Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Look What The March Wind Blew In

Amazon Prime Gaming
freebies for March: let's have at them!

March 2 - Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition

March 9 - Adios and I Am Fish

March 16 - Faraway 3: Arctic Escape

March 23 - Book of Demons and Peaky Blinder: Mastermind

March 30 - City Legends: Trapping in Mirror – Collector’s Edition

Hmm. Well, the first thing I'd say is it's a good job this isn't an awards ceremony. I mean, way to blow the big reveal right at the start. Baldur's Gate, eh? We'll get to that in a moment.

The second thing to occur to me is that every month doesn't have the same number of Thursdays, does it? That might be an issue one day. Also, Thursdays. Why?

Logistics aside, it's a more interesting collection for me than February's, from which I claimed nothing at all. Looks like I'll take home at least three titles from March's giveaway. Whether I'll ever play them is another question, of course. Anyway, on with the show.

Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition - "The classic adventure returns! Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition includes the original Baldur’s Gate adventure, the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion, and all-new content including three new party members."

I don't imagine anyone needs me to tell them what this one is all about. The original is one of the very few games I've played all the way through, twice. I already own the base game and expansion in box form for PC and in some digital version for tablet, too. Well, they're all digital but you know what I mean. I would have grabbed this for convenience' sake anyway but now I see it has extra content I might even play it. Again.

In terms of quality, they really don't come any better. In terms of bargain value, if you had to buy it, it would cost you £15.49 on Steam.

Adios - "A pig farmer decides he no longer wants to dispose of bodies for the mob. What follows is a discussion between him and his would-be killer."

This looks interesting. And odd. Mostly odd, if I'm honest. I watched the trailer and it reminded me of one of those games a team of students knocks out for an end of course show. It has a "Very Positive" rating on Steam but most of the reviews I read, both positive and negative, seemed mildly apologetic for either praising it or knocking it. Makes me think it might be more worthy than entertaining.

One thing I did glean from the reviews was that whatever responses you give during conversation make no difference to the outcome of the game. I did say recently that I approved of games with meaningless choices so I guess I ought to enjoy having no real say in how things turn out. It's also quite short, apparently, which also in it's favor. There's a decent chance I'd play it - eventually - so I'll definitely claim it.

Costwise, it's £13.99 on Steam.

I Am Fish
- "A charming, physics-based adventure starring four intrepid fish friends, forcibly separated from their home in a pet shop fish tank. Swim, fly, roll and chomp your way to the open ocean in a bid for freedom and to re-unite once again."

This one really appeals to me. It looks fast, funny and full of character. Unfortunately, it also look hard as fuck. I am not good at these kinds of games even when they're super-easy so it would be completely pointless for me to attempt one that attracts comments like

 "What I saw : cutesy fish game. What I got : pure rage simulator"

 "Its sole problem is unreasonable difficulty and inconsistent physics" (FYI, that's two problems...) 

"The level quality is all over the place, even within the same levels... Many levels have great sections that are over too quickly, followed by horribly boring ones that last far longer, like the devs were unable to tell which parts of their game were actually fun."

And all of those were from positive reviews. The negative ones tended to focus on the inadequacies of the physics engine, quite the problem for a physics game, and the general shoddiness of everything but the graphics, which pretty much everyone agrees are "cute". Pass.

Can be had for £15.99 on Steam, where there's also a free demo. 

Faraway 3: Arctic Escape - "A relaxing adventure escape game full of new puzzles to solve. The final sequel of the Faraway trilogy"or so says Steam, where the game is known simply as "Faraway: Arctic Escape" and has no reviews whatsoever.

On Google Play, however, it has a rating of 4.3 and a more detailed description: "Escape all-new distant places in Faraway 3: Arctic Escape that are full of mind-bending puzzles and new exciting locations to explore. This room escape game will challenge your puzzle solving ability. Sequel to one of the all-time best escape games with over a million players! A room escape puzzle game that will completely challenge your mind, captivate you & offer hours of amazing mobile gaming entertainment."

It's clearly a big hit series on mobile with no presence in PC gaming at all, then. The graphics look super-stylised and quite attractive, if a tad bland, the music is really soothing and most of the complaints I saw revolved around the puzzles being much too easy. Probably a nice, relaxing diversion, then. 

I'm on the fence about this one. I might enjoy it but I suspect that, like the hidden object games, it won't feel so much like a nice timewaster as just a waste of time. It's also free on Google Play and compatible with my Kindle Fire so I could grab it any time. I certainly won't be paying the £4.29  Steam's asking, not even with the curent 10% discount. 

Book of Demons - "a Hack & Slash in which YOU decide the length of quests. Wield magic cards instead of weapons and slay the armies of darkness in the dungeons below the Old Cathedral. Save the terror-stricken Paperverse from the clutches of the Archdemon himself!"

A weird mash-up of isometric arpgs and card battlers with roguleike gameplay that seems designed to please no-one and annoy everyone. And yet it's rated Very Positive from over eight thosuand reviews, so I guess they managed to cut and shut all those parts together without anything too important dropping off. 

Judging from the videos, gameplay looks a little frenetic for my tastes and the voiceover is actively irritating but I still might claim it anyway. I like the idea of the card-based item and spell system and the way the whole thing is set inside a children's pop-up book. Probably won't ever play it, but what the heck.

Should you need to buy it, it's actually the most expensive of this month's offers, retailing at £19.99 on Steam.

Peaky Blinder: Mastermind -
a puzzle-adventure game, based on the multi-award-winning TV show. Become the Mastermind as you control key characters and pull off perfectly synchronized plans."

So far, I've managed to avoid the Peaky Blinders phenomenon and I'd really like to keep it that way. Whether or not this game has anything to offer someone who's never watched the show, I wouldn't care to hazard a guess. I have even less idea whether it'll make the fans happy and frankly I don't care. Pass.

It's also the only game in Prime's March collection that is "no longer available on the Steam store". The link on publisher Curve Game's website goes to a dead page.  Where you'd get it for PC I have no idea. Oh, wait, yes I do: Amazon Prime!

City Legends: Trapping in Mirror – Collector’s Edition - "On your way to writing the perfect supernatural novel, be prepared to face danger. Are you ready for such desperate measures?"

