All posts by brian

2018 Goals

The new year is coming, so why not draft up some overly ambitious goals? Goals are better than resolutions. Resolutions rarely come with an end state. They’re just bland statements of things I’d like to do better without any particular way of measuring whether or not I am doing better. I can resolve to eat healthier, but healthier compared to what? “Eat healthier” won’t get me to the end of the year because I can’t point to any accomplishment. It’s hard to hold myself accountable with “eat healthier”.

With that in mind, I want to improve some things so instead of saying I’m going to improve them, I’m setting some goals. To keep myself honest, expect something like a monthly check-in. That’ll serve a dual function, allowing me to share what I’ve done throughout the year, and experience public shame over what I don’t do. That’s healthy, right?

Writing/Production

I’ve been writing a lot for the last several years about video games and it’s almost always reviews. Criticism has some value, but I’d rather get away from criticism and closer to critical thinking about the games I play. In 2018, I’m going to write about something, probably video games, without that writing being a review. Additionally, I want to do more videos. I dipped my toe in video production in 2017, but I want to do more of it. I’ll probably supplement reviews with video or do video reviews.

Goal: One video per month

Goal: One non-review per month

Exercise

I didn’t run much in 2017. I took most of the year off from running because I ran a marathon in 2016 and the training for it really burned me out. I started doing weight lifting instead, using the Stronglifts 5×5 program. I wasn’t perfectly consistent with it, but it got me started. In 2018, I’m going to switch to a program (GZCLP)  that I think will help me get to some weight lifting goals. I’m also going to do it while keeping my weight under control and not losing my ability to run a 5K.

Goal: Keep my body weight under 200 lbs.

Goal: Increase max 5 rep weights

Exercise Current Max Goal Max
Squat 200 300
Bench Press 140 200
Deadlift 225 325
Overhead Press 95 150
Barbell Row 115 150

Goal: Maintain the ability to run a 33:00 5K

Being a person

I spent entirely too much free time in 2017 sitting at home, doing essentially nothing. I also have a terrible tendency to buy RPG source books, read them, love them, and never play them. In 2018, I’m going to kill some free time by playing these games. I’m guessing I’m going to end up running more of these than playing them, but I’ll get some use out of them. I’m also going to go to a gaming convention of some sort. I’m going to interact with and talk to people who share interests similar to mine, like some kind of person.

Goal: Play each of these games once

  • The Dark Eye
  • The Strange / Numenera
  • Dungeon World
  • D&D 5th edition
  • Swords Without Masters
  • Stars Without Number

Goal: Go to a con

Get Even

The number of video games that actually do something with medium that less interactive media (movies, TV) can’t accomplish is so vanishingly small. Video games are so frequently linear affairs without much opportunity for deviation that the rare ones that do something different stand out. Get Even stands out.

You are Cole Black and you can only remember one thing, a hostage rescue gone wrong. You wake up in a run down asylum where Red, your captor, has strapped a headset to you that can explore and replay memories. By replaying these memories and exploring the asylum, you have to put together the pieces to try to find out who you are, what you were doing, and who’s behind all of it.

In a lot of ways, Get Even reminds me of Condemned: Criminal Origins. Like Condemned, you have a handful of non-gun tools to explore environments and collect evidence, like blacklights, thermal vision, and an environment scanner. Collecting this information and finding documents are an important part of the game as you attempt to sort out Black’s memories. While using these tools to meticulously scour rooms is kind of fun, often I just found myself in rooms littered with documents to dump a lot of information.

However, this isn’t a walking simulator. There are guards and mercenaries everywhere. Black is equipped with a couple useful weapons, but discouraged from using them. This means most levels are stealthy affairs, and the stealth in the game isn’t exactly great. You can view enemy vision cones with your map, but the enemy’s vision extends far beyond what the cone indicates. This is no Metal Gear Solid. Additionally, you’re told upfront that your actions, including killing people in your memories, have consequences. So you’re given a cool weapon to play with, and told not to use it.

