Friday, June 30, 2023

Tarisland First Impressions: Story

I'm having a great time playing Tarisland. I keep forgetting it's a beta. Partly that's because it's pretty slick on the whole but mostly it's because every new MMORPG I've played for as long as I can remember was at least as janky at launch. Seriously, when did anyone ever release one of these things in a state that could reasonably be described as finished, let alone polished?

The game has all the usual progression hooks but for once the thing that's driving me forward is the storyline. It's not great - let's put that out there right away - but it's coherent, I can follow it and I'm enjoying it. The characters are personable, the voice acting is pleasant, the writing is competent. It's generic fantasy but what in this genre isn't?

The main reason the storyworks well for me has very little to do with its quality. It's all about the delivery. The pacing is just about right, for a start. The cut scenes are frequent but short. There haven't been many moments where I've felt I might as well be watching a movie, something that's happened altogether too frequently in some games I've played.

The cut scenes are well-integrated into the action and the gameworld, too. Much of the time I'll be on a quest, folowing a quest marker or a glowing trail to the next location, and when I get there the other characters will just start talking. Other times I have to click on someone to speak to them, as you normally would in a quest. Either feels comfortable in context. The whole thing just trucks along, carrying me with it.

The characters are fairly strongly individuated. It's easy to tell who's speaking by how they express themselves. That applies to the writing, not just the voice acting. Visually, the character animations seem more limited than usual but for the most part they're expressive enough to carry the tone and import of the dialog.

As someone said in general chat, I wasn't expecting the little guy from Game of Thrones.

There's a test I can apply right now to prove or disprove my thesis. In most cases, if you asked me to name the characters in a new MMORPG I'd just played, I almost certainly wouldn't be able to do it. This time, without looking anything up, I can tell you that the elven healer in the story is Jeya, the minotaur warrior is Lorne, the Princess from the big city is Catherine, the elf queen is Eolona (Or something like that), the dwarf acolyte to the master-builder is Orrin (I forget the master's name but he's Sir Something-or-Other) and the current villain I'm fighting is Zelo, who (SPOILER!) was masquerading as a kindly archivist called Sullivan.

That's a lot more information than I normally retain after 24 - 48 hours, trust me! I could also give a fairly comprehensive summary of the plot but don't worry, I'm not going to.

I'd be able to sum the whole thing up even more convicingly if it wasn't for two things, both of which I outlined in some detail on the feedback survey that popped up when I logged out the other evening. Neither of the problems is unique to Tarisland. One is annoyingly common in most imported titles and the other can be found not infrequently in MMORPGs from both East and West.

Why? What's wrong with Catherine? Oh! You mean for this group!

The first, of course, is the translation. Tarisland sits very much at the upper end of the quality scale for translated MMORPGs but sadly that scale is itself so degraded, even being near the top doesn't mean it's acceptable. 

One of these days, when I have nothing better to do, I might log into every translated MMORPG I have access to and rank the translations. I'm not sure which would come out on top - I suspect it might be Blade and Soul - but I'm pretty sure none would get a flawless score. 

(And before anyone mentions Final Fantasy XIV, I believe I looked into that all the way back when A Realm Reborn launched and found that all the dialog and quest text there is written in English in the first place, not translated from the Japanese. The exact method used seems to be a closely-guarded secret (What else? It's Square!) but this reddit thread suggests that my original understanding is probably close.)

He's referred to consistently elsewhere as her brother. I'm hoping it's a translation error...

The issues with the translation in Tarisland are minor compared with the other problem, which is purely technical, not aesthetic, and needs to be fixed: truncated or overlapping speech and text. Together, these nuisances, while they don't by any means render the game unplayable, do detract significantly from the enjoyment I'm otherwise getting from the plot and storyline.

There are three separate issues: firstly, lines of dialog frequently get cut off before the voice actor has finished speaking. I've seen this in many games and it drives me nuts, not least because it seems so unecessary. Surely someone knows how long each of these sound samples runs? Would it kill them to pass that information along to whoever codes the audio playback?

Fortunately, thanks to the subtitles and captions, I can usually read what would have been spoken but sometimes I miss a line and have to figure out what happened, which leaves me playing verbal catch-up for the rest of the scene. It's distracting and breaks immersion.

Thanks, but I think I've got something on, that day.

Arguably more realistic but practically even worse is the way multiple characters speak over and across one another, something that happens in most games with any kind of ambient voiced dialog. 

In Tarisland, someone's taken the trouble to write plenty of quite good background conversation for incidental NPCs standing around the streets and squares of the city. It adds a lot to the flavor of the soundscape as you pass through the city but it's hell to listen to when a story beat plays out next to a couple of children arguing about elves or a street vendor yelling. 

That, you would think, could be avoided by better use of phasing, which the game already employs, or by automatically muting background sound during storyline sequences. The storyline characters also occasionally speak across each other, although that happens more rarely. Again, you'd think they could be coded to speak in sequence, although that might sound a little unnatural, so maybe some of them should just keep their thoughts to themselves.

Introducing Captain Obvious.

Finally and by far most egregiously, something that really needs to be fixed before the game goes live is the tendency for the text of dialog responses offered to the player to cut off after a few words. This didn't start happening until yesterday so either it's a bug I've picked up that applies to my character specifically or it's something that's crept into the storyline mid-flow. I wasn't seeing until I hit the mid-twenties.

It means that I sometimes have to choose between two options, neither of which I can read. My character is saying things but I don't know what they are. I'm hoping it's all just flavor and nothing I say affects the way the storyline develops but even if it does I have to pick something to say or the narrative won't move on at all. 

Despite these annoyances I'm still managing to enjoy the plot. It moves along entertainingly but not exhaustingly. 

