Game Reviews Archive

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Game Review: Thea: The Awakening

Thea: The Awakening strikes me as a game designed for people of rather specific tastes. While that may sound like cheap platitude, rest assured this is not the case. Developed by Muha Games, a studio based out of the UK and Poland, Thea is what would happen if Endless Legend had a kid with NEO Scavenger and the two of them hired Gwent from The Witcher 3 to raise the kid on a steady diet of Eastern European folk lore. Like I said, specific tastes.

The game is set in the eponymous land of Thea, recently emerged out of a prolonged period of death and decay. Assuming the role of a benevolent deity, players guide a single village through this time of recovery. While the general goal is one of survival against seemingly impossible odds – as is the flavour with most games that venture into the realm of permanent death and procedural generation – a story does gradually unfold over time. It’s a slow burn of a story, for sure, but so was Dark Souls and I really liked its approach to narrative development through inches.

Settling into Thea for the first time requires negotiating a small, but noticeable, learning curve. At its core, Thea is a turn-based strategy/resource management game. A player’s village always has a death clock hanging over its head in the form of dwindling food and firewood. This makes the first twenty or thirty turns a very tense affair. In my experience, cleaning out the local monster nests was nowhere near as important as deploying a clutch of warriors and workers to secure a new supply of food. Once those first rounds were behind me, I finally let myself dig into the game’s complex crafting system.

This is where Thea feels like I’m playing the most richly designed worker placement tabletop game ever imagined. Remember, specific tastes. Some of you are going to love micromanaging the equipment and supplies of a dozen simulated people before sending half of them into battle against a Striga – a battle which is played out through a card game. Others are going to find the initial experience fiddly, possibly even intimidating. All I can say is Thea is quick to reward persistence. The relatively stable number of villagers in play means that the first crush of micromanagement trails off fairly quickly.

Returning to a previous point, yes, I said a card game simulates the battles. Thea handles combat, and a number of other skill challenges, through a card battle system. The rules governing this system are simplicity itself. Yet the easy mechanics only serve to underscore the impressive way Thea applies seemingly dozens of stats for each villager into the card battle system.

Even though I found myself simulating a few battles in the mid-game, particularly when my party was powerful enough as to not fear skeletons and mutated bees, I always wanted to play through the card combat. If only to hedge my bets against the way seemingly minor injuries incurred in combat have a way of leading to infection and death if left untreated. Needless to say, this adds a measure of tension to even the most one-sided of battles.

For the purposes of this review, I will admit to not having successfully completed Thea. I’ve lost each of my four attempts to beat the game. The first play though was a wash since I skimmed through most of the tutorial text. Read the tutorial text, people. The second through fourth time met with better results. On each occasion my downfall was in my ambition.

The most precious resources in the game are a player’s villagers. Unlike food and minerals, people are a finite resource. Losing even one villager can make an impact on a player’s overall economic and military health. Losing four because the majority of your fighters were off fighting Striga-bats (yes I said Striga-bats, I didn’t know they were a thing, either) is almost crippling. I watched my village slowly starve to death as my fighters made their futile attempts to bang their swords to plough shears and farm with barely half the efficiency of my dead workers. Ultimately, I resigned the game and started fresh, progressing even farther before disaster struck again.

Yet in failure there is satisfaction. Thea is about rebuilding the world out of the ashes of armageddon. It is a struggle against the forces of entropy. It stands to reason things aren’t going to go to plan the first few times. Like Dark Souls, X-Com, NEO Scavenger, and FTL, losing at Thea only stings temporarily. A new game means a new map and new chances to watch it all go so terribly wrong lead the people to triumph.

In the end, Thea brings together a style that fuses Civilization and a fantasy twist on Fallout, wrapping its package in a mythology that should be reasonably familiar for anybody who recognizes the name Geralt of Rivia. In terms of mechanics, the game does something genuinely fun and innovative with the buzzwords “rogue-like” and “procedurally generated”. Where the art can be a little stock-fantasy in the over world – particularly in a post Endless Legend gaming market - the look of hand-drawn detailing in the card battle system adds a nice flourish to the overall experience. Thea is likely to find a happy home among the sort of people who enjoy reasonably deep RPGs, worker placement tabletop games, or the existential dread of Dark Souls.


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Game Review: Rebel Galaxy

During the summer I had a chance to play with a preview build of Rebel Galaxy. Amid those halcyon days, I was coming off months of playing nothing but Elite Dangerous. Because of that, the slow moving, naval-inspired starship combat Rebel Galaxy stood out as an absolute delight. In its final form, Double Damage Games has only improved on their initial offering. They’ve produced a space-combat game with the sensibilities and scope of Wing Commander: Privateer and the tone of Firefly.

It’s hard to miss the gaming pedigree encoded in the very DNA of Rebel Galaxy. Travis Baldree and Erich Schaefer, the power behind Double Damage Games, previously founded Runic Games, which gave us the likes of Torchlight and Torchlight 2. Before Torchlight, Schaefer was lead designer on Diablo and Diablo 2. While Rebel Galaxy doesn’t boast the same hack/slash/loot aesthetic as Torchlight and Diablo, it does convey the same freedom to explore.

