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Monday, December 2, 2019

Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn

The second game in BioWare's Baldur's Gate series, which made several tweaks to the original's design and, after an expansion was released, concluded its running story. But does Baldur's Gate prove to be a worthwhile adventure for D&D fans, or is this simply a lackluster sequel to a game that hasn't aged particularly well?

The original Baldur's Gate was a game renowned among PC gamers and D&D fans in general for its interesting storyline and strict adhesion to second edition rules, making it a classic to both camps.  It was not without its faults, however - the overall slow progression and some downright cheap encounters with enemies that could spam various debilitating effects (charm, stone, web, etc), paired with an extremely long duration for all of them, made combat downright frustrating at times and frequently all but forced the player to cheat in order to get by.

Baldur's Gate 2 continues this trend, adding some new effects to the mix like confusion and level drain (and my personal least favorite, psionic attacks from mind flayers that leave the player stunned for an extremely long time and vulnerable to their instant-death brain eating attack).  However, the game does show some improvement in this regard too, shortening the duration of many of the nastier statuses and taking care to give the player tools to counter most of them (like a Level 4 Lesser Restoration spell to counter level drain which did not exist in the tabletop game).  Many pieces of equipment also grant resistance or immunity to particular effects, and several class kits do as well, so there are tools to counter a lot of the nastiness one encounters.  Still, some fights are extremely cheap and all but require the player to use some cheap tactics to succeed, so the big overarching issue from the first game is mitigated to a degree, but by no means eliminated.

Class kits are a new addition to Baldur's Gate II, adding much to the game's flavor and replayability.  Essentially, each of the generic D&D classes now has one of several variants the player can choose from, granting them some new abilities in exchange for others. For example, the Cavalier kit for the Paladin is completely immune to fear, charm and poison, gets innate fire and acid resistance and can cast Remove Fear once a day to aid the party, but cannot use any missile weapons.  Some offer a relatively reasonable balance of advantages and drawbacks (like the Kensai kit for the Fighter, which can deal out massive damage but cannot use any armor or ranged weapons) while others are virtually straight upgrades (virtually all of the Thief and Bard kits).  One even has the option to retroactively apply them to characters imported from the previous game, which is a nice touch (though it comes with the drawback of averaging out their HP if the player employed savescumming to maximize their HP gains).

Some other significant improvements quickly show themselves too.  There is a much greater focus on party member interaction now, with each character one encounters being tied to their own questline and having several unique dialogs with the player and one another.  This can be interesting at times (like Viconia's character arc which, played properly, can convince her to change her alignment), and at other times it can be deterimental; some characters outright hate one another and will fight to the death if kept in the same party for too long.  One even has romance options with many of the female characters (though only one male character if playing as a female character yourself, disappointingly).  It ultimately doesn't have a huge effect on the overall gameplay most of the time, but it is nice to have the option and for characters to have alternate endings depending on the player's choices.  The antagonists in BG2 are significantly more nuanced too, proving to be effectively well-written and with a legitimate strong element of tragedy to them instead of the rather cartoonish ones of the first game.

The gameplay is much more focused as well. The world map is no longer nearly as expansive, with more interesting areas than just "woods with slightly different enemy sets" and fewer random encounters with generic goons on the way to a destination.  Sorely lacking from the original game, the player is now properly rewarded for completing quests with a large sum of experience for each character, not just a lump sum spread across the entire party.  Another nice bonus is that the player is afforded a unique questline depending upon their chosen class - thieves get to run a thieves guild, bards can run a playhouse, fighters get a castle (and must keep their peasants safe and taxes reasonable, lest they revolt), to name a few.  The rewards for these tend to be pretty useful and worth undertaking, and it's another nice element of depth and replay value for the game.

Like many D&D games, Baldur's Gate doesn't offer a lot in terms of player alignment roleplaying choices.  There are only a small handful of times when being "evil" causes a storyline to change significantly (mostly in the form of your allies leaving the party), and there is very little benefit to choosing an evil character.  A few quests may yield useful alternate rewards, but for the most part, you're just doing more harm than good to your own experience by playing an "evil" character, as letting your reputation drop too low will cause you to constantly be attacked by bounty hunters and result in much higher prices in shops.

Baldur's Gate II is a logical extension of the first in every way, proving to be a much better experience on a storytelling front but every bit as frustrating as its predecessor managed to be in a lot of ways.  Combat still requires you to exploit loopholes to win at times, the roleplaying element of the game is stronger but still not amazing, and a general lack of balance and polish leads to a game with some very uneven difficulty and a lot of save-scumming being required to succeed.  Still, the game's stronger elements shine through to make it a very entertaining experience, and in my book, still the finest game Bioware has ever created.