This is yet another hidden object puzzle game, something which doesn't do much to sell it to me. There also seems to be some confusion over what it's called, with Steam having it listed under the rather more gramatically convincing title "City Legends: Trapped In Mirror Collector's Edition".

Either way, the Lovecraft-lite plot coupled with typical hidden object game wishy-washy graphics makes for a pretty unappealing prospect. Pass.

If you had to buy it, Steam would charge you £8.50 but you're not paying that, are you?

And that's that for March. Looks like I need to make a note on the calendar for the 2nd and the 9th and add a question mark against the 23rd. 

Like I really need any more games right now...

Monday, February 27, 2023

Have Cape, Will Pose.

One of the more significant reasons behind my ongoing infatuation with Noah's Heart, something I'm still trying to unpick, has to be the costume design. It appeals to me very strongly, particularly for a supposed fantasy title. My favorite in-game look would almost certainly be a variation on contemporary streetwear but I'm much more interested in an exaggerated take on the kind of thing someone in a fantasy world might actually wear to work than in endless versions of armor-through-the-ages.

Whatever the aesthetic, we do seem to hear an awful lot about fashion in mmorpgs, nowadays. I've repeatedly heard the term "fashion wars" used to describe the endgame of two of the most successful western titles, Final Fantasy XIV and Guild Wars 2 and even players of World of Warcraft, with its cartoonish character models, place huge importance on transmogrification.

It's a direction for the genre that strongly appeals to me. I'm absolutely in favor of mmorpgs as virtual Barbie sims. My problem is that most games I play don't cater to my specific tastes. I frequently dislike most of the available looks and even when I find something I like it often takes either far too much effort to obtain or costs too much real money to buy. 

By an order of magnitude, at least, my all-time favorite mmorpg for fashion is The Secret World. Or Secret World Legends, for that matter, since it uses exactly the same apearance system. I currently have my screenshot file for the original game set as the source for my desktop background and I'm constantly surprised and delighted by just how cool my characters look in those old shots. Noah's Heart doesn't have anything like the same aesthetic but even so it's probably the game where I've most enjoyed dressing my character since I was playing SWL

As I've described before, the primary way fashion works in Noah's Heart is through the Affection system. You build up Affection with your phantoms by giving them gifts and when you reach the final level the phantom rewards you with the pattern for their signature outfit, which you can then craft for yourself.

It's a fairly slow process but striaghtforward and highly achievable. If I put my mind to it I imagine I
could max Affection with a different phantom every week or two and a really dedicated player could probably knock them out like shelling peas, several a week at least. 

The only limits seem to be the number of gifts you can give each day - five hundred in total, a hundred to any one phantom - and the energy needed to craft the gifts, if you choose to make your own. You can also buy gifts using in-game or real-world currency and there are in-game and paid-for means of recovering your energy, so there are plenty of options for the determined but impatient fashionista.

None of this would matter a jot to me if I didn't like what my phantoms are wearing but I do. I really admire the way most of them dress. They're stylish, flamboyant and spectacular, yet also sweet and charming. 

The game has a positively obsessive focus on youth, something that creates a surreal friction with it's equally obsessive reliance on globally famous characters from real-world history. At times it feels like a junior high historical pageant, where no-one quite knows what the character they're playing was really famous for doing. 

It would be all too easy, as has happened in some notorious imports and not a few home-grown efforts, for this paradigm of adolescents playing dress-up to spiral off into something uncomfortably close to exploitation but, although this will obviously vary according to personal standards and cultural expectations, to my eye the game does a solid job of staying on the right side of that line. Just about every phantom I can think of looks either whimsical or wholesome; frequently both at once. It might occasionally be twee but it's rarely, if ever, offensive.

An area where the game might be considered to cross acceptable boundaries, depending on your socio-political criteria, would be the way some of the phantoms are characterised, pscychologically. As is made abundantly clear, both by their ongoing dialog in the MSQ and their leading roles in the storyline of the sixth Season, Mechanical Dog's Dream, several of the phantoms have Autism Spectrum Disorder, the severity ranging from mild social awkwardness to reclusive avoidance of all human society.

Perhaps by co-incidence but also posibly by unconscious bias, the first two phantoms whose looks I appropriated, Charlie Babbage and Jennie Watt, just happened to members of this group, all of whom are scientists and engineers of one sort or another. I picked them because I found their characters engaging and also because I liked their outfits, which no doubt says plenty about my own psychological profile. 

For my third choice, I wanted to go with something entirely different. I chose Johanne Keppler, an articulate magic-user whose outfit, featuring bell-bottoms, gold-trim and cape, reminded me of something Prince might designed for Donna Summer.

Last night I finally handed over the last 300 point Steak Curry I needed to max affection with Johanne and receive my pattern. I had all the ingredients to hand ready to craft the finished item. I just needed to recoup some energy by spending a few diamonds in the Mall and I was done.

Having changed outfits, I spent the next fifteen minutes in photo mode, trying out all of the emotes to see how the cape moved. I was very impressed. One of the big problems with cloaks and capes in most games is the way they clip through the body when you move or get stuck in unlikely positions when you stop. 

Johanne's cape doesn't do too much of either. Mostly it falls into attractive shapes that look very much as if someone designed them rather than left them to chance. I'm very pleased with it.

I'm very pleased with all three of the looks I've acquired from my phantoms so far. I like the three non-phantom outfits I've earned through the main quest, too. What I like most of all, though, is knowing there are far more fine-looking outfits out there, just waiting for me to collect them, the only barrier being my own enthusiasm and interest.

It seems like a fine way to do fashion. It's no Secret World but it'll do me very well for now.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Meet The Krewe

Last week I bought four new games so it was a racing certainty I'd end up downloading something else for free and playing that instead. This is why I so rarely pay money for anything - games, music, books, movies, tv shows - the very act of handing over the cash seems to guarantee the universe will feel duty-bound to let me know I could have had something just as good - or even better - for nothing.

In this case, the something in question turned out to be so peculiarly unlikely, I don't think there's any way I could have anticipated it. I was checking Feedly, as I do many times a day, being as addicted, in my fashion, to certain, relatively obscure forms of social media as any GenZer to their TikTok feed, when this popped up.

Artifact Krewe, available on itch.io for the extremely appealing price of no money at all, is "a Guild Wars 2 fangame, not associated with it". Wrap your head around that, if you can. It's also "a treasure hunt game taking place in a colorful world". Now you know that, you know pretty much everything the game's storefront has to tell you, other than the developer's name - Skrool.  

