Monday, February 28, 2022

End Of Dragons : Absolutely First Impressions

Better than Path of Fire. So far.

The update arrived at exactly 5pm local time. I was in and playing ten minutes later. 

I played for three hours without a break. I'd still be playing now if I hadn't gotten disconnected.

About half of that time I was following the storyline. The rest I spent exploring.

I took over a hundred screenshots. Could have taken five hundred. The ANet art team knocked it out of the park again. We expect it but even by their standards this is gorgeous work.

Much less predicably, I really enjoyed the writing, too. The plot made sense, everyone seemed to be in character. There were some decent jokes. Absolutely no spoilers here, though. Far too early to discuss the story. I'm not even using any of the storyline screenshots I took and there were some good ones.

Gameplay in the early stages felt good. Fast, fun, involving, comfortable. Even the fights were enjoyable. There were gimmicks but they were good ones, not the usual annoying crap. Let's hope it lasts.

I did quite a bit of fishing. It's like fishing in most mmorpgs. I liked it. I even won a fishing contest. I was the only one who entered. That'll happen if you run on ahead and explore the second map when everyone else is still back in the first.

I enjoyed myself so much I thought I ought to check what I thought of Path of Fire first time around. Maybe I liked that, too. Turns out I wasn't much for the story and I hated the mounts from the get-go but I did appreciate the art, especially the first three zones, which I called "a total delight to explore - visually stunning, vast, complex and fascinating." It wasn't until I reached the fourth, Desolation, that I started to complain about the things that have defined exploration in PoF for me ever since.

Tellingly, though, by the time I gave my first verdict on the last expansion I'd been playing for fifteen hours and it had been out for a week. I was on holiday when it launched. I didn't get to play until five days later. I'd forgotten that.

Let's hope End of Dragons carries on the way it's begun. I have hopes it might. It just feels like a better fit for me, somehow. 

We'll find out soon enough, I guess.

Waiting For The End

The third expansion for Guild Wars 2, End of Dragons, is due to drop sometime today. Actually, now I come to think about it, it might be here already. I haven't tried logging in to find out. I suppose I should do that, just to be sure.

Yeah, nope. Back to what I was saying.

It's difficult to say how much of an impact on my gaming priorities EoD might have. In spite of all the negative things I say about it, GW2 is still the mmorpg I play most often. Every day, in fact. It holds its place mostly by being an astonishingly comfortable gaming experience, particularly in a purely physical sense. 

I don't believe I've ever played any game where the basic act of controlling the characters felt so autonomic. There's so little distance between thought and action as my GW2 characters move around their world. The facility of it, alone, makes it my game of choice whenever I just want to play without having to think about playing.

Contrast that with Chimeraland or Lost Ark, where I regularly have to look at the keyboard to see where my fingers ought to be. No matter how much I may enjoy those games, there's always a meniscus between my world and theirs, one which doesn't seem to exist in other games, not only GW2 but also EverQuest, EverQuest II, World of Warcraft, Rift, really any number of older titles I could list, all of which have similar control systems.

That gives End of Dragons a running start. How far I get, how long I stay and especially how i feel about it all will likely depend more on what gets in my way rather than what there is to see and do. That was the problem with Path of Fire. It wasn't so much that the content was poor, although I did find some of it quite unappealing; it was much more the way in which it was delivered.

Whereas Heart of Thorns, which I loved, seemed to be built around a series of easily-understood progression mechanics that came smoothly together to form a gestalt, Path of Fire always felt to me like a whole bunch of unrelated ideas loosely bolted together and trying their damnedest to come apart. I never really knew what I was doing or why. Often as not, I still didn't, even after I'd done it.

Much worse than the fragmented approach were the endless obstacles that seemed to block my way at every turn. It was just impossible to relax or have fun anywhere, at any time. That can work in concentrated sessions but it doesn't make for good entertainment over the course of weeks and months of gaming.

I haven't been following the promotion for EoD all that closely but what I have seen does look to have a more laid-back feel than the desperate, frenetic Path of Fire. PoF came at the end of a narrative arc that was clearly leading towards some kind of violent conclusion. End of Dragons, by contrast, arrives in a comparative lull. I'm not convinced anyone even knows why we're going to Cantha, other than "Because it's there".

In a few hours the gates will open and we'll be able to see for ourselves. Good or bad, fun or frustrating, I can all but guarantee I'll be spending most of my time there for a while. It'll give me something to write about, if nothing else.

In the meantime, while I wait for the starting gun, I've been passing the time by playing some more Lost Ark. I ran through some quests this morning, one of which I found very entertaining, the other a lot less so. My enjoyment of each ran in inverse proportion to their relative significance to the overarching plot, emphasizing once again where I feel such strengths as the game has might lie.

The one I liked was a linked series of half a dozen or so quests in Castle Luterra, not a single one of which seemed remotely appropriate to my character's exalted status as King's Knight. I spent half a session jogging around the vast fortress, delivering flowers, talking to chefs, sneaking peaks inside women's handbags and generally acting like some kind of low-level amanuensis to a self-centered, delusional brat.

Some of the dialog was hilarious, freighted with irony and entirely deliberately so, it seemed, considering some other aspects of Lost Ark's design. I wish I'd taken some screenshots other than just the one above. Normally I would have snapped a picture of all the best lines but I was planning on writing a completely different post today so you'll just have to take my word for it - it was well-written, sharp and funny.

