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Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Divinity: Original Sin II

A sequel to the acclaimed and very successful Divinity: Original Sin, which promised to up the stakes and polish up many of the shortcomings of the original game.  But does Original Sin 2 follow up on these promises, or does it simply prove to be another underwhelming Divinity game?

Divinity is a franchise that's been around for some time, though to be honest, I never really cared much about it; all of its games just seemed to be average-to-crappy knockoffs of other popular RPGs, and given the middling reviews most of them have gotten, I'm probably not too far off in that assessment.  Divinity: Original Sin was the big breakout title for the series, but it didn't really hook me either - while it had some interesting and relatively unique gameplay features, but it also featured a sluggish and clunky UI that was no fun to use at all, dragging pacing, really painful writing and acting and far too frequent and slow combat, all of which contributed to taking me out of it pretty quickly.

So, as you can imagine, it took me a good while before I worked up the gumption to play its followup.  Released three years after the original, Original Sin II once again saw a highly successful crowdfunding campaign that raised over $2 million, and the developers seemed intent to take fan criticisms of the original into account to make a much more refined and entertaining game this time around.  They certainly succeeded in that regard, and it's evident right away - the game's engine and UI are much more crisp and responsive, the overall pace of combat and exploration is greatly tightened up, and the writing is much better, discarding the original game's distracting stiffness and having a far more natural tone to its prose and acting.  The dumb "two characters arguing with each other to boost stats" and rock-paper-scissors argument mechanics are completely discarded in favor of dialogs having a more Baldur's Gate-esque list of choices, with more options unlocking depending upon your character's race, profession, background traits and skills.  In addition, you have a choice of several pre-fabricated characters with unique character traits and backgrounds that add more story threads and dialog choices, or you can create your own character, which lacks these unique elements but grants you a greater degree of fine-tuned customization - a nice balance between classic CRPG character building and having a more narrative-driven experience as many more modern games are wont to do.  Custom characters also aren't totally left out in the cold, as they get a unique combat action (Dome of Protection) not available to prefabs.

There are certainly no shortage of options to pick from when building your character, prefab or custom.  There are four races to choose from (Human, Elf, Dwarf and Lizard), as well as undead variants of all four who are healed by poison but take damage from normal healing spells and potions.  As mentioned, each race has slightly different starting skills and bonuses (whether resistance to elements or bonuses to skills), as well as a single ability unique to their race.  Elves get the most interesting one of these from a storytelling perspective, gaining the ability to eat body parts of slain characters (enemy or otherwise) to view their memories and get information others cannot access.  Another nice thing is that other characters you recruit during the game are also not fixed - once recruited, you can tweak their starting skills via dialog options, tweaking their starting skills more toward a particular play style so you don't end up with a redundant party member.

There is quite a lot to tweak for your character's stats, broken up into four major categories.  Attributes are your basic stats, determining what your characters can equip, what abilities they can use and granting bonuses when wielding certain weapon types.  Combat Abilities govern bonuses with different types of weapons, though there is notably no individual skill for swords, maces, bows, et cetera - instead, they fall under the umbrellas of one-handed, two-handed, ranged or dual-wielded weapons (and yes, you can stack one-handed and dual-wield bonuses if you go that route).  Defensive abilities also exist, and will grant passive bonuses; Leadership grants a small boost to all allies' stats when that characters is within five meters of them, Perseverance will restore some Armor after being hit with certain status effects, and Retribution will reflect a small amount of damage back to your attacker, with the effect going up each level.  Skills govern your various spells and abilities, from elemental magic to necromancy to polymorphing to "Scoundrel" skills like backstabbing or knocking enemies out for a turn with chloroform.  Finally, there are Talents - these act somewhat like Perks from the Fallout games, granting you unique abilities that and unlock options you wouldn't see otherwise and can significantly change the way you play through the game.  A few of these include Comeback Kid (reviving once per fight with 20% health if you die), Executioner (getting some extra action points if you kill an enemy once per turn), Far Out Boy (getting more range with all of your spells), Lone Wolf (giving yourself a major stat boost if you're going it alone, which makes solo runs through the game significantly more viable), and my personal favorite, Pet Pal, which enables you to  talk to animals, unlocking a wide variety of amusing dialog snippets and even a questline or two.  There's a lot to experiment with, and the non-penalizing nature of the game's design ensures that it's pretty hard to stick yourself with a master-of-none and make the later stages of the game unnecessarily difficult.  Every major quest also has numerous different ways to complete it, allowing you some roleplaying opportunities and alternative ways to get the job done even if you do something like, say, accidentally sell/misplace a necessary item.