You can't fool me. You're no elf. You're Spanish!
There have been a couple of pauses for breath, where Lone, who seems to be taking the lead most of the time, asks me to come back tomorrow or the next day, which is a lore-appropriate way of telling me to get another level or two first. In other games I've played, this kind of level or time gating has proved an irritant but in Tarisland it seems like a natural break, an intermission, the end of a chapter.

It helps that it's only been taking me half an hour or so to go get the extra level or two I need to carry on with the story. There's a lot to do other than slavishly follow the plot and I've appreciated the hint that I should go explore and have fun on my own for a while.

To pick up on a conversation from the comments in a post from a couple of days ago, I can now confirm the characters with the sticky-out ears are indeed elves. To be precise, they're High Elves, the only elven variant to survive the wrath of a dark god who destroyed their home planet eons ago. A different god, late on the scene, was only just in time to save the High Elves by moving them to Tarisland. 

For which we all give thanks.
See? I remembered all of that without looking it up! I must really be following the plot!

Somewhere in the twenties the narrative moves to the Elven homeland, the generically-named Misty Forest, which comes complete with all relevant elven trappings including a world tree big enough to build a city in. Naturally the tree is dying and of course we have to be the ones to do something about it but I won't spoil the plot any further, mostly because that's about as far as I've got.

Like everywhere else I've seen in Tarisland, Misty Forest is gorgeous. I spent a lot of time taking screenshots. The cut scene that tells the history of the elves is also delightfully illustrated. Tarisland is very lovely to look at. 

All together now, children! He's behind you!
Another thing I want to clear up is the "Three Days Earlier" moment in the tutorial that I referred to in my first post abiout the game. I wasn't imagining it. That really is what it said. The whole starting zone with the minotaurs, in which you level up to the high teens, is a flashback. The game catches up with the tutorial in the second zone, where the storyline wraps all the way around to finish with the same fight with the dragon that ended the tutorial. 

It's really well done and I was very impressed. It came as a surprise to me but I don't believe it was supposed to, just as I don't think any of this is really a spoiler because it does tell you it's a flashback - I just didn't believe it at the time.

The drawback of such a strong, clear, linear storyline is that it's going to be compelling once, bearable twice and bloody annoying ever afterwards. If, as I suspect, the only way to level alts in Tarisland is going to be to take them through the storyline, that's going to get old very fast indeed.

By way of hyperspace, apparently.

It's not, however, a problem unique to this game. It's a very retrograde design choice that's become commonplace throughout the genre. Creating multiple starting zones and levelling paths is obviously expensive so most developers don't do it. And as the game matures, no doubt alternate methods of levelling or ways to skip content will appear.

For now, I'm happy to go through the story this one time to see how far I can get before the beta ends. I'm level 27 now. I think there might be 80 levels. I'll be happy if I can get halfway.

Got to leave something in reserve for when the game goes live. It looks odds on I'll be playing then, too, by which time I hope most, if not all of the issues I've highlighted will be no more than a memory.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Secrets Of The Accounting Department

I suppose I ought to say something about the newly-announced expansion for Guild Wars 2. I can't say I'm itching to get started. I haven't really played the game since, what, January? About all I've done is log in to claim a few freebies from Amazon Prime.

There was an update a while back, I think. Maybe two? Content drops that would have been tagged Living World or Living Story at one point but now come coded as some kind of afterthought to the previous expansion, the name of which I can't quite remember. The Cantha one. I'm sure you know it.

There was a flurry of PR activity a while ago, ArenaNet offering the latest in a seemingly endless series of ideas on cadence. I struggle to think of another MMORPG I've played where so much time and energy has been spent discussing what updates ought to be called and how often they should appear. It's a discussion that began pretty much at launch back in 2012 and has continued, almost without pause, ever since.

I wrote about it at some length a month ago and I don't propose to go over the same ground again. I will say that back in May I certainly wasn't expecting the first new-style expansion to drop just three months later. I would have guessed November or December but the announced release date is August 22.

I guess we could have the trailer about now.

Not much to say about that, is there? It's ominous, alright. Listen to the thudding, doomy theme. Look at all that red and black. And what about that creepy, giant eye?

I will say the title is quite possibly the worst I've seen for an MMORPG expansion in a couple of decades: "Secrets of the Obscure". Clearly having been chosen purely on the grounds of sonority, it's both tautological and uninformative. It does sound good, though, I'll give it that. Until you think about it, anyway.

Thematically, SotO (Nice acronym. I'll give it that, too.) would have had me salivating eight or nine years ago, when I was deep into the lore of the game. Those were the days of heavy speculation over the import and significance of certain visible but inaccessible parts of Tyria, like the great wall, guarded by those irritating birds, or the floating mage tower that forms the focal point of the trailer.

Unfortunately, for me at least, those mysteries went stale long ago. I was curious then. I'm not now.

The most interesting thing for me is what all of this says about development cycles within the genre as a whole and GW2 in particular. It's becoming apparent that all of these imagined worlds - the successful ones, anyway - have life-cycles measured in decades, rather than the months or years that once would have seemed like a good run.

Like the adventures of comic-book heroes, the storylines of MMORPGs are turning into a responsilbility no one generation of creators can handle. If it isn't true already, it will be soon, that no-presently working on the games will have been there from the start. I'm wondering whether some of the games won't even still be around after everyone who was there at launch, players and developers both, has vanished, although I suspect most will wrap up when the last few original players pass away.

I'm beginning to learn that my own attention span for these things is finite. I don't not care yet, but I don't care as much as I once did and I can foresee the day when I won't care at all.

Do I care enough to buy this expansion? That's the pertinent question.

