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RPG Codex Review: Labyrinth of Touhou 1 and 2

Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Thu 21 September 2017, 14:30:06

Tags: Labyrinth of Touhou; Labyrinth of Touhou 2

Unless you frequent the Codex's JRPG board, chances are you haven't heard about the indie Japanese RPG Labyrinth of Touhou and its sequel, Labyrinth of Touhou 2. Touhou is a setting known mostly for bullet-hell games; these two are, however, combat-focused dungeon-crawling "blobber" RPGs. Thanks to their unique spin on the standard menu-based combat system and varied and uncompromising encounter design, they have gained a niche following among people who like combat-heavy dungeon crawlers and don't mind the (overwhelming degree of) poor anime art, nonsensical dialogue, and generally extremely low-budget presentation.

In this lengthy review-meets-guide, esteemed community member Suicidal explains the two games's mechanics, including their unorthodox character switching system, and why you might want to check them out even if you've never heard of them before.

Labyrinth of Touhou and its sequel are turn-based dungeon crawlers, however they are quite a different breed of dungeon crawler compared to games like Wizardry or Might & Magic. I think it would be more accurate to say that they are a combination of a dungeon crawler and a turn-based tactical combat game. [...] [N]ever could I have imagined that some of my favorite games of recent memory would come from a tiny team of amateur game developers from Japan – a couple of turn-based dungeon crawler RPGs with hideous graphics and ghetto-tier production values, but with a level of depth and complexity in their systems and encounter design that I don’t often see. [...]

Even though the size of your party can go up to 12, only 4 characters can participate in combat at any given time, while the other 8 stay in reserve. Active characters can perform various combat actions described above, while reserve characters slowly regenerate health and mana and cannot be affected by most abilities. To bring a character from reserve into combat and vice a versa, one of the active characters must use the formation change command to make an active character switch places with someone in reserve.

Mindful use of formation switching is one of the key skills you need to succeed at combat in LoT for a few reasons. Firstly, all of your characters are actually quite weak and ensuring their survival is not easy – your armored frontline warrior WILL die to a strong magic attack, your squishy mage WILL die to an arrow to the head and your tank that specializes in mitigating damage WILL die to a defense-piercing ability. Secondly, the game has no consumables and no way to revive fallen characters in combat, something I really appreciate, because being able to hook your party members up to a nearly limitless potion life support just kills the challenge in so many games, especially Japanese RPGs. In LoT healing spells are few in number and are quite costly or have other drawbacks and require putting your healers in harm’s way. Lastly, you will be fighting a lot of powerful enemies that will assault you with all manner of nasty abilities and these battles can be very long. As a result, anticipating, preventing and negating the enemy’s actions through skillful formation changes and ability usage is extremely important in LoT, because losing the wrong character at the wrong time can lead to failure later down the road in a particular battle.

Another important thing to note is that all abilities have not only different mana costs, but also “time costs”, meaning that some abilities will delay a character’s next turn more than others. For example, using a powerful party-wide buff may delay the caster’s next turn for twice as long compared to a simple magic attack. Turn order management is another thing you will need to get good at, because knowing when it’s safe to use an ability or bring in a certain character into combat can mean the difference between victory and death. The simplest example of this would be bringing out one of your damage dealing characters to the front line, but then being unable to hide them before the enemy gets its turn and kills them.

[...] It definitely is not a game for everyone – out of the people who like RPGs it’s already limited to the niche that enjoys turn-based dungeon crawlers, and even within this niche it’s limited further to people who like their dungeon crawlers combat-focused and highly abstract and also don’t mind the anime graphics.

Will you like this game if you enjoy dungeon crawlers mostly for the exploration aspect and want to be immersed into the game’s atmosphere, to feel as if you are wandering around that haunted forest inside the screen, with death lurking around every corner? Probably not. Will you enjoy it if you play RPGs for the setting, writing and plot? Definitely not, and why are you still reading this?

However, if you enjoy killing things with a large party in a turn-based environment without the plot getting in the way; if you enjoy watching your party grow stronger with each victory, while constantly making decisions on which stats or skills to improve and which piece of equipment should go to which party member; if you enjoy fighting enemies that actually pose a challenge and WILL kill you if you go in without a plan or if you use the resources available to you unwisely – then I recommend checking these games out.​

Those are just very small excerpts from the review - which is, as mentioned, pretty detailed and goes into a lot of these games's complexities (as well as their downsides). So if you're interested, be sure to read it in full.

Read the full article: RPG Codex Review: Labyrinth of Touhou 1 and 2

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RPG Codex Report: Gamescom 2017 - Divinity Original Sin 2

Editorial - posted by JarlFrank on Wed 13 September 2017, 20:20:34

Tags: Divinity: Original Sin 2; Gamescom 2017; Larian Studios; Swen Vincke

Like every year, I went to Gamescom again to report on some currently in-development RPGs. This time, I only went to see Divinity: Original Sin 2 at Larian's booth, and Starpoint Gemini: Warlords at the Croatian game developers' booth. At least the low amount of presentations and interviews means we'll actually get to see all the Gamescom 2017 articles in 2017, so hey!

At Larian's booth, Swen Vincke presented some new features of the game to me - mostly features connected to undead player characters and the Mask of the Shapeshifter (which was a Kickstarter stretchgoal). Once the presentation is over, I assault Swen with a bunch of questions and he proceeds to give me answers that are confusing even to himself.

“Let’s just say it’s complicated, eh?”

“It’s not! Not when you’re playing it.”

“I mean from a designer’s standpoint.”

“Oh, yeah. It’s super complicated. It’s insanely complicated. The discussions that we have about these things can sometimes take very long since you always find edge cases, but it’s not that because those edge cases exist we shouldn’t do it. Sometimes you might find things that don’t make a hundred percent sense, but essentially our attitude to that is, eh fuck it.” He laughs.​

Larian certainly have the right attitude when it comes to implementing features into the game, don't they?

Read the whole interview and my write-up on the presentation in the article!

Read the full article: Codex Gamescom Report 2017 Part 1: Divinity Original Sin 2

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RPG Codex Review: Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar

Review - posted by Infinitron on Mon 21 August 2017, 00:34:28

Tags: Golden Era Games; Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar

Cleve Blakemore's magnum opus Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar seems to be causing just as much drama since its release as it did during its 23 year-long development. During its first week, it received a flurry of updates which broke saved games several times, and bugfixes have continued to be issued on a regular basis. Despite these difficulties, we resolved to review the game in a timely manner. The perfect man for the job was felipepepe, who is both an accomplished reviewer and an RPG historian familiar with Grimoire's inspirations. 16 days and 80 hours of gameplay later, I'm pleased to present his findings. (As opposed to Cleve, who summarily banned felipe from his game's Steam forum when presented with them.) Here's an excerpt, including both the bad and the good:

Of course, every RPG has a few cheesy tactics or overpowered items, spells, skills and builds. With a good guide you can usually become nearly-invincible. But I played Grimoire blindly, without even knowing what most stats do. And there were so many overpowered things - items, skills, spells and even recruitable NPCs - that you basically need a guide on how NOT to cheese: don't use Deep Freeze, Bards, Hold Monster, Lethal Blow, Vorpal Sword, Paralysis, Psychopompic Orb, Time Stop, Crown of Gorgon, etc. But even if you stop cheesing, enemies certainly won't.

More than just the numbers that pop up during combat, the enemies make little sense. Each area has an encounter table from which it draws enemies, and those can vary A LOT - in the same area you might get a large squad of fairies that will kill half your party before you can even act; OR you can get a dumb monk that will die in the first hit. Over 60 hours in I would still get to fight weak enemies from the first areas of the game! It got to the point that sometimes I had to save-scum encounters until they gave me a reasonable enemy.

Yet even beating the most powerful foes the game threw at me felt unfulfilling. Enemies never drop anything except a few keys for chests, and XP rewards are also completely unbalanced. In the same area you might fight weak enemies that give you 4,000xp, while the deadly ones will give like 100xp. By the end-game my characters needed around 200,000xp to reach the next level, but enemies there gave only like 500xp - and the game's final quest gave me only 9,000xp! As a result, I never reached level 10 with any character, and never could try the whole class change feature that supposedly allows you to unlock classes like Pirate, Assassin and Jester.

To make things weirder, Grimoire employs some controversial death mechanics: each time you resurrect a character, his constitution goes down. And some races can only be resurrected by rare spells. In games like Wizardry VII this was already a challenge but, in an unbalanced mess where character death is basically inevitable, this meant ALL my original party members eventually reached the lowest constitution possible. Since they had stopped leveling up due to poor XP, I was effectively growing weaker the more I played.

For a final showcase of how unbalanced this game is, take the Hall of Gorrors in Wizardry VII. That was the game's ultimate challenge, an optional area with super-hard boss battles, some of which would take over 20 minutes to beat with a high level party. Grimoire, of course, has its own "Hall of Gorrors" near the end, with seven optional bosses.

I killed all of them in the first turn.

So, with the combat & game balance in this sorry state, why the hell did I keep playing Grimoire?

Well, first I had a prestigious review to write. Second, because the game truly excels at one thing that modern RPGs just don't deliver: the constant call to adventure.

After you finish the first major quest and find the first of the Stone Tablets, the game opens into a massive world (this was where the Super Demo ended). Now you can explore in any direction, searching for the remaining seven Stone Tablets. It's hard to convey just how large this world is. It's easily more than twice the size of Wizardry VII, possibly thrice. While at this point the maps lose that conciseness of the initial areas, they're still reasonably sized, meaning you go through them at a quick pace, constantly experiencing new things. And some of these are quite well presented - not with fancy graphics, but with charming descriptive text, that nails that old-school AD&D-ish vibe.

You enter a new area, a giant pyramid looms in the horizon... as you get close, you cross a field of charred bones and see a humanoid rat desperately running towards you, his eyes begging for help. Before you can do anything, a light flashes atop the pyramid and burns the rat to a crisp. As the smoke dissipates, you see the giant doors of the pyramid, inviting you in. At that point, I'm sold - into the pyramid we go!

Like a RPG version of Civilization's "one more turn" cycle, there's always something just waiting to be discovered. Got into the a flooded city raided by Naga? Now there's a pirate compound for you to infiltrate by disguising yourself! Got past the pirates? Here's a magical sea chariot! And there's a sunken ship! And next to it is the Kraken that sank it! Got past it? Here's a giant ancient tower! And so on.

So yeah, the first 15-20 hours of Grimoire were an excellent RPG - the remaining 60 hours were basically a fun adventure game with broken combat.​

Read the full article: RPG Codex Review: Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar

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RPG Codex Interview: Daniel Bill on DEMIURGOS: Path of the Leviathan

Codex Interview - posted by JarlFrank on Tue 1 August 2017, 20:24:47

Tags: DEMIURGOS: Path of the Leviathan

Demiurgos: Path of the Leviathan is an interesting indie RPG currently on Kickstarter, and because the main man behind that Project, Daniel Bill, works at the same university I do, I decided to interview him. And boy, was that interview fruitful - one and a half hours of questions about his game, as well as some general discussion about RPGs and game design, which ended up providing almost 14k words of text to be made into a Codex article.

