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RPG Codex Gamescom Report, Part 1: Tacticool Goodness and Adventures Galore
Preview - posted by Crooked Bee on Sat 23 August 2014, 22:51:19Tags: Blackguards 2; Daedalic Entertainment; Fire; Paradox Interactive; Runemaster; The Devil's Men
Esteemed community member Darth Roxor went to Gamescom 2014 not so long ago. Here's Part 1 of what he was subjected to there.
[Written by Darth Roxor; edited by Infinitron]
As you may or may not know, I had the dubious pleasure of attending this year’s Gamescom in Cologne. I didn’t have a lot of time there, basically only one and a half days, and the whole convention itself isn’t really all that good when it comes to gathering proper information, but I tried to make the best of it and look for opportunities where possible.
In this upcoming three-part series of articles, I will write down my impressions of all the presentations I attended, and finally conclude with a chronicle and general opinion of the whole escapade. Spoiler: My opinion is obviously very positive and I’m glad I could be a part of this grand event.
Part I will cover the games shown to me by Daedalic Entertainment, as well as Paradox Interactive’s Runemaster. In Part II, I will discuss Logic Artists’ Clandestine, Little Green Men’s Starpoint Gemini 2, Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity, Reality Pump’s Raven’s Cry and Techland’s Hellraid. Part III will be dedicated solely to all the cheer and love I derived from the convention itself.
So, without further ado, sit back and enjoy the show.
The Devil’s Men
The presentation for The Devil’s Men was the first one I attended at Gamescom. The game was shown to me by narrative designer Kevin Mentz, whose record also includes Chains of Satinav and Memoria. I could only describe him as enthusiastic - he really, really, REALLY wanted to show me his game.
The Devil’s Men is a steampunk adventure game set in late 19th century England. I must admit that I immediately raised an eyebrow when Kevin mentioned the game will have a flexible storyline where choices carry consequences, “just like in Telltale’s games”, but I kept watching.
The story follows two protagonists who are different from each other in just about every way. Emily is a black-haired and dark-clothed murderer, struggling for leadership in a crime gang and running from the police. Adelaide, on the other hand, is a blonde girl in a white and teal gown, and daughter of a famous detective who disappeared under mysterious circumstances™. These two characters will have to work together to decipher the murders that have been taking place in their seaside town. However, they might also become rivals and hamper each other in various ways.
The Devil’s Men’s big selling points are its reactivity, with multiple ways of solving puzzles and appropriate consequences for each. To demonstrate this, Kevin showed me the game’s opening scenes, the first of which was essentially a tutorial where you have to find your way up a clock tower. You can either take the stairs or an elevator, and while these two options actually lead to the same outcome, what you do beforehand can make a difference. In this scene, Emily is accompanied by another ambitious bloke who will have his own opinion on which path to take. Whether you follow his opinion will affect a hidden influence meter that will change your interactions with him as the game progresses. Apparently, this is true for most characters in the game, including the two protagonists. Your influence with them will be determined by how you talk to them and how you perform certain puzzles. The consequences for your actions are never so extreme so as to lock out (or unlock) entire scenes in the game, but characters can be killed off, for example. In fact, a puzzle as early as the game's second scene may eventually lead to that. Dialogue options are presented as full sentences, but also with an icon denoting your character’s attitude, which strikes me as a little redundant, but I suppose it’s still a useful failsafe for those times when you yell “you weren’t supposed to say it like that!”.
What I liked a lot was the promise of “consumables” being included in the game. For instance, your character will have a limited supply of lockpicks that can be used to “bypass” a puzzle. But again, this is not just a binary “skip, y/n?”, but also a way of influencing the narrative. In another scene, Emily has to get behind a locked door. She can use a crowbar to force it open, causing a lot of noise and leaving behind obvious signs of burglary, or use a lockpick to move in silently. Apparently, lockpicks won’t be the only consumables in the game, and more items will appear later in the game that may, for example, determine who lives and who dies.
When the presentation ended, I had to return to Kevin's initial comment about Telltale. I asked whether the consequences and multiple solutions would actually carry some sort of weight, as in I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream or whether they would just be half-arsed flavour options. At this point, I think Kevin kind of sighed with relief. He said that he very much agrees with me that Telltale’s games leave a lot to be desired in this respect, and that The Devil’s Men will have “real” consequences affecting the game, even though implementing all of them can be ridiculously hard, both for the narrative and programming sides of development, becoming even harder the more intertwined they are.