Rebel Galaxy’s story is reasonably typical of the open-world space combat genre. Players inherit a piece-of-crap ship from a mysterious relative – in this case, their Aunt Juno. The quest to find Juno leads to encounters with AIs, pirates, and the slightly less-than-upstanding forces of law and order. Without giving too much of the story away, I found it struck the exact right tone for this sort of experience. It captures the best feeling of old-school space opera, banking on a player’s willingness to suspend disbelief in the areas of extraterrestrial carbon-based life forms, FTL engines, and space battles that play out at extreme close range. Sufficed to say, the emphasis is most certainly on the fiction side of science fiction, but that’s just fine with this critic.

Though a person can engage with all the usual suspects of an open-world space game (e.g. mining, trading, cargo hauling) the real fun is found in the combat. Corvettes, frigates, destroyers, and other capital ships lay into each other with massive fusillades of energy weapons. Smaller turrets tend to blast away at the myriad of fighters and small attack craft that populate a battle. The combat is at once filled with urgency, but also slow and methodical. Killing another starship is as much about positioning and timing as it is disgorging hot tachyons at the enemy.

In terms of making money, trade and/or combat are the way to go, at least within my experience. Fetch quest cargo missions are okay, but who wants to be peaceful when they are flying a ship with fourteen broadside plasma cannons? It’s also fairly easy to build up to more impressive starships and better arsenals. Granted, a player will find it hard to go from one story mission to the next without ever stopping to do some work on the side. However, taking the time to hunt bounty or run freight is rarely so arduous as to feel like a grind.

On the subject of trading, I’ll give Double Damage kudos for having more in-game trade data available than what appears in Elite Dangerous. I’m always astonished at games that expect me to believe my computer can plot an FTL-jump but not remember how much I paid for 10 tons of self-sealing stembolts at the previous space station. Though the game could benefit from a bit more trade data, I don’t think anybody will need to have Excel running in the background to ensure they stay profitable.

The only real mark against the game was the odd bit of janky AI. This was particularly apparent on escort missions. Note my use of the past tense. However, Double Damage has proven to be incredibly responsive to feedback, releasing patches very quickly after issues are identified. Playing the game now is pretty much a seamless experience. No frame rate drops. No glitches. No crashes.

While Rebel Galaxy doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of the open-world space combat game, its strength is in its ability to skillfully borrow and fuse the things that do work from within the sub-genre. There’s a little bit of Privateer, mixed with a dash of Starfleet Command, with just a splash of Freelancer for good measure. Everything the game does, it does very well. For someone looking for a space game that will let them jump in and feel like Han Solo without twenty hours of prep work, Rebel Galaxy is a sound investment.

Note: I reviewed the PC version of this game using a mouse and keyboard.


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Game Review: Warhammer 40,000: Regicide

Chess is a game of perfect knowledge. Theoretically, every possible move and counter-move can be predicted. All things being equal, luck is never a deciding factor in a game of Chess. Victory will almost always go to the better player. And that last part speaks directly to why Chess can be a bit of a downer.

Between opponents of equal skill, Chess is as enjoyable as it is civilized. Between rivals of even marginally different ability, Chess can be as one-side as a boxing match between Mike Tyson and Pee Wee Herman. It is in this dissonance between players of varying skill that Warhammer 40,000: Regicide makes Chess a better game. Specifically, Hammerfall Studios has introduced chaos (with a small c) into Chess. In doing so, they’ve effectively thrown out decades of prefixed Chess gambits and leveled Chess’ playing field.

Regicide unfolds in two phases: movement and initiative. The movement phase is the same as a traditional game of Chess: pick a piece and make a move, following the rules for pawns, castles, bishops, knights, kings, and queens. The initiative phase takes a page from the likes of X-Com or Jagged Alliance. Space Marines and Orks spend action points to shoot, throw grenades, launch psychic attacks, or call in air strikes. No longer are white and black bishops limited to hurling foul language at each other from adjoining squares.

The inevitable fusillade of bolter fire in the wake of each move makes Regicide a much more tactical game than Chess. A good Chess player uses their army to set up areas of control. Regicide doesn’t offer such luxuries. A player who moves a lone bishop or a knight to the middle or far side of the board risks having a high-value unit cut to ribbons. Likewise, whatever anxiety a Chess player feels toward moving their queen (now a Librarian or Weirdboy) from the relative safety of the first rank is all the more present in Regicide.

The net-result is a game that puts Chess experts and amateurs on the same page. There may be some value to playing a traditional gambit against a foe in Regicide, but said gambit never imagined pawns at loggerheads being anything more than fence posts. Regicide lets those pawns toss grenades into the back ranks and shoot each other in the face – or at least try to. Though both the Space Marines and Orks have a better to-hit average than the typical X-Com recruit, missing on a 95% to-hit attack remains a maddening experience.