My immediate reaction, when I clicked through to check the price and found they wanted £21.99 for the Standard Edition was "Hell, no!" Reading the contents list, this doesn't look so much like an expansion as an extremely clever way of rebranding the Living World updates we used to get for free in a fashion that allows ANet to charge for them upfront.

Here's how they've done it. 

"A self-contained story with its own resolution will play out at launch. Later releases will seamlessly pick up where the launch arc concluded and tell the rest of the expansion's story. Additional features and updates across the game are planned for release every quarter."

I'm making an assumption that those "additional features and updates" will require a flag on your account confirming you bought the expansion. If so, that makes it almost literally the same format as the Living World once used, only active players used to get that for free and now they'll have to pay.

As for the rest of what's included, I'm not going to go over it all in the kind of detail I once would have done. If you're interested, it's all in the PR pack and Belghast has a very good analysis of the content. 

I'm more interested in picking out lines like this:

"The story of Guild Wars 2: Secrets of the Obscure will play out over installments, with new story content to look forward to at launch and in subsequent releases."

And this:

 "At launch, two new explorable zones will take you to the skies over Tyria; a new map will become available as the story progresses in future releases."

My emphasis.

Pay now, play later. You can't say they aren't being straight about it.

In my case I'm not playing at all, so I can afford to wait. Except, if I don't pre-order, I won't get 

"... an extravagant Arcane Spellweaver's Hat Skin, a weapon of your choice from the Eagle Eye weapon collection, and the Demon Hunter title."

Anet's emphasis. You can see where they want your eye to focus.

And I have to say... it works. There's a hat! It's hard to say to no to a free hat, even one you have to pay for.

So, yes, I might pre-order. Who knows? By the end of August I might be in the mood to go back. Twenty-two quid is a bit steep for what's on offer but it's not a lot in absolute terms. It's not like I'm going to be buying the Deluxe Edition at £43.99 or the Ultimate at £64.99. That would be crazy.

And there is one thing in the expansion that does interest me:

"Guild Wars 2: Secrets of the Obscure offers an updated path to unlocking your skyscale mount."

If by "updated" they mean easier and faster then they have my attention. It is described elsewhere in the Press Release as "streamlined", so I guess it will be quicker, at least. 

I don't actually want a Skyscale mount but it's been evident for a while now that all future content is likely to be designed on the assumption that every player has one. If you want to play anything but the oldest content these days you're all but obligated to have access to the key movement features - gliding, mounts and now the almost-flight of the Skyscale. 

The lunatic farrago required to get one fails my personal sanity test so definitively, I long ago decided that if it ever came to a choice between doing it or quitting the game I'd quit without looking back. I'll wait to see the details of the new path but if it's no worse than, say, getting the Griffin, I'll consider it.

I'll take my Arcane Spellweaver's Hat off to whoever at ANet finally figured out a way to monetize the content GW2 ,along with most other MMORPGs, have been giving away for years. I just hope it doesn't start a trend.

Based on the company's long-established inability to follow through or stick to a proposed course of action, I think that could be less of a risk than you might think.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Tarisland Closed Beta First Impressions: Dungeons

There's always a conflict when I find a new game that really intrigues me; I want to play it all the time but I also want to post about it. Yesterday, my blogging side won out. Today I'm going to play.

Ahh, crap. No, I'm not. I'm going to have to write this damn post first or I'll never be able to settle. 

What I will do, though, is keep to a single subject for once, instead of running off in all directions like I usually do. And today's topic is...


Surprised? I was. I have about a million things I'd rather talk about than boring old dungeons. But for once I've actually done a couple and I have a few things to say about the experience, one of which is that it... wasn't terrible. In fact. I quite enjoyed it.

The longer I play MMORPGs, the older I get, the less I enjoy dungeons or dungeon-like instances. I don't like the commitment, for a start. I like to be able to stop playing at a moment's notice, either leaving my character idling or logging out altogether.

Even solo dungeons generally don't let you do that safely or without losing progress. Obviously it's out of the question if you group. Okay, I know people do drop group without warning but there's no excuse for copying bad behavior.

I also don't much enjoy the mechanics. I used to like it when everything was about crowd control and aggro. That was fun. Now it's all about mechanics and scripts and every blasted fight feels like taking an exam. 

Put those two together and clearly dungeons are not ideal content for me. Unfortunately, many developers seem to think players can either be co-erced into enjoying them or have a moral obligation to run them at least once, as some kind of return on investment. They made these things and by god you are going to see them whether you like it or not!

That leads to to the - to my mind - unforgiveable design decision to incorporate dungeons into the main storyline and use them as gatekeepers. If you don't do the dungeon you don't get to find out what happens next. I could probably live with that but sometimes you also don't get to level up any further or gain key abilities or unlock new explorable areas or ever do anything new ever again ever!

I tend to think of it as the Final Fantasy XIV effect because although FFXIV didn't invent it, that's where I first ran hard into the roadblock of compulsory dungeon play and bounced off it even harder. When I got to Level Seven in Tarisland and found the MSQ similarly gated by unskippable combat instances, I can't say I was surprised but I can say I was not happy.

Still, what the hell, it's beta and it's Level Seven. Two things about that. 

  1. Nothing you do at Level Seven in an MMORPG is going to be that tough.
  2. In beta, no-one knows what the hell they're doing, anyway. No-one's gonna yell at you.

Well, hopefully.

So, I hit the Matchmaking button and got put into the instance in seconds. A few confirmation buttons popped and I said I was ready and off we went. I felt okay about it. As I mentioned yesterday, one reason I went with Ranger was so I could stand back and keep out of the way if something like this happened. 

