Wednesday, 22 February 2017

First Thoughts on Ori and the Blind Forest

Try not to get attached. Fail. Mourn.
Do you get tired of games that don't rip your still beating heart out of your chest within the first ten minutes of the game and stab it repeated with a blunt pencil while shouting 'this is what you get for caring?' If so, or if you like atmospheric platform puzzlers, you might like Ori and the Blind Forest.

Ori is a spirit of light separated from the great Spirit Tree of the forest and raised by a gorilla in a noh mask, until her foster parent dies of starvation because the forest is dying. Then Ori dies. Straight up, the opening sections of the game are: Ori drifts like a leaf and is adopted by Naru; Naru and Ori live happily; the forest dies and Naru starves to death while Ori is fetching food; Ori starves to death. The bit where Naru dies is bad enough, but then you have to slog slowly along while Ori expires. It's like watching the opening montage of Up.

Fortunately things pick up, as the Tree gives the last of its light to save Ori, who finds a spark of light called Sein that guides her to recover the light of other lost spirits in order to restore the balance of elements and save the forest from the rage of the owl spirit Kuro. She does this through a mixture of light combat and agile platform puzzling, retrieving various forms of key to open up new areas and explore the world of the forest. Defeating enemies and collecting light spirits allows you to level up different areas, loosely equating to combat, collecting and save management, which last is not something you often see on a skill tree.

Ori and the Blind Forest is a beautiful game, although it remains to be seen if the challenges will be varied enough to see me through the inevitable frustrating bits that come in any platformer.

First Thoughts on Octodad: Dadliest Catch

Adventures of an average, American family.
Do you get tired of games where the code takes over most of the functions of your character for you? Auto aim, context-sensitive cover and traversal, unified control of your character's limbs and body. If this is something that really grinds your gears, or if you're in the mood for some cartoon-style flailing around and burbling, then Octodad: Dadliest Catch might be for you.

In Dadliest Catch (sequel to the original, freeware Octodad) you take on the role of an unnamed octopus, who for reasons unknown (at least as far as I have got in the game,) has crammed his tentacles into clothing in order to masquerade as a human, marry a woman named Scarlet and raise her two children as his own. To do this, you switch between two modes: Legs, in which you use the mouse buttons and mouse movements to individually work the flailing, boneless tentacle pairs shoved down each trouser; and arms, in which you raise and lower, extend and retract your arm tentacle, suckering onto objects to manipulate them.

"The aisle is full of banana peels, but I'm the suspicious one?"
The game is divided into levels, each set in a different area (so far: church, home, store; and I'm at the start of the dreaded aquarium,) in which you have to complete a set of tasks and then, in most cases, escape from a chef who knows that you are an octopus and wants to turn you into a delicacy. As you go about your tasks, it is vitally important not to give yourself away by knocking things over, trampling flowers, or slipping on too many of the inordinate number of banana peels scattered about the world.

If it's not already clear, Octodad: Dadliest Catch is one weird mamajama, although for all its bizarre trappings, it's basically one long ragdoll physics puzzle. As a result, I do struggle to play extended sessions, but it's fun to dip in and out of.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Further Thoughts on Long War 2

Regions have different ADVENT strengths; currently I'm dealing with low
strengths, but I suspect it's going to get nasty once I manage to scrape together
the resources to build a radio room and reach out to somewhere I've not been
yet.
My second attempt at Long War 2 is going better; partly because I've better distributed my veterans and made serious use of the 'train rookie' function of my Guerrilla Warfare Facility, partly because I'm not attempting short-time missions(1), but also because I'm playing on easy, because I don't find getting repeatedly slaughtered fun(2). Even on easy it's pretty damned tough.