I interviewed him in German and tanslated everything to English, so if anything seems unclear to you, feel free to blame me. I'll make sure to ignore your complaints as best as I can.

The game's combat encounters sound very varied and promising, and most of the resident posters are likely to agree with his opinion on a certain Bioware title:

And every encounter is hand-placed then, right?

Yes. We’re working on one encounter right now, we didn’t manage to include it in the preview video yet, there are some boss encounters too. Like tanks from the WW1 era driving through a street, and you have to flee from the tank while you’re also shooting at enemies. When the tank gets too close, it destroys your cover. We do want that every combat – there’s one in the preview video, with the hostage situation – has something the player has to pay attention to, and maybe sometimes it’s a better approach to solve the encounter without firing your weapon, like in the hostage situation where you could endanger the hostages. And just as the hostages are released, you shoot your enemies anyway… the player can do that if he wants. We want to make every combat encounter a little special. Hand-made.

So you’re also placing some unorthodox elements into your encounters, like those tanks that can destroy your cover, in order to make encounters more varied and exciting.

And also more cinematic and action-packed. It looks pretty cool, too, when you zoom out your camera and wonder – will that tank arrive at my position in the next turn? We also have a cool fight – it’s not completely finished yet – where there’s a submarine that submerges and rises up again occasionally, and you have to fire at the submarine from afar. And you can shoot at the periscope the crew uses to look at the battlefield, and when it’s destroyed the submarine has to come to the surface which makes it easier to attack. We also have an encounter on a train! Maybe we’ll manage to finish that one before the end of the campaign and show it off. You’re on a train and have to go forward while fighting some enemies, and when you’re all the way at the front you enter the driver’s cabin.

So systemically, your combat system is going to be simple and easy to understand, but what makes the combat interesting is the variation of encounters. That means you’ll probably have few encounters, and encounters with special elements to them, so you’re probably not going to include any filler combat either, are you?

What’s filler combat?

Filler combat is… did you play Dragon Age?

Yes.

That was chock full with filler combat.

Dragon Age… [starts rambling] I don’t get what people… I played only Inquisition, and it’s… I don’t understand how one can even compare that to other games, that’s not even an RPG for me.​

To read more about the gameplay systems and philosophical themes of Demiurgos, and of course more of Daniel Bill's opinions on RPGs both old and new, go read the full article!

Read the full article: RPG Codex Interview: Daniel Bill on DEMIURGOS: Path of the Leviathan

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RPG Codex Retrospective Review: Pillars of Eternity Revisited

Review - posted by Infinitron on Tue 4 July 2017, 20:09:19

Tags: Obsidian Entertainment; Pillars of Eternity; Pillars of Eternity: The White March

Over two years ago, Obsidian released Pillars of Eternity, their crowdfunded spiritual successor to the beloved Infinity Engine games. It was a release that would ignite a months-long flamewar on the Codex and result in an unprecedented four dueling front page reviews. Yet as traumatic as those events were, today things on the forums feel very different. It would be an exaggeration to say that Pillars is a universally popular game here now, but the rage has definitely died down, the fierce critics of 2015 no longer so sure of themselves. It's hard to argue with success, after all. In a world of Torments and Tyrannys, with 900,000 copies sold and a successfully crowdfunded sequel on the way, Josh Sawyer suddenly looks like one of the more competent people in the room. But that's not the entire story. One of the reasons critical opinion of Pillars of Eternity has improved is that the game itself has improved, with a year of continuous patching and the release of a two part expansion pack - Pillars of Eternity: The White March.

We never got around to reviewing the White March when it was new. The wars that followed Pillars of Eternity's initial release had taken their toll, and both the fans and the haters just wanted to move on. It would take a while for the expansion's impact on the game to fully sink in. One of the first people who made me realize that things had changed was Grunker, abortive co-author of one of our negative reviews of Pillars, who informed me one day that with the expansion and its accompanying improvements, he now considered it one of his favorite RPGs. As that shift in mood continued, it became clear to me that we had to review The White March, and the perfect person to do it was Grunker. It's taken him a long time to come through, but the wait has been worth it. What we have for you this July 4th is not just a review of the expansion, but also an Infinity Engine retrospective and a redo of the base game review that Grunker never got to finish back in 2015. As we await the coming of Deadfire, let this be our truly final word on Pillars of Eternity. Here's an excerpt:

'The White March', Pillars of Eternity's expansion, is a testimony to what iteration and continued passion for a project can do for quality. Its narrative removes the tiresome focus from the player's role as the writer-imparted chosen one, except when it uses that gimmick for the explicit purpose of clarifying details about the story and resolving the conundrums of its main plot step by step. The story is simpler this time, less ambitious and more connected to Pillars' roleplaying roots. In many ways, Stalwart and its surroundings take the lessons learned from Gilded Vale and blows them up to fit an entire expansion. We meet believable characters with clear motives here and more importantly: we keep pushing to reveal the secrets of the ominous Durgan's Battery, secrets that are exposed to us in satisfying bits, each bit both feeding us information and deepening the wider mystery. Rather than every step bringing us another nonsensical flashback, we instead meet characters with something on the line; people, monsters and artifacts that each give us a piece to the puzzle.

[...] While the story is an improvement in its restrained simplicity, booting up The White March on patch 3.0 after playing Pillars in its original state is like playing a different game altogether. Iteration is often neglected and rushed in an industry where gamers demand to play even before games are released and publishers push for short deadlines. Even so, Josh Sawyer and his team managed to not only iterate on the systems and gameplay of Pillars of Eternity – they went at the task of updating the game with an almost autistic fervor. News of the latest patch surfaced this month.

In terms of gameplay, the constant updates, tuning and tweaking have paid dividends.

In a display of intellectual honesty that few designers can boast of, Josh Sawyer recognized his mistake and reintroduced counters as a larger part of the gameplay to incentivize tactics-switching. Obsidian's team refined the character system and made many talents more build-defining, while simultaneously diversifying abilities and nerfing strategies that were too efficient. The White March also features encounters that feel like Obsidian had a whole team of people who did nothing but plan out, test and re-test battles, filling areas with monsters placed in innovative and annoying combinations – especially on Path of the Damned difficulty – to encourage even further planning on the part of the player. Spamming the same abilities fight after fight is no longer an option, not only due to enemy resistances, but because of the placement, attack type and abilities of your opponents. Even a few, basic trash fights in difficult areas such as Longwatch Falls demand diverse tactics.

[...] There are dragon fights that feature attacks patterns so diverse you will struggle between learning them and focusing on your own actions during combat. There are avalanches of dwarven tank fighters that whittle down your party's health and ability uses. You will face high level kobold (sorry, 'Xaurip') ambushes that engage you on three levels of the same area while you struggle to control the important enemies. One encounter features a massive, 20+ enemy skirmish with human mercenaries being mind-controlled by the Mind Flayer-like Vithracks. This encounter in particular will test your crowd-control capabilities and understanding of the Engangement system as enemy berserkers launch into the air and drop on your casters. It will also test your ability to focus on the correct enemies, which, by the way, may not be what they seem at first. Groups of ghosts will strain your reliance on your characters' abilities complementing each other as they take turns being paralyzed and thus taken out of the combat equation. Monks will play racket ball with your guys, spreading them over the entirety of the battlefield while you struggle to rally your troops and push back the onslaught. Impressively coded mages will sling a multitude of spells that change dynamically depending on your own combat actions and, if you are good enough, you will face off against two dragons AND an archmage (I had to give up on that one and solve it through dialogue – making it the only fight in Pillars I have not beat).

The strength of these encounters is thanks in no small part to a continually updated AI. At launch, enemies in Pillars of Eternity would beeline towards the first character that provoked them into action, using repetitive attack patterns and a small array of skills while you wailed on them with whatever rote strategy first worked for you. Multiple patches corrected enemy behaviour, added abilities and defenses to boring enemies and padded out encounter diversity. Here, too, the obvious Sword Coast Stratagems-inspiration becomes apparant, as difficulty in White March arises from clever enemy targeting and ability selection just as much as from raw power.

[...] Itemization is another area of the game that has moved from simple sufficiency to elegant beauty. The amount of variety on display both in terms of basic gear types but also in unique equipment and item abilities has not been rivaled since Shadows of Amn. Everything from basic abilities like giving your characters another chance when they are reduced to 0 hit points to granting unique spells that can only be cast through that specific item to granting conditional immunities or buffing your character while prone. Choosing between these items is rarely a simple problem of just picking the one with the highest stats, but rather demands you factor in which enemies you are fighting, what your character build is and how your gear can become an extension of your character's abilities. Agonizing over which of all these items you are actually going to equip nevermind on which character is pure, clean RPG fun, and once you have played through the game once or twice, you will definitely have found items which inspire you to craft entire characters around them. To add to this diversity, new and very rare crafting ingredients dropped by bosses or given as quest rewards allow you to add unique enchantments on top of your favourite items.

It bears repeating that with patch 3.0 and The White March, combat and character customization in Pillars of Eternity has been iterated from a great idea with mediocre execution to something resembling flawless implementation. Excepting further games in the series, it is undoubtedly the closest you will ever come to playing Baldur's Gate II with the full Sword Coast Stratagems package – and, in many ways, it is superior. Some will find the sluggish control less appealing – it is for me – but there is no denying that the strategic variety is greater in all encounters save the most well-designed mage- and boss-battles in the Infinity Engine games. That The White March also features the most indulgent trip down D&D memory lane you are likely to play on a computer in a long time in the form of dungeon delving, lich battling and loot hunting makes the experience all the sweeter.

The lesson is that iteration is as important as having a good idea to begin with. In this regard, The White March mirrors the extensive patching and modding cycle of Baldur's Gate. Today, no die hard fan would play the Infinity Engine games without Sword Coast Stratagems, which represents one of the most detailed, iterative processes in RPG history.

Likewise, Pillars of Eternity without the latest patch, The White March and Path of the Damned difficulty is a shadow of itself, unworthy of your attention. But the full game, polished and perfected as it is, is simply a joy to play - glorious in all its complexity, sprawling wealth of content and diverse challenges. The final product after two years of patching bodes well for Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, should the lessons be carried over. In terms of gameplay, Baldur's Gate II was a clear improvement on the original and if the same is the case with the sequal to Obsidian's first, Kickstarted game, some of the IE games might finally be knocked off their perch as my favourite games.
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Jarl interviews Swen Vincke; Questions about Original Sin 2 and other things are answered.

Codex Interview - posted by JarlFrank on Wed 21 June 2017, 19:27:55

Tags: Divinity: Original Sin 2; Larian Studios; Swen Vincke

A few weeks ago I went to Ghent Dublin in Belgium Ireland to play some Divinity OS 2 with Swen and two other Larian bros. We played the game's gamemaster mode for about an hour and it was a lot of fun. Of course, I also used the opportunity to pepper Swen with some questions provided by our wonderful community.