It was also fun, relaxing and very easy, only one of which I can also say about the big quest I did immediately afterwards. That one was clearly intended to be a big, set-piece finish to a major story arc in the MSQ. For those who've already done it, I'm talking about the King's Tomb sequence, a very lengthy segment culminating in the acquisition of the first of the titular lost arks.

My god, it was tedious! I've done some very dull, boring instances in my time, almost all of them in GW2's Living World,  especially during Seasons Three and Four, but this was right up there with any of them. If there's one thing I absolutely detest in these kind of instances, it's when you have to repeat the same set of actions again and again, presumably in the mistaken belief that what all players really want to do is emulate water wearing away stone.

In this case that didn't just mean the usual industrial-scale slaughter of grunt mobs interspersed with annoyingly resilient mini-bosses, although of course there was all of that as well. The really boring part came at the end, where you're tasked with going round and round and round a spiral staircase, fighting the same blasted demon at every landing, flipping the same lever, jumping the same gap then meeting him on the next level for yet another go.

It felt like it took several days although the clock said it was only about a quarter of an hour. At no point was any of it exciting, thrilling, involving, entertaining or even mildly interesting. The only thing I will say in its favor was it was gloriously easy. That alone made it bearable. ArenaNet could learn some lessons there. 

By the end of it my character was Level 32 and the structure of the rest of the levelling game had been made clear: you found one ark, now go find five more, all over the world. It's a framework, I'll give them that. I just hope the rest of the arks are hidden somewhere more interesting than at the top of a never-ending set of steps.

Harking back to the observation I made at the start of the post about the intrinsically intuitive, fluid way GW2 lets me to control my characters, I spent a good deal of time in Lost Ark frantically trying to close pop-up windows I'd opened by mistake mid-fight. That happens often. Pressing a lot of keys in a hurry tends to result in fat finger errors.

In Guild Wars 2 I could use the keyboard for combat if I wanted but I choose not to. Using the mouse pointer and hotbars feels so much more natural. One thing that galls me about Lost Ark is that it has both hot bars and a free cursor but it won't let me use them together. Even out of combat, when you can click on icons and see them respond, they don't actually do anything. I'd enjoy the game a whole lot more and fight a whole lot better if they did.

Other than playing Lost Ark, I spent the rest of the morning running through another of the Next Fest demos. It was a short one. It only took me forty minutes and I spent at least ten of them trying to figure out how to take screenshots. 

I was going to review it today but somehow I wrote this instead. If I end up posting about it tomorrow that'll probably tell you everything you need to know about End of Dragons and none of it will be good. Here's hoping it doesn't happen.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Let The Sun Shine In: The Crowns And Pawns Demo

Another day, another demo.  Actually, I played this one a couple of days ago. I've been saving it for Sunday so I'd have something quick and easy to post after work. 

The demo in question is Crowns and Pawns: Kingdom of Deceit, a point&click adventure claiming to model itself on the classics. From what I've seen so far it doesn't seem an unreasonable claim but I do have a few reservations before I climb on board the bandwagon.

My main reason for holding back lies with the nature of the demo as a demo. It's exceptionally professionally produced, as slick as whatever unsavory simile for slickness you care to employ, but I'm not sure it told me nearly as much about the game as I felt I needed to know.

It's certainly one of the most commercially-minded demos I've ever played. Excised from the screenshot at the top of the post are the "Wishlist Now" and "Subscribe" buttons that appear at the bottom left and right of the screen respectively. They were in my line of vision for pretty much the entire time I was playing..

I acknowledge the clear-sightedness of the marketing department in making sure no-one's allowed to forget why the demo exists but their single-mindedness had exactly the opposite effect on me. I did not add the game to my wishlist, pretty much out of spite.

Chances are I will, sometime. It looks enough like a game I would enjoy playing for me to want to keep an eye on it. It's hard to be sure, though, because whoever designed the demo made a conscious decision to focus on one aspect of the game over all the rest.

The Crowns and Pawns' Steam page has a list of features that includes "a blend of history and myths set in a modern world, featuring real life locations all around Europe" but the demo takes place in a run-down, two-room cottage. The game also features "fully voiced dialogue" and "interesting dialogue choices" but the demo begins with a statement warning you won't be experiencing much of that in the chapter they've chosen to show.

What you most definitely will be doing is solving puzzles. When they tell you to expect "Classic point-and-click puzzles that involve finding items [and] creatively combining the contents of your inventory" they really aren't kidding. That's all you'll be doing!

It's also the first thing you'll be doing. Well, alright, strictly speaking the first thing you'll be doing is arriving in your rented car, walking up the path, finding the door to the cottage already open and stepping inside... only to find it's pitch dark and the lights don't work.

The solution... 

This is going to be a spoiler by the way... 

I'm warning you now so you can turn around and leave if you want to play this thing and work out all the puzzles for yourself... 

Everyone good now? 

Okay, the solution to the first problem isn't hard to spot. Right next to the front door there's a fusebox. In your inventory there's a bunch of keys. Open the box with the keys. So far, so extremely easy. Not so the next part, which did give me a little trouble. You have to move some dials around to meet a particularly unlikely set of conditions. I've fiddled with a fair few fuseboxes in my time and I've never seen one with rules like these.

