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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Great Games You Never Played: Wizardry 8

Wizardry 8 is a first-person party-based dungeon-crawling three-dimensional open-world role-playing game. Released in 2001 as the final entry in the long-running Wizardry series (which began in 1981 as one of the very first computer-RPGs), Wizardry 8 completes the "Dark Savant" trilogy that began with Wizardry 6, throughout which you're trying to stop an evil villain known as the Dark Savant from gaining access to the Cosmic Forge -- the tools used by the gods to create the universe, which hold the power to create, destroy, or change anything in the universe by simply writing its history into existence. Despite being a continuation of the story from the previous two games (your save files can be carried through all three games), Wizardry 8 works fine as a stand-alone title, although you'll miss a lot of references and it might take you a little longer to understand the backstory.

As part of a game series borne of the 1980s, Wizardry 8 definitely has that vintage, old-school vibe to it, but with the advantage of a much more modern skin which makes it a much easier game to get into. That's absolutely crucial, because this is a truly great RPG that easily ranks among the best RPGs ever made. It's not perfect, mind you -- there's one crucial problem that made me almost want to quit, and it's a little rough around the edges due to developer SirTech's dwindling budget -- but it's got one of the most robust party-creation systems ever implemented in a video game, and one of the best turn-based combat systems of any RPG. Not to mention a fairly sizable open-world with an interesting blend of fantasy and science-fiction elements, and a non-linear main-quest-line that allows for a lot of rewarding exploration and discovery.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Pathologic: The Marble Nest - Demo Impressions

The original Pathologic, released back in 2005 by Russian developer Ice-Pick Lodge, is one of the most unique and interesting games ever made. I reviewed it five years ago and had a lot of high praise for it. The legacy of the original game is so strong that Ice-Pick Lodge took to Kickstarter a few years ago planning a remake that would fix some of the original's critical problems while re-imagining and improving many of the story elements and gameplay mechanics. As part of the process in developing the new version, they've recently released a free playable demo called The Marble Nest, which consists of a stand-alone scenario meant to showcase some of the game's more prominent gameplay mechanisms while condensing the full game experience down to two hours. 

For the uninitiated, Pathologic is a type of survival-horror adventure game played in first-person, in which you take the role of one of three different healers who have arrived in a strange town with a bunch of bizarre and mysterious customs just as a deadly plague breaks out. The game takes place over the course of 12 days, with the town changing dramatically as the plague spreads and more and more people become infected. Each day comes with a main quest that must be completed while the clock continues to tick, leaving you a limited amount of time each day to complete your tasks. Meanwhile, you have to manage your own condition on various statistical gauges, which involves scrounging the environment for resources and manipulating a fickle economy where sometimes your only hope for survival is to sell your only weapon for a few slices of bread.

The Marble Nest maintains all of these ideas, but trims some of the more complicated survival systems and economy management down while putting you in a scenario that spans only one day. In it, you wake up some time after the plague has already wiped out most of the population, after your final quarantine zone has been breached. With seemingly all hope lost, you watch as the city collapses around you, and then the game flashes back to 14 hours prior, giving you a chance to possibly prevent the catastrophe from happening, although you'll most likely fail and everyone will die horribly, as is the true spirit of Pathologic

Monday, March 13, 2017

Titan Quest: The "Neapolitan Ice Cream" of Action-RPGs

Titan Quest is a hack-n-slash action-RPG based on ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Chinese mythology. It seemed to fly under the radar back in 2006, and yet somehow, for some reason, publisher THQ decided to release a massive free update for it 10 years later in 2016. Dubbed the "Anniversary Edition," this new version is a complete overhaul of the original game with performance tweaks, improved functionality, new features, and better balancing while also throwing in the Immortal Throne expansion. The core gameplay follows the traditions of Diablo, where you work your way through a series of levels fighting enemies, collecting randomized loot, and investing points in skill trees when you level up, all in an overhead axonometric view with a mouse-driven interface and real-time combat.

Action-RPGs aren't usually my cup of tea. I played some of the original Titan Quest back in 2007 (the "Gold Edition" box is still sitting on my shelf) as well as a few others in the genre (Diablo, Diablo 3, Dungeon Siege, Dungeon Siege 2, Path of Exile), but in each case I only played for a few hours and then lost interest. Titan Quest: Anniversary Edition is the first of this type of game that I've actually played to completion, and even then, I still technically haven't completed it because I stopped shortly after finishing the base game's campaign, having no desire to continue further with the expansion content. That should give you a pretty clear idea of how I felt about the game: I enjoyed it enough to play it through until the end, but not enough to keep going when it tried to get me to stick around for more.