And that's what I did and it all went fine. The tank ran ahead and pulled stuff. I started off trying to follow his target but when I used my AE nothing peeled off so after a while I just shot whatever and it was all good. Someone was healing and who else was doing what, I didn't really pay much attention. 

As for mechanics, if there was a marked area on the ground I got out of it and if the loud voice yelled at me to do something, I did it, which brings up the first thing I wanted to say about Tarisland dungeons:


I don't know if this goes on all through the game or if it's just for the lower levels but Tarisland's dungeons are the best-documented I've ever seen. I didn't spot it yesterday but in the Level Thirteen dungeon I did this morning I noticed an icon on the upper right that said "Guide". So I clicked and guess what? 

It's a guidebook on the dungeon you're doing. It has a page for each Boss and each page has tabs for a description of the Boss, what they do and how to deal with it. It's literally like they put the entire walkthrough right there in the UI. 

It ought to mean there's no excuse for anyone saying they don't know the strats but of course you do actually have to read the thing first and understand it and commit it to memory so no, that's not going to happen. But guess what? The devs thought of that, too!


Even if you didn't have time to flip through the whole book because the Tank was all "Go! Go! Go!" you still don't get a pass for shooting the wrong thing or running the wrong way. Not only does a notice come up on screen whenever some new mechanic kicks in, telling you what it is and what to do about it, there's a fricken' commentator who yells out instructions!

Remember when I said yesterday that a disembodied voice yells "Dodge!" whenever you should have but didn't? The same thing happens in dungeons only it applies to everything you ought to be doing. 

I got yelled at to keep away from my companions, not to get in front of the Boss because he was going to charge, to kill the minions first and so on and so on. It felt kind of like my days back in EverQuest when we'd run with one of those really chill, together tanks, who somehow has time to type in a running commentary on what they're doing and what to expect. 

I loved playing with tanks like that. Dungeons were fun back then, weren't they? Well, 'till you wiped and it took three hours to get your corpse...

This is a lot more soulless and automated than that but it's still a hell of an improvement on silence. Once I got used to it I was waiting for instructions and carrying them out just like a good little soldier. Not that it got me off the bottom of the DPS list. 

Oh yes, there's a list. Didn't I say?

Damage Meters And Stats

Tarisland is in no doubt which side it comes down on in the debate over whether there should be damage meters and, if there are, whether they should be public. There's one on-screen in the upper, right corner all the time and when you finish you get a report card. 

You can toggle the display to show healing and damage taken and other stuff, I think. I was trying to play around with it but it's a bit awkward in a firefight. Everyone's name is color-coded but I haven't figured out what the colors mean. 

I do know that as a ranger I probably shouldn't be at the bottom of the DPS list. And I wasn't. Not quite. I was ahead of the tank and the healer! 

Players And NPCs

At least I didn't get yelled at for slacking, which was something. At first I put it down to what I said earlier - it's beta and no-one knows anything yet. But then something really weird happened...

This was in the Level Thirteen dungeon. I'd used Matchmaking to put me into a group and we'd run in and killed the first Boss easily enough. We moved on to the next room and...


Everyone just stood there. No-one said anything. Or moved. It was freaky.

I figured maybe the Tank was reading the strats. I had a look myself. I could hear the Mage periodically buffing herself but everyone else was eerily still and silent. 

I had time to use the in-game camera to take a photo. Then I had more time. And still more. 

There's an on-screen timer. It said we'd been standing in the doorway for almost five minutes. This was getting ridiculous. I considered just closing the client and quitting the dungeon so I could start over but I didn't want to risk bugging myself. 

(Interestingly, I realize now that at no point did I even consider speaking in group to ask what was happening or sending anyone a private message. It quite literally did not occur to me to do anything like that. It's only now, as I write this paragraph, that I've thought of it at all. That must mean something - although I'm not sure what.)

A couple of times I considered just whanging an arrow into the Boss, who was standing there staring at us from across the room. I didn't want to be That Ranger but seriously, someone was going to have step up. And in the end that's what I did.

I did it because by then I was entertaining a very strong suspicion I'd figured out what was going on. I was beginning to think the rest of my party weren't living, breathing players like me at all. I was starting to think they were all... NPCs!

And they bloody were! The moment I stepped into the room and fired my bow they all magically came to life. The tank ran in and took agro, the healer began healing him and the other two began pumping out the damage. 

I'd been Matchmade into a party of AI Mercenaries and I hadn't even noticed! What does that say about me? And the game? And the genre!?

Not that I'm complaining. I'd much prefer to be partied up with imaginary people who already know the strats, never complain, don't mind stopping if I need to take the dog out for ten minutes and can basically carry me through the whole thing if need be. I would, however, like to know it was happening!

My next mission, should I choose to accept it, is to find out if the storyline dungeons always and only use NPC companions or if the Matchmaker just shoves them in if no-one else happens to be LFG for that dungeon when you hit the button. I'll probably need to do some research on it because I doubt my anecdotal data from the handful of dungeons I'll be doing will prove conclusive either way and I'm certainly not doing extra to find out.


That said, if I was going to play Tarisland seriously, I'd need to get used to doing a lot of dungeons. They're "the main source of equipment" as the game cheerfully explains. If you "want to get stronger" you're going to be doing them a lot.

And we all want to get stronger, don't we? Well, no, not especially. I want to get through the dungeons so I can hear the next part of the story, which I'm finding unexpectedly involving. 

But that's a post for another day. I said I was going to play, not post and I'm bloody well going to, even if it is hard to stop writing. Why does just doing somthing for the fun of it  feel like goofing off, sometimes? 

I mean, it's not like I'm getting paid to do this...

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Tarisland Closed Beta: First Impressions

Oh, boy! Here we go!