What Get Even does really well is mess with the player. At the start of the game, you know as much as Black does, so the game can reveal things to you and Black at the same time. This exploring of Black’s memories where Black doesn’t know what happens next leads to some situations where you as the player can and should question whether what you’re seeing is what actually happened or only how Black wanted to remember it. This merging of perspectives and unreliable narration are head games that other media can’t pull off, so Get Even‘s experience is pretty unique.

Looking at The Farm 51’s past titles, Get Even should be the game that gets them more positive attention. It’s a cool game that tries to create a different experience from most games and succeeds in many ways. Get Even seems to have flown under a lot of people’s’ radars, and it deserves more attention.


Reference: The Farm 51. Get Even [Namco Bandai, 2017]

Source: Purchased from Steam store.

Oxenfree

One of the things video games struggle with is human dialog, especially when they introduce player choices. It’s often stilted and flows poorly, if it’s written well at all. Many games can get serious kudos if they manage to get dialog and conversations right. Oxenfree is a game that gets it very right and it might be enough to cover its flaws.

In Oxenfree, you control Alex, a high schooler who’s gone to a beach party on a small island with her friends. However, the island has a dark history and Alex and her friends have to uncover it to find a way to save themselves when the night takes a turn for the worst.

The thing that Oxenfree does best is its conversations between characters. Your four friends are fairly chatty. The dialog is natural and well-written, but what Oxenfree brings to it is that you’re given up to three dialog choices, and when you makes those choices, you can interrupt your friends. Mass Effect did this, but your friends in Oxenfree actually react to it. It’s such a minor thing, but it goes a long way toward immersing you in what is going on.

Night School Studio is comprised of some former Telltale Games developers, so it should be no surprise that your dialog choices affect the story and how other characters think of you. However, instead of an outright “character B will remember this” type statement, you don’t really get a lot of feedback on when you’re changing hearts and minds. The only feedback you get is a little thought bubble over someone’s head with someone else’s face in it. It gives some indication that they’re thinking about that person, but not explicitly why. I like this a lot because it made my own choices feel more natural and less like I’m trying to push a friendship slider in one direction or another.

What might turn some people off is that there isn’t a lot more going on here than walking around this island and talking to your friends about the weird stuff that’s happening. There’s some very light puzzle solving, and you can choose to do a lot of backtracking to find collectible items that flesh out more of the mysterious island, but don’t expect to manage an inventory, or jump on a platform, or shoot anything. I’m not sure there was any point in time I could’ve “failed”, just dozens of opportunities to alter the story in negative ways.

While the gameplay is very light, I could not stop playing Oxenfree. I played it all over the course of a single day with the game lasting about 5 hours. The intrigue-filled story and the immersive dialog kept me around. If I was going to put it down at any time, it would’ve been during some of the item finding I did, where there wasn’t a lot of dialog but still got some payoff by finding another piece of the mystery. It nails a foreboding and dark story without being totally grim or colorless. It’s the perfect way to spend a winter weekend.


Reference: Night School Studio. Oxenfree [Night School Studio, 2016]

Source: Purchased from Steam store.

2017 Dream of Waking Video Game Awards

I play a ton of video games. It’s about time I made my own yearly awards. In an attempt to escape a simple list of games I’ve played, I’m making some categories that may or may not return next year. But that’s enough talk, let’s give out some awards!

2017 Game of the Year

NieR: Automata

I played NieR: Automata to completion twice. I’ll be the first to admit that the combat wore on me after a while, but I spent 76 hours playing this game. It was absolutely worth it. It’s an incredible game that blends good gameplay with an experience that can’t be replicated in other media. It’s instantly accessible, with plenty of options to turn down or turn up the difficulty, and you can buy all of the achievements, if that’s all you care about. NieR: Automata just wants to play it, and you should.