Skrool seems to have made just this one game. The only link on the "About" page goes to a Twitter account going by the name of "Not Really Skrool" that's been "temporarily restricted... because there has been some unusual activity from this account.

It seems that being restricted by Twitter doesn't actually stop people seeing what you've got to say; it just means anyone who wants to find out what that is has to click the equivalent of a "proceed at your own risk" warning. I clicked, so now I can tell you that Skrool "exists". And that's about all I got from Skrool's profile.

A scan of the recent timeline reveals that Skrool has been working on the game "these last years" and... er... that's about it. Diligent research on my part (I clicked on the link to Skrool's Tumblr, perhaps significantly named It's Really Skrool, although perhaps not, since there's another Tumblr just called Skrool) reveals that the game has actually taken two years to complete. 

Having had work in the Peacemaker Calendar of 1335AE, Skrool would appear to be very active in the creative side of GW2 fandom, an aspect of the game I've been aware of for a long time but rarely felt the need to pay much attention uintil now. On the evidence presented, Asurans and their culture would seem to be Skrool's main focus.

That's something I'm sure everyone reading this who's ever played GW2 must have worked out for themselves already, just from the name of the game. According to the GW2 wiki, "krewe", with that idiosyncratic spelling, refers to Asuran "work gangs or limited single task corporate entities" although the word itself has clearly been borrowed from the carnival traditions of Louisiana and nearby regions, where it refers to "a social organization that stages parades and/or balls for the Carnival season".

Whatever its provenance, Artifact Krewe is a fine divertissement. After reading about it on MassivelyOP, I immediately downloaded the game, which arrives in a neat zip file that unpacks to take up just over a gigabyte of hard drive space. For that, you get a lush, vibrant, colorful world in which to enjoy some very gentle, relaxing and curiously satisfying gameplay.

There's no character creation beyond giving your Asura a name. Pick something you don't mind seeing repeatedly because every NPC will use it as extensively while talking to you, as if they'd just come back from a weekend's residential marketing course. 

If the game has a weak point - and it's hardly even that - it would be the dialog, which often reads as though it's been written by someone for whom English is not a first language. Coming of the back of Noah's Heart, however, that feels like a churlish observation to make. Both the meaning and tone are always eminently clear, which puts the text well above many other supposedly professional games I've played lately.

Other than that, I really can't fault it. As well as looking gorgeous Artifact Krewe sounds charming and plays smoothly. I found the controls intuitive and comfortable. It was easy to work out what to do and how to do it. Movement feels fluid and expressive, although the woozy sweep of the camera could induce motion sickness in the sensitive.

The mechanics of locating and unearthing artefacts, using a device whos acronym escapes me for the moment, are simple and straightforward. Rather than cluttering up your inventory, each artifact found adds itself to a list as you look for clues to lead you to the lost laboratory of the celebrated but mysterious Vixx.

In the fairly short time I had to play I found half a dozen items, some buried in the ground, others on crops of rock only accessible by way of some light, GW2 vista style platforming. There was one that turned out to be concealed behind a locked door, openable only by rolling a large rock onto a pressure plate. The puzzles felt like fun. Nothing was difficult or annoying. 

"Fun" pretty much sums up what I've seen of the game so far. The whole experience is sun-drenched, celebratory and bright. It may be that the tasks and challenges get harder, later but somehow I doubt it. There's no combat in the game and it feels very much modeled on those whimsical, joyous, almost childlike events GW2 was known for in its earliest days. 

For someone who remembers the game as it was back then, it doesn't feel so much like a tribute as a reminder of what could have been. Right now, I'd rather play Artifact Krewe than log in to the game that inspired it.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Everything Is Connected

I've never been much of a Douglas Adams fan. I like his stuff well enough. I just don't buy into the cult that's long surrounded him and his work. 

That said, I do have a pretty long history with the man and his material. I was nineteen when the first series of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy aired on BBC Radio 4. At the time I was living alone in my grandparents' house, caretaking it while they were both in hospital, which is a more complicated story than it sounds but I don't have time to go into it here. I remember listening to one of the episodes, sitting in the greenhouse because it was warm there, under glass in the early spring sunshine.

I liked the radio series well enough. I liked the books better. The TV series I recall being somewhat disappointing but I watched it anyway. As a lifelong science fiction fan, I was more interested in the existence of a successful, popular SF comedy series than I was impressed by any of its intrinsic qualities. I thought it was funny but not that funny.

A couple of years after Hitchhikers began, while I was at Cambridge reading English, Douglas Adams came to do a reading at one of the colleges. University was where, among other thing, I learned to avoid public appearances by writers. As entertainment, they tend to be lackluster. It's ironic, then, that readings and signings have been a significant part of my working life for the last quarter of a century. I'd rather work a reading than listen to one, luckily.

Back when I was at college, though, I was still excited at the prospect of seeing famous people up close. Or even not-so-famous people I'd vaguely heard of. I'd seen Ian McEwan reading from his second novel and watched three somewhat superannuated Liverpool poets declaim in a basement. I knew who Douglas Adams was and some people I knew wanted to go, so why not?

I don't remember much about the event other than Adams talked about his time on Dr. Who quite a bit. He might even still have been working on the show. For many years, probably as a result of that experience, I was under the misapprehension that he'd written or script-edited many of the Tom Baker episodes from my favorite era, the time in my adolescence when I used to hurry back home on a Saturday afternoon so as not to miss my one chance to find out what happened next. No catch-up tv then, nor DVD or VHS. As I remember it, the Doctor didn't even get reruns.

 In fact, Adams wrote just three storylines for Dr. Who, only one of which went out under his name. The best-remembered, Shada, didn't even get an airing until forty years later. Adams moved on to environmental activism and gift books about supposedly amusing made-up words and I largely forgot about him and his increasingly idiosyncratic career.

With two exceptions. Adams, like David Bowie, was very alert to the possibilities of new technology and how it drives cultural change. Also like Bowie, he didn't just lend his name and I.P. rights to a video game; he wrote and designed one of his own. The game was called Starship Titanic and I could see the box from where I'm sitting, if there wasn't a filing cabinet in the way.