I applied for the Closed Beta of Tarisland on a whim. I'd been reading about the title on various news sites since it appeared miraculously, almost full-grown, in the wake of the sudden, unfortunate and largely involuntary withdrawal of World of Warcraft from the Chinese marketplace.

The general opinion seemed to be that Tarisland was a WoW clone. Not in the sense we used to use the term: an expensive but ultimately futile attempt to ride WoW's coat-tails to success by making something roughly similar; no, this was said to be an almost literal remaking; a 1:1 replica, built to replace the actual World of Warcraft in China for the players whose access to the real thing had been so abruptly curtailed.

Screenshots and trailers all appeared to confirm this hypothesis. It sure as hell looked like WoW. After playing the game for a couple of hours this morning, I can confirm it sure as hell plays like WoW, too. And also a bit like FFXIV. And a few other games.

Who wouldn't want to be her?

None of that really surprised me. What did was that I was playing at all. When I applied for the closed beta, I didn't expect to get in. I didn't think I'd even bother completing the paperwork. I assumed it would be a fairly exclusive affair, with an NDA and an application process involving some personal details and some forms to sign and I'd lose interest before I even finished applying.

There was some of that. I seem to remember a few questions about other games I'd played and how old I was and about what kind of spec PC I had. That was a bit of a hurdle. The drop-down menu didn't have a series of graphics cards old enough so I had to tick the lowest I could see. It would have been a decent upgrade, if I'd had one.

But there wasn't an NDA. I didn't sign anything to say I couldn't report on my experience if I was lucky enough to get in. When I received the email a few days ago telling me I'd been invited, I checked again. Nope. Nothing. 

While I was waiting for the velvet rope to be lifted this morning, I asked Bard:

"Does the Closed Beta for Tarisland, starting today, have an NDA?"

And Bard replied:

"No, the closed beta for Tarisland does not have an NDA. This means that players are free to stream, record, and discuss their experiences with the game. The developers have said that they want players to be able to share their feedback and help shape the game as it continues development.

The closed beta for Tarisland started on June 27, 2023. It is available on PC and will run for two weeks. To participate in the beta, players need to sign up for the Tarisland newsletter."

"If you miss this train, there'll never be another one..."
So I guess that confirms it. I mean the AIs never just make stuff up, right? (Actually, it's also in the official FAQ, which for some reason I didn't read until afterwards...)

Anyway, on the assumption that it's allowed, here are my first session impressions of Tarisland, the latest contender for the crown that now sits so unsteadily on WoW's head. The beta lasts a full two weeks and I can already tell I'm going to be playing it a lot more than I have some other betas I've been in so I'm not going to get bogged down in too much detail on this first pass. Time for that later, I'm sure.

The first thing to say is the whole thing feels rock solid. Downloading and installing the client was simple, fast and flawless. I was walking the dog when the exact time for the servers to come up arrived but I was at my desk fifteen minutes later and everything was up and running. 

There's an American server and an Asian server. The UK defaults to America (Quiet at the back!) which was fine by me. Would have been my choice anyway, even if there'd been a European server. 

I was able to log in immediately; no queue, no delay. I watched the intro video (A lot of noise, not much sense.) then I made a character and played for a couple of hours without interruption, lag or latency of any kind. I can't find a minimum recommended spec for PC but my extremely underpowered and very elderly rig had no problem running Tarisland at what the in-game settings describe as "Epic" quality. 

I guess "Movie" is better than "Epic"?
I did get one pop-up telling me my frame rate was low. It happened in the big boss fight that ends the short Tutorial. There was a lot going on and a lot of other players around. Even then, all that happened was the game reset some parameter to fix whatever problem it thought I was having and everything carried on as before. I'm not one to notice frame rate unless things literally turn into a slideshow but it seemed perfectly fine to me, both before and after whatever it was that changed.

So much for infrastructure, connectivity and performance. All boxes ticked. Passed, with distinction. On to Character Creation.

There have been times when I've played a new game and devoted a whole post to Character Creation. I could do that here but if I did it would be one of those socio-philosophical treatises about how times and mores have changed. It certainly wouldn't be one of the "Gosh! What a lot of sliders! Look at all the great looks I made!" posts.

The first thing to say is that classes appear to be both gender- and race-locked. If there were toggles, I missed them and I thought I looked at all the options. If it's true, that's not going to go down well in the West.

There are nine classes of which one isn't available in the beta and another isn't even identified. There's just big question mark. The seven you can choose from are Warrior, Paladin, Barbarian Fighter, Mage, Priest, Ranger and Bard

Only girls, only elves. Mage school rules.

I was very tempted by the Barbarian Fighter for the sole reason that it's also the only non-human race (Elves don't count.) I reiterate, if there's any way to mix and match races and classes, I missed it. It is a beta, though, and I went through Character Creation fast, so that's entirely possible. Don't take my word for anything. Think of me as a slower, less well-programmed AI.

In the end I went for the Ranger because a) she looked badass and so did her pet and b) hunters are OP solo in WoW so I was hoping it would be easy-mode here, too. Also, if it turned out I had to do any grouping, I know how to play a ranger - stand well back and don't get in anyone's way. No-one ever expects the ranger to do anything. In fact, if a ranger somehow gets a group at all, the general feeling usually seems to be the less they do, the better.

I tarted my character up to the limited degree permitted, including some make-up and a facial tattoo, which isn't usually my style. I felt quite pleased with the result. I'm increasingly of the opinion that less is more when it comes to character creation. Then I gave her one of my favorite names that no-one else ever picks and in we went.

Wait... I'm an elf?? How did I miss those ears?!

