Vive le roi

After three years and over 400 hours, I’ve finally finished Pathfinder: Kingmaker.

Good god, but this game really brings to the fore the colonialist and imperialist roots of the standard Dungeons and Dragons setting. “Exterminate native peoples so we can seize their land and resources for ourselves” is the explicit goal of the game, after all. Much easier to ignore this subtext in a typical adventure campaign since most players players are at the “exterminate” part of the equation and the colonizing thing is usually just implied in the background.

Anyway, the goddamn final dungeon in Kingmaker is bullshit. The thing about teleporting between different versions of the dungeon sounds neat but in practice is annoying. The fights are also hard but in a grindy way, not a fun way. And there’s another quest after this dungeon if you want to fight the real mastermind behind your troubles, and that bit is a little better. I may go back to see what happens if I max out upgrading everything in my kingdom and just use a cheat to go through the boss fights.

However, I don’t really replay this kind of RPG so this is pretty much it. My kingdom is ruled by a lesbian tiefling queen with her tiefling consort, with an army full of mercenary wizards. I feel like the ending presentation could have used a little more flair, but I got a lot of game out of that $35 I spent so I’m satisfied.

I’ve bought the semi-sequel Wrath of the Righteous but I’m not about to immediately jump into it, especially since I hear there’s another set of DLC that’s coming soon. Hopefully Owlcat Games has improved the annoying stuff from the first game. Incidentally, isn’t the studio in Russia? I wonder how they get paid what with all the Ukraine war sanctions.

Mecha war

I am currently playing 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim and you know what? It’s so goddamn fun.

The thing that most impresses me about the game is that it does so much with so little. Your dumb AAA game will use a jillion teraflops to simulate the hairs on an NPC’s ass and put in so much work on stuff that doesn’t really add to the gameplay experience. But this game has the opposite philosophy: it pares down everything to the bare bones, which means at the mechanical level it’s actually a very simple game. However, it uses its very spare depiction of its world to make it feel like we’re playing in a much larger universe.

The game is about a group of high school kids who fight an invasion of kaiju by piloting massive human-shaped robots. You play the game in two different modes that you can switch between: a battle mode and a story mode.

Screenshot showing a simplified top-down map of a city with unlabeled icons and various information boxes overlaid on the map. At the top of the screen are six character portraits giving various statistics and in the middle are a list of various weapons: Rapid Cannons, Long-Range Missiles, Heavy Railgun, Stun Knuckles. At the bottom of the screen is a description of the effects and damage output of the Rapid Cannon and on the right of the screen is an illustration of a giant bipedal humanoid robot.

The battle mode is set during the climactic showdown between the kaiju and the robots. You pick six pilots and slowly fight through each phase of the invasion on a real-time strategy map. You can also switch your team’s lineup, upgrade weapons, pick abilities to use, and do general RPG stuff.

This part of the game is decent enough. There are little animations that play when you try to decide what weapons or abilities to use, but as you can see from the image above, the map itself is very simplified. I don’t hate the existing battle mode that we got, and even enjoy the fights, but with the addition of a little more flash, the play experience could have been upgraded for me from “fun” to “ecstatic.”

I want to see mechs wrestling monsters while around them a city gets blasted to smithereens. I want to see my giant robot get knocked through a building and then take cover in a crater formed by a missile bombardment. I want to feel like I’m in a giant robot anime, by damn!

Screenshot showing the hallway of a typical Japanese high school. In the background are two male students carrying some boxes and another male student walking in front of them. At the centre of the screen are three high school girls in uniform, with one wearing glasses and black leggings, and another dressed in a perfect and by the rules uniform. The last girl stands out for wearing a completely different black uniform and standing confidently arms akimbo. Over her is displayed the sentence, "Natsuno Minami's still out, huh?"

But the story mode delivers – oh, how it delivers. It’s what you should be playing the game for. The story mode is essentially a really simplified adventure game. You play through the recent past of each of the characters and discover the twists that their lives took which led to them piloting a giant robot on the day of reckoning.