Here's a snippet:

From Projas and Jinn I should ask if the itemization has been changed, or if you’re still using the Diabloesque item drops. Personally, I’d also like to know your reasons behind this system – in Original Sin 1 most things were hand-placed. The locations were hand-made, the encounters were hand-placed, only the items are randomized. Why do you do that and why would you say this is a good design decision?

(laughs uncomfortably) I read the Codex, so I know very well what you guys think about it, but there’s a practical point to it. We change our balancing a lot, and all of our balancing is relative, so all those stats change automatically when we change something in the base systems. That’s the first part of it. The second part is that people do replay our games, and when you replay them, you will find different things. Third point is, we do place quite a few items that are hand-placed actually, and they’re set in stone, but often we give our items only one or two fixed abilities and have the rest of the stats be flexible. So you could have a dark sword that is always there and always gives you a certain ability, but its other stats will be randomized. It’s a mix of things. When I play it, I kind of like it that way. I don’t think I’d want to have it so that I get the same item every time, because that way I could always min-max one hundred percent, knowing which items are where, and I don’t think that’s a lot of fun actually.

But, theoretically, if you use the editor and make a fan campaign, you could make everything hand-placed if you wanted?

You can fix all our mistakes, yes.​

This is the first of a three-part series of articles on my visit to Larian's Dublin studio, so if you're interested in Original Sin 2 you can keep looking forward to the other two parts. With any luck, they'll actually be released before Original Sin 2 itself!

Enjoy the interview. And make sure to give me more awkward questions next time, didn't have enough of those to ask.

Read the full article: Jarl interviews Swen Vincke; Questions about Original Sin 2 and other things are answered.

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RPG Codex Review: The Long Journey Home

Review - posted by Infinitron on Thu 8 June 2017, 23:33:45

Tags: Daedalic Entertainment; The Long Journey Home

Daedalic Entertainment's The Long Journey Home was released just nine days ago, but with E3 coming up it already feels like a thing of the past. During its five or so days of fame, the game continued to be divisive, with a parade of harsh reviews criticizing it for overly difficult and repetitive gameplay. But it also found an audience of players who appreciated what it was trying to do. Among these was the Codex's own oasis789, whose enthusiasm for the game in the weeks leading up to its release made him an obvious choice to write our review. Here's his take on The Long Journey Home's mainstream reception - and how Daedalic chose to handle it:

At this point it seems appropriate to mention complaints that the game is too hard and too much of a repetitive grind, so that the moments of fun are too few and far between. I will suggest here that 1) it is very easy to confuse playing a game badly with playing a bad game, and 2) it is precisely the degree and variety of challenges that make the game fun.

Most of this criticism about difficulty and repetitiveness is directed at the space combat and lander minigames. In combat, you control the Daedalus from the top-down on a two-dimensional field, boosting away from enemy missiles, turning if your shields are down on one side, charging up the laser battery, and lining the ship up for a broadside shot. On planets, you control the lander on a side-scrolling landscape, firing top and bottom thrusters to land safely on points of interest, where you may drill for resources, scavenge shipwrecks, or capture wildlife. It is true that the combat in TLJH is not as elegant as more action-oriented titles like Starsector, and its focus on broadside maneuvering is awkward and takes a great deal of finesse to succeed in. But the Daedalus is not a warship, and TLJH is not about combat, which is almost always a bad idea and best to be avoided. Even if the shooting starts, a wise player beats a hasty retreat and does not stick around to shoot back unless absolutely necessary. It is also true that the lander is hard to control, especially when one has to struggle with gravity and strong winds, or under the pressure of limited fuel, scorching temperatures, bad weather or violent turbulence. But there are various ways of making the lander easier to handle and more resilient to hazardous conditions, and the wise player does not attempt to land on every planet either. So I can only interpret much of this criticism as being more revealing about the critic than that which is being critiqued.

To give a concrete example, consider that players may, against the express advice given in the tutorial that refining is generally not as efficient as trade, opt to be a subsistence miner, landing on every planet and drilling and siphoning as much as possible, and refining the resources for repairs and fuel. Upon discovering that such an approach will cost more in damage to the lander and injuries to the pilot, the sane response is not to keep doing the same thing and expect different results, but to think carefully about which planets are safe to land on, and what resources are worth risking damage for. Then plan a course to systems where you are most likely to find such planets and resources. Then experiment to discover which aliens prefer which resources, that some types of resources are more valuable than others, and that the best trades do not involve anything that requires drilling or siphoning. Then adapt to change those plans when one only finds planets poor in riches or dangerous to approach or land on, or poor trading partners who do not take well to price negotiation. The game does not explicitly tell you how to do any of these things, but it does not seem unreasonable for players with common sense to figure it out for themselves.

Consider combat. Players are very likely to be attacked by all sorts of enemies for all kinds of reasons, but fighting them all will only end up damaging the ship if not destroying it completely, and one generally does not gain much from victory either. Various approaches to this problem include staying far away and hoping they do not notice your presence in the system, and if they set a course to intercept you, you can boost away. If they do intercept you, you can do as they ask, maybe pay them off, and go about your business. Or you could run off without saying a word. Though the game is certainly much easier if you are good at combat, players who aren't or don't enjoy it have many options to avoid combat altogether.

Since receiving this barrage of criticism, DSW has hastily patched in a new 'Story Mode' difficulty setting. This brings to mind the old saying 'be careful what you wish for, it might come true.' Veterans of Star Control II will recall that the combat and lander minigames there were certainly annoying, but both got trivialized once one got all the upgrades, making a large chunk of its gameplay just going through the motions. Analogously, 'Story Mode' may allow players to experience more of the Cobbett-written content more quickly than they would have otherwise, but it will also likely diminish much of their own player-driven emergent stories. Consider some of the toughest lander scenarios: Scans might have found rare gases on a gas giant, and you have to search through its layers for the gas pockets while fighting strong winds, using gravity to get through harsh turbulence swiftly, but not letting the lander fall too far and get crushed by pressure. Or you might have identified ruins on a fiery inferno, and rush to reach the temple entrance before the pilot is cooked in his own space suit. Or you might risk landing on an infested world, carefully avoiding getting too close to the ground while hovering over a volcanic vent. All of the above examples are generally Bad Ideas and Last Resorts, which is what makes them the highlights of a comeback story. If `Story Mode' prevents players from ever encountering such challenges, or removes the need to ever take them on, their long journey home will likely be a very short and uneventful one. DSW will probably then discover that complaints about difficulty swiftly transform into complaints about boredom.​

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RPG Codex Review: Expeditions: Viking

Review - posted by Infinitron on Fri 19 May 2017, 21:34:00

Tags: Expeditions: Viking; Logic Artists

Over the course of its 2+ year long development, I couldn't help but feel that the Codex community was turning its nose up at Expeditions: Viking. In the post-Skyrim era, its choice of setting was viewed by many as cliched and unambitious compared to its predecessor, Expeditions: Conquistador, even as they conceded that it looked like a solid product. That choice of setting does seem to have helped it sell decently enough for an indie title, despite a notoriously buggy launch. Such is the way of the world. Be that as it may, Viking is one of the few significant traditional RPG releases of early 2017 and it deserves a thorough review. For that, we enlisted the esteemed Tigranes, who proved himself with his Tyranny review back in January. In his review, he finds Viking to be a solid historical roleplaying experience, unfortunately let down by severe balance and difficulty curve issues. With the rate that the game is receiving patches, it's possible that much of this critique won't be very relevant in a month, but we had to draw the line somewhere! Here's an excerpt:

The loss of this old formula is not an accident, but a price deliberately paid. For better or for worse, Viking has introduced a new formula to replace the old – and wants to be judged on those merits. As I said, Viking is much closer to a quest/story-driven WRPG, taking place in fully rendered towns – including genre staples like urban robberies, missing villagers and even a few FedEx quests. Given that this is the second game from a small studio, the level of quality and quantity achieved is generally impressive. There are plenty of quests, many of which exhibit a credible degree of choice & consequences by being weaved into the faction-based storyline. The premise is simple: you journey to Britain and suck up to the Picts and/or the Northumbrians – with the typical result that you side with one of them, or fight them both. There is a reasonably robust depiction of the interests and needs of the factions, and then the ways in which a marauding band of Vikings might enter that picture. Your landfall near a quiet English village is greeted by fear, anxiety, and language issues; should miscommunication (or your violent intent) result in a massacre, you’ll have to explain yourself to the Northumbrians soon after. The bishop will constantly preach on about how you are all doomed as heathens to the fires of hell, but admit willingly that even barbarians might be of use in weeding out another heretic cult. Throughout, the looting and pillaging work done by other Vikings – and sometimes, by you – will rouse resentment and suspicion that you’ll have to assuage one way or another. For the most part, Viking ensures that the sensible consequences to the course of events are charted out, though they never approach, say, the complexity of Fallout: New Vegas.

The quests and faction politics are backed up by a setting that puts the historical backdrop to good use – but also has the good sense to refrain from ham-fisted clichés. There are no freedum-lovin’ rough-and-tumble Picts versus the civilised Northumbrians here (which would, in any case, not be particularly historical) – only two powerful fiefdoms that are both wary of foreign interlopers, and yet willing to do business with them where profitable. Priests will describe your faith as barbaric as a matter of course, but you will also find locals that are still wed to pre-Roman paganism, or a regional cult that exhibits a weird syncretism of Roman founding myths and Christian rituals. To be sure, if you’re looking for full fidelity to history, you won’t find it; but I think it was a wise move for the game to avoid, say, roping in well-known people and events from the history books, which would inevitably annoy anyone who knows the period well. The setting remains a backdrop, mostly avoiding egregious historical inaccuracies while leveraging the material for a sensible gameworld.

All this is achieved through writing that, for the most part, knows when to do its job and when to butt out. Just as with Conquistador, this is not a game you primarily play for the intricate writing – and Viking, to its credit, has realised it. That sounds like damning by faint praise, but it is in fact high praise: there is nothing more obnoxious than a bad writer who won’t shut up (digging myself a giant hole here, etc). Dialogue rarely overstays its welcome. Companions are decent, if unspectacular, saying just enough lines to establish their character then getting out of your way. Sure, there is Ketill, the childhood friend whose quest involves finding his parents, and Nefja, who had to leave behind a sick sister to join the expedition; but the melodrama is largely confined to an optional quest or two, without devolving into Biowarian milksoppery. The writing also differentiates reasonably well between the views and beliefs of different characters, rather than each one mouthing the writer’s thoughts: Nefja, the same one so concerned with her family, will happily advise that the kid who helped you was ‘a coward and a thief’, and we might as well stab, behead, and desecrate his corpse to further your goals. The plot as a whole also stays refreshingly grounded, as well. You begin by newly inheriting a clan, whose sovereignty is challenged by a powerful neighbouring Thegn, and you end by proving at the Althing that you have gained enough military clout to protect your claim. There is no preposterously grandious war, Ancient Evil, or mysterious arcane phenomena that has spoiled so many other CRPG narratives.