The demo has been pulled straight from the game itself, where it's known as "Chapter Two." I'm guessing you won't be tasked with a logic puzzle within thirty seconds of logging in when the real thing arrives. I imagine there's a warm-up before you need to exercise your puzzling muscles in earnest. I know I could have used one.

The puzzle wasn't too tough, fortunately, or this would have been a much shorter and even snarkier review. It took me a few goes but eventually I had that "D'oh" moment so familiar to adventure gamers. As I was to realize several times during the hour or so I spent playing the demo, the difficulty of the puzzles wasn't going to be the problem. The nature of them was.

Adventure games have a few generic flaws, the most annoying of which are the aforementioned arbitrary win conditions, a blunt refusal to allow actions that are irrefutably reasonable and a corresponding insistence on irrational, usually convoluted, alternatives. Crowns and Pawns is definitely in line of descent from the classics as far as all of those are part of the tradition.

Let's just stick with that fuse box for now. If you entered a small cottage on a blindingly sunny day, would you expect to need to switch the lights on before you could see more than a foot in front of your face?  Does sunlight not go through glass in this version of Europe?

Come on, now. That's harsh. Surely there's a logical explanation? The cottage belonged to the protagonist's grandfather, who just recently died. Maybe there are blackout curtains at the windows. The shutters might be closed out of respect.

No, they are not. Neither of those things nor anything like them is true and you can be sure of that because you can see from the outside of the house that there are no shutters or curtains, something immediately confirmed from the inside, when you do switch on the light.  

Why the room is in total darkness defies not only logic but physics, as does the view from inside the room. As the screenshot below shows, from inside the cottage the sunny day seems to have vanished, replaced by utter blackness outside both the open door and window, even though, in the next room, as shown in the scene above, the artists have made a particular point of showing how brightly-lit that room is by the sunlight streaming in.

A game that prides itself on having both "beautiful hand painted art that comes to life with a touch of modern graphics" and "a world that reacts to your decisions" ought to work a little harder to feel like an actual place, rather than a stage set. There are several other occasions when a simple, straightforward solution to a problem is denied, sometimes by the game just not offering any such possibility but more frequently and far more annoyingly by a scripted response giving a spurious and wholly unconvincing explanation as to why it can't be done.

None of this bothers me all that much. If it did I'd have stopped playing adventure games years ago. Even the very best of them are stuffed with moments like this. I do think, however, that it's a bad idea to have quite so many of them displayed quite so prominently in a demo. I guess you could credit the developers for exceptional honesty but the effect it had on me was mostly to make me question whether I could put up with it for a whole game.

By the end, though, I figured that, yes, I probably could. It has a lot going for it. The graphics are attractive to look at. I think "beautiful" might be pushing it but "pretty", certainly. The voice acting is solid, although the demo doesn't offer a wealth of evidence in that direction. Apart from Milda, the protagonist, (who talks to herself a lot and sounds uncannily similar to several other young, female protagonists in other adventure games I've played. Maybe they're played by the same actor...) there's only one other character, a disembodied voice on a walkie-talkie that someone throws through a window early on in the demo. A closed window.

The plot is interesting enough that I want to find out what happens next and Milda is a likeable-enough lead. The puzzles, despite my sarcasm, are probably less egregiously illogical than average and they're pitched about right for me in terms of difficulty. I would definitely download Crowns and Pawns if it turned up for free on Amazon Games or Epic or somewhere like that and I'd probably play it, too. 

I'm not sure I'd pay money for it, though. Everything about it does feel quite bland. It's a bit like adventure gaming by numbers. The demo works very well in convincing me the developers are fully capable of producing a good-looking, fully-functional adventure game, although I am a little troubled to learn the demo itself has been available in what appears to be identical form for at least a year and a half.

What the demo doesn't do is get me itching to play the full thing right now. Does that make it a bad demo? Maybe try it yourself and see what you think. It took me less than an hour. Or watch one of the many playthroughs on YouTube. I watched this one. That doesn't ask for much more than half an hour of your time.

Or you could just watch the new trailer, which takes less than two minutes and yet manages to makes the whole thing look a lot more appealing. I guess that means it's a good trailer.

Two demos down, five to go.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Who Wears Short Shorts?

I find it very difficult to get a close look at my character in Lost Ark. To be honest, that's not all that unusual for an mmorpg, even one with three dimensional graphics and a fully maneuverable camera, but it's more awkward in LA than in most.

Fortunately there is a "Selfie" function that's clearly designed to make the purchase of cosmetic outfits in the cash shop more appealing. At least I'm guessing that's what it's for - I haven't actually looked at the cash shop yet. They do sell fancy outfits there, don't they?

The Selfie system itself isn't nearly as user-friendly as it could be. No-one seems to have seen fit to add it to the otherwise exhaustive tutorial, although since my character's still getting regular tutorial tips in her thirties I can't say for sure a lesson on posing for the camera isn't coming. 

I could probably use one. It was only last night that I noticed a large pull-out panel on the right side of the screen. It offers a whole range of options, including zoom and panoramic views as well as toggles for mobs, NPCs, other characters, their pets and all names including your own. If I'd spotted that sooner I wouldn't have had to use's blur to hide my character's name in the two older shots in this post.