Developer: BioWare, Black Isle Studios, Overhaul Games
Publisher: Interplay, Atari
Platform: PC, iOS, OSX, Android, Linux, Switch
Released: 2000, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2019
Recommended version: The 2013+ update (dubbed "Enhanced Edition") makes some quality of life improvements like widescreen resolution support and a much-improved AI, as well as programmable party AI and some enhancements like new characters, quests and kits to play as, which only adds more depth and replayability to a game already swimming in it.  It also includes an alternate story mode (The Black Pits II), the original expansion and bonus disc content packed in, making it a definitive release.

Tags: CRPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, ATB-Like, Random Encounters, Voluminous Side Content, Save Anywhere, Mid-Length Campaign, Downloadable Content (Meh), Bugs and Glitches

Saturday, November 23, 2019


Developed by Westwood and released by SSI not long after Pool of Radiance made a big splash, Hillsfar tried to go for a more arcadey role-playing experience.  But did it succeed in doing so, or is this a poor attempt to mesh RPG elements into an action format?

With the advent of the NES and the runaway success of Zelda, RPGs proved they could successfully work in a more action-oriented design, providing just as much depth and storytelling potential as any slower, menu-driven experience.  In the years that followed, numerous other games would attempt to mesh action elements into RPGs with varying degrees of success, and a lot of them would become groundbreaking classics in their own right.

One of the earliest attempts I can think of at combining action and RPG elements on home computers was Hillsfar.  While it does retain some elements of its Dungeons and Dragons roots (you get to create a character and select their class, and your choice determines what guild hall you accept quests from throughout), the game for the most part does its own thing, being a largely open-ended adventure reminiscent of a very early Elder Scrolls.  Indeed, between missions you're allowed to basically do whatever you like - fight in the arena, practice archery, visit bars, visit areas outside of town or break into buildings to search for gold and items.

That all sounds awesome on paper, but unfortunately Hillsfar isn't nearly as captivating as one might expect from that description.  It does make a strong first impression with its detailed graphics and smooth animations (particularly as computers of the time weren't exactly known for such), but the gameplay itself is relatively basic, being primarily comprised of a handful of simple minigames.  Combat takes place only within the city's arena and has the player block and attack with keys on the numpad (three each for left, right and "special" maneuvers).  Customers in bars and random townspeople on the street will occasionally dispense clues for particular opponents, though I generally had more luck just mashing left and right attacks constantly than trying to employ any kind of strategy.  Horseback riding is equally simple, having the character run down a short path leaping obstacles or blowing them away with "Wands of Blasting"; each fall will cost them some HP and may injure or kill their horse, which they will then have to pay to replace.  Archery is a little more involved (though it requires a frustrating amount of precision), getting tougher as the game progresses with swinging and vanishing targets that award more points, as well as the ability to shoot a rat or bird instead of the target for bonuses, earning you some gold if you manage to rank on the scoreboard.  Probably the most inspired of these is the lock-picking minigame, used to break into buildings and the chests therein - you get a selection of eleven lockpicks (each with two shape patterns) and have to match 3 or more of them to the locks' tumblers before time runs out.  Messing up too many times will break your picks (requiring you to pay to repair or replace them) and tumblers will frequently "jam", which just wastes time as you have to use the right pick on it multiple times to force it open.  Still, it conveys an effective sense of tension and puzzle-solving and is actually a bit of fun for a short while, though before long I started forcing locks open with Strength and using Knock Rings for particularly stubborn ones as it was much more expedient to do so.

By far the most common mini-game is entering various areas to search for chests and items - whether breaking into buildings and houses or simply burgling sewers and a handful of areas outside town.  These are somewhat randomly-generated mazes full of chests and traps, and you're given a short time limit to go searching for your objective or loot chests for money.  Once your time hits about 1/3 of the total, the exit appears in a random place and you must get to it to escape.  Being touched by a guard causes your time to drain faster, and if they make contact while your time is at zero, you get booted out and the guards take any money you've collected (and may force you into an arena battle).  However, you can find randomly-placed scrolls to temporarily stun the guards and slip past them, which can buy you a few extra seconds to escape.  Again, this is fun for a bit, but disappointingly shallow - NPCs seen in the buildings pose no hindrance to you whatsoever (in fact, you can't interact with them in any way), the only traps that exist are "sleep traps" that knock you out for a few seconds or teleport traps that send you to a random location, and there simply isn't much to it beyond that (aside from occasionally having to locate a hidden passage in a wall as part of a quest).

More problematic is the fact that the numerous minigames throughout Hillsfar are not really tailored to your choice of class at all.  Regardless of who you're playing as, you'll probably end up doing all of these tasks at some point as part of your questline, often multiple times.  Clerics and Magic-users don't get any unique minigames at all; in fact, they don't even get to cast spells outside of doing tricks at taverns, which is pretty disappointing.  There are also very few weapons and no armor to find; most that you do use are simply provided for a particular quest or minigame and then taken away immediately after.  If you pick any non-Thief class, you'll still have to do a lot of breaking and entering even though you don't have lockpicks - meaning you'll either have to spend tons of money on Knock Rings, force every lock or hire an NPC thief who takes half the gold you find as a fee.