Starship Titanic came out in 1998 and I bought a used copy not long after. It was easy to come by for cheap. As Wikipedia has it, the game was "released to mixed reviews and was a financial disappointment". I doubt I played it for more than a couple of hours. I remember nothing about it other than I didn't enjoy it. I notice it's now available on Steam, where it enjoys a Very Positive rating, almost entirely courtesy of members of the Cult of Adams, at least judging by the tenor of the reviews I scanned.

A project I much preferred was Adams' final fiction series, "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency". The eponymous first book and its sequel, "The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul", were published in the late 1980s, which would have been about when I read them. I don't own copies. I believe I would have borrowed them from the library.

I read each of them once and thirty-five years later, unsurprisingly, I remember almost nothing about them, other than that they were even cosier than the rest of Adams oeuvre. The appearance of the expression "Tea-Time" in one title and the protagonist's surname, "Gently", in the other pretty much tell you what to expect.

Or so I remember it. Maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps they were grittier and darker than I'm giving them credit for. I mean, by the same logic, one of them does also have the word "Dark" in it...

Last week I finally got around to watching the BBC America tv show, also called "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency", which has been sitting in my Netflix watchlist pretty much since I got Netflix. I knew absolutely nothing about it. I only put it on watch by dint of name recognition and I only started watching it because, when I got to the end of The Peripheral, I had no new SF/Fantasy drama in the pipeline that looked any better. It was Dirk Gently or Locke and Key.

It also seemed like it would make for some pleasant light relief after the somewhat challenging content of The Peripheral. I was in the mood for some light, humorous whimsy. That wasn't exactly what I got.

I watched the final two episodes of the first season last night. The climax was so compelling I couldn't bring myself to stick to my self-mandated ration of one episode per evening. To front-load my review, I liked just about everything about the show - the writing, the acting, the characters, the plot, the visuals, the pacing... 

I also liked the violence. My god, but it's a violent show. I can't offhand remember when I last watched something with a body count to match. It seems like someone gets shot about once every two minutes, on average, although admittedly that average is stacked by the times thirty or forty people get shot in a matter of seconds.

People also get electrocuted, harpooned, set on fire and bitten in half by sharks. When they don't get killed they get locked in the trunks of cars, handcuffed to bedsteads, bludgeoned with baseball bats and dropped off bridges. If anything in the least little bit like that happened in the Douglas Adams original, I definitely don't remember it but even if it did, I think it's safe to say it didn't happen this often.

I'm not, by and large, much of an aficionado of screen violence but I have read a lot of comic books and the show has all the impact of a really good comic. As well as being relentless, the violence is both gory and clean. There's a lot of blood but absolutely no guts. No-one thrashes or writhes or even screams much. They get shot and then they die.

It's not just the violence that reminds me of reading a top-notch superhero comic book. The characters are all tropes or types, with just enough depth to make them feel like actual people but none of the wearing contradictions of serious literature. Everyone has a signature look or move or style that might as well come with a theme tune. I found myself eagerly waiting for the next appearance by my favorites just for the fun of watching them do their thing.

The plot, which involves time travel, makes as much or as little sense as any time travel plot ever has but there are some great verbal set pieces towards the end where the characters really lean into it for everything it's worth. As with most shows I really enjoy, almost all the characters are likeable. Even the villains, truly despicable though they are, come across as oddly lovable at times.

The main villain, just to make that point, really loves his dog. Inevitably, it's a corgi. I have now seen so many corgis in so many shows I can almost not think of them as "those ugly dogs the Queen used to like". There's a kitten too. Neither the dog nor the cat are just a dog or a cat but I won't say what they are because spoilers.

The season ends with a massive cliffhanger, the exact one I was expecting. Fortunately, since the show first aired in 2016, we can skip all the "will they, won't they" over whether they'll get a second season. They did, although they didn't get a third. 

I'm going to start watching Season Two tonight. Can't wait. I highly recommend anyone who hasn't already done so to give the show a try. It definitely won't be to everyone's taste but it was a very great deal more to mine than anything else that's ever had Douglas Adams' name attached to it.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Ten Things I Hate About MMORPGs

Hate is such a strong word, isn't it? But who's going to click on a link that says "Ten Things I Mildly Dislike About MMORPGs"? 

Hmm. I would. Maybe I should...

No, stick to the plan.

So, this all came about because I logged into Guild Wars 2 this morning. I was only doing it because I'd checked to see if there was any news about next month's free games on Amazon Prime and I was only doing that in the hope I'd get a cheap post out of it.

There wasn't anything about March's giveaway yet but I spotted a freebie for GW2 I hadn't noticed before and even though it wasn't really anything I wanted, I grabbed it. Then I logged in to claim it in game and the trouble began.

When you play a game all the time, it can go one of three ways. Either all the little things that annoy you end up irritating you so much you stop playing or you become so inured to them you stop noticing. Or you just soak in a swill of passive-aggressive resentment which, judging by general chat, seems to be the most popular option.

If you were in the "What? Oh, that. No, I never really notice that any more" camp and then you for some reason stop playing for a while, when you return you may find your immunity has faded. That's what happened to me this morning. 

You know that super-smug expression "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade" that makes you want to punch anyone who uses it in the face? The blogging equivalent is "When games piss you off, get a post out of it", aka "it's all material", the reason everyone secretly hates writers.

As I was stewing, a few more examples popped into my mind so, since I like lists and I'm always saying I should do more of them, it seemed like an opportunity. At first, I wasn't sure I could think of enough but once I'd gotten into it, the hard part was keeping it down to ten.

In no particular order, then, although mostly how they came to me, then shuffled about a bit for adjacency, here they are:

1. Games that lock up all other functions on your PC when loading. 

That's what GW2 was doing to me this morning. It always does it and it's pretty much the only game that does. I can move the cursor but it won't go over the taskbar and even if it would it wouldn't make any difference because I can't click on anything. I just have to sit there, steaming, until the damn thing finishes whatever the hell it's up to. 

2. Games that take forever to load

Guess what? GW2 again! It's by far the worst mmorpg I know for this, too. Getting into the game at all
takes forever and once you're there, swapping maps takes even longer! I have timed it in the past and it can take literally minutes just to transition from one map to another. There are certain maps I won't go to at all (Lion's Arch, Divinity's Reach) unless I absolutely have to just because of the time it takes to get there. 