I have to say that The Devil’s Men left me rather impressed - the game has a lot of potential. Having multiple ways of solving puzzles is a rare commodity in the adventure genre, but it's great when done right. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether all these promises will be kept.
The Devil’s Men will run on the Unity engine, and its projected release date is Q2 2015.
A short presentation on Fire followed immediately after The Devil’s Men presentation, conducted by Daedalic’s PR manager, Christina Kaiser.
The game certainly looks charming, presenting a very colourful and cartoonish world that reminded me a lot of Rayman. Its story follows Ungh, a caveman who was entrusted with the task of tending the fire source of his village. Obviously, he failed and was booted out to embark on a quest to light it again.
The idea behind Fire is pretty interesting – it’s meant to be an adventure game where not a single word is said. Instead, the focus is put on interacting with the environment, on a trial-and-error basis to some extent, checking out every prop in the level to determine its function, and putting it all together to resolve the puzzle and grab the MacGuffin needed to advance to the next level. Various combinations include launching coconuts with an anteater, and clicking on the sun to call in the night and change how some of the elements in the level play. In a way, this form of gameplay - discovering everything step by step, and finding out how it all works in order to solve what is essentially a level-wide puzzle - reminded me a little bit of The Incredible Machine.
Fire looks like a neat little game, but from the looks of it, it might be short as hell. The first level had three scenes and was over really quickly, and the full game will only have ten levels.
Fire should be released sometime around the end of 2014.
Before the actual presentation of Blackguards 2 started, I had a short chat with Kai Fiebig, Daedalic's senior producer. While the folks who showed me the adventure games seemed very enthusiastic, Fiebig struck me as a grumpy old timer of sorts. I suppose he could be considered a kind of industry dinosaur at this point, with a career that includes production, localisation, marketing, etc, for games such as Jagged Alliance 2 or the classic Command and Conquers.
After the initial small talk, he stressed to me how important it is for players to give “good feedback”. And by “good” feedback, he meant actual constructive comments, and not just “whoa, this game too hard!!!” or “wow I love you, you’re the best devs ever!!!”, which pisses him off to no end. He also said that he was curious as to how I’d react to the demo, because they’ve introduced a few changes that might anger some people, although he assured me that the end result is pretty much “Blackguards but better”.
The gameplay demo was presented by producer Johannes Kiel, who played the game, and Kai, who explained what was going on on-screen. They showed us three battles, demonstrated the game’s new “strategic” layer, explained some of the changes made to the character system and mechanics, and told us about a few additions they've made to The Dark Eye setting.
I don’t think I have to describe how the actual battles looked like - the game was more-or-less identical in appearance to the original Blackguards (although the maps used much less bloom). However, there were some key additions that need to be mentioned, most of them very welcome. For starters, in addition to your four main heroes, before each fight, you can also choose to bring in a bunch of mercenaries, up to a total party cap of 10 members. These mercenaries are free and expendable, and they come in six classes, most of which need to be unlocked via side objectives or missions. Furthermore, each battle has a starting zone where you can arrange the starting positions of your characters, so your wizard will no longer have to spawn right next to the four mean lizardmen. The interface has also been “cleaned up” a little, status effects on character portraits are much more legible, and a line of sight indicator has finally been added as well, which means finding a place from which you can shoot clearly is no longer a lottery.
New mechanics and abilities have been added to your tactical arsenal as well, such as an overwatch talent for ranged characters, or the ability to take cover behind props to defend against ranged attacks (shooting from behind cover is also possible). The biggest “game changer”, however, is the addition of a stamina mechanic. Indeed, all special attacks now have a stamina cost, and from the looks of it, it might actually be pretty significant. To put things into perspective, Naurim the dwarf would start with 40 stamina, it would cost him 20 to deliver a hammer blow, and he’d regenerate 5 per turn. Flanking still hasn’t been introduced though, because Daedalic were unable to implement it in a satisfactory method that didn't boil down to simply bumrushing everything with as many characters as possible.