The actual game thing that you do is essentially just pressing X. Your character is at a certain location and there are one or two people you can talk to and one or two objects that you can interact with. You progress through the dialogue and try out each conversation topic. Then you move on to the next location and keep doing that until you reach the end of the section you’re playing and decide if you want to continue with your current character or try someone else for a while (or maybe jump back into battle mode).

That’s how the story mode works, but that’s not how it feels. It evokes so much for so little. For me, it’s basically the world’s best anime protagonist simulator. I’m not a connoisseur of visual novels or dating simulators, but I’ve played a few, and in none of them did I feel like I was actually a student in a bustling Japanese high school like this game did. You walk down a hallway at school and there are other students passing you by, and in the background some of your classmates are chatting about the TV show they watched last night. You go with your friends for some ice cream after class and cars whiz by as you wait at the bus stop. Some jerks from the next school over try to start some shit and your friend steps in to back you up.

I call the story mode an anime protagonist simulator because it skips the boring parts of high school and just has the interesting bits in there. And what are those interesting bits? They’re mostly stories copied directly from science fiction movies and TV shows.

Yes, you’ll find that one character is living through the plot of E.T. the Extraterrestrial, while another is living through Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and yet another is experiencing the story of Total Recall. It’s not a simple one-to-one copy, though, and the stories make sense even if you don’t know what they’re referencing, but it’s fun to pick out what the original works were. And the characters’ lives are intertwined, so they get involved in each others’ stories, and a couple of times you even experience the same conversation again but this time you’re controlling the other person.

This game will not click for everyone, but it certainly did for me. Like I mentioned, it’s just so goddamn fun. I enjoy identifying the Robot Jox design elements and figuring out how the characters’ lives intersect with each other. I like feeling like I’m a kid in a Japanese high school anime and I’ve got an alien I need to hide from the Men in Black and also I have to stop the invasion from The War of the Worlds.

A couple of warnings, though. First, just like with many other adventure games, I got stuck a couple of times when I couldn’t figure out how to progress past a certain point. I say you shouldn’t feel guilty about just googling that shit. Keep that advice in mind if you play.

Second, and somewhat more egregiously, time travel is a very important part of the story, and since this is a Japanese story about using military weapons to fight off an invasion, there inevitably shows up two characters from Japan’s most infamous period of militarization. I guess the one guy is okay, he clearly doesn’t care about ideology and is just trying to get by, but the other guy is a true-blue patriot and he keeps shouting about defending the motherland and whatnot. Which would be okay if it was about almost any other country, but not when it’s Imperial Japan. The game isn’t a cryptofascist Trojan horse for Japanese imperialism, but this part definitely left a sour taste in my mind.

Anyway, keeping these things in mind, I would still heartily recommend this game. Like I said in the beginning, it’s great fun and I’m enjoying almost everything about it.

Mighty Joe Steel

https://youtu.be/F3fsqXx8CoM?t=14

As a young time traveler, you receive the opportunity to meet the greatest dictator of all time — Stalin. And then what? Everything’s up to you! Speak with Joseph, reveal his most hidden secrets, give him advice, and help the vozhd come to world domination! Or… show him what true love is!

. . . Huh.

Wait, what do the reviews say?

‘Sex With Stalin’ Is Surprisingly Dull

Sex With Stalin, a newly released game by the independent Russian developer Georgiy Kukhtenkov, is incredibly boring. That’s too bad, because traveling back in time to seduce Joseph Stalin is a truly depraved idea. It promises subversive heterodoxy and cutting satire. Even just taking him for a spin through rooms that are most remarkable for their leather accessories promised at least some sort of excitement. But, though the game holds itself out as a transgressive thrill, what you get instead is a PowerPoint presentation inviting you to invest in the game creator’s incoherent ideological timeshare.

Well, I think we can all trust Foreign Policy magazine’s opinion on video games.