The tutorial begins at a canter and speeds up to a gallop almost immediately. There's a lot of action and plenty of fighting from the start, which meant I had absolutely no chance to read the tooltips to see what my abilities did. Didn't matter. I only had a couple and anyway, what do you expect with a ranger? Stand back and shoot stuff pretty much covers it.

Later, when I had a chance to mouseover and read the details, I found all my abilities to be unnecessarily complicated. There's a lot of percentages and things that feed or build or amplify other things. I imagine if you want to play properly and have people not yell at you in groups, you'll need to memorize all that crap. I just ignored it and everything seemed to go just fine.

The tutorial only takes a few minutes to cover the absolute basics. It ends with a massive set-piece battle with a dragon (What else?) for which I found myself the only player in a ten-person raid, the other nine being NPCs, I think... Either that or a lot of people gave thetr characters really boring names.

Pretty sure none of those people are real. Except me. Maybe.

Not to give away too much but it's one of those fixed fights you can't win. The dragon blasts everyone with fire and everyone dies. Well, nearly. Not you. Then some confusing message I thought said "Three Days Earlier" popped up and disappeared almost before I could read it and next thing I knew I was in the starting area proper. I need to play through all that again just to figure out what happened.

As I hope I'm conveying, up to that point everything felt hectic and confused and desperate. Developers either seem to want to set every nerve in your body jangling with non-stop action or send you into a coma of boredom with endless detail on how to open a bag or speak to a vendor. Personally, I'd just like to be dumped in the game world and left to get on with it but that's not been an option since about 2002. As these things go, the way Tarisland introduces itself is about par for the course.

From then on, however, things really pick up. The pace settles down to normal quest hub levels. The world is spectacularly beautiful, if you like the kind of cartoonish graphics WoW has been peddling for years, which I do. Everything felt very familiar and for good reason; the starting zone is the Tauren starting zone, give or take. The Ancash Tribe are minotaurs, they speak with a faint but recognizable, Native American inflection... the town is full of totem poles, ffs!

Next stop, Mulgore. Erm, sorry, Ancash Canyon. My mistake!

But forget the aesthetics. For all practical purposes, if you've ever played WoW, you're going to feel right at home here.The UI is the default WoW UI or near enough. Tarisland is a tab-target, hotbar MMORPG from the late noughties.

I fricken' love it! For once I was able to log into a brand new MMORPG and just play! I didn't have to re-learn anything or make any adjustments or fiddle around with stuff endlessly to try and get comfortable. I felt like I knew what I was doing from the get-go. I felt like I was home!

Okay, not "home" but in another house on the same estate. One with the furniture moved around a little and some different wallpaper but all the rooms in the same place. I can't express how good it feels to hit Tab to target and click on icons on a hotbar to fight. I've become so inured to the various kinds of "action" combat in modern MMORPGs I'd almost forgotten how much I prefer the old, non-action combat of yesteryear.

Okay, this time at least some of those people are real.

There is dodging. I ought to mention that. A disembodied voice keeps yelling "Dodge!" when you don't. Nothing tells you how, though, and I never got around to finding out. I just ran out of the way, which mostly worked. Sometimes, when it didn't, all my abilities greyed out and I couldn't do anything but after a while they came back and I carried on. 

I thought at first I'd died but I never woke up anywhere else and it didn't seem to affect the outcome of any fights so maybe I was just stunned. I assume there must be some kind of death mechanic, if not an actual penalty, but so far that's all I've seen.

If you figure it out, let me know.
If Tarisland looks like WoW and fights like WoW, I ought to mention that it doesn't handle XP exactly like WoW. There's a server XP cap, as is common in non-Western MMORPGs, and mobs don't seem to give any XP at all. It's been a while since they gave much meaningful XP in WoW, either, but at least they give a little. And drop loot. In Tarisland they do neither. (Well, I guess they might drop loot very rarely... I didn't see any, though, so I'm saying they don't, until I get evidence to the contrary.)

All the XP and gear I got came from quests. All the quests I did were straightforward and simple. And fun. I have to say it - I really enjoy doing simple quests. Been doing them for twenty years; not bored yet. It's the long, complicated ones that tick me off.

It also helped a lot that I found the storyline quite engaging. I'm not going to say it's original. It very much is not. But, like the tab-targetting and the hotkey combat, it's the kind of narrative I know and enjoy. It's cosy, if poison, possession, betrayal and spiders can be cosy.

The translation is varied. By the standards of imported games it's better than decent. I had no trouble following the plot (Well, not once the tutorial was out of the way, at least.). Quite often the lengthy passages of text that came with every quest read no more awkwardly than those you'd find in WoW itself. Sometimes better, actually. (That's not necessarily an endorsement, by the way. My opinion of Blizzard's in-house prose style is not high.)

Someone skipped school the day we did personal pronouns, eh, Jeya?

The problem, as usual, comes with idiom. Even in some Western MMORPGs I find the writing over-formal and unnatural. It's much worse in translations, where it seems impossible for the developers to find (Or afford.) anyone who can write demotic, colloquial English. It's one reason I like EverQuest II's quest writing better than most - often as not, the NPCs there say things you can imagine an actual person saying, rather than something that sounds like it came from a high school improv drama class.

The voice acting is better than decent. I wouldn't go as far as to say it's good but it's more than acceptable. It's one of many games where the voice actors don't appear to be working from the same script as whoever did the subtitles, though. There are frequent small variations from the words on the screen. 

I've seen this so often, in so many MMORPGs, it's almost the norm. I certainly wouldn't mark any game down for it, providing it doesn't get in the way of understanding; the only time it matters is if the two versions diverge in meaning. That didn't happen here so it's all good.

Almost but not quite. Still as good as WoW, all the same.