3. Games that glitch the resolution or lock parts of the screen when you tab in and out.

I alt-tab in and out of games all the time. I can't think of any mmorpgs that absolutely forbid it any more (EverQuest used to when I first played. There were workarounds but they involved third party apps and were considered a violation of the EULA .) but some of them don't exactly encourage it. You have to fiddle about with the settings to stop everything screwing up every time and even then it doesn't always work. It has improved - I remember a time when I had to reset my desktop gamma after every session although which game that was I couldn't tell you, it was so long ago - but I've had problems with screen resolution in several games recently, mostly non-mmos through Steam but also Rose Online. That one is a legacy title, though, so I'm willing to cut it some slack.

4. Games that don't allow lmb+rmb as an alternative to WASD or click-to-move

Noah's Heart is exemplary in almost every way when it comes to not annoying me but it does have one shortcoming that has me cursing most times I play. If you hold the left and right mouse buttons at the same time - nothing happens. Ever since I discovered that trick some fifteen years ago, it's been my preferred way to travel long distances overland. Instead of leaning forward and pressing down a key or triggering autorun (Which can get you into all kinds of trouble if you're not paying attention.) I like to sit back, hold down both mouse buttons and steer like it's a driving game. If an mmorpg - or any supposedly open-world game - doesn't support that functionality it's missing a trick.

5. Games that use rmb for clicking icons and don't allow you to change it to lmb

This one seems to be increasing. It used to be found only in poorly-localised imports but it turned up in a couple of demos I played recently, much to my chagrin. The really annoying thing about it is the way you end up being stuck with it. I don't doubt there are plenty of people for whom the left mouse button is a positive anathaema and I'm all for letting them follow their right-hand path but I can't for the life of me see why it can't be an option rather than an imperative. After all, you can almost always invert mouselook, which would seem to be a comparable cultural artefact. All of which leads very naturally on to

6. Games that use non-standard keybinds and don't allow you to change them.

Seriously. Why? It's ridiculous enough that designers and developers feel they have to prove something to the world by re-inventing the wheel and fixing what wasn't broken but they could at least have the decency to put their crazy notions on a toggle. I always use F to select. It's next to the fricking D ffs, which means I just have to twitch my index finger to hit it. Put Select on E and I have to use a a whole different muscle group and s-t-r-e-t-c-h. And who uses Tab to open inventory? I mean, I can cope with either I or B but Tab?!

7. Games that either don't have a screenshot function or don't document it in game.

While we're on the subject of commands and controls, here's a particular bugbear of mine. I take a lot of screenshots and I frequently need to take them right at the start of new games because I'm going to be writing up my First Impressions for the blog as soon as I log out. I realise that's a niche consideration but if you want your game to feature in social media and general conversation it's surely in your interest to make it as easy as possible for people to spread the word. Isn't it? You'd think so but apparently not, given the way designers choose to bury the screenshot commands deep in the menus. And don't get me started on the bizarre key combos some devs choose if you want to take shots without the UI. I only have two hands!

8. Games that hide and/or organize the screenshots you take in really obscure places.

Following on from the last one, there's not much point letting players document their progress if they then can't find the evidence afterwards. Just put the screenshots in the Documents folder for crying out loud. Or Pictures. Either one. And label it in clear English. Don't create some arcane heirarchy of letters and numbers that mean absolutely nothing and then tuck the files away in the digital equivalent of behind the gas meter in the cupboard under the stairs. Steam and DCUO are both particularly terrible in this regard, which is why I always have to open Steam just to use the View function before I can find anything and why I end up googling "Where are my screenshots - DCUO" whenever I want to post shots of my base.

9. Games that have screen clutter on by default.

This one, I admit, is more of a matter of taste than anything we've had so far. One person's clutter is another's essential information. Personally, though, I like a clean screen. I don't like to see anything hanging over anyone's head - not names, not guild affiliation, not titles or levels. I'll stomach a simple name and job description on an NPC, purely for practical purposes but even there I prefer to have it on mousover, not as a permanent advertising hoarding. As for combat numbers, floating or static, I don't want to see any of them, mine or my target's. All I need to see is a health bar, preferably off to the side somewhere. The first few minutes in almost every new mmorpg I play is spent ferretting around in the options, switching all that crap off. It does not make for the best of first impressions.

10. Games that have all sound and music set at 100% volume as default.

This is even more heinous, although it tends to be more of a problem in single-player games than mmos. I can't count the number of times I've fired up a new game and either had to lunge for the volume control on my speakers to save my eardrums from bursting or had to dig into those Options once again to set the levels in such a way that I can hear the voice actors over the sound effects. If you're incapable of optimizing the sound effectively then at least set the default at 50% and let me turn up the stuff I want to hear.

And, channeling my inner Nigel Tufnel, let's go one louder.

11. Games that start you in a tutorial instance you have to complete before you get to the real game - on every character you ever make.

And finally, an old favorite that's thankfully fallen mostly out of fashion. Or has it? I can't recall seeing one of these for a while but maybe that's just because, these days, I rarely make a second character in most new mmorpgs. Come to think of it, I seem to remember it happened in both Lost Ark and Bless Unleashed. Maybe it is still a thing, after all. The worst case I ever saw was Rift, where you had to do the full questline for an entire zone before you could access your faction's starting city. Back then I was a full-on altaholic so I probably went through the bloody thing a dozen times. I think they eventually changed that although with Rift in the state it's in now I imagine it's a moot point.

I could go on but I think I've made my point. Eleven of them, in fact.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

I'll Come Up With A Title For This Thing One Day

I wasn't sure whether I was going to do a "What I've Been Listening To Lately" post this week because

  1. I don't have that many songs put by yet.
  2. I don't want to get into a "listen to new stuff just so I have new stuff to post" death loop.
  3. If it's going to be a regular feature, which it looks like it already is, I really need to come up with a better name for the damn thing.

I left it brewing for a bit, played some Noah's Heart, took Beryl for a walk, made a cup of tea, sat down and thought about it some more and what I decided was

  1. I have seven or eight songs earmarked for posting already. How many more do I need?
  2. Searching out new songs and artists is at least half the point, isn't it? 
  3. Why does it have to have a name? Nothing else here ever does.

So, I talked myself into it once again. It's pushing at an open door, really. I love doing these things. Let's see what's in the locker this week...