I expect most people will latch on to the game for the multi-player element. For those more inclined to play on their own, I am reasonably satisfied with the game’s single-player campaign. Take away all the veneration of the Immortal Emperor and the campaign is little more than a series of Chess problems. Albeit, they are Chess problems with heavy bolters and lascannons, and that counts for something in my book. A Chess nerd looking to revel in a decent WH40K story should be fine with the single-player. If someone goes looking for a campaign to rival Dawn of War or Space Marine then they will probably be disappointed. Tailor your expectations appropriately. 

The multi-player side of the game is similarly first-rate. My wait times for a game are relatively short. Notwithstanding the odd connectivity error in trying to set up a game, I experienced nothing but smooth sailing and solid competition once I got into things.

Visually, the game is at its finest when showing off the combat animations that occur when killing a piece through a Chess move. Should I ever grow tired of watching a Space Marine slice an Ork asunder with his chainsword, then I’ve grown tired of living. Glorious as those animations are, I would have liked to see a bit more animation on non-lethal hits. However, this point is far from a deal breaker for the game.

For the record, I reached out to Hammerfall with the inevitable question of, “Can I get an Eldar/Chaos/Imperial Guard/Tau army as future DLC?” I’ll update this review once they get back to me.

It would be folly to write off Regicide as a WH40K themed take on the Battlechess. Regicide’s strength is found in its ability to iterate on Western civilization’s most iconic tabletop game. Regardless of if a person fancies themselves a chess enthusiast or a master-level player, they will find Regicide to be a welcoming experience.


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Game Review: Satellite Reign

It seems almost impossible to begin a review of Satellite Reign without first making some mention of Syndicate. No, not the dub step FPS from a few years ago. I mean Bullfrog’s real-time strategy/shooter featuring cyborgs and corporate world domination. Video game enthusiasts of a certain age – you know who you are – will no doubt be drawn to Satellite Reign as a spiritual successor to Syndicate. However, nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake is little more than imitation. And while Satellite Reign may have the odd rough spot here and there, it is very much a tremendous iteration on the source material.

Developed by Australia’s 5 Lives Studios, Satellite Reign is a real-time, squad-based isometric shooter set amid a dystopian cyberpunk city. As the name implies, the action unfolds through the perspective of a geostationary satellite. While there are no shortage of video games that lean toward the cyberpunk aesthetic, Satellite Reign stands head-and-shoulders above the crowd for capturing William Gibson’s neon-highlighted vision of the future. I won’t mention how much time I’ve spent taking screenshots of the city like an obnoxious digital tourist.

Missions be damned, people need to see pictures of my agents standing in front of the polydactyl erotic massage parlour (even mutants need work) or the “Magnum Gagnum” club. Also, I’m not sure if I want to visit the Magnum Gagnum.

If I have to ask what happens in this club am I too much of a square to go in?

Each agent under the player’s control has a unique skillset that can be expanded through a reasonably straight forward skill tree. The player is tasked with using their team to infiltrate the headquarters of Dracogenics: a rival corporation that uses a proprietary blend of kidnapping, cloning, and post-human technology to facilitate consciousness downloading for the ultra-rich at the expense of everybody else. Since the player is working for a corporate entity, the game is less a story of the 99% versus the 1% as it is a narrative of monopoly breaking through wet work and corporate raiding. Picture Google versus OCP with everybody dressed like they are at a Tron convention.

In another about face from Syndicate, Satellite Reign unfolds over a vast and sprawling cityscape. Once the game is loaded, players are free to explore the city and its various districts. Each district offers a series of missions that serve to make the ultimate objective a bit less daunting. For example, sending a hacker into the city’s surveillance offices makes a district’s CCTV cameras more sluggish in responding to trespassing or generally illegal activity. Other jobs afford players additional cash, prototype weapons, and equipment.

I’m reticent to slap the label of “sandbox” on Satellite Reign. When a player isn’t working a mission, there is little else to do but walk around and chuckle at the various homages and meta references peppered throughout the city’s establishments. Even calling the game non-linear seems wrong since all roads lead to Dracogenics. Perhaps it’s best to see SR as something that encourages a degree of flexibility in how its players go about the business of corporate espionage. Side missions happen, or don’t, at a player’s discretion. Likewise, for every opportunity to tear about the city with guns blazing, there are as many uses for stealth and bribery. Though the latter path tends to get a bit expensive, at least in the early game.

Between bribes, researching new equipment, and upgrading agents with new weapons and augmentations, Satellite Reign injects a decent degree of resource management into the equation. It’s not as comprehensive as the likes of X-Com/XCOM, but there’s an expectation of common sense to ensure expenditures don’t outpace income. And allow me to give my unending respect to 5 Lives for using the Superman 3/Office Space computer virus as a player’s primary income source. Let it not be said there isn’t a lot of love for the genre within this game.