The much-touted combat of the first Original Sin returns here, and like the rest of the game, it keeps everything that worked while casting out everything that didn't.  First and most notable is the fact that combat is used much more sparingly this time, making every fight feel like an event and not just like filler included solely to waste your time and hit some dumb publisher-mandated length quota.  You have very granular control over your movement and aiming - if you can't hit an enemy's body with a thrown dagger or a spell, you might be able to barely target one of their limbs or the tip of their snout instead and still get that hit in.  Controlling the field itself plays a major part too - nearly every fight has you tossing around oil, poison, fire, ice and water in various combinations, trying to get your enemies in the thick of it and minimizing the effects on your own characters.   Oil and poison are also flammable, so you can easily dip your enemy in one, then set them ablaze to deal even more damage (though they can also do the same to you, of course).  Fire can also be extinguished, creating steam clouds that obscure vision and effectively block ranged attacks.  Setting up traps then teleporting enemies into them, dropping environmental objects like barrels or heavy chests on enemies for heavy damage, climbing up on ledges to get bonus damage with ranged shots.  The possibilities really do feel endless, and the fact that the game rewards creativity (and has a well-designed enough engine to grant you the ability to think laterally like this) really makes it a joy to experiment with.  That certainly doesn't end once the fight is over, either, as you can use nearly all of your spells out of battles too, letting you find hidden secrets, move traps aside and reach areas you can't simply stumble into.

To put it simply, Divinity: Original Sin II is a triumph, succeeding not just where it's predecessors fell short, but where virtually every western RPG of the last twenty years has too.  Like many western RPGs it's clearly built on the model of tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons, but it's closest I've ever seen to offering the same degree of freedom and flexibility as one of those.  There are no readily evident prefab solutions to any problem you face, and you're given enough freedom to to think outside the box when exploring and improvise tactics on the fly in combat, making it extremely rewarding to play.  The sheer amount of options you're given to customize your characters and interact with the world at large are nothing short of staggering, giving it tons of replay value on top.  Your actions over the course of the story significantly change the way events play out, your character, prefab or custom, still feels like they're an actual living part of the world you're in, and the game manages to have a surprisingly good sense of humor about itself without ever undermining the gravity of its story (or going too far in the other direction and coming off as stiff and pretentious).  Hell, if you want to take it a step further, you can also play online with friends, and one of them can even play as the "Game Master", subtly tweaking things behind the scenes to make the game as easy or difficult as they want it to be.  I fully admit I was skeptical, but after having played it, I say without hesitation that it's easily the best CRPG I've played since their golden age in the '90s and early 2000's, standing on the same level as classics like Ultima, Fallout, Baldur's Gate II, Planescape: Torment, Morrowind, Deus Ex and System Shock 2.  I can't recommend it enough.

Developer: Larian Studios
Publisher: Larian Studios, Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platform: PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One, macOS, Switch, iPad
Released: 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021
Recommended version: As ever, I recommend the PC version if you have the specs for it; not only does it flow perfectly with a mouse-and-keyboard setup, but it supports modding via Steam Workshop, letting you tweak the game to your tastes and add even more fun and longevity to an already incredibly deep experience.  

Tags: CRPG, Strategy RPG, Fantasy, Freeform/Customizable Characters, Brutal Violence, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Collection-Fest, Crafting System, Multiple Story Paths, Voluminous Side Content, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Anywhere, Long Campaign, Downloadable Content (Great), Humorous

Monday, July 5, 2021


Ikenfell is an indie RPG seemingly inspired by games like EarthBound and Undertale, trying to win players over with some sincere charm in its writing and visuals while retaining overall familiar gameplay and design.  But does Ikenfell succeed in this endeavor, or is it simply a derivative and forgettable experience?

There have been many success stories of indie games in recent years, some even rivaling (or surpassing) big-budget AAA titles with million dollars in terms of acclaim and quality.  Undertale is one of the more prominent examples; despite its relatively low budget and comparatively low production value, it was nominated for awards in numerous prominent game shows and continues, drew a lot of favorable comparison to its main inspiration (the SNES cult classic EarthBound) to be a strong-selling, highly acclaimed title today.