Supposedly, the fights in Blackguards 2 will also be much more varied, with unique objectives and interactions, and the standard “free for all” scenarios will be much less frequent. The first battle that was presented looked like a good one – apart from having to wipe out the opposition, there were also three things of note on the map. One was a cage full of assassin mercenaries that would fight for you if you freed them (both in this battle, and as hirelings later). The second was several caged demons that the enemies would attempt to unleash. And third was a “blood chime” of some sort – these blood chimes appear on other maps as well, and let you charm demons to fight for you if you know the proper tunes. The maps themselves are going to be bigger, and the average length of a battle will be around 20-25 minutes. When I heard this, I had to remind them that the infamous lice maze could also take about as much (if not more), to which Fiebig laughed and said that there are no crypt lice in the game... except for one “surprise”.
Daedalic have introduced several changes to the The Dark Eye ruleset. Apparently, the spell failure and hit chance mechanics have been overhauled in some way, making it less likely to miss if a dude is just standing motionless next to you, although it beats me what the specifics of that are. Furthermore, Daedalic apparently got a bit sick of Aventuria's generic bestiary, so they introduced a bunch of their “own” creations – mostly demons, chimeras, shapeshifters, etc. Two of these were shown, one an insectoid creature with four arms (each one can hold a different weapon), and the other a “leaper” demon that loves to jump into mobs of characters and knock them down (careful around ledges!).
Big changes have also been made to the character system, though I must admit I’m not exactly sure of the specifics. Apparently, Blackguards' basic attributes were too confusing for the average player, so they've been streamlined into even more basic attributes like “offence” or “defence”, although Kai said the original stats are “still there” somewhere. Basically, they figured this was a better way of handling them because it was dumb how three different attributes could influence the same derived stat. This is something that I don’t quite like because, personally, I find abstract values like “offence” to be much more opaque than three different attributes that might (or might not) do the same thing, but are properly described. Maybe it’ll look better in motion. Nevertheless, you still get adventure points for battles, and you still assign them to talents and skills, just like in the original.
Taking into account these changes and the expanded bestiary, I asked how difficult it was to convince the Dark Eye license owner to incorporate them, considering how protective some of them can be (hello, Games Workshop), but apparently, it only took one long meeting of discussions and negotiations.
Now that we're done discussing the game's tactical layer, let’s say a few things about the geoscape. The original game’s chapter-based storyline is gone, replaced instead by what could be described as a “conquest mode”. The whole of southern Aventuria is now visible from the start of the game, and you must go on a blitzkrieg to conquer all of it and become its new ruler. Every location taken over will grant some bonus to your characters or mercenaries, and unlock further “nodes” that you can pillage. That doesn’t mean the “adventure” layer is gone, though, as each city you liberate™ can be entered and checked for quest opportunities, just like in the original Blackguards. Furthermore, you also get your own HQ in the form of a travelling base camp, where you can consult with your advisor, buy equipment, etc.
There are many significant things going on in the game's strategy view, as well. You are not the only force in the land, and just as you conquer lands, the enemy will try to reconquer them. If you fail at defending them, they will need to be re-reconquered, and these reconquest battles are meant to be very hard. I just hope this won’t devolve into GTA San Andreas taggin’ da hood – Blackguards edition.
The final part of the presentation was about the general changes to the narrative and reactivity. As I said, the game is no longer divided into chapters; instead, the storyline changes “dynamically” depending on the course of conquest you take. A playthrough where you first take the southern part of the map under your protection™ might be very different, both in terms of gameplay and narrative, from another where you first scorch the north. Moreover, over the course of the game, you’ll have to make many decisions that will impact the story and gameplay. Fiebig said that this time they are “real” choices, that may lead to all sorts of hilariously bad outcomes, and it’s “very easy to fuck up completely”. A few examples of these decisions include whether to torture prisoners during interrogations, and what to do with captured cities - raze them to the ground, intimidate their citizens through mass murder or leave them alone? Which is the best and why? Discuss!!!
That very much concluded the presentation. I was offered a hands-on of the demo, but it was cut short by the incoming unwashed masses with their scheduled presentations. I didn’t mind much, though - as I said, the game does pretty much look and play exactly like Blackguards, so I doubt I’d have derived any new information.
Before I left, I asked Kai what Daedalic's reasons were for including this more robust strategic layer. He said that the new strategic part is, in a way, their method of expanding on the original Blackguards and offering three things that they really wanted to include – more controllable player characters, more strategic options and more non-linearity. He also admitted that the streamlining and ease of use features are meant to get them some new players. However, they are under no illusions - they realise that they can’t cater to everyone, and that business practices like that are ultimately self-defeating. He assured me that “hardcore players” are still the most important audience for them, and considering some of the things he said earlier about the people who found it “too hard!!!”, I feel inclined to believe him.