True to the cyberpunk motif, life is cheap in Satellite Reign. This is another area where Satellite Reign has improved on Syndicate. The latter presented agents as resources to be jealously coveted and guarded. A total squad wipe toward the end of a game of Syndicate could lead to a cripplingly expensive death spiral. Now, an agent’s death is a minor inconvenience. A shot, lasered, or otherwise exploded agent is cloned into a new body at the cost of diminished health, stamina, and a small line item on the player’s budget. These lost traits are easily recovered as players can mind hack civilian (or even police) bystanders and send them off to the cloning vats. While I might feel the occasional pang of regret when I leave an agent to the tender mercies of corporate security, sacrificing a clone for the greater good is now a viable strategy.

Call me a monster, but these cold and callous decisions are part of what makes me feel like a corporate executive while playing Satellite Reign. Satellite Reign’s style presents the concept of human resources in the most literal and monstrous way. What’s worse, I don’t think my side is any better than Dracogenics. Sure, the bad guys use the lower classes of the city as replacement meatsuits for the ultra-rich, but is my company any better for snagging people off the street, dressing them up like they are in a Daft Punk video, and sending them into battle? Probably not. Nevertheless, 5 Lives is spot on in producing a sense of place within the city. The future depicted in Satellite Reign is a visual feast, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Robots? Mutants? Or Cat People?

I take issue with only two elements in the game. The first is that the AI driving the police and corporate security can be a little erratic. There are moments when I’ve exercised the better part of valour during a shooting spree only to find the police more interested in shooting each other than running me to ground. The game also has some odd rules when it comes to single-shot stealth kills. From my point of view, it seems like an oversight that a both a silenced pistol and a silenced sniper rifle require close-quarters combat for a stealth kill.

Overall, there is plenty to see and do in Satellite Reign. Though it is an obvious love letter to Syndicate, Satellite Reign drags the isometric view and associated corporate wet work into the twenty-first century. Even if the ultimate objective of the game doesn’t change from one play-through to the next, there’s suitable variety built into the map of the city, the agents’ skill trees, and the potential combinations of weapons and augments to keep players coming back for more. The occasional bug in the game is far from game breaking and easily addressed in a patch. For the RTS fan up for urban carnage, Satellite Reign is an obvious choice.

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A Pillars of Eternity Mea Culpa

Warning: here be mild, non-main story related spoilers for Pillars of Eternity.

Shortly after finishing Pillars of Eternity’s second act, I spent some time working on party member quests. After completing two, I had something of a revelation about Pillars of Eternity; I was wrong when I said the game’s secondary characters might not prove to be eternally memorable.

In fact, I’m likely going to remember PoE’s characters for quite some time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sword and sorcery RPG be quite so cruel to its supporting cast. Both Dragon Age and even The Witcher are more merciful in comparison to what Pillars foists on its companion characters.

The first companion quest I finished in PoE belonged to Edér, my party’s warrior. Edér’s personal story is a great inroad to the game’s rich backstory. For the sake of brevity, I’ll summarize with the short version. Edér and his brother ended up on opposite sides of a holy war. In the aftermath, Edér wants the player character (i.e. me) to use my psychic/astral powers to understand why his brother fought for the other side.

After a bit of detective work, I led the party to the site of Edér’s brother’s death. I expected to find something that would provide Edér with the closure he wanted. After all, this is a fantasy RPG; things always work out well for the player character and their friends. Following a bit of impromptu archaeology and a roughing-up of some local toughs, I found the standard Edér’s brother carried into battle. Despite my “watcher” powers, I was unable to reveal any new information to Edér. The quest ended in a bust, leaving Edér in a worse mental state than when he joined the party. This wasn’t the outcome I was expecting.

“Okay,” I thought to myself. “Maybe things will be better with Kana’s character quest.”

Nope.

Kana Rua is a historian in search of a tablet that would justify some of his more controversial academic theories. He believes this tablet rests within the bowels of my keep. If he can find it, he can return home vindicated (and likely secure a tenure track position for himself at Wizard Yale University).

The RPG veteran in me expected to find both the artefact and a moral challenge; do I use the object for my own ends or give it to Kana? So down we went into the “endless paths” under my fortress. A few hours later I found the tablet shattered; its mysteries lost to the ages. The existential loss conveyed through Patrick Seitz’s voice acting was absolutely gut wrenching.

One expects a fantasy game to threaten the party with dangers and hard decisions. This is standard fare in a post-Baldur’s Gate world. Never did I imagine that Obsidian’s writers were running such a majestic long con on me. In all the games I’ve played I don’t think I’ve ever watched as a character’s life-long hopes and dreams are smashed against the rocks of a cruel and indifferent world. It’s an odd and painful bit of realism injected into the fantasy setting.

If I was lacking emotional investment in the party characters before, consider it firmly established now. Going forward, I’m not sure if I want to see these quests reconciled to a happy ending or left to fester. 


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Game Review: Rocket League

Sports games, and sports in general, don’t typically hold my interest. The only exception to this rule is soccer. Alas, bringing up soccer within my extended social circle evokes a gamut of complaints about its slow pace, long playtime, and apparent lack of physicality compared to football (American or Canadian) or hockey. Enter Psyonix’s Rocket League, a soccer game that is the most gloriously North American answer to the perceived shortcomings of the beautiful game.