Once you get into it, two things strike you about Long War. One is the increased depth of the overworld strategic game; the other is how the way you play changes. Stealth becomes important for more than just setting up your first ambush. Whereas in the standard game it's a point of pride to get all of the aliens even if your mission is to evac a VIP; in Long War, you've never done better than if you never have to fire a shot. The first time I stealthed all the way to the cells and nipped out the back door with the prisoners without a single exchange of fire, I felt like a god; probably Loki. There's still a satisfaction - a huge satisfaction, even on easy - in a two-strong Ranger team taking on five-to-one odds to put down the guard on a prisoner transport, but it's no less a victory when you then book for evac without even stopping to see what reinforcements are coming.

Infiltration fundamentally changes human resource management.
The changes in the strategic game are simple, yet profound. Firstly, there is an overarching goal to the missions in each area. Many missions involve intel gathering, which may turn up a lead. Once you have a lead, you have a shot at Liberation missions, which reveal the location of Regional ADVENT HQ, unlocking a straight assault mission to remove the region from ADVENT control entirely (although I suspect not irrevocably.)

Secondly, infiltration completely alters your troop management. In the basic game, you get one or maybe two squads-worth and train them hard, while the bottom of the order sort of languishes. In Long War, teams spend days at a time infiltrating mission sites. Between that and healing times, you'e going to use much, much more of your roster and it really is worth cycling through to keep everyone trained up. Weapon and armour management is also once more a thing, as Long War removes the squad upgrade option; new weapons have to be built individually and supplies are at a premium. Something is nicking most of my drops and I still don't know what. Maybe if I can get the Officer corpse I need to make a skulljack(3) I can finally find out!

Finally, there's the whole question of managing the resistance. I've barely got into that, and although it mostly seems simple - each resistance member at a haven can scavenge for supplies, snoop for intel, recruit new resistance members or hide - I suspect it may become important later and I may regret not paying more attention now. Given that the havens are now persistent entities with characters who do things for me, I anticipate retaliation missions feeling a lot more personal.

(1) Attempting anything with less than 200% infiltration is a doomed venture, at least with basic gear. Once I can send a couple of heavily armoured ninjas into the field, I may spec a squad for short infiltrations.
(2) I'm basically not committed enough to break the cycle, so I never get the catharsis of victory to counter the constant frustration.
(3) Proving Ground projects don't need huge amounts of supplies, but tend to require 'parts', and since most of your missions end in evac, you don't have as many stiffs lying around. You can't pick up dead or incapacitated enemies and carry them to evac; I've tried.

Friday, 20 January 2017

First Thoughts on Long War 2

Moar choices!
Back in the days of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a group of enthusiastic fans produced 'Long War', a massive full mod which extended and expanded the gameplay with more soldier classes, tech tiers and missions. When it came to making XCOM 2, instead of slapping these upstarts with a cease and desist order, Firaxis Games gave Long War Studios (now Pavonis Interactive) early access to the project so that they could begin work on 'Long War 2', a similarly epic reworking of the sequel. The mod was released yesterday via Steam Workshop, and it resoundingly kicked my arse.

Make no mistake, Long War 2 is not just about making XCOM 2 last longer, it makes it tough. Entry level missions have Sectoids and armoured drones with stun guns, and new ADVENT troops like the Engineer with her grenade launcher and the Sentry with her mad Overwatch skillz, and they all dodge like absolute bastards. Your hit rates are for shit and there's every chance that even a successful shot will be dodged for a minor graze. Oh, and there are a lot of them on each level, with a tendency to converge on you as soon as you go loud.

Now, it's not all doom and gloom. First, you begin the game with a few extra bits and bobs, in particular three grenade/utility slots, nanoweave vests - which provide 'protection' instead of extra health, which means that the first few damage levels don't count as wounds - and sweet, sweet flashbang grenades. Within the first mission I had come to love these little beauties, so much so that I felt betrayed the first time an ADVENT Engineer lobbed one back at me. On the other hand, regular frag grenades are much less reliable.