Runners Up: Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, What Remains of Edith Finch

2017’s 2016 Game of the Year

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

I didn’t get into Mankind Divided as quickly as I would’ve liked, which is why I bounced off of it when it came out in 2016. However, after giving it a real chance, I fell deep into it. While the main story isn’t all there, the side quests fill in the gaps very well. The city of Prague is extremely detailed and every problem has several solutions. It’s a great game, so it’s a real bummer that it didn’t do well enough to warrant a foreseeable continuation.

Runners Up: Hyper Light Drifter, Quantum Break

The “I Wish I Had More Time for This” Award

Endless Space 2

Endless Space 2 combines two things I love, 4X space games, and Endless Legend. It’s really well polished and has received several free updates with new heroes, units, gameplay improvements, and other cool stuff. I just don’t find myself with enough time to dedicate to it to really learn the systems and stick through a game.

Runners Up: Torment: Tides of Numenera, Glittermitten Grove/Frog Fractions 2

The “I Wish I Liked This Game More” Award

Prey

Prey has a lot going on that should work for me. Space, shape-shifting aliens, heavy System Shock influence. But seven hours in, it hasn’t really kept my attention. I think it’s cool, I like it, but I don’t find myself wanting to go back into it anytime soon. I couldn’t even really explain why either, it’s just not clicking with me.

Runners Up: Resident Evil 7, Pyre

The “I’m Never Going to Finish This, But It’s Still Great” Award

Heat Signature

Heat Signature’s combination of gameplay systems leads to some surprising results that never seem to run out of fun. It’s a sprawling game, and the difficulty ramps hard, so I’m almost certain to never see it to conclusion. Still, it’s fun to jump into and run a couple missions.

Runners Up: Hollow Knight, Dead Cells

Awards for Things That Aren’t Video Games That I Loved in 2017

Best Film – Blade Runner 2049

Best Album – Charly Bliss Guppy

Best Novel – Neal Asher Infinity Engine

Best TV Show – Great News Season 1

What Remains of Edith Finch

What Remains of Edith Finch reminds me a lot of Dear Esther, possibly the first “walking simulator”. Maybe it’s the narration, or the tone, or the setting, or faulty memory (it’s been a very long time since I’ve played Dear Esther) but I finished Edith Finch thinking about replaying Dear Esther. That’s not bad company to be in; Dear Esther was good but What Remains of Edith Finch is truly moving.

You are Edith Finch and you are exploring your old family home. Though you’ve been gone from it, it’s where your family always lived, and where you explore their lives and deaths. You see, you’re (probably) the last Finch.

The patchwork Finch home is an experience to explore. Every room is incredibly detailed, and they’re decorated in the manner fitting their occupants. Nearly every family member had their own rooms, and they’re all lovingly preserved. It’s kind of like going through the house of a historical figure, like the Lincoln home. It’s not quite as thoroughly interactive as Gone Home, but this is made up for by the vignettes.

While exploring, you’ll find bits and pieces of your family’s lives that take you to a little vignette about them. They seemed to all have a different style or approach, so no two were the same. Sometimes more interactive than others, these break up the exploration of the Finch house perfectly.

There’s no way to discuss the Finch family without ruining the experience, but I left the game knowing each of the Finchs by name (and there are about a dozen of them) and their personalities. It’s amazing how well their stories are constructed to be memorable and unique.

I really don’t have any criticisms of this game. It’s a beautiful, emotional experience. Pass on seeing a movie this weekend and play this game about family and death.


Reference: Giant Sparrow (developer). What Remains of Edith Finch [Annapurna Interactive, 2017]

Source: Purchased via Steam Store

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

The New Colossus is not The New Order. That much should be obvious from the title, but I want to make it perfectly clear. If you go into The New Colossus expecting more of the tone or content of The New Order, you will be disappointed. I know this because for the first half of the game, I was disappointed.