Note: I reviewed Rocket League on the PC. The game is also available for the PS4.

Rocket League is as elegant to describe as it is to play. Simply put, it’s three-on-three arena soccer featuring super-charged aerobatic rocket cars instead of people and a ball the size of an atlasphere. I’ll give you a moment to process the last sentence.

Even though Rocket League is the sequel to 2008’s Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars – a game I never played. Sorry, Psyonix – it feels like the natural evolution of another “sports” game near and dear to my heart, Grifball. Just as Grifball reminds players that sports games don’t need to be about stats and salary caps, so too does Rocket League put player experience at the forefront of all considerations.

Yes, yes, “player experience” one of those weasel expressions critics love to use. Bear with me for a moment, and you’ll see why I used it. Consider what makes a sports game fun. Fiddling with trades and simulated training camps, in my estimation, is foreplay to the main event. Once the whistle blows, a sports game’s fun is almost always directly proportional to how much a player is winning. This would be fine were it not for the fact that sports and sports games overlap on a fundamental truth: most people aren’t going to be superstars. Trying to carve out glory in online matches can be a painful, laggy, and often humiliating affair.

It took me about two minutes to score my first goal in Rocket League. Ten minutes later I scored my first aerial goal; that is to say I put my rocket-powered awesome-mobile into flight and redirected a ball in flight between the pipes. Ten minutes after that, I cleared a ball using the automotive analogue to a bicycle kick. I’ll never be Pelé in real life or in EA’s FIFA games. In Rocket League I can chip in a goal from midfield like I’m David bloody Beckham. Here’s the best part, I’m probably only an average Rocket League player.

This is why I used “player experience” in a non-ironic way. Rocket League wants you to feel like a star even if you’re a rank newbie. Much like Grifball, Rocket League’s techniques and strategies – many of them are self-evident to anyone who has stepped on a pitch more than once in their life – are subject to the inherent chaos of the game. This chaos is quite often the great equalizer. Would-be rocketballers don’t need to be play makers; they need only get in, get going, and capitalize on chances when the gods, teammates, and opponents present them. Likewise, the standard 3v3 gameplay makes every car on the pitch an essential part of their squad’s success or failure. And in the event of the latter, a five minute game clock ensures merciless pastings are kept to a minimum.

While a person can content themselves to playing a single-player season of Rocket League, which is quite capable if a little bare bones, the game’s real bread and butter is in online play. Of the eighty, or so, online matches I’ve played, I’ve had a positive experience seventy-nine times. Let’s be clear, when I say positive I mean my gaming experience was free of toxicity, harassment, or otherwise depressing things. Nobody jumped down my throat when an attempt to clear the ball turned into an own goal. A missed shot on net never yielded a commentary on my ancestry. I do witness the odd rage quit, but these things are to be expected. It almost feels like Rocket League has attracted a classy sort of player. Of course, now that I’ve said it I’m sure I’ve put some sort of jinx or whammy on things.

I could end the review here with an emphatic recommendation to buy Rocket League. While I think everyone should do just that, I want to spend a few words talking about longevity.

Rocket League’s strength comes from its ability to ensnare me with solid competition and a clever take on soccer. Unlocking vanity items for my car is fun, but it’s not why I keep coming back for more. Gaining new pitches and cars through DLC purchases would make for nice scenery, but I doubt they would fundamentally change the game. Unless we were playing low-gravity Rocket League.

From my point of view, the thing to give Rocket League some serious mileage – pardon the pun – will be paring the game’s light-hearted tone and fast pace with the capacity for richer competitive play. Give me actual leagues. Give me weekend tournaments. Let me form impromptu teams with people without having to go through Steam. And make my glory as a rocketballer last longer than a single explosive match. Some or all of these things, through a combination of patches or mods, will make Rocket League a game for the ages.

Even without additional bells and whistles, Rocket League remains a stupendously fun game. The gentle learning curve makes the rocket-powered pitch very friendly to newcomers. Similarly, excellent matchmaking ensures nobody is playing too far above or below their station. Even if a person doesn’t like sports games, they would do well to check out Rocket League.


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Game Review: Pillars of Eternity

Months after the game’s launch I found myself writing the first draft of this review as an apology for Pillars of Eternity. As one of the first big crowdfunded games to come to fruition, Pillars faced Phantom Menace levels of expectations. Its initial positive reviews quickly gave way to outrage over a failed attempt at comedy in some crowd-authored ephemera. As an outsider looking into the games media, Pillars never seemed to bounce back from Obsidian Entertainment’s failure to vet (or failure to see the issue with) its user generated content. Enter, Shaftoe. And if I put a bracket around this one gaffe, I can’t recall the last time a RPG managed to enthrall me quite so completely.

Pillars of Eternity is a throwback to the likes of Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and, most appropriately for the studio that inherited some of Black Isle’s talent, Planescape: Torment. For the uninitiated, you should expect a harder game than today’s standard fare. This is not to suggest PoE is the second coming of Dark Souls. It will, however, offer more challenge than a romp through Dragon Age.