In addition, you begin with the ability to ship eight soldiers on the Skyranger, so you can send a hell of a lot of hurt out in a single package; the flipside is that you no longer land in the combat zone. The Skyranger drops off your squad and they infiltrate the AO, a process which takes several days, and longer the more people you send and the more heavily tooled up they are. Missions are time limited, and if you don't have time to fully infiltrate the already bastard hard opposition is increased. At low infiltration levels, the mission launch screen advises that the opposition is 'impregnable.' So, while you can send eight heavily armed bastards, unless you have plenty of time available, it may be better to send a leaner squad to face a reduced defence. As an additional factor, emergency extraction is not instant; it takes time for the Skyranger to fly in. Best not to hold out to the bitter end.

All in all, Long War 2 is a tougher, grittier version of XCOM 2, with more choices to make and much more of a feeling that you are scrabbling against the real power in the world. There's a whole extra level to the Strategic game as well, with Resistance Havens to manage and a sector control game I haven't even touched on yet on account of getting my arse kicked in the missions the whole time. Now, partly this is because I screwed up. The game assigns all of your squaddies from the first mission to a single squad - a pre-assigned group of soldiers that can be quickly selected in the load-out screen - and I didn't mix them up, so I have one unwieldy group of shitkickers and a bunch of frail and unsupported rookies instead of salting the veterans across the squads to support the newbies in leveling up. And partly it's because the game is brutal.

Monday, 16 January 2017

A Story About My Uncle

A Story About My Uncle
A Story About My Uncle is a non-violent, first person platform game that doesn't make me long for the ability to shoot things. This is no small achievement.

It's not that I'm against non-violent games, more that first-person platforming is often frustrating enough to make the most placid of players want to run off and set fire to things, just to relieve the tension the nineteenth time they misjudge the same jump. The great achievement of A Story About My Uncle is to never let you get that frustrated. You can always see what you need to do, even when it isn't easy, and your tool set for achieving your goals is simple enough that you never spend ages trying all the wrong things and flexible enough that you feel awesome.

The art of falling.
The game is framed as a bedtime story told by a father to his daughter, with narration being provided in a soft, accented paternal voice which really seems to have bothered a lot of people. He explains that he once went to look for his missing Uncle Fred, found a copy of his uncle's 'adventure suit' made for him, and got sucked through Fred's over-engineered garbage disposal system into a world of caverns and pools, island stacks and floating rocks, where a frog-like race of humanoids have created a community out of Fred's rubbish.

The player navigates this world using the adventure suit's power assisted jump, infinite ability to fall onto the ground (but not into water) and a grappling gauntlet. You leap between islands, and use the grapple more to accelerate and change direction than you do to drag yourself directly to another place. About an hour in, I've reached a pitch dark cave in the Chasms, where something large and scary is growling around and the mysterious outcast 'Strays' have left signs saying 'Beware' and 'Do Not Move When the Eye is Open,' so I'm not sure that everyone else in this game is as non-violent as I am.

The littlest Deep One.
The story itself is perhaps a little slight. I'm looking for my Uncle, who has been missing a few weeks, but appears to have been in the underground world far longer. The frog people want me to bring him back to them. It's not much, but given that the studio's last release was Goat Simulator it doesn't look too shabby. Currently I'm also carrying a frog-girl called Mady (short a,) which doesn't effect my mobility thanks to the suit, but provides chirpy commentary and translation of the Stray graffiti, plus the occasional hint such as pointing out that I can make some of the plants glow with my grapple; super useful out here in the dark.

So far, A Story About My Uncle is a fast, fun, intuitive platformer, and it's nice to play something a little calmer. I also prefer the narrator agreeing that it's getting late and maybe we could pick up tomorrow when I close a session to Wolfenstein sending me virtual white feathers because I want to sleep.

Disney Storytelling Adventures

One of Arya's presents that I'm hoping to get plenty of use out of was a double helping of Storytelling Adventures tins. Produced by Parragon publishing and largely themed around Disney products (although there is also a PAW Patrol one,) these are basically a kind of child's first roleplaying set, or perhaps an introductory version of the card game Once Upon a Time. Each tin - Arya has the Disney Princess and Marvel Avengers sets - contains a set of storybooks and a few cardboard models, and more importantly a set of character cards and storytelling dice (one each for feelings, actions, props and locations.)