Since I'm not a super-seasoned aciton-RPG person I can't get into much detail about how Titan Quest stacks up to other games in the genre, but even with my limited familiarity with these games I still find it difficult to talk about Titan Quest as its own entity because it seems like such a bog-standard, formulaic action-RPG that most of what I'd be saying about it could apply to all action-RPGs in general. I feel like this is the type of game that I could just say "it's Diablo but set in ancient Greece, Egypt, and China" and you would intuitively know if you'd like it or not. Still, I have some observations that might help shed some more light on the game and perhaps explain the Neapolitan ice cream comparison in the title.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Resident Evil 7: Banned Footage DLC Review

The first wave of DLC for Resident Evil 7 consists of two separate packs: Banned Footage Vol. 1 ($9.99) and Banned Footage Vol. 2 ($14.99). Each pack comes with two video cassette "flashbacks" plus a bonus game mode, for a total of six scenarios. Volume 1 features "Nightmare," in which you play as Clancy trapped in the basement trying to fight off waves of molded; "Bedroom," in which you play as Clancy locked in a bedroom trying to solve puzzles to escape; and "Ethan Must Die," an ultra-hard rogue-lite mini-campaign in which you play as Ethan exploring the main house and green house before fighting a boss. Volume 2 features "21," in which you play as Clancy forced by Lucas to play a sadistic version of high-stakes blackjack; "Daughters," in which you play as Zoe on the night that the Baker family starts to turn; and "Jack's 55th Birthday," in which you play as Mia in a comically bizarre time-trial scenario about searching the Baker estate for food to bring to Jack.

Since each scenario involves a completely different premise with its own unique gameplay, I'll be reviewing each scenario individually, grouped based on how they appear in the two DLC packs. I'll give my overall thoughts on the value and balance of content for each DLC pack -- essentially, whether either of them is worth buying or not -- in the conclusion section at the end of the article.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Serious Sam Sucks. Seriously.

Serious Sam hails from 2001 and alleges to be a no-nonsense, to-the-point action shooter that's simply about mowing down hordes of enemies with a full arsenal of machine guns, shotguns, and explosives while frantically running around spacious ancient Egyptian levels collecting armor, health, and ammo drops and searching for hidden secrets for extra powerups. The series is often mentioned on message boards as being one of the best 90s-style arena-shooters ever made, with people absolutely loving it for its frenetic, over-the-top action. I have a fondness for these types of games, with Doom, Painkiller, and Ziggurat ranking among my favorite FPS games. I also remember enjoying Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior back in the day, though I never finished them and haven't played either one in almost 20 years.

I went into Serious Sam: The First Encounter (as part of the Classics: Revolution version, available on Steam Early Access) fully expecting to enjoy it, based on a combination of its esteemed reputation and my appreciation for this style of game. I started out thinking "this is pretty good," but as I got further into the game it started to annoy me, and after a while I started to actively dislike it. After completing nine of its thirteen levels, I just have no desire to continue playing it any longer. The game is too tedious and repetitive to be fun, for me, and there's nothing inspiring about its weaponry or level design. Despite the promise of bombastic, over-the-top action and all-around whimsical silliness, the game feels bland to me, and it doesn't feel worth the hassle for me to push forward just to finish it.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

SOMA Review: Somewhere Beyond the Sea

"From the creators of Amnesia: The Dark Descent comes SOMA, a sci-fi horror game set below the waves of the Atlantic ocean. Struggle to survive a hostile world that will make you question your very existence." That's the product description on Steam, which labels SOMA specifically as a horror game, and even goes so far as to imply that it's not just horror -- it's survival-horror. That's kind of misleading, I feel, because SOMA really feels more like an adventure game first and foremost. The story is clearly the main point of emphasis, with you spending the bulk of the game learning about what happened to the doomed crew of the futuristic underwater research station, Pathos-II, and solving light puzzles to progress. The horror elements are definitely there -- a few monsters show up to impede your progress, and there are some good scripted scares and moments of genuine tension -- but the horror in SOMA is really more of a theme than a core gameplay mechanism.

You play as Simon Jarrett, a man suffering from a traumatic brain injury as the result of a car crash. The game begins with you agreeing to meet a researcher to take part in an experimental brain scan for a developing technology that he thinks might be able to help. You sit down to perform the brain scan, your vision goes black, and then suddenly you find yourself in another place, surrounded by metal walls and high tech computer terminals. It's dark, and there's blood on the floor. A few dive suits hang in the nearby corner. No one else seems to be around. You stumble upon a call log, in which two people talk about sealing the doors to keep "them" out and making sure everything is set to run on standby for when they evacuate. The rest of the game is a matter of finding out what this place is, what happened to it, how you got there, and how you can get back home -- if you even can at all.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Resident Evil 7: "Survival-Horror's Back, Baby!"

I used to consider myself a fan of the Resident Evil series, from the slow-paced adventure-style gameplay of the originals to the stronger action focus of the fourth main installment. But ever since Resident Evil 5, which I found to be an underwhelming letdown, I've found myself cynically jaded by the barrage of sequels and spin-offs to have been churned out by the grand corporate machine. Revelations seemed promising, but ended up subtly disappointing me on every front. I never even bothered with Resident Evil 6, and I was super skeptical of Resident Evil 7 at first. Claiming that it was taking heavy inspiration from the series' roots while adding a modernized twist on the classic formula (in the form of the first-person perspective, a series first), I was a little worried that it was going to be just another haunted house jump-scare simulator with little in the way of actual gameplay.

It certainly seemed that way for the first 30 minutes, but once I got past that introduction sequence and starting exploring the main part of the game, it really started to shine, and I realized: this is the most Resident Evil-feeling game I've played in a long, long time. It really does capture that old-school vibe of exploring a spooky house, searching for convoluted keys to ridiculously locked doors and solving puzzles to progress, while managing a limited supply of ammunition and healing items, and occasionally fighting or running away from enemies. A handful of boss battles cause the intensity to spike periodically, but Resident Evil 7 is much more of a true survival-horror game than an action shooter, despite the "innovative" first-person shooter perspective, which I might add actually does a lot for the game's atmosphere and immersion.