The camera is still sluggish and it only rotates in something like a 180 degree arc. Even more annoying, your character can't move at all other than to rotate in place. You can slide the frame from left to right or up and down but if you want to stand somewhere else because, as happened to me this evening, you're being photobombed by a gigantic blade of grass, you have to close the Selfie function to move your character, then start again, whereupon, likely as not, you'll find something else has put itself in the way. 

The reason I was fiddling about with the thing in the first place was because, at half-way through level twenty-nine, my character finally got a pair of long pants! That seriously felt like a moment worth recording and I am not being ironic.

As it happens, I'd taken a couple of selfies of her previous look, which hasn't changed an awful lot since the day she arrived. I'm no expert on this, having only created a single character so far, but it's my understanding that each class has a look that doesn't change a whole lot for quite a while, if at all. 

That was certainly the case for my... I want to say Gunner but I realize I don't actually know the name of the class I'm playing for sure. That might say something about my levels of engagement but I think it probably says more about my memory. I can barely remember the names of the classes in Guild Wars 2 and I've been looking at them for a decade.

Whatever her class is called, its official uniform seems to be early 1970s Hot Pants. I don't particularly mind short shorts as an option (As discussed in a previous post, it's more the ludicrously inappropriate footwear and the obnoxious way the high-heeled catwalk strut has been implemented that's the problem.) but it would be nice to be given some kind of choice. 

In nearly thirty levels I must have had a couple of dozen items drop for the leg slot and every single one looked almost identical. I did eventually get something that, bizarrely, added knee-length boots to the look. It made a change, but the shorts stayed short.

I'd managed somehow to acquire a top that included a shirt, waistcoat and belt combo. I was happy enough with that. I thought my character looked pretty good from the waist up. From the waist down, though, she looked ridiculous, especially when the King insisted on presenting her to court.

Then, finally, gloriously, astoundingly, an item dropped that, when equipped, turned out to be a pair of 1970s-style leather-look loons! They cling skin-tight to the thighs, then flare wildly from the knee.

It's a look not everyone could carry off but she rocks it. I thought I did too, back when I was about thirteen or fourteen. I had two pairs of loons just like hers, only mine were a lot flashier. One pair was bright red and the other bright yellow. As far as I know, no pictures exist. At least, I hope they don't...

She's beginning to look something like the version shown in the cut scenes at the start of the game. Not as stylish and svelte, more's the pity, but a recognizable approximation. 

I just hope this is a permanent change. If I start getting shorts again I don't think I'll be able to persuade her to put them on, no matter how much of an upgrade the stats might be. 

From the minimal research I've done, there doesn't seem to be any kind of wardrobe or transmog system in Lost Ark, which frankly beggars belief. If you think gender locking is archaic, what would you call that? 

If there was a way to do it, I'd keep the look she has now as a default "acceptable" appearance in lieu of something better turning up. As it is, I guess I'd better just enjoy it while it lasts. It'll probably be shorts season again soon enough.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Sixty Minutes With Albert Wilde: Quantum P.I.

I seem to have lurched from hardly being able to think of anything to write about at all to having a whole slew of ideas that can only be expressed in epic form. I just ran the last weeks' worth of posts through a word-counter and it came to more than seventeen thousand. That's ridiculous!

I have several more posts in mind that I know are going to go long but I'm going to sit on them for a while. If I leave it long enough, with luck I might forget about them altogether. 

I'm working all weekend, which will stem the flood in any event but I would like to spend today doing something other than writing, just for a change, so I'm going to limit myself to a review of a single demo from the Steam Next Fest

Seriously? You're going to review one demo? Is that a valid use of valuable resources?

Probably not but I'm gonna, anyway. I took some screenshots and I'm going use them, damn it!

The game in question, as must be obvious already to anyone who read my last Next Fest post, is Albert Wilde: Quantum P.I. Steam says I played it for two hours but Steam's easily fooled. In truth, I played for about half an hour, took an hour out to have tea and watch Eggheads with Mrs. Bhagpuss, like every other nearly-retired couple in England, then played for thirty minutes more. 

The demo lasts about sixty minutes or at least that's how long it lasted for me. I guess I might have missed something but I don't think so. Despite a strong warning at the start about how early-development the build is, it seemed very stable. I didn't encounter any bugs, glitches or problems at any point.

The demo also very helpfully tells you there's no option to save your progress. I wish all developers would exhibit a similar duty of care. That's why I left it running while I had tea, something the demo didn't seem to mind at all. I've known plenty of games to freeze and need a restart in similar circumstances but not this one.

The first thing the demo asks you to do is tell it whether you're using a controller or keyboard and mouse. I'm not sure why they even bothered with the keyboard. You could play this thing with one finger.

That's not a criticism. It's a recommendation. I loved the controls. They were super-simple, wholly intuitive and extremely comfortable to use. WASD to move, mouselook to turn, space bar to interact, cursor keys to select dialog options. Which, as I said, could be reduced even further to LMB/RMB and mouse-wheel to scroll. Then you could hold a drink in your other hand while you played.

I liked the controls and I liked the look. This is a great-looking game, provided you like watching shows from the dawn of the television era - grainy, shaky, out of focus, black and white...