Anyway, if I was a time traveller who wanted to have sex with Stalin, I’d obviously go for the younger and hotter version.

Stalin: handsome as a devil at 23 years old with tousled hair and short beard

Let’s cyber

Cyberpunk 2077 just came out and I’m not playing it. After reading about its iffy politics and the awful working conditions of the people who made the game, I may never end up playing it.

That’s fine. There are other games. But I’ve also never been fully comfortable with cyberpunk as a genre. Besides the orientalism and the generalized ham-handed handling of race, there’s just something about cyberpunk that never fully clicked with me.

After reading this article, though, I think I’m getting a better handle on my discomfort. I’m not into cyberpunk because it’s basically just the politics of the 1980s rehashed over and over. It’s a paleofuture: a vision of what is to come that has already been superseded by what has already come. It’s the past’s fantasy of the future and it’s as dissociated from our real lives as Buck Rogers serials with ray guns and rocket ships.

Anyway, that’s how I’m feeling this December 2020.

King of the Hill

So Pathfinder: Kingmaker is actually pretty fun. I know that there were a bunch of bugs when it launched, but it’s been two years since then and I haven’t really noticed any so far. I think I may actually like computer role-playing game more than the classic Baldur’s Gate series (minus #3, which if I ever do get, will be years down the line).

The first reason I prefer this game to both Baldur’s Gate games is that I don’t need to install mods just to get it to look decent on current generation computers. I can read the text, I can zoom all the way in and see my characters clearly. I can actually see what they’re wearing instead of kind of squinting, and I can see the difference in clothes instead of the armour just looking like a slightly different shade. This is important to me since I like playing dress-up on these kind of games.

Second is that I understand the rules right off the bat. I’ve never played the 2nd edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which is what Baldur’s Gate is based on, so I had to do a bunch of research to find out what stuff like To Hit Armor Class 0 was, and even when I did find out it was usually needlessly arcane and over-complicated. But the Pathfinder roleplaying ruleset is basically D&D 3.75 edition, so a bunch of stuff has been improved in the intervening 20-something years.

I’ve played a bunch of tabletop Pathfinder games, which also helps, but the game itself simplified the rules even more. It doesn’t have a million different types of Knowledge skills, all physical skills such as acrobatics and swimming have been subsumed under Athletics, and so on. I think all the options available can still be a tad overwhelming to a rank newbie but that’s more on the Pathfinder system itself needing, in my opinion, a really drastic streamlining and reconfiguration  (note that there’s a 2nd edition of the Pathfinder system which may have done this already but I haven’t tried it out yet).

Third is the turn-based combat. I initially stuck to real-time battles because that was how it was in Baldur’s Gate, but after trying out the turn-based fighting I’m not going back. Pathfinder in real life is obviously turn-based – six people rolling dice at the same time would get chaotic – and the CRPG just works a lot better when you follow this format as well.

Fourth is that I get to try out a campaign that I’ve been interested in for a while. Kingmaker is an adventure path in the tabletop RPG that I’ve wanted to play but haven’t found a group to do it with. This way I get to actually experience it for myself. Plus Wrath of the Righteous is already being worked on and that’s another campaign that I’d also like to try out.

I’d like to note that in Kingmaker you actually build a kingdom – you get advisors, build infrastructure like windmills and watchtowers, slay monsters threatening your land, and so on. However, I’ve yet to reach that part in the game and am just directing a party of adventurers as we explore the countryside. So I can’t comment on the kingdom-building mechanics yet, but the classic RPG party thing is already pretty good.

Anyway, I’ve got a Chaotic Neutral tiefling Inquisitor of Calistria leading a party consisting of an undead elf Inquisitor of Urgathoa, a halfling bard, a barbarian from the Realm of the Mammoth Lords, a half-elf Wizard Rogue, and a half-orc Magus. There are a bunch more party members I benched pending their full recovery from being brought back from the dead or just plain because I don’t like them, but I think I like having a party where almost everyone is a magician of some kind. This is a pretty fun party to play and I like what I’ve seen of this game so far.