The New Colossus picks up immediately after the events of The New Order. You’ve dealt the Nazis a defeat, but not a killing blow, and they’re still in charge. But instead of liberating Europe, you’re moving on to free America. America surrendered after the Nazis dropped an atomic bomb on New York City, so you and your team of misfits are going to start a new American revolution.

I think maybe I have rose-tinted glasses when thinking back to The New Order, because I recall handily beating that game on “I am Death Incarnate” difficulty (the highest you can start with) and loving it. I started The New Colossus the same way and immediately died over and over until I realized that this isn’t fun and dialed the difficulty down to their version of “medium”. Even with the difficulty turned down, the game is still very challenging because you die very quickly if you don’t have armor. Even when you do have armor, there isn’t much indicating you’re being shot or where you’re being shot from until that armor has evaporated, and then you’re essentially done for.

However, the shooting and action does feel great. Enemies visibly react to being shot, weapons all have an appropriate punch to them, and heavy weapons can make you feel invincible. When you’re not sneaking around( which is still an option), you can run, dodge, shoot from cover, and melee, all of the options you want from an solid action game.

Thematically, The New Colossus is about revolution, and not the dour, grim game that The New Order frequently was. It rapidly switches from Nazi oppression and fascism on display to humor and humanity. It’s more rollercoaster than whiplash though, handled in a manner that few games can pull off. It’s a game that will shock you sometimes, but the shocks aren’t meaningless. They serve a purpose.

I’ve heard plenty of other people say that anyone wanting to play Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus should turn the difficulty down to easy and run through it, which I don’t particularly agree with. The action is fun and worth engaging with, even though it does suffer from lack of feedback. And running through the levels to get to the next cutscene neglects the wealth of background information in the well-done collectibles as well as the beautifully designed levels themselves. Maybe take one approach or the other, but play it. It doesn’t quite live up to The New Order, but it’s still an excellent addition to the series.

Below the cut are some thoughts and notes that will contain spoilers. This is your only warning.


Reference: Machine Games (developer). Wolfenstein 2: The New Colosssus [Bethesda Softworks, 2017]

Source: Purchased via Humble Store

Continue reading Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

Thoughts on Patreon changes

Patreon is changing how they charge patrons for their pledges in a confusing way that’s probably going to hurt creators in the short term. I’m not a creator. I’m a patron, pledged to six creators that don’t always produce a pledge charge monthly.

The change is explained here in language that isn’t particularly clear. The gist of it is that instead of charging me what I’ve pledged and taking their service fees out of what they pay to my creators, they’re going to charge me what I’ve pledged, plus a flat fee, plus a percentage per pledge to cover those service fees. This ultimately gives my creators and Patreon more money at my expense.

The bottom line is that I don’t know what I’m going to be charged next month to support the creators I’ve pledged to. Some of them are charged per month, some of them are charged per item produced, and I don’t know if those per-pledge charges are going to be applied to each item produced or once per creator.

Last month, I spent $17 supporting creators on Patreon. I can look at the list of charges and what each pledge was and it simply adds up to $17. By my math, with the same pledges, Patreon is going to charge me an additional $2.25 or $2.60 depending on how they apply the fees.

I can shoulder the additional cost. The money isn’t a big deal. The problem is that they’ve instantly added 15% to what I’m spending supporting Patreon creators. And the smaller the pledge, the more their fees are adding to it. For the odd $1 pledge, they’ve added charges equal to 37.9% of what I’m already paying. If you’re a patron with a lot of $1 pledges to many creators, congratulations; your charges are going to go up by more than a third of what you previously paid.

This sudden increase is sure to cause patrons to reevaluate how many pledges they’re willing to make monthly, particularly those with low dollar amounts. That $0.35 flat fee per pledge is a real killer. I’m personally not going to stop supporting the creators I pledge to on Patreon because most of my pledges are not that small, but this will absolutely cause me to reevaluate the small pledges I do make. I’ve seen some creators trying to come up with different tier costs to reduce the effect of these new charges on their patrons, which is admirable, but Patreon is putting them in a bad position.