Beyond the questlines for each guild, there really isn't a lot to do either.  As mentioned, it's fun for a bit to challenge yourself with arena combat or archery or plundering random houses, but there is very little variety in what you can find, and the few items there are only exist to aid you in further minigame sessions.  Interactions with townspeople are minimal, primarily consisting of bar events (few of which serve any real purpose) and random encounters where they will sell you clues, healing potions or Knock Rings for a bit of gold.  There's just a staggering lack of variety overall, which is more than a little disappointing for D&D-based RPG, let alone an action game.

So why does the game exist if not to tell a good story or at least provide some engaging gameplay?  Well, that's the interesting part.  Your character does still gain experience and levels through arena battles and completing the various tasks set before them, and Hillsfar is compatible with two of the Gold Box games (Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds), letting you import your characters from those games into this one and export them back out.  Essentially, it's a way to let you power up your characters a bit more, either because you've run out of substantial quests to do in Pool or you want to gain a bit more experience and HP before starting up Curse.  It's basically what would be a handful of mini-games or short sub-missions in a modern game, except that back in its day it was a full-priced, boxed piece of software in its own right.  Ouch.

Hillsfar was at least a relatively ambitious game for its time period, attempting to introduce some mini-games and action elements to create a unique, less dice-oriented Dungeons and Dragons experience.  But with only four barely-passable questlines, a lack of substantial RPG elements beneath the hood and very little variety in what it does have to offer, it gets tiresome to play rather quickly.  Even the developers seemingly knew this, as once you get some skill at the various minigames you can go through an entire questline in only a couple of hours and then move on to something else.  So while it may not be especially good, Hillsfar is at least aware of its shortcomings, being built as a brief experience that doesn't overstay its welcome.  If you want to gain some extra experience and a little more HP for your Pool of Radiance/Curse of the Azure Bonds characters this is a less tedious alternative to farming random encounters in those games, but only to a point.  Hillsfar may also be worth a look on its own merits as an interesting experiment and because it has some nice visuals for its time, but if you're looking for a more substantial minigame-driven RPG experience, you have plenty of better options.

Developer: Westwood Associates, Crosstalk
Publisher: Strategic Simulations, US Gold, Pony Canyon, FCI
Released: 1989, 1993
Platform: Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, DOS, NES
Recommended Version: The NES version is a lackluster port overall, having less-detailed and muddier graphics, awkwardly stiff movement and speeding up the time limit for the lock-picking minigame, making it significantly harder.  This version also lacks any ability to import or export characters (to say nothing of the fact that Curse of the Azure Bonds never had a console release at all), making playing it at all rather pointless.  The most easily-found version now is the DOS version available through GOG, which is also compatible with the Gold Box games on the same platform, so that's the one I'd suggest playing.

Tags: Action RPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Mechanical Minigames, Dungeon Crawler, Randomized Content, Multiple Story Paths, Grindfest, Save Only at Checkpoints, Very Short Campaign

Monday, November 18, 2019

Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land

One of many original games released under the Wizardry label by a Japanese company but one of the few to get a release in the west, Tale of the Forsaken Land is what one would expect from the name - challenging first-person dungeon crawler action.  But does Racjin manage to still manage to make that format fun in the Playstation 2 era, or is this just a forgettable game made to cash in on a popular name?

Wizardry is a quintessential early computer RPG franchise - one of the very first to emulate Dungeons and Dragons in format and design, as well as feature color graphics and a party-based experience.  While it would soon be outshone by games like Ultima and the Gold Box series (mostly because its engine started to look very dated in comparison), the franchise still trucked on for over a decade, getting its final entry in 2001 with Wizardry 8.  Sir-Tech's last surviving branch dissolved not long thereafter, though, and the franchise mostly came to an end in the west.

However, the series found a very different life in Japan, with numerous spinoff games coming into existence under a variety of companies as late as 2017, very few of which were ever localized for the rest of the world.  Tale of the Forsaken Land is one of the few that was, released in 2001 by then-niche RPG publisher Atlus and developed by Racjin, a fairly unknown company that has a few cult classics to their name (probably the best-known being the Snowboard Kids games for the Nintendo 64).

From a quick glance, though, it's plain to see that the feel of the Wizardry franchise was kept alive for Tale of the Forsaken Land.  As in most of the western games, the game is primarily centered on a single dungeon, there is a hub-town that one interacts with via menus, it takes place in a first-person perspective (albeit now with 3d graphics for enemies and the dungeon itself), and even the familiar character creation elements return - the same classes, stat requirements, alignments all return here.  Basically, if you played any version of the first few Wizardry titles, you'll feel right at home here.