[...] And now we come to the combat – the most important aspect of both Conquistador and Viking, given that you spend the bulk of your playing time fighting. Conquistador had a very good turn-based combat system, which mixed in a robust spread of character abilities with an attractive lineup of consumables to offer a properly tactical experience. Shields must be batted away or broken down to damage the wielder; archers can be confounded by use of cover or distractions; trip-rope and caltrops foil the fast-moving flankers. Here, the underlying formula remains the same; players of Conquistador will recognise and enjoy Viking’s combat immediately. And yet. Once again, the changes to the combination of features in and beyond the combat system effects the experience in mixed ways.

Let’s start with the positives. Viking provides a reasonably balanced and diverse set of abilities to customise your band. Dual-wielders, shield users, bow specialists, or healers versed in ‘totally-not-magic-we-swear’ witchcraft all play very differently. (Hell, Christian characters, allied and enemy, have their own pseudomagic tree in 'Benediction' - a nice touch.) There are sensible synergies built in as well: axemen are good for knocking away shields, opening the way for others to strike. A shield-user might knock an enemy down, at which point the knife-wielder can jump in for a deathblow. Spears can distract enemies, disabling their attack of opportunity as your archer flees the melee. Add in consumables, and Viking has enough toys in the basket to support the dozens of battles it has you fight. This comment also extends to the enemies, most of whom are human and share a similar range of equipment and abilities. The one exception, wolves, also feature several distinct characteristics. Viking’s switch to a more scripted RPG model ensures that there are few trash mobs, and the encounter design as a whole adds significant value to the game.

The problem comes when you plug this combat into the game as a whole. By far the biggest, and most inexcusable, failure is the complete lack of any difficulty. The most difficult, ‘Insane’, might as well be called Story Time. Consider that you will often take six men with you into battle, and normally face between five and ten enemies. Most battles give you the initiative, and any halfway competent player can take out between one and three enemies in that first turn. You do the maths. After the half-way point in my playthrough, I realised it was a waste of time to bother with consumables, or indeed half of the abilities and tactics available to me, since I could roflstomp my way through almost every battle. (Ironically, if not for this problem, Viking’s difficulty settings would be worthy of high praise; it provides customisable sliders for everything that it influences.) This nonexistence of challenge sucks a huge amount of fun out of this kind of game. I realised I didn’t even need to camp after days of marching, because even a hungry and sleep-deprived band could easily emerge victorious. This is a huge departure from Conquistador, and by far the worst thing about Viking.

[...] Is Expeditions: Viking a good game? Yes, yes it is. My criticisms are many, but they address the relatively lofty heights to which the game clearly aspires: a turn-based tactical RPG that somehow merges elements of an exploratory, resource-management strategic layer with a quest/story-driven model. The results are ambiguous, and in many ways, I prefer the tightly woven mechanics of Conquistador. But if you were to ask me whether it is worth the money, I would answer, absolutely: it is a game that provides robust turn-based tactical combat, a competently written historical setting, and plenty of entertaining quests. I dearly hope that the Expeditions series continues – and continues to tinker its formula.​

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RPG Codex Review: Battle Brothers

Review - posted by Infinitron on Fri 12 May 2017, 23:44:15

Tags: Battle Brothers; Overhype Studios

As I said a number of times before its release, Battle Brothers was one of the Codex's most anticipated and hyped up games, and its final release appears to have been fairly well-received. A game like that deserves the most prestigious of reviewers. Darth Roxor, however, isn't much into hype. In a review that was as arduous for him to write as the game was to play, he finds Battle Brothers to be a skeleton of a game, containing the basics of a solid combat system but cripplingly repetitive and lacking in content. Have a snippet:

But those are just details compared to the biggest combat flaw in Battle Brothers that, to me, nearly invalidates the entire game’s purpose – the non-existent level design.

The combat maps in BB are generic tiled surfaces. They are flat as a pancake, with only some “elevated” hexes that just give you stat bonuses from height advantage or make running around slightly more inconvenient. They almost always start with the same “your dudes on the left, their dudes on the right” setup. There is nothing to actually do on them, because any sort of extended manoeuvring is pointless, except on mountain maps where you run to the nearest hill and bunker up, swamps where you have to run out of penalty-inducing water tiles should you start in them, or forests, which arguably is the only tile set with any room for some movement due to all the trees and shrubs that form natural chokepoints (and bring you even more “fun” moments with line of fire).

Worse yet, this lack of level design directly diminishes the value of BB’s otherwise robust bestiary. While the enemy types are fairly numerous, they get predictable very fast, to the point that you need just one or two fights against a “new” enemy to know everything he has to offer – this is particularly sad because many of the foes actually have various tricks up their sleeve and really clever AI scripts that will take you completely by surprise during your first encounter, like a necromancer who will always keep a “bodyguard” zombie next to him to obstruct the firing lines of your archers. But after that, it becomes routine, because the setup is always the same, and you can never expect something new to happen. Compare it, for example, to X-COM. Four sectoids with plasma rifles don’t appear like much. But depending on whether they landed or crash landed, in a medium or large scout, on a farmstead, in shopping mall or a jungle, your hunt against them will vary greatly. There is hardly anything of the sort to find in BB.

I can’t stress it enough how fatal are the two aspects above when it comes to any “staying power” Battle Brothers could have. A large, a huge part of all games like this is working with and against the environment. Setting up ambushes, moving carefully around corners, navigating through rooftops, tearing down walls that stand in your way, all of that is incredibly important to add a layer of emergent gameplay and replayability that is vital for everything. Without this emergent gameplay and the sense of unpredictability rising from enemies hiding somewhere in the fog of war, Battle Brothers gets old very soon. Same maps, same fights, same enemies, all the time until the bitter end is the name of the game here. As the game goes on and breaches a certain point where the strongest enemies start appearing, it’s over. The only new thing you’re ever going to see are increased numbers, with enemy mobs going from 6 to 12 to 20 and finally to 40. It’s nothing but tiresome.

[...] Much like its character sprites, Battle Brothers just doesn’t have a leg to stand on. It feels more like a tech demo of a combat engine, with some trappings of a full game haphazardly glued on to it. Sure, the basic battle system might be nice, but there’s only so much you can do with it when there is no variety to speak of. BB is in desperate need of either modding support or a very, very big expansion that would give it some damned content.

Furthermore, it’s a confused game that tries to pose itself as “fast and furious”, with lots of difficulty, lethality and roster shuffling, but it forgets to pair the extra high risk with a sufficiently high reward. I have no idea how anyone, barring the greatest of masochists, could play this on iron man mode without going crazy.

With as little substance and as much tiresome repetition as there is to it, Battle Brothers just gets very old very fast. It feels good to great for the first 20 or so hours, when you’re still starry eyed, thinking of what the future of your warband might hold, sometimes getting surprised by new enemies and not feeling like you’ve been decapitated each time a character dies. But as you keep going on, you start noticing that you’re doing the same things over and over again, and the only thing that changes is the power with which you’re getting kicked in the balls. It turns less and less fulfilling, until it devolves into nothing more than a time sink, but one which is less exciting than Freecell.

Out of diligence, I decided to finish at least one full playthrough before writing this review, where “playthrough” I defined as stopping the late game crisis. After the aforementioned first 20 hours, I just kept asking myself “why am I playing this instead of Xenonauts/JA2/X-COM mods/etc” all the time. You can assume I’d asked myself that question many times, because it wasn’t until 45 hours in that the game finally decided to grace me with an ending to my woes. Afterwards, I was legitimately happy that I’d never have to play it again, which stands in direct contrast with other representatives of the genre that can be picked up and played almost anytime you want.

Still, at least for the first 15-20 hours it’s good enough, so you may try giving it a spin and find out if your tolerance for repetitiveness is higher than mine – you might just even become enamored enough by the combat itself that you won’t notice all the surrounding issues. Only remember to abandon ship once you start feeling burnt out because, I assure you, it won’t be getting any better past that point.​

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RPG Codex Interview: Julian Gollop on Phoenix Point

Codex Interview - posted by Infinitron on Fri 5 May 2017, 20:59:05

Tags: Julian Gollop; Phoenix Point; Snapshot Games

Of all the members of the oldschool game developer pantheon, original X-COM creator Julian Gollop is among the most admirable. With a career spanning over three decades, he's remained humble and unlike many others has never lost his passion for nitty-gritty game design. These days, Julian and his studio are working on Phoenix Point, an X-COM spiritual successor with some interesting twists, and they're currently seeking funding for it on Fig. Prestigious community member sser, who is a connoisseur of all things tactical and a big Gollop fan, decided to send him some questions. It's a more cursory style of interview than our usual, but I'm happy to have an excuse to promote this game. Here's an excerpt:

So the big question: Time Units or 2-AP or a mix? Lot of folks chomping at the bit to know this one, ha.

It seems to be a really contentious issue. At the moment we have a nominal 2 action system which is extended by two things. Firstly, if an enemy becomes spotted during movement, then movement is halted, allowing the player to react by either moving or firing. Secondly a range of special actions can extend the number of things a character can do in a turn. These cost 'will points'. Overall its more flexible than modern XCOMs, but still keeps the pace of the game relatively high. My concern with a pure Time Unit system is that it can result in the most optimally effective play being very slow, and ultimately a bit boring. There may be other ways to solve this, and we will experiment some more without a doubt.

New-XCOM uses ‘abilities’ for its units, and in Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars you implemented something very similar, with the squad being a toolkit and each squaddie a unique ‘tool’ with abilities directed toward very specific solutions. Will Phoenix Point use a system similar to this or return to the hands-off approach of the original X-Com?

Phoenix Point uses willpower as a key stat. A character's willpower rating determines initial and maximum will points for a battle. Will points are spent on most special actions and abilities. Will points can be lost through injury, morale effects (such as comrades dying or facing a horrifying monster) and special enemy attacks. Forcing will points below zero may cause panic and loss of sanity. Will points can be recovered by resting or through special abilities, such as a leader rallying action.

What sort of squad compositions can we expect in Phoenix Point? And how can we expect the squads to develop on the strategy screen over time?

Squad sizes will range from 4 to 16 roughly, but the larger battles will be base defence missions (which don't happen too often). The player will be encouraged to keep squad sizes smaller due to experience point bonuses for smaller squads. The main limitations for squad size will be the availability of healthy soldiers and transport capacity. There won't be other arbitrary restrictions.

Enemy mutations seem to be a key-point in the game’s design. “Evolution” of objects in games has been a design that surfaces now and again in games, sometimes quite overtly (Spore, Impossible Creatures). With the creature designs, it almost seems like if you lost a squaddie you might see them and their lost equipment repurposed against you in a future monstrosity. What level of ‘evolution’ can we expect out of our enemies, or out of the world in general?