Ikenfell is a game that seems to be built on that same model, utilizing a fairly simplistic, colorful comic strip style of art and animation.  A common thing for indie games to be sure, and the low-resolution style is easy to dismiss as being overused and derivative, but I honestly found it charming; the animation is fluid and the characters are surprisingly expressive given the low resolution of their sprites, and they all sport quite a few frames of animation more than games of similar style from the 16-bit RPGs, so they feel familiar, yet fresh at the same time.  The game's music is quite high-quality as well; little surprise considering they got Aivi & Surasshu (best known for composing the soundtrack to the animated TV series "Steven Universe") on board to compose it, giving the game atmosphere in spades and even a few surprisingly well-performed vocal tracks ("Paint the Future" in particular is fantastic).

Gameplay draws a lot of inspiration from games of the era as well, most particularly games like Super Mario RPG and the Mario and Luigi franchise, incorporating minigames into the combat experience.  Basically, every attack you have deals additional damage if you time a button press right as the move impacts; getting it close will get you a "Nice!" and deal extra damage, while getting it perfect will earn a "Great!" and deal even more.  Similarly, enemy attacks can have their damage reduced (and status effect infliction negated) by timing a button press in similar fashion as it connects with your character.  Late in the game, mastering the timing of hits and blocks is essential - unblocked attacks start to rack up major damage, and whittling through enemies' high HP becomes an arduous task if you don't have the timings down by then.  The execution isn't always perfect on this, though - the timing on some moves isn't always clear, and even when I seemed to time a button press perfectly I would sometimes still only get a "nice" or even an outright miss; fortunately, if you're not a fan of this type of design or simply can't get used to it, you do have the option to disable the timed press requirements in the menu.

Ikenfell adds a new layer of depth to the Mario RPG format, though, by also working in some light tactical RPG elements.  Combat takes place on a wide grid (3x12) and each characters' spells are only able to target tiles within specific ranges, so positioning your characters carefully to deal damage, stay out of enemy attack range and within reach of one another's healing abilities is another major component of the game's strategy. One can also set traps on panels to harm foes, set up decoys to impede enemy movement and draw attacks, and knock targets around with certain moves (potentially pushing them into traps or one another for extra damage), so it encourages some creativity on the player's part to deal extra damage.  It's nowhere near as deep as something like, say, Divinity Original Sin II or Final Fantasy Tactics, but it's a nice changeup and certainly adds another layer of planning to what would otherwise be a fairly simplistic combat system.

Like its primary inspirations, though, Ikenfell's gameplay is solid for the most part, but not the game's primary focus.  The main emphasis here is on its characters and writing, and it succeeds handily there, bringing forth quite a lot of funny dialog but also some surprisingly complex characters, and seeing the way they interact and their relationships with one another forms the heart of the experience.  Ikenfell takes a bolder step than most, though, as most if not all of the central cast falls under the LGBTQ+ umbrella; this does get played for humor with one prominent character (Gilda, the rival character who also has an enormous crush on Maritte), but for the most part it's played far more realistically than in any other game I've played, never feeling like cheap pandering or falling into stereotype territory; their identification as gay, nonbinary or asexual is just one facet of their personalities, and by and large has very little bearing on who they are or how they interact with people.  Because of that, their inclusion feels like it comes from a genuine place, rather than just feeling shoehorned in at the demand of a marketing committee to boost sales and have a cheap way to write off any legitimate criticism of their game as being the work of "hateful bigots".  Not to mention that most multi-billion dollar companies that do this sort of thing generally only do because their highly conservative board of directors just want to use that extra fame and revenue to give themselves some sweet salary bonuses to throw at the next election and whatever anti-union/living wage/healthcare/social improvement/LGBT+ measures are on the ballot, so people who take their minimum-effort "Pro-LGBT" statements at face value are easy marks at best and unpaid sycophants at worst.

In short, Ikenfell definitely draws inspiration from old 16-bit RPGs in its aesthetics and mechanics, but does much to set itself apart as well, building upon its familiar gameplay with strongly written characters and sharing their experience through a simple story with a complex web of character relationships.  It may not be flawless or the most groundbreaking of games, but it never pretends to be, either - it's clearly a work of passion from a few indie developers who wanted to tell a fun story while entertaining you with familiar, yet creatively remixed gameplay, a high level of polish and a reasonable runtime, and that gives it way more mileage with me than some overstuffed AAA release that takes itself way too damn seriously while giving you nothing to see or do that's actually entertaining (but which has plenty of fanboys and paid viral marketers who insist that its uninventive, disingenuous 'message' is too important to not slog through 90+ hours of tedious busywork and $85 of DLC for). So, for being a well-made and entertaining passion project, yet humble enough that it doesn't have to stop every 8 seconds to milk every last brownie point out of its woke element in pursuit of superficial accolades, I say Ikenfell is very much worthy of a purchase.