In so much as Pillars is an homage to the games of yesterday, it’s not blind to their short comings. Thankfully, Obsidian has thrown out the often Byzantine and impenetrable Advanced Dungeons and Dragons ruleset as applied to computer games. No longer will players have to wrap their heads around THAC0 versus AC. Pillars also eschews rolling a magic user as an invitation to masochistic torture. Good luck getting through the first few quests of Baldur’s Gate as a magic user with 4HP. Stats like that make a person vulnerable to a stiff breeze. Whereas in Pillars my level one wizard can at least manage a few good punches to the stomach before begging for help.

Iterating the AD&D rules into something new hasn’t come at the cost of a complex role-playing experience. There’s a deep amount of tinkering and customization available to players if they so desire. A less fussy player can venture forth focusing only on damage and damage reduction stats. Either path will lead an adventurer to fortune and glory.

While stats and fiddling might get a person into the game, what keeps me coming back for an hour or two of questing each day is the world of Pillars of Eternity. Like most memorable high fantasy settings, Eora is a tremendously lived in place. The politics and culture of Eora are often reminiscent of Europe during the Age of Enlightenment. There are political rivalries great and small. A pantheon of gods and faiths lead to upheavals and pogroms. Class struggles, anti-intellectualism, conflict between settlers and native peoples, and rapid scientific progress absent modern ethics or methodologies round out the mix of ideas contributing to the feel of the setting. There’s also magic, monsters, and an entropic doom that threatens all life in the Free Palatine of the Dyrwood. So maybe it’s not exactly like Enlightenment Europe.

Nevertheless, the deeper I get into the game, the richer the Dyrwood becomes. Each action reveals a little more about the world I’m trying to save. The more I try to save it, the more my reputation precedes me with NPCs, which in turn re-enforces why I care about the Dyrwood. It’s quite the clever feedback system. On that note, let’s talk about quests.

Too often questing is a euphemism for level grinding – a substitute for content and meaningful engagement. Collecting endless goat gonads and dragon cocks is a sure way to bore a player out of the game. PoE is smart enough to limit these to tertiary chores. Where they do exist, they generally impact how players are perceived in the world by other NPCs. Primary and secondary quests are much richer affair; they almost always become branching plot points, moving far afield from where they began. Beyond offering monsters and brigands to slay, these quests usually offer some sort of moral dilemma. In these situations I’m left trying to make the best of an ugly world, while wondering how it will come back to bite me in the ass later in the game.

Unlike a BioWare game, Obsidian’s approach leans closer to a story-driven experience rather than a character-focused one. I don’t point this out as prelude to debating which style is superior. Instead, I would praise Obsidian for the way Pillars of Eternity works to make Hiraku, my character, my proxy – insert your character and proxy as appropriate – the star of the game. The likes of Eder and Kana might not be the most memorable characters, but they serve their purpose in keeping the focus on the player and their story. Ask any D&D dungeon master worth their salt and they will tell you that letting your players shape the story is the most important part of their job.

Everything here amounts to an experience where combat is challenging but not impossible. A player can go down the rabbit hole of party management, but they don’t have to earn a degree in statistics to enjoy the game. Most important of all, the story – including a player’s part in it – doesn’t feel like a contrivance of tropes along the monomythic path, leading to an inevitable conflict with Sauron (or some other manifestation of pure evil). As fantasy role-playing games go, I don’t think I can ask for much more.

Job well done, Obsidian.


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Game Review: UniWar

When I began divesting myself of Apple tech, I knew there would be sacrifices in the games department. My laments about the quantity of games in the Google Play store are, however, more than offset by the quality of those who rise to the top outside of Apple’s walled garden. Case in point, UniWar.

UniWar is a straight-up, hex-based war game. When I say war game, understand that I mean it is a game of pure and unadulterated strategy. There are no dice rolls. Nothing is left to chance. UniWar provides players with near perfect information about the pieces in play and how they will interact with each other on the battle map. In this, UniWar is closer to something like Go than it is Risk. In many ways, UniWar feels like a port of a perfectly polished tabletop game.

These comparisons might make UniWar sound dreadfully intimidating to someone with only a passing interest in war or strategy games. In actuality, it’s only slightly more complex than chess in terms of its formal rules. Players begin by choosing from one of three, somewhat StarCraft inspired, factions: the Sapiens (Terrans), Titans (robot Protoss), or Khraleans (bugs). Although each race’s units have their own foibles, I’ve found the three are generally well balanced against each other.

Players can learn UniWar’s strategic nuances through either a single player campaign or skirmish matches against AI opponents. Though former is mostly the same as the latter, the campaign makes a point of teaching players how to exploit the features of various race-specific units.

Initially, I was a bit annoyed that the only path to player versus player competition was through victories against the AI. The design choice made sense after I lost my first three AI skirmishes. In fact, calling those early experiences “losses” might be underselling things a bit. I don’t want to put too fine a point on this, but I sucked out loud at UniWar, and I wouldn’t have stood a chance against even a quarter-decent human player.