Alien mutations are based on archetypes which have a particular 'chassis', such as 'humanoid', mixed with body parts based on animal groups, such as 'cephalopod'. Each body part may mutate, providing different functions and capability. It's possible to have a human with relatively minor mutations, such as a tentacled arm, or to have something much more alien looking. The evolution aspect is based on a response to poor performance in battle. If a particular mutant type does badly, it will be mutated in a random fashion. If the new mutation does well, then more of them will be deployed. Each body part type has three levels of improvement, and when a random mutation occurs to a part that has been used previously, the next level of that part is used. Different alien archetypes will arise from different parts of the world, based on the animals that are native to that part of the world.

You mentioned on Reddit that the ‘pod popping’ XCOM system will not be in Phoenix Point. Excellent! But it begs the question, if the baddies are roaming about independently of the player, can we expect them to be pursuing their own objectives? And will they scare players by opening and slamming doors in the fog of war?

The enemies will indeed be pursuing objectives, depending on the mission. If they enemy is attacking a haven, or one of your bases, they will actively seek to destroy the vital functional elements of the base or haven. Aliens will also attempt to kill, eat or abduct civilians. If you are attacking then you may be able to infiltrate without alerting the enemy, but once alerted they will search and attack. Sound will be an important factor, especially since the aliens deploy a thick mist in many battles. This will be indicated visually as well.

Wayward shots leading to disaster or unplanned triumph is one of the charms of procedural combat. So let’s talk bullet physics! A shot in X-Com had the chance to fly by and hit something in the distance. In XCOM, this is (for the most part) not the case, as shots ‘glue’ themselves to their targets and either hit or miss. Chaotic misses were relegated almost entirely to rockets. How is this going to be handled in Phoenix Point?

We will use a proper trajectory system for rockets, bullets, grenades and so on. Missed shots will definitely hit something, and potentially damage or destroy it. We haven't figured out a way to represent to the player the potential outcome of such attacks yet.​

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RPG Codex Report: A Codexian Visit to inXile Entertainment

Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Thu 13 April 2017, 00:18:30

Tags: Bard's Tale IV; Brian Fargo; Colin McComb; David Rogers; George Ziets; InXile Entertainment; Torment: Tides of Numenera; Wasteland 3

It's been a month and a half since the release of Torment: Tides of Numenera, and it's quite clear by now that the game has not been a success. It may not be a coincidence that shortly after its release, we received an entreaty from inXile PR representative Jim Redner. In what seemed like a direct response to my rueful Torment release newspost, Jim told us he was seeking to make peace with the Codex, and that he was willing to hear our demands. Our initial proposal was a humble one - a reveal-all AMA with George Ziets, probably the only person at inXile who still has our community's trust. To that Jim responded with a counter-proposal - an in-person visit to inXile, to be followed by an AMA with several of Torment's developers. That was an opportunity we couldn't pass up, and so a couple of weeks ago we dispatched our secret agent in Southern California to inXile's headquarters in Newport Beach. Today, I'm happy to present the report of his visit to Brian Fargo's court. Here are a few tidbits from his hard-hitting interview:

Kevin Saunders left before the end of production. Can you talk about why he left and how his departure affected production?

Brian: I can’t talk about an employee’s specific performance, but what I can do is to provide you with a factual history of things. Kevin left the project in late 2015, right? At that point, we were roughly two years into production. At that point, we’ve gotten the first pass of combat. The story was not yet at first pass. No abilities or weapons were in outside of the alpha systems. And so, at that time, if we had gone along that route, the game would not be done until the year 2018. I could not afford to stay on that path. I had to change what we were doing.

And, to talk about scope, the product was wildly over scoped. Even today, after we made the “cuts,” the original specification for the game was 600,000 words. You know how many we are at now? It’s 1.6 million words, probably a world record for a single player game. I think the only games that have more word count is MMOs done over a long period of time.

George: When recording, the guys who were doing the recording were saying, this is like one of those big MMOs, and they were shocked that it was a single player game.

Brian: After cuts, it ends up being several times what we wanted it to be. Planescape: Torment, the number that was thrown around a lot was 750,000 words. But when you talk to Avellone, he would say we actually double counted some sentences, so it might not even be that high. I think the Bible is like 700,000 words so that seems plenty of words to do a narrative piece, something that is as big as the Bible.

So basically, after two years in, I had to change plans. So those are the facts. I’m not trying to disparage Kevin, I don’t want to talk negatively about him in any way, but I can at least speak to the facts behind what was going on at that point.

We should talk about the writing, since this is a big focus for the game. Why was the game so wordy to begin with? This seems to have become a trend with Kickstarter CRPGs. Is it really necessary to force the player to read a novel? For example, why were the Meres designed as choose your own adventure stories, as opposed to isometric scenarios?

Colin: As I recall, I was sitting in a meeting with Adam and a couple of other people, and we thought, wouldn't it be cool to quickly throw out a choose your own adventure story as one particular Mere? I mentioned that to Kevin, and Kevin said "what if we did that for all of them?" That would free up our artists for other stuff as well, so we thought it was a cool idea.

Brian: I wouldn't say we decided to be so wordy but that it became so wordy because they were trying to express all the subtlety and so on.

George: Part of it was due to the excitement of reproducing the Planescape: Torment experience, where there is a lot of wordiness. I remember early on, even on the Codex, I remember there being a lot of excitement: "walls of text! walls of text! we want walls of text!"

Turns out the Codex didn't want walls of text.


Brian: There appears to be a lesson here.

George: We felt there was excitement about that, and we did want to pay off on a strong, dialogue writing and text based experience, and making really imaginative characters, and having characters with a lot of different things to say that you could explore. But also making sure that all this was optional, and for the most part it is.

We should talk about sales. Everyone can look them up for Steam. It's currently sitting around 120,000. Can you tell us how many copies were sold from other distribution sources?

Brian:
Negligible.

Were these sales expected?

Brian:
No, I'm disappointed.​

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RPG Codex Review: Torment: Tides of Numenera

Review - posted by felipepepe on Sun 12 March 2017, 08:50:47

Tags: InXile Entertainment; Torment: Tides of Numenera

What does one life matter? What can change the nature of man? And did Torment: Tides of Numenera, InXile's spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment, deliver on its promises?

For the past two weeks these have been the questions puzzling RPG fans - or at least those who aren't playing Horizon: Zero Dawn, Nier: Automata or just waiting for Mass Effect: Andromeda, that is. The press loved InXile's latest game, but the audience seems less convinced. Sales have been poor next to previous big Kickstarter RPGs, anger erupted from cut content and the reception has been mixed both on our forums and on Steam (two places that rarely agree). Making a successor to the Codex's #1 RPG of all time is obviously no simple task, so esteemed contributor Prime Junta took the job of measuring InXile's success. Here's an excerpt from the full piece:

The fatal flaw of Torment: Tides of Numenera is timidity. It is terrified of stepping out of the shadow of its ancestor, to proudly do its own thing. Instead, it imagines Torment can be captured in a formula. It apes its forms without understanding its substance. If Planescape: Torment is a monk struggling with a kôan, "What can change the nature of a man?" a red-hot iron ball in his throat which he can neither swallow nor spit out, Tides is a philosophy freshman crying into his red wine, in love with the profundity of his navel. Planescape: Torment's characters embody that central question: the succubus who took a vow of chastity, the enslaved warrior-monk from a people defined by their escape from slavery, the fragment of a collective consciousness who developed a sense of self. Tides' characters... talk about it. They're painted sticks parroting lines written for them, not flesh-and-blood characters living, breathing that question.

For example, consider companion vision quests. I achieved the best outcomes for all of the companions I had with me without even paying much attention to them, as the game goes out of its way to make absolutely sure you don't miss anything. If you've forgotten to talk to your companion, they'll remind you. If you've missed a quest trigger, the character in the next step of that vision quest will react anyway, even helpfully asking you to bring that character to him if he isn't with you at the time. Keep clicking on things, and eventually you'll get a menu to click on, giving your companion ending A, B, or C. The conversations themselves are shallow, and it doesn't matter much what you say in them as you end up in the same place anyway. You don't have any reason to care, beyond shallow feel-good humanitarianism. This is only similar in form with Planescape: Torment, where companion dilemmas are also resolved primarily through conversation. There, however, you won't even meet one of your potential companions if you don't, out of pure curiosity, buy a trinket from a merchant and then fiddle with it, attempting to figure out what it does, and exploring the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon with Dak'kon reveals as many searingly painful truths about you as it does about him.​

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RPG Codex Preview: No Truce With The Furies

Preview - posted by Infinitron on Fri 3 March 2017, 15:31:59

Tags: No Truce With The Furies; ZA/UM

Of all the Codex's indie pet projects, ZAUM Studio's No Truce With The Furies is undoubtedly the strangest and most imaginative. In these days when the the commercial viability of such projects is in doubt, strong community relations are more important than ever. Perhaps that's why last month, ZAUM invited esteemed Codex contributor Prime Junta across the Baltic to their headquarters in Tallinn, Estonia for a hands-on impression. And what an impression it made! Here's an excerpt from his writeup:

The core gameplay in No Truce is a hybrid of point-and-click adventure and RPG dialogue. There is no pixel-hunting; all interactable objects light up with the tab key, and observations brought up by successful (passive) skill checks show up as little thought bubbles you can click on. However, all interactions more complex than a single-line tooltip happen through the dialogue interface, dubbed the Feld Playback Experiment, itself an in-world mystery. Underneath ticks away a robust and parsimonious system of RPG mechanics: what appears in the dialogue interface is a product of your stats, your skills, your thought inventory, your history tracked in behind-the-scenes counters, and die rolls – subtly but effectively represented by a brief sound effect and animation of a spooling tape. Some checks are passive: a line appears in the Feld if you succeeded in an invisible stat check – for example, a successful Empathy check will have that part of your mind inform you that your interlocutor seems to have a thing going with the person they’re talking about; pass an Esprit de Corps check when you do something particularly stupid, and your partner will have your back. Others are active: you make the roll when picking the choice, with the odds displayed in a tooltip.

A great many of these checks, interactions, and dialogues happen inside your mind. Your skills and stats are talking to you, pointing out things, suggesting things to say, demanding things, making connections, causing thoughts to appear in your thought cabinet. Your reactions to these prompts will determine what kind of cop you will become: behind the scenes, counters are incremented and flags are set. There is a tremendous amount of reactivity to these stats, counters, and flags everywhere: an ashtray may spark a craving for cigarettes or do nothing at all; a successful Visual Calculus check will light up a detail in the crime scene that a less observant cop would have missed. The dialogue tree is a virtual forest, a thicket of nodes with associated thresholds and conditions, changing as you change.

There are two kinds of active checks: white ones you can return to after leveling up a skill, while you only get a single shot at a red one. The twist with those red checks is that the failures are often even more rewarding than the successes, not mechanically or in terms of achieving your aims, but in story and character. My failed checks had me in stitches: a hilariously awkward line, netting me a helpless laugh mixed with pity and a dash of sympathy, or another, which becomes a running joke. Kurvitz isn’t kidding about the “disgrace to the uniform” and “complete failure” thing. That’s what you are, or start out as. It’s up to you and your choices whether, over your adventures in the bad part of the bad part of town, you manage to climb out of it, or fade into the pale as another anonymous hobo, by way of Hobocop. Yes, you can equip a plastic bag to collect beer cans you can turn in for a few pennies in a last-ditch effort to stave off despair and defeat.