Soccer Mommy - Shalom

Can't really fault a song that sounds like it was recorded down a tunnel and opens with "I did a bunch of drugs before I turned 21". I'm also partial to the bit that goes "I own a denim jacket now". Hey, I do too! And I was so pleased with myself when I got it! Denim jackets never go out of style, do they?

Happenstance - Shalom

Oh, look! It's Shalom again! Full name Shalom Obisie-Orlu. Remember it. Pretty sure this won't be the last time you read it here.

Luv Like - Nia Archives

Okay, first off, what is it with all these people calling themselves "Archives"? Well, at least two of them. First Sudan Archives and now Nia. Second, how come I didn't really like drum 'n' bass back in the '90s, when I was thirty years younger, yet now it's back and I'm old, I love it? Also, don't you really hate rhetorical questions? And how would I manage if they ever banned the word "really"? Whoever "they" are...

I heard that one first on 6 Music, while I was in the bath. I don't listen to music radio very often, only when something I can't stand comes on my usual speech station. It's not because I don't want to. It's because it feels like cheating. If I listened to 6 Music all the time I'd have fifty new songs to put in these posts every week but that really would be missing the point, wouldn't it? Please don't ask why. Or what the point is.

Supermoon - Garden Center

Is that his real voice? (Yes, it is.) Sounds like David Byrne on helium. I was going to ask who names their band Garden Center but then I saw on their Bandcamp that some of their stuff is "based on the experiences and memories of a group of people who used to hang out in an abandoned plant nursery". Well, I guess that explains it. 

They're a supergroup, apparently. A supergroup of people you never heard of from bands you never heard of either. They've been described as "Los Campesinos for people with short attention spans". I know at least one person who reads this blog knows who Los Campesinos are because that's how I found out about them.

Treasure - Freak Slug

I've said it before: sometimes you have to wonder if these people even want to be successful. If you were laying down louche, woozy, super chill vibes like this, would you put the result out under a name like Freak Slug? It's like Corpsegrinder calling themselves Fluffy Bunny Cuddles. (I'm not going to link to Corpsegrinder, by the way. If you don't know what they sound like you can find out for yourself. I'm not taking responsibility) 

Still, at least she didn't call herself Shitkid.

Nothing Left To Lose - Everything But The Girl

Hey! Someone we've heard of! I'm not normally big on legacy acts but quality is quality. I heard this on Radio 6 as well, a while ago now, but I only got around to checking it out on YouTube today, after I heard the follow-up, which is great, too. I've always loved Tracey Thorne's voice, all the way back to Marine Girls. Forty years on it sounds the same but better. It's that submarine bass that sells it, though.

We have three Tracey Thorne memoirs in our bathroom, by the way. She's written four. The only one I've read is the first, which is excellent. Mrs Bhagpuss is the big fan. She's read them all. 

Supergirl - Stereo Total

I do like a bit of French post-structuralist pop now and again. I could have sworn I'd linked this lot before but search says no. I came across them while researching that other music post I was talking about yesterday. They have a song that's going to feature in that one, if I ever get around to writing it. I suspect they're going to crop up elsewhere, too. They do a great version of Heroes that makes it sound like Suicide, which it always did, a bit. I'm not going to waste it in a link, though. I can already think of a post it would go nicely with. 

Burnt Pictures - audiobooks

Another band determined to make it as difficult as possible to find them in a search. This is their latest and the first thing I ever heard by them but it isn't actually the track I wanted to use. That would be the one that inspired this post I keep referring to so mysteriously and annoyingly. If I use it now, though, I won't be able to use it then, so we'll just have to wait.

Don't worry. It won't be worth it.

Did you know that there's a tunnel under Ocean Blvd - Lana del Rey

I can't believe I haven't featured this already. What the hell is wrong with me? It was the lead single off the upcoming album of the same name, creating, along with the second, A&W, a hellacious deja vu. Remember Norman Fucking Rockwell's opening twin salvo of Mariners Apartment Complex and Venice Bitch?  Of course you do. Anticipation through. the. fucking. roof. now, it goes without saying.

I just noticed there's no question mark at the end of the title of either the song or the album. I don't know what to think about that.

Anyway, there's no following Lana so I guess that's it. I'm off to try and think up a snappy name for this and all my other regular features, which it seems I have several now. Maybe I'll get an AI to do it for me. That's what they're for. Isn't it?

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

It's A Mystery (Fest)

One thing Steam does really badly, in my opinion, is promote its own events. Even though I log in almost every day, all I ever seem to see is the pop-up window with the spot offers of the moment. Any wider promotions might as well not exist. If I hadn't read it about it on someone else's blog last month, I'd never have known there was another Next Fest running.

Equally, if I hadn't happened to have three particular titles on my wishlist, I might never have found out there's another event of considerable interest to me going on right now. It's called Mystery Fest, it runs until next Monday, and it "celebrates the spirit of investigation and solving mysteries—both big and small—with discounts and demos on current and upcoming mystery and detective games of all kinds."

I had to google to get that description because nothing on Steam itself actually explains what the event is about. All there is is a banner and you have to scroll down past the first page of the Store even to see that. The thumbnail definition above comes from Steamworks, "a set of tools and services that help game developers and publishers build their games and get the most out of distributing on Steam." 

Steamworks, as I'm sure everyone reading this already knows, is a very useful resource for anyone who might actually want to know what's going on with the platform. The Mystery Fest page there provides a wealth of detail on the event, including which genres of games are eligible:

  • Mystery
  • Detective
  • Social Deduction

and which probably won't be:

  • Combat-forward games, incl. superhero themes
  • Spy games
  • Straight puzzle games, incl. hidden object games, with no detective work / investigation
  • Escape room games with escape rooms as the only mechanic
  • Horror games that may include a mystery element but that do not focus on investigation
  • Walking simulators without a primary focus on solving mysteries

As a potential customer, this is the sort of information I'd like to see prominently displayed on the Store page itself, not buried on an affiliate site aimed at developers. I wouldn't expect anything so straightforward from Steam, though. It's a  service that seems determined to make everything as cluttered and obscure as possible. 

I'm sufficiently inured to its quirks and foibles now that I no longer notice just how badly designed it is until something like this comes along to remind me. I feel we all probably have Stockholm Syndrome where Steam's concerned or it wouldn't still enjoy the dominant market position it does.