Developer: Happy Ray Games
Publisher: Humble Games
Platform: PC, MacOS, PS4, Switch, XBox One
Released: 2020
Recommended version: All versions are more or less the same as far as I can tell.

Tags: Western JRPG, Fantasy, Prefab Characters, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Combat Minigames, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Great Music, Humorous

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead

An open-source roguelike and simulation game forked from an earlier release called "Cataclysm", Dark Days Ahead, like many in the genre, is a deep but ruthlessly punishing experience. But is there a lot to like once you get past its overly complex UI and opaque design, or is this one Cataclysm you don't want to experience? 

Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead is one that's gotten a fair bit of attention among PC indie gamers; not as much as something like, say, Dwarf Fortress, though it is compared to that at times owing to its relatively realistic design and detailed world generation.  It actually started out much smaller in scale as a zombie apocalypse rougelike simply titled "Cataclysm", though it was abandoned around 2010.  However, the source code was released and fans continued the game, expanding its scale and scope considerably and rebranding it "Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead".  It continues to get fan mods and updates to this day as well, with new nightly builds, so its fanbase is certainly dedicated.

The concept remains the same at its core as the earliest version of Cataclysm, being set in a near-future New England after an apocalypse.  You don't encounter just zombies, though - just about everything that can go wrong has in this world.  Triffids, Lovecraftian monsters, rampaging robots, cyborgs and mutants, giant insects and other hazards roam rampant.  And yes, there is also a mod that adds murderous animatronics to the game, not dissimilar to another popular indie series.

The game begins with the player generating a world to explore.  The world actually remains persistent across games, keeping one's settings for weather, seasons, and even keeping track of major changes made to the scenery; burnt down trees and destroyed buildings will stay as such.  In fact, they will continue to persist across numerous playthroughs, only resetting once every non-monster character in the world is dead.  A few things remain fairly consistent, though - large stretches of country roads and woods, cities that tend to be packed to the brim with undead, illegal bio-labs where mutations and bionics are found, and bunkers full of survivors or crazed cyborgs or paramilitary groups which tend to shoot you dead upon approach (but if you're good enough to raid them and survive, well, you're set for a good, long time).

Character generation is very in-depth as well; though there are only four base stats you can alter directly (Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence and Perception), they all factor into various skills and tasks in a number of ways.  Strength of course gives you more melee damage, but also makes you more resistant to diseases and poison and grants greater carry weight and more hit points.  Desterity factors into hitting with attacks both at range and afar, Intelligence boosts your learning and reading rates and how well you can craft items, install bionics and interact with NPCs, and Perception is used to detect traps and useful items.  In addition, you can pick a number of traits that grant your character positive and negative effects, with the former subtracting from your pool of available points and the latter giving you more points to spend.  These include things like Addiction Resistant (making it harder to become addicted to drugs, and to shake off addictions), Bookworm (improving your morale more when reading) and Light Step (reducing your chance to trigger traps).  Negative effects include Animal Discord (animals generally either avoid or attack you), Flimsy (lowering your max HP and healing rate) and Insomniac (makes falling asleep much more difficult).  This gives you quite a lot of leeway for roleplaying, but those who are into min-maxing can just pick positive ones that will maximize beneficial effects and a bunch of minimally-hindering negative ones to effectively get some free points.

Finally, there are skills, which cover just about everything you can do in the game.  From bartering to using computers to building to driving to patching up injuries to swimming to fighting (whether with guns, melee weapons or barehanded).  You can tweak these to a degree at the start, but for the most part, you'll improve by practicing with them in-game.  Wielding weapons, making attempts at crafting stuff, reading books, driving around, et cetera will slowly improve your proficiency with it, and, if you have the Skill Rust option enabled, not using them for a period of time will cause them to slowly decay again.  One can also choose to disable progression on a skill willingly - more useful than it sounds, as after a certain point there ceases to be any noticeable difference in performance, and continuing to actively train it at that point will simply drain your Focus more quickly.