You’ll probably not want to carry that bag around all the time, however, and not just because your partner will look down on you with a mixture of embarrassment and pity. That’s because you can only equip items in each of your hands. Equip a bottle of booze and you can take a slug mid-dialogue, giving you a bonus to Physique; smoking a cigarette will boost your Intellect. Other items will have their own specific effects: towards the end of the game, you will be able to dual-wield a pack of smokes and a pistolette, should you be so inclined.

[...] Instead of an ethical alignment system, No Truce with the Furies has a political one, of a sort. You don’t track “Lawful” or “Evil,” you track things like “Fascist,” “Communist,” “Moralist,” or “Liberal.” For example, Kurvitz explains, suppose there is a black girl selling newspapers at a street corner. One of the lines you can say to her is “You’re black,” to which she will reply “Yes.” This by itself does not yet affect your Fascist counter. However, follow it up with “So what kind of music do you people listen to these days?” and it will go up a notch. Keep at it, and fascist thoughts will start appearing in your thought cabinet – an inventory for mental loot – and your brain will start feeding you ever more intensely fascist things to say. People will start to take offense, and to avoid that you might want to try to ignore those thoughts, to act normal, mouthing liberal platitudes to cover up your dark, shriveled soul, gradually turning you into a crypto-Fascist or even shifting your political identity to something more socially acceptable. Or you can embrace your inner blackshirt, rack up those fascist thoughts, and eventually process them into their final, complete, crystallised form: Revacholian Nationhood, giving a massive boost to your Physique stat. Slam down a mouthful of cheap booze on top of that, and you will be a full violent meathead, ready to Jean-Claude Van Damme the biggest, meanest kipt in town right in the face, even as you spiral deeper into alcoholism, delirium, and spite. Fascism and alcohol work well together, Kurvitz explains: Hitler started all his shit in beer halls, so if that’s the way you want to play it, he wants you too to have your moment of glory.

This doesn’t mean No Truce is a game about becoming a Fascist, even though, Kurvitz points out, cops are naturally fascist. You can cultivate and process liberal, or radical feminist, or communist thoughts just as well, and many others besides. The Thought Cabinet is central to the game. Liberals will get their vision quest, and political thoughts are by no means the only ones being tracked or processed: you will change many other aspects of your personality and way of acting, and the world will react to it.

No Truce will no doubt spark a fair number of “but what is a RPG?” threads on a fair number of RPG sites. The design decision to mediate all interactions through the dialogue interface does give it a point-and-click adventure feel; moment to moment, gameplay is reminiscent of, say, Chris Bischoff’s Stasis, as the real meat comes up in the Feld. If games like Mass Effect or The Witchers count as RPGs despite taking gameplay way out into cover shooter or twitch territory, then surely a trip in a different direction is allowed too. The Feld Playback Experiment works: it is enjoyable to interact with, it recreates pen-and-paper mechanics better and more faithfully than most action-oriented systems, and it has the welcome side effect of simplifying the programmers’ and designers’ jobs since they can represent everything as dialogue nodes, adding animations, sounds, and visual effects as necessary and as time and resources permit. Combat through dialogue isn’t without precedent, Kurvitz points out – Planescape: Torment had that bit in the Mortuary where you could break someone’s neck if your Dexterity was high enough, followed by a trip to that game’s mind cabinet if you passed a Wisdom check. Combat through the Feld will let ZA/UM sidestep a lot of the time-consuming polishing, balancing, and tuning that a tactical combat system would need. This isn’t a figurine game: it’s a tabletop RPG with narrated combat, transcribed onto a computer, stats, abilities, die-rolls, and all.​

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RPG Codex Report: Gamescom 2016 - Pathologic, Shock Tactics, End State, Demons Age and more

Editorial - posted by JarlFrank on Tue 21 February 2017, 23:55:55

Tags: Bigmoon Entertainment; Demons Age; End State; Gamescom 2016; Ice-Pick Lodge; Iron Sight; Pathologic; Pixelated Milk; Point Blank Games; Regalia; Shock Tactics; Sunburned Games; The Great Whale Road

Finally, after a long wait, here's the last part of the Codex's Gamescom 2016 report, and it comes with quite a few juicy bits.

We're starting this off with our interview with the Pathologic team:

J: Will the time limits of the original game still be...

Alexandra: That will still be in there, yes. That is still one of the basic aspects of the gameplay. In the original Pathologic, quests simply had a fail state; in the new version, we're hoping to allow the player to kind of "drag himself back into the plot." We don't want to encourage the player to load an older save file; we want to encourage him to go on playing. The original Pathologic had this mechanic of people dying if you didn't meet your quest objectives; now we want to make it a bit more flexible. Failing should be a part of the experience, because it's a depressing game; and the original Pathologic was depressing, but it also encouraged you to cheat. We want to encourage players to not cheat and embrace the despair. [laughs]

B: So if you don't die throughout the game, you can arrive at an ending?

Alexandra: Yes. Obviously, if you spend all your time just looting containers and eating and sleeping and nothing else, then the ending will be disappointing to you as a player, because it won't make much sense. Because the world moves on around you. One of the [playable] characters, the Haruspex, is perceived as a sort of messiah by some characters in the lore – and you can play as a very lazy sort of messiah who just does nothing. And maybe there will be an ending with someone else taking your place as the new messiah...

If the player wants to play against the game, we're not going to punish them in terms of resources and so on. But the ending will be more confusing to them, and that will be their punishment for not being engaged in the game. "Okay, so you wanted to play a game of looting containers? Well, you were successful in that! And as for the plot? Well, it went on without you!" For me, one of the references is The Last Express, a game which I think did it unnervingly well. This feeling of the world just moving on... Do you know, does The Last Express have any spiritual successors in that regard?

B: No, no remotely.

Alexandra: Well, for me, [Pathologic] is an attempt to work in that vein. Because The Last Express was splendid, and I found it very disappointing that the idea wasn't explored further.​

Then we give you some juicy previews of two excellent squad tactics games, Shock Tactics:

We're told that the defining element of this game compared to others of its genre is that the player is encouraged to play offensively rather than defensively, to rush foward and conquer enemy positions quickly rather than sitting back and camping. "Most games of this genre have you progress slowly, move one tile forward, one tile, another tile, look around the corner, select overwatch to defend the position and so on. We want to give the whole formula a new take and force the player to be aggressive, you have to push forward, you have to push forward quickly, you have to flank the enemy, you can't just keep your soldiers behind cover and shoot at enemies who are also behind cover until you get a good hit."

The way the game manages to achieve this is by throwing reinforcements at the player if he takes too long, so if you play defensively rather than pushing forward and fulfilling your objective, you might simply be overrun. To enable the player to actually do this with some modicum of success, the devs have implemented something they refer to as "controlled-aggressive approaches". When you tell one of your guys to move forward and he spots an enemy, the soldier will stop in his tracks and only the movement points that have been used up until that point will be substracted from the movement point pool. This means you don't have to slowly progress one tile at a time but can just charge forward without risking to rush into an enemy position that you could have spotted had you progressed more slowly. "We want to give the player as much control as possible and never take away control because of a decision he made."

Another element that supports aggressive approaches is the AI. "In some games, you can eliminate enemy groups one by one - you attack from the left flank, and the soldiers all the way over at the right flank will still patrol the area as if nothing has happened. Here, as soon as you fire off your first shot, the entire enemy base is triggered and they're going to attack your last known position, so you will have to be quick before they manage to form up and push you out." And if that isn't enough to deter the player from employing a defensive camping tactic, in most of the game's missions enemy reinforcements will spawn if the fight takes too long.

"Once you fire off your first shot, you pretty much have to take out an enemy each turn if you don't want to be overrun. Ideally, you would attack the base, go inside, wipe out the entire garrison, and when the reinforcements arrive you've already prepared an ambush for them and are ready to take them."​

...and End State:

Apart from sight, there is also sound, which works in a similar way to Silent Storm. When your guys hear footsteps, you will see where the footsteps came from and you can shoot at the enemy's position, for example when you hear footsteps behind a group of bushes and don't see anyone since they block your line of sight. Since the AI operates by the same rules as the player (the devs assured me that it doesn't cheat: it plays with the same line of sight, simulated bullet trajectories, and noise propagation rules as the player), the enemy will also be able to hear you if you run everywhere rather than slowly sneaking about, so you always have to be mindful of that. Speaking of the AI, each enemy soldier will have his own personality: one might be cautious and try to camp behind cover, setting up ambushes and trying to get interrupts; another might be more daring and charge forward with his SMG; some might even be stupid and just run into your position to be gunned down. There is a lot of variety in AI behaviors, which makes the game less predictable and requires the player to adjust his tactics. You can never be certain how the AI will react to your actions, since every single solidier has his own AI profile with slight behavioral variations.​

And finally we shine some light on the rather questionable design decisions of Demons Age:

The most questionable of these ideas is the character creation system. For reasons I did not entirely understand, you cannot create a full party of 4 to 6 characters, nor can you freely create your main character. "In games like Baldur's Gate," we are told, "you play this special character, like the Bhaalspawn, but you can choose this character to be anyone! You can be male or female, elf or dwarf, fighter or mage. Similar in action RPGs like Morrowind: you are the Nerevarine, but you can choose to be any race or class. So in the end, the character you build feels divorced from the role he takes in the game. You have a role given to you by the story, but you build a character without any backstory so it doesn't feel like that character actually is the role! To fix this, we don't let the player create just any character, but select from an amount of pre-made characters each with their own backstory, but we have enough of these to choose - many combinations of race and class and sex - that you don't feel forced to play a fixed character. It is the best of both worlds, giving you freedom while still keeping you grounded in the story! You play a prisoner from a stranded prison ship, and there are 16 prisoners from different races and different classes on the ship, each with their own backstory, and one of them will be your character."​

Apart from these major articles, there are also shorter reports about The Great Whale Road and Polish JRPG Regalia, so go and give the whole thing a read. It's worth it.

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RPG Codex Retrospective Review: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002)

Review - posted by Infinitron on Wed 15 February 2017, 23:49:11

Tags: Bethesda Softworks; Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

I'm pleased to present the next chapter in esteemed community member Deuce Traveler's chronicle of the Elder Scrolls series, coming nearly a year after his retrospective review of Battlespire (well we've actually been hoarding it since November). Released in 2002, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is widely considered to be Bethesda's last good game before their full embrace of the dark side. It's one of Deuce's favorite RPGs, so there are a lot of things that he likes about it, and a few that he doesn't. For example:

After you complete the introduction, you are processed as a released prisoner and receive your first quest: go out and get a job. You can take up your first job offer to deliver a document to an Imperial official named Caius Cosades in a faraway town, but even when you meet with him he tells you that you need to go out and find more work before he'll trust you with additional errands. I took forever to deliver that first document, instead opting to travel around and explore, investigating the small dungeon close to the ship I'd arrived on and at the same time learning about the local politics. It is in that starting dungeon that you first run into slavers holding captured Argonians and Khajiit, highlighting that this is a game that takes the racial and political strife seen in Arena and Daggerfall and cranks it up to a new level.

