make, there are multiple ways to handle problems and there's a collection feature, too.

I had been mildly apprehensive about the beat-em-up aspect of the game but any concerns I might have had were settled even before the first scene. COWCAT would seem to be one of those rare and exemplary developers who understand that players like to play games according to their own preferences, not those of the designers. 

There are several difficulty settings including one for people who only care about the story. I chose that one, which meant I had absolutely no difficulty whatsoever with the fights. Even if I had struggled, it wouldn't have mattered. Each fight also offers the option of skipping it entirely, allowing you to completely disregard the beat-em-up side of the game and play the whole thing as if it were a straight point and click adventure, should you so desire. 

The fights are too much fun to skip. Brok is an ex-boxer and he knows how to handle himself. Beating up Squealers (Bad guy rats... or are they?) for picking on innocent down-and-outs (...Or are they?) and rumbling with robots gives the game a robust tactility often lacking in adventure games.

In addition to the numerous logic problems you'd expect in any adventure game, there are several mechanical or practical challenges to overcome. Each is a different mini-game and for once I can honestly say they were all fun to play. I particularly liked the one where you have to push items along a maze of pipes with an extendable "snake". I got the item I was looking for on the first try but I carried on and got the rest, too, just for the fun of it.

Conversation with the various characters is a pleasure to engage with for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, it's very nicely written. Characters have recognizably different speech patterns and they express themselves in a manner appropriate to their situation. Some have smart mouths and crack wise, others have too much on their mind to throw out casual jokes. 

One of the annoying things about Hill Agency is the way NPCs repeat the exact same dialog every time you revisit them, unless you've triggered some plot element to change it. It's not a criticism of that game so much as it is one of the whole genre. In Brok, you never have to hear any of the dialog twice if you don't want to. There's an option to suppress all previously-heard conversation. I used it with great satisfaction.

The game is fully voiced and the voice acting is good to very good. Brok himself is excellent, full of character and able to convey a wide range of emotions, something he's required to do by the fast-changing circumstances of the plot. Graff, his stepson, is almost lugubriously adolescent. In the full game he can be played as the main character, "switchable at any time" with Brok, although if that's an option in the demo I didn't find it.

The dialog keeps throwing up one-liners worthy of screenshots that would make excellent posters or T-shirts, as you can see from some I've used for this post. Ironically, the one issue I did briefly have with the demo was the Steam screenshot function not working. Even though the instructions said to press F12 as usual, doing so had no effect. 

For some reason, the functionality has transferred to PrtScr, which works but also minimizes the game window. A text box pops up telling you where the screenshot has been saved. It's not in the Steam folder. I got used to that soon enough. Taking shots that way had no deleterious effects on the game despite all the opening and closing of windows. Other than that, I had no technical issues whatsoever.

I could go on at length about the dialog, the plot, the characters, the world building. Any and all of them would make a post of their own. It would be overkill for a demo, though, or so I'm thinking. I'll save it for the full game, when it launches, something that's scheduled to happen later this year.

I have two more demos left to play, one of which, according to Paeroka, is as exceptionally short as Brok was exceptionally long. With luck and dog willing I'll get to those tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

There's Always Time For A Tune Or Two

I had every intention today of writing a lengthy post about two more of the Steam Next Fest demos, Brok the Investigator and Hill Agency: PURITY&Decay. I played Hill Agency yesterday and my plan was to play Brok this morning, then post about both, since I could see some correlations between them.

It's eight in the evening and I have just finished the Brok demo. It didn't take me all day - I did other things, too -  but it did take  a hair under four hours, all of it solid gameplay. It may be the longest demo I've ever played. 

As a consequence, I don't have nearly enough time to finish the post I wanted to write. There's no point even starting. 

I don't even have time to write a shorter post focusing on just one of the demos. I'm working tomorrow so it's going to have to wait until later in the week and now that I think about it, the last remaining demo, Yoko Redux: Dreams of a Blue Planet, looks like it might factor into the conversation too, so I probably ought to play that first as well.

Even though I broke the posting every day streak, I don't want to get into the habit of missing days when i intended to post, so I thought I'd just share a few tunes I've enjoyed over the last week. I can get that done in the half hour or so before we take the dog for a walk. Or I could if I stopped rambling.

Eat Slay Chardonnay - NOBRO - I heard this on Radio 6 the other day, while I was chopping up vegetables. It's a wonder I have any fingers left. It was chosen by someone out of PUP. Didn't catch his name. Ninety-seven seconds of pure exhilaration. It's not often I think a song could be longer but I could do two and a half minutes of that.

Destination Boyfriend - Slagheap - If NOBRO are the Ramones, who are Slagheap? The Desperate Bicycles? Swell Maps? We've Got A Fuzzbox?Yeah, probably Fuzzbox.

Remember when people would go around wearing those passive-aggressive "Punk's Not Dead" buttons? I bet no-one's doing that any more.

I Was Neon - Julia Jacklin - I've been digging into Julia's back catalog since I heard her previous single, Lydia Wears A Cross, kicking myself for not discovering her sooner. This is her latest, a mesmeric motorik meditation that reminds me very much of my long-time favorite, Jane Weaver

I have a post in mind that's a kind of follow-up to the one that mentioned Dad Rock. It's going to feed off this article in The Atlantic, which I came to by way of this post at Stereogum. By all means, read up in advance. Then if I never get around to writing the post it won't really matter. 

I mention it because its not just old bands hanging on forever that's the problem. It's styles, too. 

Not Harry. I don't mean him. Although...

Wet Dream - Harry Styles - Wet Leg are opening for Harry Styles on his Australian tour. The world can be such a strange place, can't it? Rhian and Hester have already finished their second album, too. Is that even weirder? I think it might be. I like Harry Styles, by the way. I think everyone does, now.

Dolly - Kevin Morby - While we're on the subject of weird covers, try this. An Americana version of a Tierra Whack tune. Although, when you hear the original, it's really not that big a leap. Tierra's something special, alright. In fact, let's have her as well, live from the dollhouse.

And finally...


Canción De Entretiempo - Lisasinson - If that doesn't make you smile, nothing will. I believe I may have said that about Lisasinson before but that's what they do, isn't it? Make people smile.

It helps if the mere sight of those Spanish Don & Miki books give you an instant nostalgia hit, of course. I used to buy them when I went to Spain or France in the hope of finding some Carl Barks reprints. Sometimes I thought I had. Of course, the artists were never credited so I was never sure.

And now it's time to walk the dog. Next time - demo time! 

Maybe...

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