Anyway, through whatever circuitous route, I got there eventually and now here I am, doing unpaid marketing work for Valve, yet again, by passing the information on. The event includes some massive discounts on well-known titles but more importanrtly than that, it's a very useful opportunity for anyone interested in these kinds of games to see them all gathered in one place, with Steam's submission system, for once, doing the grunt work of sorting the wheat from the chaff, something the customer-facing search algorithm signally fails to do, at least when I use it.

I plan on going through the full card this week, using it to populate my wish list with games I might enjoy. It'll save time later. If anything's on heavy discount I might even buy it now. (Edit - I did. I bought two games and a bundle - Blacksad, Backbone and all five Broken Sword titles. I'm not embarassed to admit that 75% of everything I bought features anthropomorphic cats.)

And in fact I have already made a purchase. Two of the three games from my wishlist (Brok the Investigator and Scarlet Hollow) were just repeating the same 25% price cut that didn't inspire me to get my wallet out the last few times they tried it but the third hit 50% off, a trigger point I find harder to ignore. 

The game I bought was Nine Noir Lives, which I wrote about a couple of years ago, when I played the demo in the February 2021 Next Fest. At the time I called the demo "a solid, entertaining introduction to what looks like it should be a very enjoyable game". I've nearly bought it a few times since but the discounts were never quite steep enough to bypass my inner miser. At under a tenner, though, I couldn't resist any longer.

Nine Noir Lives has a Positive rating on Steam. Reading through the reviews, it's clear that the sticking point comes in the humor, described by some as as "comedy gold" but by others as "really lame/childish" and the voice acting, which is either "BEST I have EVER heard in any point and click game!" or "terrible, overzealous" and "trying too hard."

My own take, two years ago, was somewhat more equivocal, describing the main character as "nicely voiced, comfortable to listen to for long periods of time" but his assistant as "a little harder to take". As for the humor, it seems I didn't bother to mention it. I did, however, describe the writing in general as "professional and entertaining".

We'll see what I think of it once I've played through the whole thing. I'm sure there'll be some kind of review.

Meanwhile, to reiterate, there's a celebration of and sale on all things mysterious happening over at Steam and it lasts all week. Don't bother to tell Valve I sent you. I don't want them to get into the habit of thinking I'm going to do their job for them.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Never Mind The Quality

A couple of hours ago, I didn't have anything much to post about for today. Well, I had an idea for a music post that I'll probably still get around to doing at some point but I'm a bit wary of relying too heavily on music posts. They're altogether too much fun to put together. If I don't exercise some restraint I could find myself writing a music blog and then where would we be?

Anyway, my fact-finding trip to YouTube, looking for suitable songs to support the premise I had in mind, didn't go quite the way I expected. There turned out to be far more candidates for the theme than I ever imagined there could be. It's going to take some time and effort to sift through the possibles to find the best ones and I'm not sure the idea merits that much effort.

With that one back in the draft pile and nothing else coming to mind, I decided to do my dailies in Noah's Heart and hope something occured to me later in the day. Beryl the dog was sound asleep in the armmchair behind me so I had a bit of peace and quiet for once. It seemed a shame to waste the opportunity.

At this point I'm going to re-iterate something I've said a few times about Noah's Heart already; I know it's not a great game but, for reasons I think I understand quite wel now, it's been a great game for me these last few months. 

It's been a strange time in some ways. I've retained my interest in mmorpgs but haven't been able to find the necessary enthusiasm or commitment for anything more challenging than the kind of low stakes, low-intensity gameplay on offer here. Every other mmorpg I've played of late seems like it demands too much - too much time, too much effort, too much loyalty. It's not that anything about the games themselves has changed, of course. It's all me.

What Noah's Heart offers is the sensation of playing an online rpg with lots of other people, only with almost all of the awkward parts taken out. It's not quite on the level of an idle game but it's definitely a game for slackers and I'm very much an mmorpg slacker these days. I think I'm entitled to be, after nearly a quarter of a century playing the damn things!

Just as a for instance, take the autoquesting system. I'm on record as loving this particular implementation, which I think is one of the best I've seen. The thing is, after six months using it, I find I don't just appreciate it in Noah's Heart, it actively annoys me that all the other mmorpgs I play don't have it too.

Yes, it's true. I really am so lazy now that I begrudge having to press down a key to move. I mean, come on! It's the 2020s! Even our cars are going to be driving themselves soon. And as for finding NPCs and locations by looking at a map... seriously? I know these worlds generally don't have satellite communications but they have fricken' magic, ffs!

Anyway, that's just one factor. And it's actually quite misleading to suggest Noah's Heart is barely more than an idle game. There is a decent amount of input required from the player. It's just that there don't seem to be all that many barriers in the way of achieving your goals. Other than a modicum of time-gating and a barrel-load of rng, that is, but you can't have everything.

It also helps that I tend to set my sights very low. I've talked in the past about the fashion system - in the same post linked above, in fact - and how every look is obtainable if you're just prepared to do the minimum and wait. The ugly truth is, I'm not even willing to do that much. I could have had several more outfits by now if I'd just knuckled down, done some gathering and made sure to use all my Energy every day. 

Instead, I do a bit of mining and logging now and then, when I remember, and I go days and days with my energy sitting maxed at 9000. Use it or lose it, they say. They shouldn't have made it a choice.

Today, for once, I didn't just stop after I'd done my dailies. I started going through some of my stats to see if there was anything more I could do, which was when I noticed I only needed to make about a hundred four-star dishes to gift to Johanne Kepler, the phantom whose Affection I'm currently courting, to reach Level 12, which is when she's due to hand over the pattern I need to clone her signature look.

I was about to get started on that, when I also noticed I still hadn't maxed the Tailor career. I hit Level Five in Masterchef and Craftsman ages ago, without even trying, but Tailor has been lagging behind. On checking further, I saw I'd exceeded all the criteria necessary except for the most basic one of all - Mastery

Mastery is just your skill level in that particular career. It raises every time you make something that gives you crafting xp. I simply hadn't made enough frocks. Or enchantments. Or wallpaper. Or any of the other things a Tailor makes.

Well, that was an easy fix. The same as in every other mmorpg. Make a whole bunch of things you don't want or need and either sell them or salvage them. Or, in my case, stack them on top of each other in your house so you also get Decoration and Practical xp so your house levels up, too!