My failures were all the more perplexing in the face of the game’s simple objective. Winning at UniWar requires one army to occupy or capture all of an opponent’s base tiles. Every unit’s attack, mobility, and defense stats are modified by the map’s various terrain. For example, light infantry will generally get a defense and attack bonus in a mountainous tile. Heavy vehicles will generally take mobility and defense penalties for rolling through a swamp. None of these buffs or penalties are hidden from players. So with all the data at hand, why did I keep losing?

First and foremost, I let the game’s passing similarity to StarCraft trick me into thinking an early game blitz against an enemy base was a good idea. I sent lone units into battle, content to trade tank for tank with my foe. What I should have been doing was thinking like a proper military commander. Embracing lines of battle, areas of denial, and retreating injured units – rather than fighting them to death – saw me to my first victory. Once I stopped playing like Jim Raynor and started playing like Honor Harrington, it became an entirely new game.

It’s also worth mentioning that UniWar has a very passionate community of players. At any given moment there are usually a couple hundred people playing the game. UniWar also seems to have attracted a rather decent sort of player, though my experiences are far from a representative sample. I’ve had people alternatively compliment me on victories or offer feedback on my poorer gambits. The developers have also embraced a dizzying array of player-generated battle maps. The combination of these factors keeps UniWar feeling fresh more than six years after its release.

In the final assessment, UniWar is a smart game that balances a simple rule set with an incredibly deep strategic layer. Tempting as it is to call UniWar a good “entry level” war game, I think it offers the sort of strategic experience that would appeal to any type of strategy aficionado. The game’s interface is clear and intuitive, particularly when it comes to preventing misclicks and accidental orders. And as a final feather in the game’s cap, there are absolutely no micro-transactions. Well played, TBS Games, you’ve made an outstanding mobile game.


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Game Review: Warframe

My long-time readers know I’ve had something of an ongoing quest to find a free-to-play game that isn’t a complete waste of time. After sifting through pay-to-win games, skinner boxes posing as games, and general time sinks, the pickings have been slim. Along the way – probably while I was pouting about Destiny not getting a PC port – I discovered Warframe, a third-person squad-based shooter. Oddly enough, I don’t hate it.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say I actually like Warframe. I like it for the same reasons I like Diablo 3 and Borderlands 2. Even though Warframe offers only the slightest variations on the themes of running, shooting, and looting, it’s very good at what it does.

Warframe’s bread and butter comes through exploring/unlocking various locations in the solar system through 10-15 minute long battles. In the interludes between battle, players customize their equipment with a deep, but slightly fiddly, modification and crafting system. This is pretty much the game. It makes no pretense about being anything greater than the sum of its parts.

As for the action itself, I’ve often said that the mark of a game’s greatness is its ability to scratch an itch I didn’t know I had. In this case, Warframe lets me be a space ninja. The Tenno, the race of enigmatic beings under the players’ control, are experts in both firearms and melee weapons. Let me say this again, I play Warframe as weird looking, trans-human (probably), space ninja with a fire sword and laser rifle. I can also shoot energy blasts from my Warframe. I’m essentially the Guyver meets Tekkaman Blade.

I’ll give the anime fans reading this piece a moment to recover…

Where some developers might be tempted to over-complicate the sword/melee mechanics, Digital Extremes does a good job of keeping it simple and satisfying. Setting aside a few advanced sword maneuvers, Warframe is the sort of shooter/hack-and-slasher where any person can pick it up and feel like a bad-ass inside an hour.  Granted, Borderlands and its bazillion guns is a lot neater in terms of customization and personalization, but there’s no shortage of depth in Warframe’s ability to modify and super-charge equipment.

Let’s move on to the two elephants in the room of free-to-play games: the grind and the economy.

Warframe’s level grind primarily focuses on players levelling up their equipment. The higher a piece of kit’s level, the more mods it can hold. The mods themselves can also be leveled-up to become more powerful. On it’s own, this reward system might be enough to keep me playing for a few hours. However, about half of the game’s missions have a Press Your Luck nature to them.

For example, “defence” missions task players with holding a fixed installation against wave after wave of enemies. Every five waves the game offers players a reward and a chance to leave the map with loot in hand. However, if they survive another five waves they can get an even bigger prize and more loot. A glutton’s death before a milestone wave leaves players with nothing. It’s one of the oldest psychological tricks in the book, but it’s a strong enough risk/reward mechanic to keep each match exciting while forcing some real teamwork among players.

Between pressing my luck on loot rich maps, responding to one-off missions that offer bounty money, testing out my weapon customizations, and warzone missions that present as a tug of war between AIs and players, the game’s grind isn’t really all that intrusive. Sure, it’s there, but is it really a grind if I’m enjoying myself while engaging with it?