Unlike most roguelikes, however, there isn't a defined goal in Cataclysm DDA; instead, the focus is on day-to-day survival.  Finding food, water and shelter are your primary concerns, and avoiding combat whenever possible is usually a better option to fighting; moreso early on, when you have a relatively weak character and most enemies can easily overpower you.  Just staying alive a single day is often a monumental task as well - one wrong step can put you in the thick of a group of zombies or aggro an angry cyborg or get you attacked by psychotic militants, and well, that's usually it.  On the other hand, if you pick your battles, try to make friends by completing quests or trading items with them and get reasonably good with crafting and butchery to make the most of any materials you scavenge, you can slowly work your way up.  Keep in mind you're in it for the long haul, and things will usually go smoother.  As long as you don't get eaten by zombies or mauled by a stray cyborg on day one, of course.

Speaking of cyborgs, one can scavenge and install bionics with a variety of purposes - from built-in armor to surgical tools for more efficient butchering to built-in weaponry, or even odder ones like draining heat from enemies you strike in combat to deal extra damage and charge your batteries.  Fun stuff, but they do require access to an autodoc and come with a chance of installation failure, which can cause pain, injuries, malfunctions or even death.  Some start scenarios also have you begin with some bionics installed - both functioning and malfunctioning, which adds another degree of fun or frustration depending on your preferences.

Mutations come into play too, giving your player various passive traits if they come into contact with mutagens or consume mutated body parts.  These usually follow the traits of various animals - taking on fish characteristics naturally make you better at swimming, but also more averse to staying in a single place for long (and you smell worse).  Beast mutations make you stronger, faster and more resistant to harm, but animals become hostile to you and you're required to eat food (meat in particular) much more frequently.  Most mutations can be undone, but particularly severe ones may be permanent, forcing you to change up how you play from that point on.

Vehicles are another much-talked about element of Cataclysm DDA, and for good reason - they're a lot of fun.  From humble bicycles to semi-trucks to school buses and RVs, there are a lot of them to find, repair and use (and yes, you can hotwire them; you will have to more often than not).  In addition, one can modify them in a variety of ways, including installing multiple engines, modifying them to run on different types of fuel (gasoline, diesel, electric or even solar power), and even install robotics to control them remotely.  Hell, you can even make some vehicles aquatic by installing boat hulls on them and cross bodies of water.  It's about the only game I've ever seen where you can make something close to the vehicles from Mad Max: Fury Road, and that's just plain awesome.

There's a lot of really fun stuff to do in Cataclysm, but before you can get there, learning a few of the more mundane skills the game has to offer will pay off in spades.  Farming is a relatively inexpensive but effective way to keep your food supply steady for much of the year, crafting crude tools (like crowbars and slings) from raw materials will give you an easy way to reach areas you otherwise couldn't or let you carry much more capacity, and learning to bandage and disinfect wounds and treat various diseases you may encounter will greatly affect your long-term survivability.  Cooking too, as uncooked meat can potentially infect you with parasites and cause debilitating effects.  Managing morale is important as well - if you're down and depressed you won't be good at much of anything, so things like finding books to read, having a good meal once in a while, listening to music, or (in a pinch) popping some drugs will all help you there.  As with anything, you have to learn to walk before you can fly.

Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead is compared to Dwarf Fortress in a lot of respects, and it makes sense - both feature minimalistic aesthetics, extremely intricate mechanics and overly opaque interfaces that all but require you to regularly consult their respective wikis, not to mention a high degree of challenge and ultimately being built around inevitable failure rather than an uphill battle for success.  Still, the sheer amount of content and freedom the player is afforded is downright staggering, and being able to build up a small band of survivors/fleet of vehicles/army of mutants and cyborgs is a ton of fun - if you can manage to survive long enough to get there.  You can also make it as easy or as punishing as you like via in-game options, so if you want, you can pump up your starting point pool to give yourself an advantage or take a really difficult start with a bunch of disadvantages and see if you can last more than an hour, let alone a day or more.  There are hundreds of games which describe themselves as "open world" or "sandbox" experiences, but very few of them let you experience true openness, variety and freedom the way Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead does.

Developer: Kevin Granade (and the Cataclysm community)
Publisher: Kevin Granade
Platform: PC, OS X, Linux, Android
Released: 2013+
Recommended Version:  The official releases are all nearly identical as far as I can tell, though if you're going to play on a mobile device, I do recommend a USB or Bluetooth keyboard; the touch-screen controls are very unwieldy to use with this type of game.

Tags: CRPG, Roguelike, Science Fiction, Freeform Chracters, Brutal Violence, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Randomized Content, Collection-Fest, Crafting System, Adjustable Difficulty, Save Anywhere, Automatic Saves