Other iconic elements of the franchise quickly show themselves too.  Leveling up only occurs "between adventures", IE in town, so you'll probably want to make frequent trips back to rest and power up before getting too far in.  Spells are broken up into distinct levels, which each get their own number of castings between rests, so you'll probably want to save them for when you're in particularly tough battles.  Enemies often appear in large groups, and like your own, have a front and back row, with the latter largely being out of reach unless you have ranged weapons or spells to attack them (or clear the front row first).  Enemies will often kill a character in only a few hits, making upgrading armor and shields frequently to get more defense and evasion a key part of strategy.  One can also freely change classes between ones they have the stats and alignment requirements for, with a few more powerful ones (Ninja, Samurai and Knight) having particularly high requirements, but a strong combination of abilities.  And of course, a big part of the game is finding unidentified items that may be magical or otherwise rare/expensive, taking them back to the shop for appraisal, and then selling or equipping them accordingly.  They seem to spawn randomly on any given floor, too, so retreading dungeon floors in search of more loot is often a worthwhile endeavor.

Tale of the Forsaken Land does quickly take steps to make itself distinct, though.  Technology for those old floppy disk based games didn't allow for a huge amount of storytelling within the game itself, but being a PS2 game, that's obviously not a problem anymore.  To that end, there is a running storyline throughout Tale of the Forsaken Land, with a lot of characters to meet and recruit and side-quests to undertake along the way (often going hand-in-hand with one another).  In addition to joining you for quests, characters do have distinct personality traits, and staying on their good side is often necessary to keep them in the party; some will get angry with you if you battle friendly enemies, for example, while others hate particular enemy types and will like you more if you kill a lot of them.  This also quickly ties into a major mechanic called "Allied Actions", which are parties your group can collectively take once their trust in each other is high enough.  These include things like Double Slash (two allies attack a single enemy in tandem, getting a bonus to accuracy and damage), Hold Attack (one character immobilizes an enemy while the other hits them - great for enemies with high evasion) or Warp Attack (removes the entire front row from the fight for a turn, causing any attacks targeted at them to miss).  A lot of these aren't particularly great, but some prove to be extremely powerful and are well worth getting.

Something else new is the spell system, which is a bit of an odd beast but adds quite a lot of depth to the game.  One can find stones within the dungeon that teach spells or, if they already have that spell, upgrade it to make it more effective.  Enemies frequently drop items that can be used in their own right to recover HP, cure status effects or deal damage, but oftentimes these can be taken back to the shop in town to craft new spell stones or Vellums.  Vellums are essentially rarer and more powerful spells, often requiring you to find a recipe and then craft them from three (often rare) components.  They tend to be quite good, though, so it's often worth the effort it takes to track them down.  If you're finding a lot of a particular stone, you can also disassemble it back into its base components to craft something else if you wish, so this does end up being a pretty big component of the game's strategy in the long run.

Some elements of the game's design are also relatively strange for first person dungeon crawlers of this type.  One thing that surprised me is that encounters are actually visible in the dungeon - enemies appear as a hazy outline that you can evade or outmaneuver if you don't wish to fight at that time.  I was somewhat surprised to find that opening chests isn't solely for the thief class, either, instead being governed by a minigame where you have a few seconds to push a sequence of buttons; in fact, I started the game as a Cleric and got a personality trait related to successfully unlocking chests, so I was a little surprised at that. Thieves do still play an important role in disarming traps, though, so you'll still want to have a thief (or Ninja) around for that purpose.

For an early PS2 game running off a CD, TotFL has quite a distinct aesthetic too.  While the dungeons and enemies are in 3D, the game does make use of detailed 2D sprites for story characters and cutscenes, and they all work well with the game's dark setting and overall bleak mood.  Music fits in with this too, keeping the mood dark and foreboding, yet urging you to move on to uncover the story's mysteries.  The translation in the game is somewhat clunky, but it works well enough and never becomes distracting, so I didn't mind it too much.

So, does Tale of the Forsaken Land live up to the legacy of the Wizardry series?  I certainly think so.  It maintains the challenge and dungeon-oriented elements of the franchise while working in some components of Japanese RPGs as well, emphasizing characters and storytelling as a key part of the experience.  Both components are balanced quite well, presenting a game with a lot of depth and challenge and a good narrative to keep the player motivated even when it can be frustrating to make progress at times.  It may not be the Playstation 2's most highly-regarded RPG, but I certainly think it's one worth a look for any serious fan of the genre.

Developer: Racjin
Publisher: Atlus
Released: 2001
Platform: Playstation 2
Recommended Version: N/A
Tags: CRPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Random Encounters, Dungeon Crawler, Grindfest, Crafting System, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Great Music