The Dunmer, Argonians and Khajiit have their tensions, but the stronger conflict is the one between the Imperial occupiers and the Dunmer who have lost their political independence. The game doesn't shove this conflict in your face, but you can see it everywhere, reflected in the architecture and the clothing of the different populations. The strange native architecture is found in the heartland of Vvardenfell, and the Dunmer of these cities are well-dressed and make up the overwhelming majority of the population. Argonians are more commonly found in the swamps and backwaters of the island, dressed in poor materials and living in squalor. The Imperials have several outposts and ports along the edges of Vvardenfell, which are heavily patrolled by armored soldiers. These locations have familiar Western European aesthetics, which look quite out of place next to the strange fauna and flora outside their gates.

The Dunmer themselves are quite diverse, which is another source of conflict. They might be united in their dislike of the Imperial occupation and their feelings of superiority over the poor Argonians, but if you take those external targets away the animosity is quickly directed inwards. The Dunmer Great Houses are in harsh competition for dominance over the island, and the regions they control deviate sharply in cultural norms. House Redoran is martially inclined and its members live in traditional adobe domiciles, members of House Telvanni live inside giant mushrooms and are strong practitioners of magic, and House Hlaalu mimics Imperial culture to some extent while focusing on trade and stealth. And if that's not enough, there are also several nomadic clans of Dunmer called Ashlanders who despise their urban cousins as much as they do outsiders. The Dunmer outnumber the Imperials and could probably kick them out of Vvardenfell if they wanted to, but they can't seem to get their act together enough to do so.

Moving onward, visiting Caius Cosades will initiate Morrowind's main quest, but as mentioned previously, he turns you away at first, telling you to go take some odd jobs and come back later. The game really encourages you to avoid the main quest at the beginning and to try joining up with the various factions and doing some side quests instead. These quests will beef up your character and earn you some coin to buy better equipment, so it's a good idea to take them early on. There are many joinable factions in the game, ranging from professional guilds to religious cults to Dunmer houses to the Imperial army. It's possible to rise in the ranks of a faction, but in addition to performing tasks for it you'll also need to show that you are talented enough in the appropriate skills. For example, you might be able to peform several important services for the Mages Guild using only the strength of your sword arm, but you won't get anywhere in that organization unless you also display some strong talent in spellcasting.

Morrowind's faction quests usually deal with increasing the wealth or power of the questgiver or acting against a rival, further fleshing out the game's setting. Going through a faction's entire questline is worthwhile, allowing you to earn a positive reputation through your heroics while gaining unique artifacts, such as the Skeleton Key, a high quality lockpick which is the reward for the final mission for the Thieves Guild. If I have any complaint about these quests, it's that their progression is anti-climactic. The early quests you can do for a faction are typically simple courier missions, which are usually quite low on risk if you pay to use the game's various transportation services. The financial rewards for these quests are generous enough to allow you to upgrade your equipment so that you can survive the harder ones later on. The mid-tier faction quests are the best. You might have to march deep into hostile territory to retrieve a holy relic from the body of a fallen knight, or delve into the bottom of a dungeon to retrieve lost technological marvels. But the final faction quests are too often overly simplistic, merely asking you to travel to another city and murder an NPC at their residence. By the time you get these missions, the cost of transportation will be negligible and your stats and equipment will make them utterly trivial.

When you finish a faction's final quest you become the faction leader... and that's it. There are no more missions, and you can't order the faction to do anything or make any other changes. The designers could have added some sort of random quest system like in Daggerfall, or at least have you make the occasional administrative decision to make it feel like faction business was under your control, but there's nothing like that in Morrowind. I think the game would have been better off if your character was elevated to an honorary position in the organization instead of becoming a faction head who has no executive responsibilities.​

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The Age of Incline: RPG Codex's 2012-2016 GOTY Results

Community - posted by felipepepe on Wed 8 February 2017, 01:55:25

Tags: GOTY 2016; RPG Codex; RPG Codex Awards

Are RPGs better than 5 years ago? Has Kickstarter really delivered? Have indies done any great RPG? Are we getting more PC ports? Has the "Age of Incline" truly arrived?

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Join us now as we analyze the results of our latest poll, where 800 users rated 200 RPGs from the past 5 years, and see just how real the hype really is.

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RPG Codex Review: Underrail

Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Thu 2 February 2017, 02:50:10

Tags: Stygian Software; Underrail

I bet you all thought we'd never post an Underrail review (not to be confused with Undertale or even Undertail). You know, that isometric single-character turn-based RPG with interesting and uniquely mechanically refined systems that's really fun except for Deep Caverns?

Well, think again! Thanks to the efforts of community member MediantSamuel, we now have an Underrail review -- just before the expansion comes out later this year, too. Here's an excerpt from it:

One of Underrail's best gameplay features in my opinion is its sound system. The sound system turns the enemy AI into noise sensitive beings, enabling enemies to call for help when engaging you or letting you abuse their curiosity by throwing grenades to lure them at your discretion: usually into player-made minefields so you can watch them march to their doom as though they were sound-influenced lemmings. On the flip side this also means that nearby friendly NPCs will investigate if you happen to have a shootout, often trudging in puddles of acid and caltrops while they wonder what exactly that noise was.

Enemy variety in Underrail is generally satisfying. Human enemies make up the majority of opponents but due to the above mentioned sound system and the AI’s ability to make use of traps, grenades and special abilities engaging them is always an interesting affair. As could be expected a fairly large variety of non-human enemies also exist in appropriate locations. For example the player will often find rathounds in caves which are easily dispatched while psi beetles and siphoners lingering by underground lakes may require a little more thought and effort. Well-armoured burrowers tend to populate areas in swarms and are resistant to standard ammo while creatures lurking in the darker places of the underrail take a more cautious approach to deal with.

The default experience system Oddity pairs itself nicely with stealth focused gameplay by rewarding the player for exploring and choosing not to punish or penalise them for avoiding combat as the standard Classic system would. Oddities can of course be found on enemy corpses, this way both playstyles are rewarded though this approach clearly favours combat focused characters more than pacifists. The choice of an alternative to being railroaded into fighting all the time is definitely welcome regardless of how enjoyable and well-tuned the combat actually is.

[...] Due to the somewhat infamous reputation of the Deep Caverns I think it’s only natural I cover them at least partially in this review. Launching to complaints of endlessly respawning monsters, vague directions and yet more backtracking, the Deep Caverns have suffered a variety of changes since release that intend to balance the daunting final area. I can appreciate that the final area of an old school RPG should be a slog but the Deep Caverns takes this slightly too far with enemies around every corner, low supplies and a lack of direction. Despite the positive amendments and updates throughout 2016, this beautiful and atmospheric area filled with lore and backstory is still a chore to play through and often stops playthroughs dead – something I hope Stygian Software intends to continue to work on in the near future.

[...] Whilst Underrail does have its areas of contention (Deep Caverns, backtracking, walking speed, ability cooldowns) Styg has demonstrated through recent updates that he does understand and appreciate at least some of the issues people have with Underrail and is committed to making it as great a game as he can. Despite the struggle that is the Deep Caverns the rest of the game is more than worth playing and only slightly detracts from the whole experience.​

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RPG Codex Editorial: Darth Roxor on the State of RPG Writing

Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Wed 25 January 2017, 22:50:17


In the old days, continuity in episodic media was typically seen as something to be avoided. The classical sitcom was structured so that one could watch its episodes in any order and have no problem understanding what was going on. Thus, producers reasoned, they would avoid alienating more casual viewers and maximize ratings. Sometime around the 2000s, for reasons which I won't go into here, that began to change. Continuity and the resulting increased complexity in storytelling and worldbuilding became acceptable, even valuable as a source of potential licensing opportunities. It was around this time that fans increasingly began to use terms like "franchise" and "intellectual property". The accumulation of all this detail became known as "lore", which was to be dutifully analyzed and recorded by said fans on their favored franchises' official Wiki sites.

Although videogames have never been quite as afraid of that sort of thing as the old TV shows were, they've nevertheless undergone a similar evolution. An evolution which was however attenuated by another phenomenon - the transition from text-based to fully-animated, voice-acted storytelling which happened around the same time. Game designers were forced to learn the language of cinema, which placed natural limits on their ability to indulge themselves with lore. And then Kickstarter came, and all the barriers came down. For some, it's a new golden age of RPG writing. But for many people on our forums, the kind of writing they're seeing in these neo-oldschool RPGs isn't what they wanted at all. One of the most vocal figures in this counterreaction against modern RPG writing is distinguished Codex contributor Darth Roxor, who posted a celebrated rant about it back in 2015. The following editorial is the summary of over a year of his thoughts on the matter since then. Even if you don't agree with him on some of the specifics, I think you'll find that it's one of the finer pieces that we've published. Here's an excerpt:

The third major issue is an important one for many reasons, primarily because it helps unveil even further the incompetence and lack of creativity that sits deep inside game developers. I am referring, of course, to the shallow copying of elements from other media, which don’t really fit particularly well with video games, followed by developers hailing their products not as “games”, but as “interactive [x]” and the like. Interactive movies, books, shows and whatever other stupid fads that for some reason enjoy popularity are quite possibly the main reason why the whole video game world is stuck in place and refusing to move forward, despite the claims to the contrary that sing praises of “revolutionary new art forms”, which are supposed to be found in these pseudo-genres.

When you consider someone saying that they are making, for instance, an “interactive movie”, what does that really mean? It’s simple – “I can’t for the life of mine come up with anything original, so I’ll just take cues from other, hardly even related stuff.” Why this has been encouraged for years now is particularly puzzling when you try to turn the tables. Imagine someone saying he wants to “write a movie in a book format” or “paint a novel”. Doesn’t this sound awful or, at least, incompatible? Case in point, I read a book recently that started with the author saying, “this is the movie I’ve always wanted to write” – naturally, it’s very bad pulp sci-fi/fantasy that has been planned as a trilogy from the get-go. Every entertainment or art medium has its own qualities and characteristics that can’t work well when transplanted into another one, and I wonder when will game developers finally realise this, because representatives of other media have realised that long ago. Take, for example, this short video about Buster Keaton.

How old can we say cinematography, in the sense of long movies telling actual stories, was in Keaton’s time? Let’s say roughly 15 years. Already at that time did Keaton realise that your mute visual medium cannot function properly if based on text screens. So instead he focused on what the medium does stand for – action and visuals. We are now in 2017, video games have been around for over 35 years, they have turned into a huge industry and business, and we are still stuck with people who think that touting the hundred million billion word count in their new RPG is a good idea.