That's how it struck me, although I suspect the look the art team was actually going for was more early talkies movie serial. The game's set in the prohibition era and that ended in 1933 so TV hadn't really got going yet. Then again, there were very few cats working as private investigators during the real prohibition, let alone deer in the police force or pigs practicing law (Insert your own joke here.) so the timeline's already corrupt.

The environmental art is so effective I spent longer than I should have trying to work out if it was heavily treated real-world video or computer graphics. It's the latter, of course, as is obvious from the indoor scenes, but some of the alleys and broken-down warehouse settings are very convincing.

The dialog is solid, too, or it is when it allows itself to be. There are some lengthy conversations between Albert and various people he already knows that have the authentic feel of long familiarity between old friends or at least acquaintances. 

When the writers try to be funny, though, things don't always go so well. I get that jokes about animals behaving like humans are a trope of these kinds of games but gags about licking your own butt get old fast. To have three or four of those in a sixty minute demo shows lack of judgment as well as lack of taste. Even the six nipples joke, which I hadn't heard before and thought was quite funny, doesn't work a second time.

There are also altogether too many metatextual winks and nods and I say that as someone who usually can't get enough post-post modern self-referentialism. If you're going to keep banging them in, they need to be sharper or smarter of preferably both.

Soundwise, the demo scores some points. Albert's thoughts get a prototypical noir voiceover that's not at all bad. The guy doing the voicework has a deep, growling timbre that works for both a PI and a cat and his line readings are fine. 

The music, something the promotional material makes much of, is okay but no more. It's the expected jazz-adjacent noodling every game like this always goes with. I wouldn't turn it down but I didn't really find myself noticing it much, either.

Gameplay in the demo is about as minimal as I've ever seen in one of these things. Anything you can examine is highlighted by a yellow dot. You can click on those and get a description. If it's interactable, it's underlined and you hold down the space bar to fill in the line. That sounds a little odd but I really liked it. It had a nice tactility to it that weirdly made just clicking on things feel pleasurable.

You can take things, although very rarely. There's no inventory in the traditional adventure game sense. On the very odd occasions the game allows you to pick something up it just adds a shadow icon to the left border so that, should you need to use it at any point, the game knows you have it ready.

The plot revolves around a murder, which seems to have some paranormal element to it, although with a setting like this it's honestly hard to tell what's supposed to be in-game "normal", which is presumably why all the characters have to keep telling each other exactly what's "weird" and what's not. Personally, I found the fact that every character wears clothes except the witness who found the body pretty weird. He's a flamingo and a professional dancer (It's a big plot point.) but if either of those is relevant to his state of undress it's not explained. 

Maybe birds go around naked in this world and no-one cares or maybe it's just dancers. It can't be dance teachers, though, because we meet one of those and she's fully dressed. Then again, she's a cow.

All in all, I felt it was an hour well spent. About the only even remotely original thing about Albert Wild: Quantum P.I., at least as revealed in the demo, is what it looks like. Everything else is extremely familiar from any number of other anthropomorphic noirs but I suppose that's like saying when you watch a tennis match all people keep doing is hitting the ball across the net. That said, I can't remember ever having had to convince a witness to talk to me by demonstrating my interpretive dance skills before...

I liked it enough to wishlist it, anyway. It is, as they said, a very early build but it shows a lot of promise. By far the weakest spot is the humor (Geez. Look who's talking.) but even that's not bad, just a little overdone. I did laugh a couple of times, if not very hard or loud.

One down, six to go. And that was only twelve hundred words. Getting there!

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Kael Drakkel: A Legend Is Born.

It was only when Wilhelm posted to say the new EverQuest II Lore and Legend server, Kael Drakkel, was up and running that I remembered yesterday was the day it was due to go live. There was a short beta that I never even considered but it had been my intention to make a new character when the real thing arrived, just to see if I could work out what the deal was with this new and - to me, at least - somewhat unintuitive ruleset.

Experimental servers employing idiosyncratic rulesets are nothing new to Norrath, of course. Very much the opposite. I think that having EverQuest as your discovery mmorpg sets you up with different expectations for the genre in a number of ways and one of those is the idea that servers exist to have different modes of gameplay.

When I logged into EQ for the first time in late 1999, I was already looking at a choice of several rulesets. As well as the regular PvE servers there were three PvP servers, Rallos Zek, Vallon Zek and Tallon Zek, each with slightly different rules. The PvP three became four with the addition of Sullon Zek and finally, briefly, five, when Sony Online Entertainment added the first limited duration "event" server, Discord.

Over the course of a few years, servers appeared offering a variety of different play experiences from "roleplay" on Firiona Vie to the high-maintenance Stormhammer, where a subscription cost several times the going rate. When Fippy Darkpaw, the first Progression server, arrived in 2011 the floodgates crashed open and since then virtually every server that's opened, progression or not, has had a ruleset at least slightly different from what came before.

EverQuest II hasn't had quite so many flavors but it still has far more than most mmorpgs. I'm so used to different rulesets from decades of SOE and Daybreak games, I find it strange that other companies seem so set in their ways. If you have the infrastructure to provide that kind of variety for your customers, why wouldn't you?

Well, for several reasons, I guess, not least the danger of splitting an existing audience into smaller and smaller groups. If new servers with new rulesets bring back lapsed players or better yet attract new ones, that's great; if the main result is disruption and turmoil among the players you already have, that's not such a favorable outcome. 