I wasn't sure it would work but it did. I made a load of rugs, put one in each room as I went through the house, then piled the rest on top of each other in the final room. They stack perfectly and invisibly. That room looks the same as all the other rooms. You'd never know you were standing on a dozen, identical carpets.

For the rest of the xp I made some wallpaper and put a feature wall in every room with a window. Along the way, I had to refine some wood and cloth and I got xp for that as well. In a few minutes I'd hit my target of 1500 Mastery and redecorated my house into the bargain. It was very easy but also surprisingly satisfying, which about sums up my experience of playing Noah's Heart this last half-year.

After that, all I needed to do was speak to Tina, the Tailor trainer. She wanted me to make her some fine leather to prove I was ready to be promoted. I had plenty left over from my crafting binge so I gave her some of that and she was fine with it. Again, no friction between intent and execution.

So, now I'm maxed in all three careers. It doesn't mean I'm done with crafting, though. I still have a lot more locked recipes in my books than things I can make. Next time I get the urge to do a bit of crafting I guess I'll work on unlocking some of those. 

That's something for later. For now, I've done what I wanted to do and gotten a post out of it. What more can you ask for out of a game?

Saturday, February 18, 2023

The Eightfold Path

Say what you like about Square Enix but you can't say they don't keep you informed. Sometimes it seems like I get an email from them every day. Of course, it's not that often, really. It's every other day. 

I guess they have a lot to talk about. They seem to produce an astonishing quantity of games. This month alone they've told me about Final Fantasy VII, Life is Strange 2, Tomb Raider Reloaded, Dissidia Final Fantasy Opera Omnia, Paranormasight and Final Fantasy XI. Just about the only game they haven't mentioned is the one I might actually play, Final Fantasy XIV. I haven't had an email about that one since last year.

The game Square are keenest I should try right now isn't anything I've mentioned. It's the follow-up to a game I've heard a lot about but never thought of playing: Octopath Traveller. The sequel goes by the unimaginative but commercially canny title Octopath Traveller 2. It launches next week and  and they've sent me three emails about it in the last six days.

Okay, now I know what to look for, I guess that could be a tail. I thought it was a pony-tail!
As I say, I very rarely open any correspondence from Square. The most I ever do is scan the title. More often than not I don't even do that. I don't look at any emails I don't think will interest me, which is why I currently have nearly 18,000, unopened, in my Inbox. I almost never delete emails, either. You probably guessed that.

What Square were so keen to tell me is that there's a demo for Octopath Traveller 2 on Steam. As it happens, I already knew. I found out somehow, while I was looking up something for the recent Next Fest. The OT2 demo wasn't part of the event but it got a mention somewhere in despatches.

I probably still wouldn't have bothered downloading it if it hadn't been for one thing; the demo is actually a three hour limited free trial. You can make a character and play the game just as though you'd bought it, within certain restrictions, until Steam registers that you've been playing for a hundred and eighty minutes.

Make your minds up! Is it "Beastling" or "Beasting"? I know which I'd go with.


You don't have to do it all at once, either, which is just as well. Three hours is a long time. Most demos I play take less than an hour. Three hours is a whole evening. Anyway, it seemed like an offer worth checking out, so I did. 

At this point, I probably ought to explain that even though I've read quite a few blog posts about Octopath Traveller, I've never had a very clear idea what sort of game it is. People seem remarkably unclear about it when they recount their experiences. I had the sense it was some kind of turn-based card battler, maybe along the lines of Slay the Spire, not that I have much of a clue what that one's about, either. 

If the original is anything like the sequel, I've clearly been under a great misapprehension. About the only thing I got right was the turn-based part. Other than that, it seems to be some kind of open world, story-led RPG, done in pixel graphics. 

All we need now is a little lens-flare.

I'm not going to go into great detail about how the game looks or plays. I've played for just over two hours so far, which is hardly enough for more than a First Impressions piece, if that. What I will say, though, is that the graphics are extremely effective and evocative, the characters charming and delightful and the story well-written, well-acted and involving. On the whole I had a good time.

My big problem - and it's a huge one - is the combat. It's unnutterably tedious. I generally enjoy turn-based combat but it always has the same drawback; it takes forever. When I enjoy the mechanics, as in Wizard 101, for example, that's not much of an issue but when I find them dull beyond description, it really, really is.

I can name three very specific reasons why I didn't get on with the combat in OT2.

  1. The icons are far too small and difficult to make out.
  2. There's far too little feedback on what's happening.
  3.  The menu system is fiddly and annoying.

Literally. Stuff one of these kebabs in your face during a fight and whoosh! Full health.

There's more that I didn't like about it but those were the worst bits. Even then, I could have put up with it if it was just the battles in the storyline and there weren't so many random encounters. The whole concept of an open world becomes moot if you can't go ten paces without something challenging you to a duel.

That's why, despite enjoying the story, liking my character and wanting to know what happens next, I gave up before my three hours were at an end. I just couldn't take another pointless battle. 

I imagine I'll go back at some point to claim my final fifty minutes. I understand the structure involves eight playable characters that eventually come together to form a team (At least I think that's how it goes...) so I might give another a try. You can play any of them in the demo. 

I chose Ochette and Ochette chose Akala. He's a fox so it wasn't really much of a choice. More of a racing certainty.

I picked the Beastling, Ochette for my first run. Surprise, surprise, you might well say but I swear I didn't even know she had a tail when I picked her. I only chose her because I wanted someone who used a bow.

Just selecting a character at all was a major achievement. If there's anything in the demo that tells you you need a controller I missed it so I was flummoxed when the keyboard didn't work at all. I couldn't even use the menus. 

Fortunately, I have a controller plugged in all the time these days so I swapped to that and with a little experimentation soon got to grips with the controls. The game felt very comfortable with a gamepad after just a few minutes, which is a massive plus for someone like me, who rarely uses one.

Not so much the end as the end of the beginning.

After that everything went very smoothly. I liked the rest of the game so much, I'd be very happy to play Octopath Traveller 2 all the way to the end if only there was a version with no combat at all. I'd be more than satisfied to toddle around the neon-lit jungle paths and sail the pixel seas in search of adventure, just so long as I didn't have to fight anything.

Unfortunately, fighting seems to be the main point of it all so I'll have to give this one a miss. Shame, though. It was fun while it lasted.

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