Why would it be? Because more words = more content = more gud (= more payment per word for hired hack writers, but I digress)? In a development update from March, inXile say that Torment: Tides of Numenera will have a whopping 1 million words. Naturally, this can be dismissed as just fake marketing fluff, but the message still highlights a problem: why is the word count a subject of marketing? The motive behind it is obvious because it has been the same for years now: our skilled writers want it to be like a book, and a book has lots of text! Commenting upon the absurdity of the idea can be safely skipped, so let us instead draw a comparison.

Consider Tolstoy’s War and Peace – perhaps it is slightly unfair to compare TToN and War and Peace because, ultimately, a game’s text structure is going to be much different from a book – it will need functional texts, item descriptions, different dialogue choices, etc. Indeed, much of the text content may even be exclusive of each other, if we take a very generous assumption that Torment will be non-linear enough to hide a lot of these words from the player during a single playthrough. But nevertheless, let’s do it, if just to indulge a kind of perverse flight of fancy and compare a “game-as-book” to an actual book.

The Project Gutenberg edition of the novel spans over 1890 pages and roughly 570k words. Tolstoy was a world-class novelist and a master of the written word, which was certainly a factor in him being able to produce this intimidating colossus. Torment, apparently, has almost double the word count of War and Peace. I have my doubts whether the writers at inXile profess the same writing ability as Tolstoy, and whether they can make this huge mass of words engaging enough for me to read, even if I’m supposed to read only half of it. Even worse yet, more comparisons could be made to material of a more similar category, like all the fantasy series that span multiple entries, and which certainly achieve even higher word counts when put together. I’m sure we can all think of at least one such series, and we can also agree that most of them are of rather poor quality. So perhaps the real question here is not whether TToN can compare to War and Peace, but whether it can be captivating enough not to sink into mediocrity along with all the other one-million-word fantasy drivel. I would say the prospects are bleak.​

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RPG Codex Interview: Ion Hardie on Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader

Codex Interview - posted by Infinitron on Wed 18 January 2017, 22:08:08

Tags: Black Isle Studios; Chris Avellone; Interplay; Ion Hardie; Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader; Reflexive Entertainment

During Black Isle Studios' twilight years, Interplay had them publishing all sorts of third-party titles in a vain effort to stay afloat. Possibly the most interesting of these was Reflexive Entertainment's Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader, an action-RPG set in an alternate history fantasy Renaissance Europe. Due to its unique adaptation of Fallout's SPECIAL system, Lionheart had a good deal of hype going for it amongst the Black Isle fanbase. Unfortunately, despite a promising opening chapter set in the city of Barcelona, the game turned out to be a big disappointment and was soon relegated to the status of forgotten curiosity as the genre moved on to other things.

To this day, every so often somebody on the Codex will remember Lionheart, and wonder what the hell happened. A few months ago, community member Fairfax decided to finally do something about that. He established contact with lead designer Ion Hardie and via an extended email correspondence, got the details behind the game's troubled development. As an added bonus (and since it took us way too long to get around to posting this) he also got a few words from Chris Avellone, who had a small oversight role on the project. Read and enjoy:

Fairfax: Yes, most reviews focus on how the game got worse after Barcelona, and I agree, but the game deserved more credit.

Ion: We should have just made the game shorter, cut out England entirely and focused on the ending scene. We tried to do too much in the time we had. Black Isle was going under and was late with just about every milestone payment...we had to hire people that we didn't have their first paycheck for, which is always fun.

Fairfax: Did you get the milestone payments later?

Ion: We had to withhold the game eventually...at the end, they asked us to trust that they would pay us, but we had too many bad experiences for that. We did get the money, but only because we played hard ball...and Feargus was on our side.

In hindsight, it's one of the better stories of the development of the game, though we didn't think so at the time.

Fairfax: A lot of people who really disliked the game recognize Barcelona had good parts. I liked it a lot, and I felt it was a glimpse of what the game could've been under different circumstances. Did the payment issues with Interplay kick in while you guys were still developing Barcelona?

Ion: It started right as we signed the contract...they had issues getting us the initial payment. However, we were about to let a lot of people go as our "hand to mouth" development strategy wasn't working very well. As dire as Interplay's situation was, ours was at least as much so. We were literally one day away from making some really hard choices that might have shut us down for good when I heard we got the contract. As hard as it was to get money from them, Lionheart still kept us alive, and I credit Feargus for that.

To this day, I still buy whatever Obsidian makes to support them/him for helping us get the Lionheart contract. I bought one of the signed copies of Pillars of Eternity through Kickstarter for a few hundred dollars, and it sits on my shelf, unopened. I'll play it someday...when I make the time.

Fairfax: And when did that happen? I've never found information on how long the game's development took.

Ion: It took 18 months from story ideas first being thrown together to gold master, and we had to hire people in the middle, and sometimes without their first paycheck (as we discussed). We revamped the story with "the Disjunction" a few months in, and that changed everything (for the better).

Fairfax: In terms of budget, how did it compare to the other Black Isle games, for instance? And do you know how many copies were sold?

Ion: I could have told you those numbers at one point, but they've vanished in the mists of my memory. However, I do know we got the contract because we said we'd do it cheaper than just about anyone. Another remnant of our failed "hand to mouth" strategy and a sign of how desperate Interplay was that they took it. In retrospect, we bid way too low…

Fairfax: Do you remember if it was profitable?

Ion: I don't think it was profitable. The fan backlash was loud and hard to miss. They saw it as a treasured developer dying a slow death, and they wanted something to save them...and Lionheart wasn't it.

Fairfax: You mean Interplay wanting to save Black Isle?

Ion: I mean the fans wanting Lionheart to save Black Isle. The writing was on the wall that trouble was brewing. In the end, Feargus offered to make Black Isle work for an ownership stake, but Interplay said no. Probably better for Feargus that it didn't work out.​

Read the full article: RPG Codex Interview: Ion Hardie on Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader

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RPG Codex Review: Tyranny - You'd Think An Overlord Could Keep It Up

Review - posted by Infinitron on Wed 11 January 2017, 22:20:22

Tags: Obsidian Entertainment; Tyranny

Obsidian's latest RPG, Tyranny, only came out two months ago, but discussion of it seems to have pretty much died out over the holidays. One of the last people on our forums to really sink their teeth into the game before it drifted off everybody's New Posts pages was esteemed contributor Tigranes. Having recently retired from his longtime position as an Obsidian forums moderator, Tyranny seems to have put him in a contemplative mood, and he was compelled to write a review of it, which he presented to us a few weeks ago. I believe that those of you who were unhappy with our previous review's treatment of the game's narrative arc will be happy with this one. Plus, we do have a reputation for serial Obsidian reviewing to uphold. Here's the excerpt:

Let me be clear: the game I described above lasts for maybe five hours, depending on your playing speed. Then it's gone, all gone. The rest of the game is best described as "go here, kill everybody, become stronk". This is strange, because on paper, Tyranny's structure seems set up to continue the good work early on. Like The Witcher 2, you smell out all the factions in the first part, make your super-important choice (TM), then experience one of several branching storylines with X faction. And indeed, there is a nontrivial amount of nonlinearity when you try playing more than once - an asset traditionally praised by the Codex. So what's the problem?

Tyranny leaves us with the unusual lesson that having multiple paths doesn't help when the basic plot and gameplay underlying those paths is, well, bad. The Witcher 2 maintained consistency in the quality, style and density of its storytelling and gameplay before and after the branching point; Tyranny simply feels like you're riding the same boring railroad multiple times, just from slightly different angles. Of the four paths possible, I completed the 'anarchist' independent path, some of the 'rebel' path, and looked up info on the two faction paths. In all cases, the player is effectively told to go to region X, fulfil the conditions for breaking the Edict of Kyros (which means kill everyone except your chosen buddies), pick up powerful mystical macguffin, then rinse and repeat. You'll go to slightly different locations, since you won't exactly be assaulting your own faction's headquarters, and you'll fight in one playthrough a group that might help you in another. To be sure, there are relatively robust consequences to your choices in allegiance. Where you bulldozed over the local militia in one scenario, they might prove talkative and even cooperative in another, and many NPCs will have their own attitudes that cause them to rush headlong at the player for betraying their faction or take up a more cautious stance. It's not that Tyranny's branching is flawed; we know it can be fascinating to play through similar events from different ends of the stick, learning more about each side's motivations and operations, as masterfully shown in the Age of Decadence. The problem is that the core gameplay and plot at the centre of all the branches is mediocre at best, and awful at worst.

The core gameplay, as I described, is mindless box-ticking; there are almost no quests with any degree of complexity, and you are reduced to following simple directions through small, relatively linear maps. Nearly every location soon boils down to "kill baddie, get macguffin", and there are virtually no disputes to arbitrate, mysteries to solve, secrets to uncover. Although one of the main objectives in Act 2 is to gather 'evidence' of wrongdoing by the two quarrelling armies, the player never actively performs any investigation. The gameplay feels even more bare-bones because worldbuilding drops the ball as well. Whereas you were previously the lawgiver of a tyrant, mediating between two proud allied armies and subjugating a hostile population, you might now go to a forgotten dungeon of mysterious purpose or function and fight some blobby-looking mysterious creatures, or go to a burning library, fight the opposing faction, fight them some more, then pick up a mysterious item of hidden knowledge - in fact, so hidden that you never actually learn anything from it! The putrid smell of 'generic RPG' progressively overpowers the initial freshness. This becomes laughably apparent in the anarchist path: the player must constantly trot back to the ridiculously named 'Bleden Mark' (what's next, Daark Freddy and Edgy Knick?), whose dialogue each time consists of "oooh, you have grown more STRONK! Now go here, kill some people, and bring back MYSTERIOUS MAGIC ITEM, which will make you EVEN MORE STRONK." If this were a film, I'd feel sorry for the idiotic lines the actor is forced to spew.

The biggest issue is that whereas Act 1 focuses on your service as lawgiver to Kyros the Overlord, no matter what you choose, Act 2 ultimately becomes a standard RPG where your serial murder fuels your improbably fast-growing *powah* against all who might oppose you. In other words, all the things that made Tyranny's world interesting are now thrown out in favour of yet another juvenile power fantasy. To make matters worse, the game then throws at the player a motley of special magical powers, artifacts, connections, abilities, all of which remain either unexplained or handwaved. The Edict begins as the Overlord's signature move, one which obeys a set of rules that both the player and the world's denizens understand; once the power fantasy begins, they are all thrown out the window as the player's special snowflakiness allows him/her to basically do anything he/she pleases with them. And although I cannot spoil the ending here, the denouement in Act 3 is no less disappointing; there is merely a breakneck and forced elevation of the player from a hardworking fatebinder of the empire to a world-shattering power the likes of which has never been seen. (Bo-ring.) Kyros, who begins the game as an enigmatic entity whose calculated gestures allow him to control and anticipate events from afar, ends the game panicked by the newfound powers of the player - and to be fair, the player's special powers are so unexplained that it is hard to see how Kyros could have known, either. Whether in terms of plot and worldbuilding, or the actual gameplay, Tyranny just isn't compelling beyond the first Act.​

Read the full article: RPG Codex Review: Tyranny - You'd Think An Overlord Could Keep It Up

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