Starry night

Screenshot of Stars in Shadow showing options available to the player for planetary bombardment and invasion.

Feeling a bit rough today since I haven’t got enough sleep for the last few nights thanks to staying up too late playing Stars in Shadow. Folks, this is exactly the “Master of Orion 2 with nicer graphics and User Interface” that I wanted.

I’ve tried the Galactic Civilizations games (I think I played 2 and 3) and they were definitely decent turn-based strategy in space but they were a tad complicated. I mean, I spent hours just designing space ships (I made a Klingon bird of prey once). And most of the factions in Endless Space were different kinds of humans and robots so I kind of got bored with them.

But Stars in Shadow scratches my itch. It’s exactly as complicated as it needs to be for me to fire it up for a quick game on easy mode (quick being 10 hours straight on a Sunday, apparently) and I like the colourful cartoonishness of the art style.

Bottom line? It’s fun.

To Sail Beyond the Sunset

I am a sucker for nostalgia, but I’m also a sucker for not working too hard to complete a game. As such, I’ve been playing adventures games lately and have come across two that I rather liked.

A dark figure in a hooded robe faces a set of giant stone hands rising out of the rocky ground, fingers steepled together. The tips of the fingers are also hands and some clasp together while others reach to the overcast and cloudy sky. The hands shelter in their centre a hooded statue, its face hidden in darkness and its body pierced by multiple swords. In the ground in front of the giant hands are more swords planted into the earth. in the background, rocky spires stab into the sky.

The first is Tormentum: Dark Sorrow, a dark gothic tale set in a bizarre fantasy world. It’s rather steampunk Gormenghast in aesthetics. It’s a classic point and click adventure, but it’s barely a game and the puzzles are really quite easy to solve. However, I didn’t really care because I dug the weird-ass shit I kept coming across. It’s just so dark and baroque. Most people on the ball will have long guessed the twist before the ending, but it really doesn’t matter. I completed this game before the present state of exception, but I think it should provide decent entertainment in this time that demands distraction.

Around a room are arrayed strange gadgets - a hulking and aggressive military robot, a green hovercraft, a futuristic jet engine, and various other objects. In the corner stands a woman in a black leather jacket looking at a globe. At the top of the screen is the woman's portrait, which shows she is blond and sporting an undercut, with the left side of her head cut short to a buzz while the hair on top is combed over to flop over on her right side, reaching down to her eyes. At the bottom of the screen are various icons showing the items in the character's inventory as well as icons related to unidentified game options.

The second point and click adventure game is one I’m currently playing through. It’s called Whispers of a Machine and it’s a cyberpunk story set in Norway decades – perhaps centuries – after the golden technofuture of our dreams crashed to earth in some kind of catastrophic global backlash against AI. The world is much smaller, globalization is dead, and a train journey to a small town in the middle of nowhere is a big deal.

The protagonist is a cop from the big city sent to the sticks to investigate a murder and who uncovers a conspiracy that could shake the foundations of society. Along the way she meets several colourful characters that help her in her quest for the truth.

Yeah, this is basically the plot of like 70 percent of all police dramas. Like I said, I’m not looking to think too hard, so this story is just pleasantly formulaic. The cyberpunk thing gives it a fresh coat of paint so that it feels more novel than it would be if it was just another Scandinavian noir.

The somewhat novel thing about this game as a game is its mild inclusion of RPG elements. You can choose to be empathetic, aggressive, or analytical, and each path opens up new choices and new abilities which structure the way you solve puzzles in the game.

But the game itself doesn’t stray too far from the way point and click adventure games worked in their 90s heyday. The graphics are a bit nicer, but not as nice as Tormentum, and definitely not as nice as my gold standard for graphics in 21st century adventure games – Memoria, that rich and lush visual feast.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s no specific technical limitation that demands adventure games remain pixelated as hell like they were back in the Sierra On-Line days. I understand that many developers use the program Adventure Game Studios, which in its base configuration can’t output images in very high resolution, but surely there are workarounds for this issue.