To play the game, you pick a card and role one of the dice and use the combination to tell a part of a story. The next player can either pick a new card or use one that's already out, then rolls another die. Arya's not bad at it, although she has does tend to want to sort out the Tangled characters from the deck beforehand and roll the feelings die exclusively. Honestly, I think this is okay as long as we're telling stories together.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Pandemic: Iberia and Red November

Farewell to Catalonia.
Over the Christmas period, we played a few games. There were Disney's Storytelling Adventures sets, which I'll discuss in another post, as well as Andrews Christmas present, Pandemic: Iberia, and my birthday present, Red November.

Pandemic: Iberia takes the basic principles and gameplay of Pandemic and transplants them to the Iberian peninsula (that's basically Spain and Portugal,) where members of the Second Royal Philanthropic Expedition seek to philanthropically expedite research into the diseases ravaging the region. Unlike regular Pandemic, in which the diseases are non-specific but typically assigned to any two major diseases of recent memory, plus bird flu and the zombie plague, the threats are specific here: malaria, typhoid, cholera and scarlet fever (and not, to many people's surprise, Spanish flu, which was an early 20th century pandemic.) There are new roles, and a few new rules as well, including the unwritten rule: For the sake of us all, someone play the Nurse.

In vanilla Pandemic the Medic is often considered a must-have, but in Iberia the Nurse is essential. The cities on the map are connected by travel lines, as in the regular game, but in this case the lines are deemed to encompass regions, with a number of rules using not the city nodes but the regions to define their effect. The nurse, for example, has a token she can drop in any region adjacent to her current position. No city touching that region can then have disease cubes played into it. This is not quite OP (you can get at most five cities,) but it's still a bit of a game changer. The same is true of the Railway Man, who can build railways at an accelerated rate to make up for the fact that you can't take charter flights in this game. Ordinarily you can move one city or jump from port to port with cards, but once the rails go down you can move any number of cities that are connected by an unbroken railway. The other roles each have their uses, but these two are almost certain to see the most play.

With the lack of modern medicine, diseases in Iberia can not be cured, only researched. You can, however, prevent diseases by purifying water in a region. Purifying puts down tokens which are then removed instead of placing cubes; a potential game saver in a region about to go boom. Purification needs a card that matches one of the cities in a region, or a card of one of the researched colours. You also need to work local: Researching a disease requires a hospital to be built in a city of the appropriate colour.

Other than this, the game is identical to its predecessor, but the small changes make for a surprisingly different paying experience. It's definitely more than just a reskin.

Two gnomes are dead in the water; two have escaped.
Red November is the second edition of the game of peril aboard the eponymous sinking gnomish submarine. The core mechanic of Red November is that your gnomish sailors run around fixing things to keep alive until rescue arrives. The problem is that everything takes time, and as time passes more things go wrong. You track your turn by moving your timekeeper around the track on the outside of the board, and when you've made your move and taken your action, you draw event cards based on how far you've moved, which cause things to break. You can all die because you run out of air, boil alive, get crushed by the merciless pressure of the deep, or when the missiles go off, the reactor melts down, or the Kraken shows up and eats you(1). Individually you can die if trapped in a room that is full of water or fire.

The second edition has slightly bigger cards and a slightly bigger board, and I think there are some rules tweaks which seem to have significantly upped the difficulty. We've had individual deaths in previous games, but the chance of a TPK seems much higher in this version, with a number of instances of the two halves of the sub being completely separated from one another by blocked hatches, floodwaters and/or fire.

Red November is a game that seems extremely fiddly at first, but the timekeeping quickly becomes second nature and the game runs quickly once you get going. It's definitely at its best when things are frantic; the early stages tend to feel a bit too easy, but it's all fun and games once someone loses an eye, a few rooms start catching fire and you need to get into the flooded pump room to stop the fire using up all of the oxygen.

(1) My one sadness about the game is that in multiple playthroughs of both editions, we haven't yet been eaten by the Kraken.