Presumably every new server and each new ruleset comes with development costs, although given that no new developers ever seem to be needed and most of the hardware is almost certainly repurposed from what's already there, perhaps those costs are more manageable than you might imagine. Similarly, so long as existing customers don't actually leave the game it probably doesn't matter, commercially, if they jump around from server to server like sheep seeking greener pastures. It annoys guild leaders but then what doesn't?

Disruptions aside, all new rulesets are not created equal. Some are successful, pulling in the crowds and keeping the numbers up for months or years. Others enjoy a brief flurry of attention before withering away, usually without controversy or complaint. EQ players from both games are more than used to servers that don't last and rulesets that don't take by now. It's no big deal if one fails, just a shrug and on to the next.

So, what exactly is the supposed unique selling point of Kael Drakkel and its "Lore and Legend" ruleset? The F.A.Q. (Which, I'm curious to note, has for once been correctly punctuated.) explains everything in some detail but the elevator pitch appears to be an easy-mode, casual-friendly, server where most of the barriers that prevent former players from coming back or new players from getting started have been swept away.

Clearly, that's a potentially commercial proposition. All aging mmorpgs struggle with the problem of too much content and too many levels blocking the path to the current endgame. Some, like Elder Scrolls Online, have simply done away with the leveling process altogether, opting for a flat playing ground, where everyone is the same level all the time. Others, like World of Warcraft, have opted for an increasingly convoluted and arcane series of workarounds, squishing levels, adding leveling tracks and generally making sure no-one really knows where they are or what they're doing.

Kael Drakkel has a relatively simple premise: no leveling at all and only content from a much simpler era of game design. EQII took a right-angled turn about a decade ago, changing not just leveling and experience but progression as a whole in a number of significant ways. 

In my estimation, that change didn't really take hold until 2015's Terrors of Thalumbra, so Darkpaw have given themselves some room to expand should they need it, with another three potential expansions they could probably bring online without too much trouble. I suspect they stopped where they did because immediately after Velious we all went to the ethereal plans and the haunts of the dead, which is a bit of a metaphysical and thematic leap from the first nine very physical locations. 

It also marks the point at which the kind of nostalgia they're presumably hoping to play into begins to dissipate. You'd pretty much have to be a current, Live player to have much nostalgic feeling for anything after Velious.

I always planned on giving the server a try, although I definitely don't have either the time or the inclination to start over yet again just now. But of course the whole point of the Lore and Legend ruleset is that you don't have to "start over". 

You begin at Level 90 and that's where you stay. There is no leveling, not even for AAs, You start with everything.  You even get your choice of tradeskill boosted to ninety. You're given a full set of gear and a flying mount. You even come into the world fully buffed and with all the spells you're likely to need right away slotted onto your hotbars for you.

Every zone is the same level - your level. And since you also have to be a member to play, you automatically have access to the Instant Travel system. You can go wherever you want and wherever you go will be right for you to start playing immediately.

It does sound appealing. That much freedom could be overwhelming but nowhere near as intimidating as the usual late-mmo deluge of content. Looked at a certain way, it's like they turned the entire game into a starting zone.

After I read Wilhelm's post, I logged in straight away to make a character and see what all that freedom felt like. I didn't have any free character slots but I had a pile of DBG cash so I bought another. Nice to have something to spend it on.

I have a whole different post to write about making characters in EQII so I'll save most of what happened next for another time. Suffice it to say, I ended up making a human necromancer. Then I logged her in and got myself settled.

The onboarding process for Kael Drakkel is very good. Darkpaw appear to have learned lessons from earlier iterations, where you begin at high level. I've done it plenty of times and this was by far the neatest, tidiest, quickest and easiest version I've seen.

My bags, all six twenty-four slotters, were completely empty. No cruft whatsoever. That in itself deserves to win someone a bonus. I chose to import the UI settings from one of my previous necros and set up all the hot keys just as I like them but had I wanted to start adventuring right away, I could have been killing mobs just seconds after the new character loaded in.

The immediacy of the new ruleset was hard to miss. When I decided I wanted to test out the auto-mentoring that underpins the whole thing, there was no checking zone levels or travel routes. I just opened the Instant Travel map, clicked on Commonlands, pointed my winged horse at the sky and swooped down on the nearest overland Named. 

I may go into the whole gear upgrade process that's central to Kael Drakkel's ruleset in some future post. It's all set out fairly clearly in the F.A.Q. linked above, if anyone's itching to know right now how it works. The gist is that all mobs still drop whatever it was they used to drop but named mobs also drop a guaranteed "Lore and Legend Gear Crate" containing something you can use. 

I found it familiar in an unexpected way. It reminded me of the early iterations of "Fabled" creatures in EverQuest, seasonally up-leveled versions of Named bosses that drop items suitable for much higher level characters. I always liked that system, until the bosses that were being upgraded for the event started to be the same ones I couldn't solo even in their regular editions.

It also helps that EQII has a lot of overland Names. And I do mean a lot. There must be a couple of dozen or more just in Commonlands alone. And most of them seemed to be up. There were a couple of other people around and one or two Nameds weren't where they usually would be but as I flew around I was able to pick off several in a few minutes.