The graphics aren’t a deal-breaker, though. I find playing this game rather fun and will continue to the end. I recommend it for everyone who wants a quick and easy adventure game to get through.

La lucha sigue – The Struggle Continues

I haven’t played Fallout 76, but from what I gather, it appears that premium players and the poors are fighting each other online.

It seems that Bethesda added another tier (another class) of players that one can pay into in order to receive advantages in-game, as well as certain cosmetic benefits such as proprietary dances (emotes) that only those players can do. Regular players hate this and call it “pay to win”. Also, the premium players (called Fallout First) get a special badge that announces their exalted status to the filthy unwashed. Resentful at this gross inequity, the proletariat have responded by enacting class warfare.

I mean, holy shit but this is gold. The Twitter thread above has screenshots from the game’s Reddit community, but I’m reproducing some choice comments:

Fallout 1st players are being targeted in adventure mode
People are ganging up on Fallout 1st players in adventure mode and grieving anyone with the icon lol

Fallout 1st players! We need to assemble and build gated communities for ourselves! Piss poor 76ers are targeting us! 😠
[post has now been deleted]
We need to come together and shield us from these animals! They will tear us apart and they will never be satisfied.

Reddit user KATheHuman commented on Oct 26 2019:
I got beaten up when I decided to do the Mothman emote in Vault 51. At least 5-7 people in teddy bear costumes kept punching me.

Standing up for FO1st or otherwise invalidating our outrage makes you a scab

Remember the Ides of November

Legends of Eisenwald looks to be a fantasy roleplaying and strategy game about leading a noble family in medieval Germany.

However, while researching it I found out about its standalone spin-off, Eisenwald: Blood of November, which apparently is about the 2016 US elections.

No, I have no goddamn idea why or how the game developers did this but almost every review on GOG states that Blood of November transposes the electoral showdown between Trump and Clinton into a fantasy version of medieval Germany. According to one review the story works like this:

The gameplay and the low fantasy medieval setting has all the qualities that made me love Legends of Eisenwald. But this stand-alone spin off is also an absolutely hilarious rewriting of the recent American elections. Here it’s the Duke that died heirless, and the barons have to elect his successor. The 2 main contestant are a man named Dieter Horn , and a woman, Hanna Eisig , and you have to pick a side and help it win. The extravagant rumors about both candidates are often medieval views of the actual campaign events , and it’s amazing how medieval it does feel indeed! The game is still great even if you don’t want to pay attention to that double entendre, but much funnier this way.

So, uh, yeah. I bought Legends of Eisenwald but now I wonder if I should buy this spinoff as well, since it sounds either stupid or brilliant. I don’t think I’d be able to catch every in-joke since these days I avoid consuming too much news about the minutiae of US politics, but campaign season for the 2020 elections has already started so playing it almost seems topical. And it’s only like $3. Maybe I can buy one less coffee next week?

Dragon’s Dogma coming

Well well, seems like Netflix is making an anime about Dragon’s Dogma. As might be gathered from my previous writings on the subject (and on the copious number of painstakingly composed screenshots that I’ve uploaded – seriously, you know how hard it was to reach some of those ledges?), I really liked the game.

Having said that, I liked the game as a game, not as a story. The plot itself was quite thin and not really that compelling (though the backstory was kind of interesting). To accurately reflect my own experience of the game, the show had better have extended sequences of the main character climbing up a cyclops to stab it in the crotch. Also it would need to have 20 minutes of catching rabbits and throwing them off a cliff, plus like 50 hours of trying on different outfits.

Still, the Castlevania show on Netflix turned out pretty good and it’s not like that franchise had an especially good story behind it. Of course, Warren Ellis was the one who wrote that adaptation and we still don’t know who Dragon’s Dogma will get. Fingers crossed the anime will be as fun as the game, though.