Patreon should’ve been more conscious of their creators and they definitely should be more open with patrons about how much their next bill is going to be. The sticker shock next month could really damage their creators’ income for the following month as patrons unhappy about the new charges drop their pledges. It’s billed as a win for creators, and I hope it is, but it feels like it’s going to cause a backlash against them.

Brigador: Up-Armored Edition

GREAT LEADER HAS DIED. SOLO NOBRE MUST FALL.

Neon lights, an authority violently overthrown, and buildings that crumble like they’re made out of ash under your mech’s stomping feet, all to a synth soundtrack. Brigador knows exactly what it wants to be. The good news is that it mostly achieves its vision, with a couple hiccups.

You play as a mercenary collecting a paycheck by completing missions in support of the Solo Nobre Concern. They’re offering a ticket offworld if you can help them overthrow the factions controlling the city of Solo Nobre. You’ll do this in an isometric action game from a variety of mechs, tanks, and anti-grav vehicles with dozens of weapons.

At first look, Brigador might remind you of the classic Strike series (Jungle Strike, Desert Strike, Nuclear Strike, etc) of helicopter action games, due to the vehicle selection and third-person isometric perspective. That’s not a terrible comparison, but Brigador offers a lot more. Not only is there more vehicles, weapons, and pilots, but more depth to the combat.

You’re armed with two weapons, and an auxiliary ability. Each weapon has its own fire rates, and their own behaviors. There are the standard machine guns and cannons, but also mortars, lasers, and shotgun-type weapons. Your mouse controls not only set the direction of fire, but also the range of fire, so you can launch mortars over walls, spray smoke canisters in semi-circles or lines, and shoot over or past enemies. This is cool in a lot of ways for the level of control it gives you over the destruction you’re going to rain down, but it complicates what is otherwise a fairly simple action game. Instead of just pointing in the direction of the bad guys and firing away, you’ve got to actually consider their distance and aim so that you’re not shooting in front of or over them. If you can’t get this and just treat it like any twin-stick shooter, you’re going to have limited, frustrating success.

The campaign mode offers a couple dozen missions with premade pilot/vehicle/weapon combinations that are fun, but it’s kind of training wheels for the operations mode, which is much more freeform. Operations mode lets you select any pilot, vehicle, weapon you desire, and go on a multi-map romp with an open set of objectives and building difficulty. Early options and low level pilots offer easy difficulty and a couple maps to stomp through, but unlocking high level pilots will greatly increase the resistance and later operations become endurance runs to see if you can manage to keep up your health and ammo count across several sprawling maps.

The music of Brigador is also notable for perfectly pairing this dystopian mech action with Vanity and Makeup Sets synth sounds. It’s a beautifully drawn game with a moody soundtrack that comes together very well. However, some of the weapon sounds could use some work. In particular, big cannons don’t really sound like the size they are. They nail the whirring sound of very large machine guns though, which is great.

Brigador is a great action game after you’ve figured out its quirks. It’ll frequently overwhelm and stomp on you, but rarely to the point of frustration. Your implements of carnage come in a large variety, so there’s a ton of action to be had. It’s only slightly marred by disadvantaged by doing more than action games of this nature normally do when it comes to weapon control, but that’s a gift once you’ve got the hang of it.


Reference: Stellar Jockeys (developer). Brigador: Up-Armored Edition [Stellar Jockeys, 2016]

Source: Purchased via Steam

ICEY

ICEY calls itself a meta game in disguise but that disguise is real thin. When the game exits the prologue, there is a narrator constantly commentating on your actions. The narrator is the meta game part of this otherwise familiar 2D action game, and one of its biggest detractors.

You play as ICEY, a clone in a tank, or maybe a cyborg, and you have to find and kill Judas. He’s the bringer of the apocalypse, that wicked devil. At the start, that’s it. The narrator and environment reveals more of the story, sort of.