One thing that did irk me about the voiceover had nothing to do with the writing or the performance. Neither was it anything I hadn't seen - or heard - before. It's another annoying little quirk of many games I've played, where the scene changes before the actor has finished speaking and the end of the line gets cut off. It doesn't materially affect anything but it breaks immersion and always grates on the ear a little.

These are small complaints. And it is beta, although I very much doubt anyone's going to be re-recording dialog or re-writing quest text before launch. They might sort out the sync issues at least.

Other than that, I had a very good time. I nearly wrote "a surprisingly good time" but actually I wasn't all that surprised. As I said, I'd been following the promotional hype for Tarisland and it seemed to me that the main thing people didn't like about it was that it looked too much like WoW. That was the appeal for me. 

Any prog bands out there need an album cover?

I've sworn off  Blizzard at least until the Microsoft deal goes through, which looks like it might never happen. I'm not a huge WoW player but I do like to drop in now and again and after a couple of years I'm kinda missing it. I'm in the market for a good alternative, especially if it's free. I do realize that the people behind Tarisland probably aren't any nicer than the people running Blizzard but until the behind-the-scenes stories start to leak I can at least live in blissful ignorance.  

The beta lasts a full two weeks. I got to Level 10 in a couple of hours today. We'll see how long my interest lasts and how much further I get. 

I'm certainly not likely to run out of things to write about. Topics I didn't cover today include vistas, teleports, map travel, murloc analogs, forced grouping, similarities with FFXIV, reputation, exploration, achievements and riding side-saddle. 

And that's just the beginning...

Monday, June 26, 2023

Cats And Carriages or Fun Above, Frustration Below

Here we are on the last day of Steam Next Fest with just two demos left to cover. I played all seven with a day to spare, mostly because I realized I didn't absolutely have to finish any of them. What a revelation! With that new super-power, I might even risk downloading a few more next time.

I left the one that looked the most fun 'til last, along with another that looked pretty intriguing. I was pretty much on the money with both, although it's worth remembering that "fun" only takes you so far and "intrigue" is not a synonym for "enjoyment".

For once, I don't have one whole heck of a lot to say about either of them, so this might genuinely run short for a change, even if my playthroughs didn't. I'll start with the one I didn't really enjoy all that much:  

Underground Blossom.

This is the latest in what seems to be a loosely-linked series set in the same "eerie and surrealistic world", named after the indie game studio that created it, Rusty Lake. On paper it sounds like my kind of thing. It's a point & click adventure and I like those. It's set in a metro and I like those as well. The plot involves memory and symbolism, both of which are great interests of mine.

Add to that the stylized graphics that bring to mind the darkly comic work of Edward Gorey and what's not to like, right? Well, I'll tell you what's not to like: the puzzles. 

First off, I should make it clear I'm not a big fan of puzzles in adventure games to begin with. At best I see them as necessary time-fillers, without which there wouldn't be anything you could reasonably call a "game". That would suit me quite nicely but I appreciate the developers have to market and sell these things to keep a roof over their heads and currently there doesn't seem to be much of a channel for interactive narratives other than gaming, meaning everything has to be constructed as a game of some sort, no matter how lacking in ludicity it may be.

The strong impression I got from the demo of Underground Blossom was that the developers were considerably more interested in the puzzles than they were in the narrative, making this primarily a puzzle game, not an adventure. I generally avoid anything that self-identifies as a "puzzle game" so it had the twin effect of making me feel I'd been misled by the marketing and also that I'd wasted one of my demo slots on something I would otherwise have skipped.

Still, it wouldn't have mattered all that much if I'd found the puzzles involving or engaging or convincing. I didn't find them to be any of those things. 

Instead, I found them contrived, awkward, unconvincing and annoying. I'm well aware that the setting is both surreal and dreamlike, two unchallengable pass cards for having anything happen, regardless of logic or sanity, but that doesn't make it fun.

Worse yet, the mechanics behind the puzzles seemed inflexible. I had to restart my first playthrough because, as it turned out, I'd done something out of sequence and there didn't appear to be any way to undo the action or take an alternative path. 

I was only able to find out what had gone wrong by consulting a walkthrough, which told me that I needed to feed a baby before I put the baby's diaper on. Perhaps that's standard childcare. I wouldn't know. My child-rearing experience began at age two and a half so I missed the terrycloth stage. I would suggest in any case that even if that is the way it's done, it's a bit of an ask to expect the target audience of an indie adventure game to know about it.

Most of the other puzzles - and there are many - can be solved by trial and error; click on everything that can be clicked on and most of them will eventually solve themselves. That's also not very engaging and it still leaves a few solutions that I doubt I'd ever have happened on by chance. Without the walkthrough I'd still be clicking and cursing.

Except of course I wouldn't because the narrative is so thin and scattered that I'd feel no compulsion to keep at it. I get what the game is trying to do as it builds up a picture of a life through fragments of a dream but there has to be a lot more of a hook than this for it to feel worth the trouble it takes to gather the pieces and fit them together.

The real problem with the demo, beyond all these specific and somewhat personal cavils that say more about my preferences than the quality of the game, is that I found it boring. If there's one emotion above all others you really don't want to evince with your demo it surely has to be boredom. On this exposure, not only won't I be wishlisting Underground Blossoms, I won't be peering any further into the rest of the Rusty Lake world either, something that, before I played the demo, I fully intended to do.

I ought to note that the demo opens with an advisory suggesting it should take about fifteen minutes to complete. It took me three times as long. Maybe, if I was the kind of player who seeks out puzzle games and knows more about the way they work, I'd have been able to speed through this one in the expected timeframe and it wouldn't have been boring at all. 

I'm not and I didn't so I'll never know.