Which brings us to the game’s two-tier economy. For those less inclined to earn “credits” through slaughtering their foes, they can buy “platinum” with real world money. Pretty much every free-to-play game has some variation on this system. Unlike most free-to-play games, Warframe lets players earn platinum through taxed player-to-player transactions. I haven’t seen another free-to-play game that is willing to let players access the second tier of its economy through anything other than real world transactions. Conceivably, a player could reach a certain threshold of playing for free before buying into the game’s economy with nothing more than time already spent.

Ultimately, my assessment of a free-to-play game comes down to a simple question: is the game interested in giving me an experience or tricking me into buying something? Much to my surprise, Warframe hasn’t thrown up any roadblocks to my having a good time. Sure, it would be glad to take my money. But even if I did buy a few new toys with platinum, the fun is found in carving up and gunning down my foes with the new kit, thus making my guns and Warframe even more powerful. On that essential note, Warframe seems happy to let me play for free.

I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I think Warframe is worth checking out.


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Game Review: Invisible Inc

If a good game scratches a player’s itch, then surely it is the mark of a great game when it scratches an itch a player didn’t know they possessed. Klei Entertainment’s Invisible Inc is of the rare breed of game that excels in doing the latter. It combines the best parts of Shadowrun, X-Com/XCOM, and Monaco into a tactical, turn-based, game of espionage and corporate raiding. Behold, the game I never knew I always wanted.

Invisible Inc’s story and setting are the video game analogue to a really good William Gibson short story. The game is set in the late 21st century; where nation states have collapsed and tyrannical corporations have seen fit to fill the power vacuum. The game opens with the headquarters of the titular black-ops organization being raided by the corporations’ enforcers. As “the Operator”, players have to lead Invisible’s two remaining field agents on a series of missions to secure a new base of operations before the company’s AI dies.

Though restoring Invisible’s standing among the criminal/hacker/freedom fighting underworld may seem a daunting task, the game, itself, is refreshingly short. I mean on the order of FTL short. Though there are plenty of settings that can stretch the game out, a standard run at Invisible Inc could be finished in the neighbourhood of two to three hours. Make no mistake, this is not a point against the game. Nor should it be seen as an indicator that Invisible Inc lacks substance. As was the case with Don’t Starve, one of Klei Entertainment’s previous games, there is much more to Invisible Inc than the scripted story.

The game’s tight timing is, in my estimation at least, a three-fold triumph. First, the time span means I can get invested in a play-through, spectacularly fail at said play-through, and not want to rage quit the game. Second, beginning anew means more variety thanks to the game’s astonishingly robust procedural level generation. Third, every mission is vital when there are only six or seven to a complete game.

Time also manifests as a structural motif within the gameplay. Raids against the corporations are measured on an alarm scale. Each turn gradually increases said alarm. The higher the alarm level, the more guards, security mechs, and firewalls appear. This means the old X-Com stand-by gradually exploring a map and letting the bad guys come to the player won’t work.  Invisible Inc expects players to be bold in their scouting and swift in their actions. Hacking every corporate safe on a level is a great way to score some much needed operating capital, but it also means contending with more infosec and armed security guards. Mobilizing the language of execu-speak, Invisible Inc is a study in risk/reward decision-making.

It’s also deliciously evil of the developers to have money doubling as experience points for the game’s light-RPG elements. This shapes the game such that there will never be enough money to buy everything and level-up all of a character’s stats. Minmaxers and munchkins, the door is on the left.

Though Invisible Inc can be downright brutal on its hardest difficulty level, the learning curve is very accessible. The game features a “rewind” system that lets players reset the game to the start of the previous turn. On the starter difficulty level, players can do this multiple times as a means of effectively having a mulligan on a truly botched job. Once again, the choice reiterates a seeming mantra of challenge absent rage quits.

In terms of interface, Invisible Inc knocks it out of the park. The control scheme is so intuitive that in about fifteen hours of playing, I’ve never had a mis-click. Likewise, sight lines and cover are easily identified – though both can be turned off if a player truly wants to test their mettle. Rotatable camera angles allow for careful planning while maintaining an isometric point of view that evokes fond memories of Origin’s old Crusader games.

It’s also worth mentioning that Invisible Inc does pretty well in terms of building some diversity into the playable characters. Of the ten that can be unlocked, half are women and three are people of colour. While some people might not think this is worth writing home about, I try to pay attention to these things when a developer is making an effort to put more than ubiquitous white dudes in their game.

In the final assessment, it’s clear Invisible Inc has a target audience. Nobody should pick up this game expecting to shoot their way through each mission. Everything about Invisible’s style is meant to reward stealth and cunning. In fact, it’s entirely possible to work through the game without killing a single guard or blowing up a security mech. Violence is a player’s last resort, and senseless violence is always punished. Those inclined to use their wits while sticking it to the man will likely find endless hours of fun with this game. At the same time, Invisible’s story will leave any sci-fi geek worth their salt clamoring for more. Overall, Klei Interactive has produced another game with an aesthetic all its own and mechanics that turn the familiar into something new. Buy it, play it, and feel good about yourself when it shows up on various “Game of the Year” lists.