The difficulty seemed better tuned than regular mentoring but not by all that much so I thought I'd give it a proper test. There's an open-world raid target in Commonlands, a drake by the name of Ladon. Mentored down from 90 on a live server, Ladon would be an easy solo for a necromancer. On Kael Drakkel the "fight" lasted about two seconds. 

Ladon didn't quite one-shot me. He took two bites to kill my pet and one to finish me off. Point taken. No soloing raids here.

That was my first death in the Commonlands. My second came when I took on one of the named orc Generals and his entourage, a Heroic encounter originally intended for groups, although not a particularly tough one. 

The orcs didn't kill me. It was reasonably challenging fight but my necro was never in much danger. What killed her was picking up the loot. 

EQII has a trap mechanic on all dropped chests. There's a skill you can raise to counter it and certain
classes have innate abilities to deal with the traps. There was a time when getting poisoned or blown up as you opened the box was a regular occurence but it's been utterly trivial for every character I play for so long I'd forgotten all about it.

If I play much more on Kael Drakkel, I'm going to have to re-learn some old habits, it seems, not to mention some old skills. When I went to open the chest it exploded and killed me faster than Ladon had. Whether that's intentional or whether someone just missed chests in the scaling calculations I can't say for certain. That is how it used to work, though, so it could go either way. 

Up until then it had just been my necro and her pet but Mercenaries are, somewhat contentiously, available on Kael Drakkel, despite not having been added to the game until a few expansions later. Before I left the area I decided to pop into the East Freeport inn and hire good old Stamper Jeralf, the ratonga Inquisitor. He's not as powerful or reliable as later mercs but he gets the job done.

With Stamper in tow I felt a little more confident. At least he'd rez me if I blew myself up again. Off we went to test the scaling by zone rather than by mob tier. 

We tried Steamfont first, where we killed a few solo Nameds that would, on a Live server, be in the thirties and forties. The fights varied in difficulty but they seemed pretty well-balanced. Nothing fell over in a light breeze but I finished everything I started comfortably enough.

From there it was on to Loping Plains, a zone where I've always found the hunting good. That was where my first session on Kael Drakkel came to an end. It's a level sixty zone on Live, with a mixed ecology of solo and heroic content. I was planing on starting on the solo bosses and moving up to some Heroics but it didn't pan out that way. 

I did kill several solo Nameds but the fights were noticeably tougher than in Steamfont. Finally, I pulled a Named from an awkward position, got several adds along with him, somehow contrived to lose line of sight with both my pet and my merc, didn't notice they were both having a poor time of it and ended up face down in the dirt with no-one left to pick me up. 

All of that was entirely avoidable if I'd been paying the kind of attention a solo player ought to be paying, when attempting an at-level boss in an at-level zone. It was getting late when I revived in Somborne Cemetery so I called it for the night. Based on what I've seen so far, I'd say Darkpaw have got the scaling just about right.

They've probably also got the fun roughly where it needs to be, too. I was thinking about it a lot as I was playing. I was very curious to find out what the game would feel like with the leveling process completely stripped out, especially since I'm a leveler by preference rather than necessity. 

I'm going to need to play a few more sessions to get a real feel for whether or not I think this is a ruleset I could enjoy as anything more than a novelty. I can see there are still a number of progression ladders - spell and combat art quality tiers and gear tiers, for a start, not to mention the eighteen hundred new Achievements that come with their own leaderboard - but at the moment I'm not quite clear on what good getting more powerful actually does you. 

Rather than jump the gun and speculate, I might need to play until I see the effect of upgrading in action. At the moment, with two new mmorpgs on my slate and an expansion for a third dropping in less than a week, I can't see me finding the time to give Kael Drakkel the attention it deserves.

It won't be going anywhere for a while, though. I'm sure I'll find time to get back to it eventually. On the face of it, it looks like an interesting ruleset and a solid implementation. I just hope there are enough people around with fewer gaming commitments than I have to make the most of it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The Fest Next Time

at Many Welps (Or, as it appears on my blog roll for some reason, I'm Not Squishy. I should probably update that...) was the first to alert me to the return of Steam's indie demo event, Next Fest. MagiWasTaken at Indiecator was next and no doubt a whole bunch of people will follow along soon enough. It's hard to resist such a smorgasbord of free gaming snacks, not to mention the way it makes for a series of very quick and easy to put together blog posts.

As I believe I've complained before, Valve does its very best to hide the festival in plain sight. I was logged into Steam all day yesterday and I still didn't notice it had started. Worse, even after I'd been alerted to its existence, it took me some time to find it on the chaotic "Features" page. I scrolled straight past it the first time.

I spent about thirty minutes flipping through the stacks of demos, looking for anything I might actually play. As usual, it was more of an annoyance than a pleasure. Even using the categories provided to winnow the chaff it's still heavy going and Steam itself does very little to make it easier. If there's a simple way to go back to the same place in the list after you've looked at a game's page, I couldn't find it.

You get what you pay for, as they say. I guess the upside of such an awkward, fiddly process is that it does save you from yourself. If it was easier, who knows how many demos I might have downloaded? 

As it was, I still ended up installing more of the things than I intended. My plan was to stick to just five. It seemed like a manageable number. Even with everything else that's going on I figured I ought to be able to play through five short demos and still have time to post about them before the festival ends and they stop working. They do that, some of them. 