Kai Fiebig preferred not to make any hard promises concerning the Blackguards 2's release date, but said that it should appear sometime around mid-2015.
Paradox Interactive: Runemaster
The Runemaster presentation took place during my second day at Gamescom. It was fairly quick, 30 minutes long to be precise, and conducted by Boel Bermann, game writer, and Sara Wendel-Örtqvist, senior lore developer.
I have to admit that I had no idea what Runemaster was before attending the presentation, but when it started with comments basically amounting to “We really love our RPGs! Honest! I mean, look at them stats! Such RPG!”, I expected the worst. Fortunately, what followed looked much better.
Runemaster is an rpg/strategy game hybrid of sorts based on Nordic mythology. It takes place right after Balder is killed by Loki, which sets in motion the events that would end in Ragnarok. The player’s goal is to side with one of the parties in the conflict, and either stop or aid the coming of the end of the world.
The player must first craft his avatar, choosing from six races (humans, trolls, dark elves, etc), and three rather self-explanatory classes (berserker, skald, runemaster). The hero takes on a role similar to the one in Heroes of Might and Magic 4, which means he is an active unit in battles, and can also be leveled up in different ways related to the fighter vs commander dichotomy. But apart from that, he also has access to an inventory and four “personality traits”, which are not unlike the ones found in Divinity: Original Sin, which change depending on how you tackle quests. These traits unlock various bonuses and new dialogue options as they change. You get to pick a “starting personality” in chargen, or you can answer a bunch of questions to generate it, similar to the character creation in The Elder Scrolls games.
Runemaster’s selling point is that its world and quests are randomly generated, which is meant to give every playthrough a different flavour. The general game world structure (consisting of six mythological realms - Svartalfheim, Midgard, Muspelheim, etc) and the main quest will always be the same, but all other content is procedurally generated.
What I liked about Runemaster was the inclusion of an “allegiance meter”, a way of depicting where you stand on the matter of Ragnarok, whether you are closer to Thor and order or Loki and chaos. Supposedly, every quest and decision made in the game will influence this meter, with some real and tangible instances of choice and consequence, and quests where the outcomes aren’t always obvious. Some decisions will have very predictable effects, but others that might look predictable will end up completely ass-backwards. Couple that with proper (non-voiced) dialogue trees, and the fact that the player will also have different reputations with every race in the game, and Runemaster’s narrative layer looks like it could actually turn out very cool.
As your auspicious hero strolls around the countryside looking for opportunities, he will often end up in a brawl or two. The battles in this game look a bit like a hybrid of HoMM and Sid Meier’s Pirates! – they are turn-based, with modifiers for elevation and terrain types that play a big role, and come with various objectives. At the moment there are no traps or environmental hazards on the maps, but the devs are thinking about including them. The player may field up to 5 squads on the battlefield, each squad holding 3 units, and either a hero-leader or a stat-boosting banner. The units themselves, which come in all sorts of types and vary by race and class, gain experience in combat, and also have morale values that indicate how much damage they can take before breaking and fleeing - although they will never flee out of combat, which I have to say is a little puzzling.
Another thing that I liked about the game was its army-leveling system. Units gain experience in combat, sure, but they have to get it themselves by going down and dirty. So, if you let your hero do all the fighting, you will end up with a real badass hero, but his army will be a bunch of wimps and pushovers, and while apparently this is kind of viable, an approach like that is not exactly recommended. And finally, the units don’t simply level-up with a ding! but need to be taken to a trainer, who is obviously an entrepreneurial industrialist and doesn’t work for free.
I thought Runemaster looked promising, and I couldn’t pinpoint any major problems with it. Then again, I didn’t exactly see all that much either, so who knows whether it can properly deliver a randomly generated world without all the pitfalls that usually entails. Still, in today’s world where a proper Heroes of Might and Magic simply refuses to come out, it might drive away some of that drought, especially since it already looks much better than the mind-numbingly boring King’s Bounty.
Runemaster’s estimated release date is “next winter”.
Stay tuned for Part II of my Gamescom report – Futuristics and the Popping of Moles – coming soon to an RPG Codex near you!