The gameplay is simple sidescrolling action. Move to the right, mash the light or heavy attack until the enemies die, then use money to upgrade your combos or life meter. It’s competent and mostly fun without getting too repetitive, but the game is rather short.

What makes ICEY unique is the Stanley Parable-esque narrator. He tells you where to go or not to go, what to do, sometimes even why you’re doing it. The narrator frequently breaks the fourth wall and addresses the player directly. He talks a lot, and the game touches on a broad range of stuff from player choice to the elder gods.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It feels like there’s something to it, some message, but it’s all given to you in bits and pieces. None of it really adds up. Also, the voice acting on the narrator is bad. It’s lifeless, and stiff. Worse, the narrator is ever present. The bad narration follows you everywhere. If you can’t get over it, you’re never going to enjoy the game.

Some of the ideas may have been lost in translation. The developers are Chinese, so it may make more sense if it were played in Chinese. But there’s not a lot of excuses for the narrator. He’s a central figure in the game and one of the least enjoyable parts. Despite these problems, I enjoyed ICEY. It’s got enough weird in it that I wanted to press on to see what else it’d do, and the action is fun. But it’s hard to deny that the time wouldn’t be better spent on The Stanley Parable and Dust: An Elysian Tail, both of which do well the narration and action parts (respectively) of what ICEY tries to accomplish.


Reference: FantaBlade Network (developer). ICEY [X.D. Network, 2017]

Source: Purchased via Steam

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

If Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is anything other than an enjoyable video game, it’s a value proposition. Developers Ninja Theory are no stranger to big budgets; they made Heavenly Sword for Sony, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West for just about every platform, and the most recent Devil May Cry game for Capcom. They know how to spend money, so it’s interesting that they’ve separated from big publishers to develop and publish Hellblade at a $30 price. The end product is mostly good.

In Hellblade, you play as titular Senua, traveling deep into Nordic territory to rescue the soul of your murdered lover. In the vein of what Ninja Theory does best, it’s a third person character action game. What makes Hellblade unique is that Senua suffers from hearing disembodied voices and seeing things that don’t exist.

A lot of the marketing around the game has to do with the challenge in trying to portray a character with mental illness. Plenty of games have tried and it’s almost always a flat portrayal of someone who’s zany or unpredictable without a lot of nuance. With the help of consultants in the neurological sciences, Ninja Theory has crafted a tortured, sympathetic character in Senua.

Another aspect of the game that reflects Ninja Theory’s experience and skill is in the look of it. It’s a beautiful game with some really incredible motion capture, particularly in the faces. They don’t look like video game faces; they’re expressive and emotional every time you see them. This really helps with connecting to the characters and feeling what they feel.

While they nailed the characters and look of the game, the game parts are kind of lacking. Each level of the game will have you doing one of two things: finding hidden objects in the environment, or fighting. The hidden object stuff is mostly clever, but it’s almost always boiled down to aligning objects in the right perspective to find the symbol you’re looking for. It doesn’t change much from beginning to end.

The combat is also not very robust. There are five enemies, excluding bosses, that you will encounter in small groups. The challenge is to keep them away from your back as they’ll try to flank you to attack. With infinite ability to dodge, and most attacks blockable, the only thing that has to be figured out is reading attacks to time blocks (or dodge), and how many whacks it’s going to take to kill the enemy. It’s fun for a while, but it really wore me down by the end. You’ve got one weapon, so once you’ve figured out how to use it, combat loses its shine.

But the thin combat and environment puzzles couldn’t keep me from seeing it through to the end. Senua and the darkness that haunts her was compelling enough on her own to keep me playing. What Ninja Theory set out to do, make a high quality game at an indie price point, is successful as long as you keep your expectations at the sub-blockbuster level.


Reference: Ninja Theory (developer). Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice [Ninja Theory, 2017]

Source: Purchased via Humble Store