Little Kitty, Big City 

Little Kitty, Big City, by contrast, was a joy to play from start to finish, even though it's also a puzzler of a sort and even further from the kind of game I normally play. The two demos are so different it seems silly to compare them but in essence they both employ the same structure: a journey in which puzzles must be solved to overcome obstacles and proceed to the next stage.

LKBC opens with what could be the CCTV evidence in a prosecution for animal cruelty. Some unmitigated idiot of a pet-owner hasn't just left the window of their high-rise apartment wide open, they've actually put a padded mat out on the ledge for their cat to sleep on. There's no guard rail and the ledge is barely as big as the cat. Go on. Guess what happens?

If you guessed the cat fell off you'd be correct, of course. If you also guessed the cat fell to its death on the hard sidewalk below... nah, that didn't happen. Neither did the cat display that semi-mythical ability of all domestic felines to land on its feet and walk away unscathed, something that, very surprisingly, does appear to have some basis in fact.

This being a video game and a cartoonish one at that, naturally the cat bounces off various obstacles, slides down vertical surfaces by digging in its claws and most amusingly of all hitches a ride on a startled passing crow. The crow doesn't take offense and turns up not long after in the role of mentor and quest-giver.

The ride ends in a trash can because of course it does. What story about an alley cat doesn't start in a bin? Except Little Kitty is no hard-bitten, cynical, streetwise bruiser. He (Or She. Or them. Gender is neither necessary nor mentioned.) is a naive, inexperienced young housecat. All he wants to do is get back home.

Once I'd worked out how to get out of the trash (On PC, that'd be by hammering the A and D keys really fast.) I took a while to make myself comfortable with the controls. They're fairly standard: WASD to move, Space to jump, Shift to sprint, Ctrl to crouch and a mouseclick for everything else.  

The only unusual one, which took me a while to get the feel of, is "Precision Jump", which requires you to hold down Space and move a pointer to get across gaps. It's somewhat fiddly and not as precise as you'd think something that actually has the word "Precision" in its name would be but I got the hang of it after a while. 

As many of the comments on the Steam Community page point out, often with some exasperation, the demo has its idiosyncrasies. It's not always as easy to get to where you feel you ought to be going as it should be and the physics doesn't always feel quite right. Overall, though, I found it a pleasant and unfrustrating experience even though I'm not generally great at games that require fine movement or accurate positioning.

The demo and by implication the game turned out to be more structured than I was expecting. I thought it would be something of an open-world exploration experience, whereas it's really a sequence of discrete areas, cleverly cordoned off by impassable obstacles such as water, dogs or locked gates. 

While Kitty can jump up onto cars or counters, walk along walls and fences, crawl through holes and pipes and leap across gaps, movement is still restricted. You can go where the game wants you to go and that's that. Perhaps if you collect all twenty-fives shinies for the crow and he comes good on his promise to teach you how to climb, the world might open up some more. 

Oh, did I not mention that? LKBC has a ton of rpg-style gameplay. That was a surprise.

There are quests, tasks and achievements, not that any of those terms actually appear in the game. Instead, you get a To-Do list which auto-fills as you run into various NPCs (The aforementioned crow, another cat and what I thought was a racoon but which might be a red panda.) or click on stuff or enter certain areas. 

The crow, for example, wants you to find twenty-five shinies, for which he'll give you a nice, fresh fish. He suggests  it'll give you enough energy to get back up to your apartment. He's also willing to teach you the "inferior flying" cats call "climbing". 

It might also open up some new areas to explore but if so they probably won't be in the demo. There's a very specific and quite generously expansive list of things you can do for free but once they're finished you'll have to buy the game to find out what else there is.

I didn't get that far. I caught a bird, I collected about two-thirds of the shinies, I even did some action painting. 

I smashed nine out of ten of the objects needed to prove cats can be just as mindlessly destructive as people Or that's my reading, anyway. There's actually no reason given for the vandalism. I think it's just supposed to be fun to watch things break. 

It kinda is, too. You can bat things about with both paws (Q and E for left and right.)to knock them off shelves or walls and you can pick things up in your mouth and carry them, although I never found a practical use for that one. A cat walking about with a hammer in its mouth doesn't need a context to be funny, though.

Perhaps the best part is the hats. I found four: frog, tomato, ladybird, rabbit. There's no trick to it. No logic, either. They just pop out of spinning spheres you find hanging in the air. Then you put them on, if you want. Or not. They don't do anything or change anything except how you look. I'd have liked to collect more but not so much I wanted to play longer just to look for them.

It was all good fun. I had a nice time. After an hour, though, I felt I'd had about enough. There were some puzzles I hadn't solved so there were places I hadn't seen and my To-Do list was only about half done but none of it seemed to matter all that much. The whole thing felt more like a portfolio of mini-games than a constructed narrative and since I'm no kind of completionist there wasn't much of a tug to keep going.

I'm guessing that the full game must be have more of a plot, if only because getting back home is one of the items on the demo list, so that can't be the final goal. Unless they're literally giving away the entire game in the demo, presumably once Kitty knows how to get out of the apartment and back, adventures ensue.

They'll be ensuing without me, although not because I didn't have fun. I really did. I just don't feel the need for more. I think you'd need to be more of a completionist than me and like ticking off tasks on a To-Do list more than I do and maybe find cartoon cats that don't seem to have an awful lot of individual personality traits beyond being adorable more compelling company, too.

None of which is a criticism. On the contrary, I'd recommend Little Kitty, Big City to anyone that fancies a light-hearted, cartoonish cat simulator with some mild RPG overtones. As for me, I prefer my cartoon cats walking upright and wearing more than a selection of silly hats. 

And solving crimes, clearing up mysteries and occasionally saving the world, too, of course.. 

That's what real cats do, right?

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