I got caught that way last time. I missed out on a couple I left for too long. I don't think it's Steam's decision. I think it depends on the developer. Some of them are demos that are already up on Steam semi-permanently but others have been produced specifically for the event and switch off when it ends, or at least I think that's how it works.

In the end, I settled on eight titles. Seven I downloaded and one I added to my wishlist, not because I want to buy it but just to bookmark it for now. I chose not to install it immediately because the demo is gigantic by comparison to any of the others, over thirty times the size of the next-largest. That's because it isn't really a demo at all; it's the early access build of an mmo.

Tales of Wild is the game in question. Not, you'll note, tales of the wild, although since it's being developed by a Chinese studio that could be a wonky translation. Even though it's in the festival, I'm not sure it's really a demo and I'm not at all sure it's an mmo either. It's actually "an open world survival craft online game." because we really need another of those. I might get round to trying it at some point but I wouldn't count on it.

The seven titles I did download are all adventure games, most of them point-and-clicks. Here they are, in no particular order:

Crowns and Pawns: Kingdom of Deceit. "Legends of the past come back to life in this charming point-and-click adventure. Pack your bags and journey with Crowns and Pawns: Kingdom of Deceit through modern day Europe to uncover the secrets of the king who was never crowned."

The first one I picked, mainly because the graphics are bright and cheerful and it looked like it might be light in more than one sense of the word. The last several times I've done this I've ended up with more badly-lit, horror-inflected games than would normally be my choice and I'd like to avoid doing that again if I can possibly manage it. Looking at the full description, I see it's "inspired by classics such as Broken Sword, Still Life, Syberia and others", which raises my hopes considerably. Let's hope it can live up to that list.

Night Cascades. "The city is on fire, and the Devil is to blame - or is it? Two women must solve an occult-themed mystery set in an alternate 1980s while unraveling the secrets of their past. Hunt for clues and interrogate suspects in this interactive yuri visual novel."

I had to look up "yuri visual novel" but it's nothing that wasn't already was pretty much covered by the LGBTQ+ tag. A 1980s setting, female protagonists, paranormal activity and a detective plot. Should be right up my street. About all it's missing is a cat. Oh, wait...

Albert Wilde: Quantum P.I. "Solve murders, flirt badly, maybe discover a wormhole to another universe? Also, you’re a cat. " 

This is the real outlier in the bunch. There's gameplay footage in the trailer of Albert driving a car and it looks more like a YouTube stunt than a video game. The music's fantastic, too. The game's set in the 1930s, it's in black and white and it uses a 4:3 aspect ratio, all of which I think is meant to make it feel like an early TV serial. It's also "First person controller from a cat's perspective", whatever that means. I'm looking forward to this one.

The Wreck. "Follow failed screenwriter Junon as she attempts to make it through the most pivotal day in her life. Relive the past, alter the present, and embrace the future - or watch Junon’s story end in a wreck."

I liked the graphics and its pitch - "a mature 3D visual novel about sisterhood, motherhood, grief and survival" - reminded me a little of Lake, about which I said "I really like Lake... The more games like this I play, the more I want to play." Don't say it if you don't mean it.

Intruder in Antiquonia. "Sarah doesn't remember who she is or how she got to Antiquonia. Help her solve the mysteries of her past as you explore this internet-hostile town to find the answers. A beautiful, hand-illustrated point-and-click adventure with a wonderful soundtrack."

I passed on this the first time. The title is awkward, the graphics look far from "beautiful" and we'll be the judge of how "wonderful" the soundtrack is, thank you. I'm not big on overselling. What got me to change my mind was this one line in the description: "Antiquonia, a fascinating town where the locals reject the Internet." Do they? Do they really? Why? Inquiring minds want to know!

Children of Silentown. "Children of Silentown is a dark adventure game that tells the story of Lucy, a girl growing up in a village deep in a forest inhabited by monsters. People disappearing is nothing uncommon here, but this time, Lucy is old enough to investigate on her own. Or so she thinks."

It was always too much to hope I'd get through this whole thing without a little horror creeping in somewhere. Not that I'm saying Lucy's a little horror. I'm sure she's lovely. They're nearly always called "Lucy", aren't they? I do feel I've played this game about a hundred times before or at least read about it. But then, I could say that about almost everything on this list and most likely everything in the entire Next Fest line-up. Originality isn't really much of a feature in indie gaming, is it? And who cares, frankly?  Not me. I'd rather see something familiar done well than something original done badly. This certainly looks the business. We'll see if it plays that way, too.

Lost in Play. "Go on a feel-good adventure with a brother and sister as they explore dreamscapes and befriend magical creatures. Lost in their imagination, Toto and Gal must stick together and solve puzzles to journey back home. This whimsical puzzle adventure game will make you feel like you're playing a cartoon!"

I'm not a hundred per cent sure about this one. The Steam page rams the word "puzzle" home every chance it gets and I'm not that big a fan of puzzling. I like point and click adventures where the answers are pretty obvious most of the time. The odd head-scratcher is okay but not in every scene. There's no dialog, either, which kind of undermines the whole concept of the genre to my way of thinking. Looks pretty, though.

And that's the lot. I might start on them tonight. If they turn out to be worth writing about then that's what I'll do. If I never mention them again, they probably weren't. Or else I never got around to playing them at all. One or the other.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide