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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.​

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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.​

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RPG Codex Review: Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun

Review - posted by Infinitron on Wed 4 January 2017, 23:40:51

Tags: Daedalic Entertainment; Mimimi Productions; Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun

First there was Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines and its sequels. Then there was Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood and the Desperados series. Now, a new game has taken the throne of the unlabeled "character-based puzzly real-time tactics" genre. Announced back in March and released last month, Mimimi Productions' Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun shocked the jaded hearts of Codexers by proving that a genre-defining modern classic was something that could still happen in the year 2016. Although not an RPG, the Codex is always glad to post reviews of cerebral titles like Shadow Tactics, so when Ludo Lense (who also reviewed the not-quite-RPG Hard West just over a year ago) volunteered to write one up, we gladly accepted. Here's an excerpt from the finished piece:

Possibly the best way to describe the game is “Desperados-style characters with large Commandos-style maps”. The player controls a squad of Japanese period stereotypes as they go about their daily lives by ending lives with various sharp implements and high velocity projectiles. Indeed, ST is very heavy on the murder aspect. This is mainly because death is the only way to permanently neutralize guards. Of course, you can sneak about, but patrol paths are rather long so wouldn’t it be more convenient to just shank a few fellows, even if they are innocent civilians? ST makes no moral judgement on your kill count (unlike Desperados where killing civilians immediately fails the mission) but simply accepts it as another path, the easiest path.

Indeed, a big part of what makes the game tick is the badge system. The game comes with three difficulty settings and nine achievements per map called badges. These badges more or less contextualize different playstyles. Most maps have badges like no civilian kills or no kills at all. When trying to acquire them, you can see how the game's levels have this very thoughtful multilayered design which takes into account wildly different ways to play through them. My only objection is the existence of the Easy difficulty setting. It is basically a Story Mode and this type of experience doesn’t really work with such an approach. This might sound condescending, but the game is designed for you to struggle at times. There are many tools and techniques at the player’s disposal to get past different situations, and you are bound to find the proper “key” to progress forward if you try. Only the other two difficulty settings, Normal and Hard, allow for badges to be acquired, so the game does discourage the use of Easy difficulty.

The biggest innovation that ST brings to the table is verticality. A large part of the cast are basically Olympic-level gymnasts. This involves being able to jump from rooftop to rooftop and use their hookshot at predetermined locations to scale different levels of buildings. There is no mission where you don’t have an agile character, so the developers clearly knew this was an important part of the game that makes it unique among its peers. Indeed, the missions lacking in verticality are by far the weakest of the bunch. Two in particular show just how dependent the game is on this integral element. One takes place on what is arguably the game's smallest map, a tiny village with almost no hiding spots which is an exercise in tedium, and the other requires carrying a body through a war camp. Obviously it is challenging, but stripped of different levels of elevation the whole experience becomes much weaker. It is not “hard fun” as it were. On the other hand there is a mission where you have to break into a keep behind enemy lines which I personally found to be by far the best due to how height connected the map.

Complementing this vertical element are environmental modifiers that are progressively introduced to the player. Snowy areas where guards will follow your footsteps, night maps where torches can be put out but are relit by guards, puddles formed by rainfall that make a great amount of noise when stepped in, etc. There are enough such variations and scripted moments to keep feeding the player's interest at a steady pace. The game has around a dozen maps. Two thirds of the way through, it stops introducing new gameplay elements but enters into a kind of graduation mode, where the difficulty amps up and you'll need to exhibit some degree of system mastery to survive.

On top of this you have AI and enemy variety, which is where ST is tangibly weaker than its predecessors. The game has only three different enemy types, each with its own AI pattern. The devs did squeeze a lot of mileage out of them and I was surprised by how many different configurations they were able to create, but in the end I couldn’t help but feel that additional enemy types were necessary to mix things up. It is a matter of variety, not necessarily quality. The AI is the only part of the game where a random element is introduced. Enemies that are searching or alerted while looking for your characters shift their view cones haphazardly, which can make a world of difference when it comes to being spotted and starting a fight. For enemies, death is a binary affair with no numbers popping up. Your attacks kill or do not. The player characters are a bit different in that they have a set number of hit points, but they are wet paper towels except on Easy difficulty. Given that alarms spawn a large number of guards, all of whom have hitscan weapons, holding your ground isn’t really an option because ammo is quite limited. This is a clear step up from the infinite ammo in Desperados, where waiting around a corner and pumping your enemies full of lead was an all too effective tactic. Stealth is the name of the game in ST, which fits nicely with the ninjutsu theme it sells itself on.​

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RPG Codex Interview: Josh Sawyer at GDC Europe 2016

Codex Interview - posted by Infinitron on Wed 28 December 2016, 10:03:16

Tags: J.E. Sawyer; Obsidian Entertainment; Pillars of Eternity; Pillars of Eternity: The White March

Back in August, Obsidian Design Director and Codex anti-hero Josh Sawyer gave a talk at the annual Game Developers Conference in Cologne, Germany. The video of the talk, which was a Pillars of Eternity retrospective entitled Looking Back and Moving Forward with Pillars of Eternity, has yet to be publicly released, but the original slides and a summary are available. But that's not what this post is about. Former Codex contributor Bubbles was in the audience for that talk, and after it was done he met up with Josh for what was meant to be a brief interview. They ended up talking for nearly two and a half hours.

A couple of days after that Bubbles was off to Gamesom, and unfortunately he never got around to transcribing his recording of the interview before his unfortunate departure. We did however manage to secure Bubbles' permission to allow the Codex's #1 Josh Sawyer fan, Roguey, to transcribe the interview in his stead. We sent the recording to Roguey, expecting a long wait...and were provided with a near-perfect transcript less than 72 hours later. Probably should have done that sooner. So there you have it, four months late and just in time to be the last piece of Codex content for 2016. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and enjoy the read. It's a long one.

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RPG Codex Review: The Dwarves

Review - posted by Infinitron on Wed 21 December 2016, 23:52:22

Tags: KING Art Games; The Dwarves

Last July, the world learned that KING Art Games, the eclectic German game development studio best known for their Book of Unwritten Tales series of adventure games, were working on a horde combat-focused RPG called The Dwarves, based on a German series of fantasy novels of the same name. The game was Kickstarted that September and released this December, exactly 15 months later. The Dwarves wasn't really the Codex's type of game and we hadn't paid much attention to it, but Bubbles' Gamescom visits kept it on our radar. A week before the game's release, we were able to acquire a review key, which was snatched up by talented contributor sser. We've had an unprecedented backlog of content this winter and some of you will be aware by now that The Dwarves has not reviewed well elsewhere. Unfortunately, our review offers no surprises:

The Dwarves’ combat is mostly as advertised: it’s a whole lot of orcs colliding with a few dwarves and bodies don’t stay grounded for long. When it works, it looks great. You feel a momentum to the crowds of combatants and the weight of your crushing, bashing, upheaving abilities. Characters use abilities on cooldown (the horror) and have a limited amount of regenerating AP that must be expended carefully as your ‘warriors’ are amusingly unthreatening when left without. Action flows in real-time, though you'll often spend most of it pausing to assign orders and activate items.

And everything in The Dwarves is about crowd control. The best of it is knocking enemies off cliffs, obviously, but when high altitudes aren’t available you must commit to bad attitudes (oh god why). Managerial crowd control is necessary to properly batter and bash a group of misunderstood peaceniks. Enemies need to be kept bashed away, off their feet, or stunned so as to prevent your fighters from being overwhelmed. The mechanics to thin out the waves of enemies tie directly into all this CC: viridian villains take extra damage if stunned or are instantly killed if you strike at them while they’re on the ground. Your tougher enemies will be complaining on the forums as you constantly CC them into haplessness. Sometimes you can combine abilities, like bashing enemies into one spot and then gassing them. Sometimes, the chaos of the battles gets too crazy and you accidentally charge off a bridge or smash an allied character in the face.

Unfortunately, it just does not always work.

Most scenarios are simply poorly designed, oddly reminiscent of the sort of amateur attempts found on a Starcraft UMS. The battlefields are short and mowed through all-too quickly. Nice ideas, very poor execution. A great example is a snow map in which there are crevices, cliff sides, fortifications, and an army of orcs crashing down on you. My first few attempts at this map had me desperately using all the resources I had: spreading my dwarves out, using combinations, pausing constantly to queue up new orders. And I failed. Repeatedly. After coasting through so many battles, I thought I’d finally found the point in the game where it was going to turn up the heat.

Then I realized my objective was just to reach the edge of the map. This battlefield was fairly large with three branching points, but I only needed to get to one. So, what did I do? Well, your fighters can naturally push through enemies when they move so I gathered all my dwarves and simply walked through the orc hordes to the exit zone and promptly won. This theme of expedited endings is shockingly constant through The Dwarves. In far too many battles you can shortcut your way to a victory ostensibly due to a lack of foresight by the designers, why else would so many assets go virtually untouched?

The characters themselves also have so little balance done – some are absolute shit while others can carry the team singlehandedly. Combine an all-star team with a few of these wonky scenarios and you can quickly start zooming right through battles (playtime: a generous 9 hours). One feature slotted in seemingly for no reason is a ‘friends’ meter on your characters. Blandly displayed by an undescribed number on the character sheets, if fighters are friendly with one another they’ll acquire AP at a quicker rate. Honestly, I never noticed this having any effect and threw my squads together regardless of their being Facebook friend status. The items and abilities are similarly imbalanced. Some are completely worthless while others are gamebreaking. For example, one character has a single-target, low damage “stab.” For the same amount of AP, you can do an AOE that does damage in a huge cone and simultaneously sends enemies scattering on fire. Letter opener pin prick vs. napalming greenskins. Not once did I find myself weighing out the pros and cons of these things.

Speaking of enemies, there is not much variety on that front. You will mostly face orcs, surprise surprise. The orcs themselves really do not work that hard to differentiate themselves despite an ostensible ranking system. Aside from the larger ogres, I never really found myself identifying specific threats. A few other enemy types appear now and again, but I never noticed. There is a horsey type of enemy that skates across surfaces like a primadonna making the game look real fucking bad. And a couple of bosses that do the same. To the game’s credit, one of the primary villains is spookily imposing, but like a lot of fantasy idiots he’s frequently monologuing in place of murdering.

I so desperately wanted the game to just give me awesome, large, and environmentally varied battlefields to fight and survive on. Unfortunately, most scenarios are condensed into one spot and the few that find ‘range’ probably only feel long by comparison. It would have been well served by the huge scope of, say, a Freedom Force style of map where you travel large distances across varied terrain. Freedom Force had tightly designed resource usage and maps could be genuinely grueling. You’d get to the end of them with a battered squad of heroes, just surviving by the skin of your teeth. The Dwarves frequently fights in a Smash T.V.-esque phonebooth and all too rarely captures a sense of struggle despite, visually, doing a great job of making you feel hopelessly outnumbered. As the game rushes to its conclusion you are given some genuinely chaotic battlefields, but even then it just felt hamstrung. You fight one boss on the edge of a cliff about the size of a shoebox. Because The Dwarves looks its worst on these small-scale fights, this dramatic battle ended up looking more like a grade school play than the bombastic world-changer it was supposed to be.​

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RPG Codex Preview: Expeditions: Viking

Preview - posted by Infinitron on Wed 14 December 2016, 22:57:36

Tags: Expeditions: Viking; Logic Artists

Tomorrow begins the beta of Expeditions: Viking, sequel to 2013's Expeditions: Conquistador and one of next year's most anticipated indie RPGs. You may have noticed that various websites have been publishing previews of the game over the past few weeks. The RPG Codex was also offered an Expeditions: Viking preview key, but with November's RPG releases looming ahead we weren't sure what to do with it. It was former Codex collaborator Bubbles who felt that it was important that we make use of what we were offered, and one of his final actions was the recruitment of esteemed community member Abu Antar, who is a big fan Expeditions: Conquistador, to write our preview. His impressions? In short, he found Viking to be a bit better than Conquistador in some ways, a bit worse in other ways, but it's really too early to tell. Tomorrow we'll all know more, but for now, have a snippet:

Expeditions: Viking begins with a feast. Your father has passed away and you are to become the new chieftain. Some runts come in to interrupt the event, and you have to choose how to deal with the situation. This introduction eases you into the game’s mechanics and demonstrates some of the things you can expect to see throughout the game.

The game begins with a few fairly easy fights to help you get the hang of how combat works. Things get a bit more challenging later on, but I never saw a Game Over screen. Most encounters consist of six or so enemies pitted against five of your chosen soldiers and your main character. You'll have to be careful how you approach a fight in the first few encounters after the tutorial or you will end up with dead team members fairly quickly. Try to bide your time or find cover. Archers are deadly, especially with their aimed shot ability that significantly raises accuracy.

The game's first few fights were the most challenging for me, because I didn't know what to expect. Once I had fought a few battles however, there weren't many fights that gave me any trouble. I can't really say that any of the game's scripted story battles were spectacular, but they were decent enough. You'll have enemies coming at you from different directions, and in some battles you'll start out in the open and have to try to find cover or the enemy archers will whittle down your hit points bit by bit. There was one battle that I particularly liked which I couldn't beat on my first try. Coming back to it later, I realized that I had to be more careful with how I advanced towards the enemy, making proper use of cover.

The battles I didn't enjoy were the ones you fight at campsites when you rest on the world map. Almost all of these battles are identical and they're not very challenging. This was something I had hoped would be improved from the previous game. It's more of a waste of time than a real challenge.

While I did enjoy Conquistador a lot, its combat encounters became repetitive pretty quickly because there weren't many enemy types to deal with and the combat maps were forgettable. Viking improves on this somewhat with its story battles, which are fought directly on the detailed 3D maps that you explore, but I think encounter design could still be improved a bit more.

[...] If a character falls in combat, they become injured but are not permanently gone. (Similarly, you can also lose your entire party without losing the game, although this never actually happened to me.) While camping, you can heal your wounded characters' injuries using medicine. Wounds to different body parts will cause different types of penalties specific to the body part. For example, a groin injury lowers movement range, while arm injuries lower strength. In my game, my character suffered a light puncture wound, and therefore lost two points of Strength before I healed her.

One thing particularly worth noting is that your injuries deteriorate over time. This can cause a wound to go from light all the way up to lethal (there are five stages before you get to the most dangerous phase of an injury). If you go beyond that, your character will incur a permanent stat loss or even risk permanent death. This is basically the only way to lose a character forever. As your wounds go from light to moderate and so on, the deterioration chance increases. In other words, you need to keep a close look at the injuries your characters sustain in order to manage the deterioration. A character can have more than one wounded body part, making it important to choose which injuries are healed and when.

In addition to wounds, your characters also suffer from hunger. Hunger can sated by eating either meat or rations (which can be created from meat with the right set of skills). Meat is more filling than rations, but it deteriorates over time, so proper resource management is key.​

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RPG Codex Review: Dungeon Rats

Review - posted by Infinitron on Wed 7 December 2016, 19:33:17

Tags: Dungeon Rats; Iron Tower Studios

Iron Tower Studio's The Age of Decadence was a classic over a decade in the making. Its vaporware status was legendary during that time, which is why many found it surprising when they managed to release Dungeon Rats, a party-based, combat-centric spinoff title set in the same universe, just over a year later. How did the studio cope with such a radically shorter development timeline than they were used to? We decided it made sense to enlist Darth Roxor, who reviewed their original game for us, to investigate that question. His verdict? Dungeon Rats is a game full of tiresome monster battles, with a narrative best ignored. It's an affront to his definition of what a dungeon crawler is...and an easy buy for Age of Decadence combat fans. But I'll let the man speak for himself:

As one would expect, the game shines the most during the fights against humans. This is true because of all the reasons that made AoD combat great – humans are the most tactically diverse in terms of abilities, weaponry, armour, etc, which makes almost every fight against them unique to some extent. Furthermore, they use many more dirty tricks than before. While in AoD someone would throw a net at you every now and again, in DR nets are a constant threat, not to mention alchemical support like acid, grenades and liquid fire (nevermind that the AI isn’t very good at handling them). Some of these fights are so stacked against you that trying to crack them is a real pleasure, even if you have to reload a dozen times to try out different approaches. While I wish I could say something more about this encounter design category, I feel that I would just be repeating most of my points from my earlier review of AoD.

But then you have the monsters, which are more or less the anti-thesis to everything that makes AoD combat good. Sure, the first time a new monster type appears, you might be surprised by what it can do, and act accordingly to counter it. However, monsters don’t really go beyond 2 types (and even that is usually limited to “small scorpion”, “big scorpion”), and don’t present any tactical flexibility. They are simply one-trick ponies that stop being interesting dangerously fast. Scolopendras rush forward and hit you and poison you, and that’s it. Same goes for scorpions and ants. You’ve been to one of these fights, and you’ve been to them all, especially considering that the monsters usually aren’t mixed with anything else, following the encounter segmentation policy. Now compare that predictability to humans, where a guy labelled “swordsman” can just as well have a few pila handy, poison on his blade and a net in his pocket, which will all be unknown to you until you’ve seen him use it.

However, the monsters can get worse and drift even further from AoD combat design by having multitudes of immunities stacked on them. At one point in the game, you enter a zone that could be called Construct City. The constructs are the very embodiment of bad design in Dungeon Rats, although they’ve also been featured in AoD, but there they were not as prominent. You can’t knock them down, you can’t poison them, you can’t cripple their arms or legs, you can’t move them in any way, and you can’t manoeuvre around them, because they have AP up the ass, and all the combat areas including them are completely open. Meanwhile, what can they do? Bumrush and stab you in the face with two attack types, that’s all. The options you typically have against overwhelming odds are thus reduced to more or less two: stack up on the heaviest armour you can find (or craft) or spam all the alchemical stuff you have at hand. Apart from that, all you can do is take a rosary and pray to RNGesus.

[...] The gameworld, as it is presented, makes little to no sense at all, but criticising it for that would be unfair, as its chief function is to lead you from fight to fight. The story and writing are similarly insignificant, often even bordering on half-arsed. While this is acceptable for short texts that are basically “you enter the room, when SUDDENLY ENEMIES! [insert pop-culture reference/cheeky one-liner here]”, it can get really jarring when Iron Tower decides to delve into some sort of backstory for the mine. This backstory is delivered through a handful of shamelessly info-dumpy NPCs, which are not only terribly written, but also so well-informed and eager to share their vast troves of deep lore that you can forget about chasing any mysteries – everything is laid out perfectly in front of you. The background for the prison in Dungeon Rats could serve as an interesting premise for something, but that would have to take a different game with a different mindset behind it.

However, while it’s very easy (and advisable) to dismiss the narrative side of the dungeon as unimportant, the same can’t be said about the general level design, and here we arrive to what is perhaps Dungeon Rats’ greatest flaw.

The game is marketed as a “dungeon crawler”, but I really do beg to differ. When viewing player opinions about Dungeon Rats, you will often come across people saying that they “typically don’t like dungeon crawlers, but really like Dungeon Rats”. A hypothesis can be drawn from this – the game is actually not a dungeon crawler at all. And I will tell you why.

A successful dungeon crawler needs much more than just entertaining combat to work. It also needs a properly set-up dungeon, with all that it entails. It has to be decently labyrinthine, it needs a generous amount of optional content to explore, it needs some non-combat interaction, preferably puzzles of some kind, it needs traps, it needs secrets or mysteries to uncover, and it needs proper resource management. In a sense, the dungeon should be an entity of its own, even an enemy. Meanwhile, Dungeon Rats is anything but the above.

[...] As you can see, there is not really much to tell. Dungeon Rats is, overall, a competently made combat romp using the Age of Decadence ruleset and engine. For the most part, it’s a fun little game, and some of its more difficult fights will give you adequate challenge. The fact that it costs barely 9 bucks and that a single playthrough will take you roughly 10 hours (+/- 2) also makes it easier to gloss over some of its flaws. In essence, if you’re a fan of AoD combat, you can practically get it blind.

However, the flaws are definitely there, and in some ways they are a huge step back from Age of Decadence, even despite the game’s completely different focus and design philosophy. It also bears repeating that Dungeon Rats suffers from a serious case of false advertisement, and, while enjoyable, it is definitely not a dungeon crawler. And although I don't have a problem with the formula itself, which could be described as "RPG Encounters: The Game", the term "dungeon crawler" carries with it a set of specific connotations that need to be met, and someone seeking it in this game could simply feel cheated.

To achieve what they've set out to do, Iron Tower would have to put in a lot more effort into Dungeon Rats because, to quote a classic, simply making your game all about combat does not a dungeon crawler make. Perhaps they should settle for a different label of some kind - "dungeon brawler", for instance, would fit right in.​

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RPG Codex Review: Tyranny - Kyros Demands Better

Review - posted by Infinitron on Wed 30 November 2016, 16:46:21

Tags: Obsidian Entertainment; Tyranny

It's been twenty days since the release of Obsidian Entertainment's latest RPG, Tyranny. The rough consensus that has emerged on our forums during that time seems to be that Tyranny is an often interesting game with a commendable focus on choice & consequence, but let down by lackluster combat design and cut corners. A return to form for Obsidian, some might say! Our review, courtesy of Prime Junta, reflects this public opinion fairly closely - which makes the drama surrounding its publication over the past two days seem a bit silly, if you ask me. But now you can make up your own minds about it. It's got the good:

These choices matter. Play the game three times making different choices along the way, and the experience will be dramatically different each time. Story-gated locations and quests will open up or be closed off. You will find yourself shoulder to shoulder with characters you condemned to death by torture or slew by your own hand in a previous game. You will learn more of the world of Terratus and its inhabitants every time. You will also fail to achieve your goals, for want of sufficient cunning, force, reputation, or your previous choices, many of them all the way from the starting sequence.

If you play Tyranny like you’re used to playing cRPGs, or if you’re expecting the type of freedom you get in an exploration-based, sandbox game in the vein of a Fallout or Arcanum, you might miss out on a lot of this branching. Simply running errands for your chosen faction leader will get you to the endgame, and the smaller choices you have made along the way will affect it. If you only play through the game once, the experience won’t feel much different from a typical, linear game, however.

Things get more interesting if you inject a bit of role-play into the role-playing game, set yourself an agenda, and attempt to push against what the waiter presses on you. If you want to be a secret rebel sympathiser and stick to that from the start, you can do that and see the consequences play out. If you’re a true believer in Kyros’ mission but consider the warring factions’ loyalties suspect, you can ally with one of them out of expediency, undermine the alliance every opportunity you get, and ultimately bring the perfidious Archon to face his just deserts before the impassive face of Tunon the Archon of Law. And if you just want to carve yourself a realm to rule on your own, you can do that too. Some of these paths aren’t exactly easy, and many will be blocked off entirely due to choices you made very early in the game. Have the rebel leaders executed, and you won’t be able to join the rebellion later on even if you’re having second thoughts about your current loyalties.​

It's got the bad:

What’s more, each of the three spellcaster companions has a talent tree with spells which eclipse the sigil-based magic, especially during the first two-thirds of the game. Lantry’s “Preservation” tree, for example, has by far the best healing spells in the game. The player character does not have access to similarly powerful specialised magic: although one of your talent trees is called “Magic,” it is actually mostly about enhancing weapon attacks with a magic staff, which a caster PC won’t be doing much anyway since he’ll be chain-casting those cooldown-based spells. The non-Magic trees have some spell-like talents which put the actual spells to shame too: your most impressive fireball isn’t actually a spell or in the magic tree at all, it’s a talent in the Ranged tree that makes your javelin go kaboom. Overall, the system feels incoherent, shallow, and restrictive. The classless system fails to deliver the flexibility you would expect in one, and leaves you just as locked into your chosen role – damager, tank, archer, caster – as you would be in a class-based system.

The skill system is based on learn-by-doing which you can complement by buying training from trainers. Level advancement is also contingent on exercising your skills. Support skills like Subterfuge (lockpicking and sneaking) and Athletics will quickly become trivial as they will overshoot all the thresholds in the game: past Act 1, I didn’t encounter a single skill-thresholded check I couldn’t pass. The only skill to which I did pay attention was Lore, and that only when intentionally focusing on the spell system. The best that can be said of it is that it does function as a leveling-up mechanism, and there aren’t that many obvious ways to abuse it. It does not do much to promote creative character-building, reward specialisation, or encourage looking for alternative solutions to challenges.

Tyranny’s gameplay problems are something of an own goal for Obsidian. Pillars of Eternity has an excellent character mechanics system. They could easily have leveraged its classes, abilities, talents, and skills in addition to the basic engine features, with a light re-skinning to fit the Bronze Age setting, and given some of its massive bestiary the same treatment. If D&D can do anything from Oriental Adventures to Dark Sun and the Infinity Engine could accommodate both Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment, the Eternity Engine could surely have accommodated Tyranny. The systems the team built to replace Pillars’ are shallow, incoherent, and unenjoyable. They make the gameplay as formulaic, rote, and uninspired as the world-building and campaign are exciting, confident, and original.​

And here's the final verdict:

Tyranny has the makings of a cult classic. The depth and originality of the setting, the integration of the most unique features of the setting into the gameplay, the presentation, and the dizzying variety of adventures to choose give it replayability and lasting appeal that few games can manage. The game ends on a cliffhanger, so it is clear that Obsidian wants to produce a sequel. If and when they do, I hope they will give serious thought to making the game as fun to play as it is engrossing to explore.

While cooldown-based gameplay is inherently problematic – it is really hard not to have it devolve into rote pushing of awesome-buttons as timers wind down – it doesn’t have to be a total chore: Dragon Age: Origins demonstrated that much. More imaginative dungeons and encounters, a bigger and more varied bestiary, a better and more clearly-differentiated magic and ability system, and overall balance tilted to favour attack over defence would help bring its combat up to DA:O standards at least, if ditching the cooldowns altogether is not on the cards.

I would dearly love to see more games give the kind of attention to world-building, story branching, choice, and consequence that has gone into Tyranny. Other than Age of Decadence, coincidentally also set in a grim pre-Medieval world, this hasn’t been done in this scale in recent years. Tyranny feels like a great tabletop campaign by a gamemaster who digs worldbuilding and intrigue but isn’t into dungeon crawling or the fighty bits in general. That is a shame, as games are made to be played rather than read or watched. As it stands, Tyranny is worth a spin despite the gameplay rather than because of it. Kyros demands better.​

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RPG Codex Report: Gamescom 2016 - Vampyr, ELEX, The Guild 3, and Battle Chasers

Editorial - posted by Bubbles on Wed 23 November 2016, 19:17:25

Tags: Airship Syndicate; Battle Chasers: Nightwar; Dontnod Entertainment; ELEX; Gamescom 2016; GolemLabs; Piranha Bytes; The Guild 3; Vampyr

Our award winning Gamescom coverage continues apace with four of our most popular reports to date.

First we take a look at Vampyr, the next masterpiece from the creators of Life is Strange:

As I see it, Vampyr's biggest selling point is not about butchering hundreds of vampire hunters, or suffering through self-serious barely interactive dialogues; it's about meeting the NPCs of London, learning about their lives, and then choosing who among them should live and who should die. The designers have made the intriguing decision that sucking the life out of friendly NPCs should be the primary source of experience points in the game. Can't beat a difficult battle? Want to unlock a cool skill? Well, then you gotta find somebody you don't like, and get rid of them in a permanent fashion.​

Then we cast a glance towards ELEX, the next masterpiece from the creators of Risen 2:

Jarl: Well, from what you've shown us so far, it really looks like you're saying “Okay, we're now gonna serve you a big fresh helping of Gothic 2!”

Bubbles: [rolls his eyes in a shameful betrayal of his partner]

Jenny: No, this is no Gothic.

Jarl: ...different, but in terms of the principles, of the level design….. ….? …??

Jenny: Well, it's… it's... One is one thing, and one is another. We have deliberately not made a new Gothic. And we think that it would have been a bad idea to make a new Gothic 4 or 5. At the current time, at least. Why? You ask three Germans: “What should the new Gothic have?” And you get at least five different answers. The expectations are there: [raises her arm real high]. And we cannot meet them. Even if we wanted to – if we hired 25 new people – it would not be possible to release a Gothic – right now! – where people would say “whoa, that's great!” Not possible. “Basically, we want exactly what's been done before, but not what's been done before!” And that doesn't work.

And so we thought: let's rather do something that we've had in our heads for a long time anyway, something that we would enjoy making, something where we can use old gameplay mechanics that worked well, which we really liked, where people are saying “that was great!” – we take those on board, and we make a new setting with fresh ideas, a new story that nobody is familiar with, and then we make a great game. And that's ELEX.​

And let's not forget about The Guild 3, which brought some pleasant complexity into the console-dominated Gamescom landscape:

Bubbles: We had a discussion on our forums about the fact that the Guild games are still PC-exclusive, even in this modern age. Why is that – is the UI too complex for consoles?

Heinrich: ...we once tested a version [of an earlier Guild game] on the Xbox; it worked, but the controls were terrible. And it's the same way now; you can make a port to the newest Xbox relatively quickly – so we could get a version for the Xbox One or Xbox 360 pretty quickly – but we see absolutely no way of implementing a proper control scheme with a gamepad. It's just impossible. The game is too complex.

[At this point he notices that Jarl is making inefficient deals at the marketplace, and spends a minute showing him how to do it properly] You should buy a cart to transport your goods… slow down the game speed! No, click there… now, click this first, and then here…

Bubbles: It's nice that these kinds of games are still being made.

Indeed. Finally, Battle Chasers: Nightwar provides us with a valuable insight of its own:

And really, if the guy who made flippin' Darksiders is making a turn based RPG, then what the hell is stopping today's Obsidian from doing the same thing? Get with the times already! The future is turn based!​

We only speak the truth.

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RPG Codex Report: Tokyo Game Show 2016

Editorial - posted by felipepepe on Sat 12 November 2016, 12:50:58

Tags: Japan; TGS; Tokyo Game Show

It was a dark and stormy night when I saw the Tokyo Game Show 2016 poster and thought - "Hey, I live in Tokyo now, I could go there! Ugh, but I hate waiting in lines and paying for stuff..."

A few weeks later, on September 16, I was disembarking at the Kaihin-Makuhari Station, ready to face TGS' Business Day as a reporter for the prestigious RPG Codex.

[​IMG]

This is the (kinda extremely late) report of that fateful day...

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[Quickie Nr. 006] Jack Dandy’s catch-up on – Voidspire Tactics

Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Fri 14 October 2016, 15:12:42

Tags: Quickie; Rad Codex; Voidspire Tactics

Thanks to Konjad's persistence, "Quickies" have become something of a not-so-proud and not-so-venerable tradition here on the Codex - to the extent that other people submit them now, too. A quickie is essentially a loose and very cursory presentation of a game that the author wants you to try, but is too lazy to do a full review.

This time the game-done-quick is Voidspire Tactics, a niche and not too well-known indie tactical RPG that has been generally favorably received in its dedicated thread on our forums. The write-up belongs to esteemed community member Jack Dandy, who also conducted a brief interview with the developer to complement his piece. Here's an excerpt from the quickie:

Now, the most interesting aspect of this is that you can switch your character’s class at any given moment (outside of battle) AND have a Primary and Secondary class. This means that you get to mix and match the skillsets of any 2 classes you have unlocked, PLUS you can combine up to three of any of the Passives your character has unlocked among the different classes.

Customization is the name of the game here. You can make each character really stand out and not risk a penalty for experimentation.

Want to make your guy a standard melee damage dealer? Take a Warrior/Blade.
Want to make a ranger who’s able to fire off a variety of elemental crossbows without reloading once? Take a Sharpshooter/Rogue along with the Scout’s passive “Quick hands” perk.
Want to make a monk who can punch people’s faces just as well as toasting them with a fireball? An Elementalist/Brawler is the way to go.

There are lots of creative ways to build your team, and it’s all done in an intuitive, enjoyable way.​

And here's one from the interview:

- What inspired you to develop your own game?

My inspiration is basically from playing and enjoying other games - especially games that are really great, but have a handful of small issues. I always want to see what the game would be like without those issues - and the only way to do that is make my own.

Voidspire Tactics in particular was inspired by Final Fantasy Tactics and Ultima VII. I wanted to try to eliminate the weaknesses of each - specifically, FFT's systemic oddities & imbalances, and Ultima VII's uninteresting combat. Dozens of other games had a minor influence as well. Some that come to mind are Zelda (for its exploration), Legend of Mana (its thorough customization), and Dark Souls (its open, you-can-handle-yourself attitude).​

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RPG Codex Interview: Leonard Boyarsky on joining Obsidian, Fallout & Bloodlines cut content and more

Codex Interview - posted by Crooked Bee on Fri 30 September 2016, 20:43:07

Tags: Fallout; Fallout 2; Journey to the Center of Arcanum; Leonard Boyarsky; Obsidian Entertainment; Troika Games; Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines

As older Codex denizens may recall, there used to be a company called Troika Games and they made what some would say were fairly good RPGs. In 2005, however, they had to close due to financial issues, to much sadness here on the Codex and elsewhere. Troika's co-founders - Jason Anderson, Leonard Boyarsky, and Tim Cain - were scattered to the wind, adrift and working on games better left unmentioned, until Tim Cain ended up at Obsidian. Surprisingly enough, leaving what was perceived by many people as his cushy job at Blizzard, Leonard Boyarsky followed suit just earlier this year. This interview is, as far as we know, the first interview with him since the move.

All kudos go to esteemed community member Jedi Master Radek for organizing and conducting the interview, to our forum users who submitted their questions, and, of course, to Leonard and Obsidian for making this possible.

Here are a few snippets from the full thing:

Why did you leave Blizzard?

I really, really, really, really, really wanted to return to making single player RPGs.

Since you and Tim are back together now, has there been any contact with Jason Anderson? Are you still friends? Any pipe dreams of getting back together?

We’re still friends with Jason, we get together for a Troika lunch a few times a year.

So, of course, I would love to work with him again someday, but it wouldn’t be as simple as us just picking up where we left off. When we worked on Fallout and started Troika, Jason, Tim and I all had our own specific skills which complemented each other's well. But it's been over ten years, we've all had vastly different experiences, and our areas of expertise have shifted and grown (hopefully), so it wouldn't just be a matter of us getting back together and sliding into our old roles, we'd have to figure out the balance again.

What's your dream game that you'd like to make? And when are we getting Bloodlines 2 or Arcanum 2? What Troika game would you like to make a sequel to the most?

I'm happy to say that I'm currently working on my dream game. As far as sequels, it's Arcanum 2, hands down. I'd much rather work on IPs of my own creation. That doesn't mean I wouldn't work on Bloodlines 2 if given the opportunity, but if I had a choice between them it's an easy call to make.

How did the early draft for Fallout 2's story and locations look like before you left Black Isle? How was it changed for the final game? What direction were you planning to steer the story and the world?

You have to remember that this was twenty years ago, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think, overall, it stayed pretty close to our original design. There was a lot of work that had to be done to fill in the blanks when we left, but they followed much of what we had laid out. Except they added talking death claws. If we had stayed, I guarantee there would have never been talking, intelligent death claws.

An idea which may or may not have ever actually made it in (and may have been their genesis) was that you could find a death claw egg and hatch it, and the death claw would become a follower. The joke was that, in order to not have everyone freak out when you walked into town, you could put a cloak on him - which would have effectively made him look like a slightly larger version of a normal NPC in a cloak (with a hidden face). When combat started, he would throw off the cloak and inexplicably grow to his correct size. This was suggested as a way we could do it without adding animations for him (we could just use NPC anims), and as a way to not add reactions for walking into town with him. However, you need to keep in mind that a lot of ideas started out silly, just to make us laugh, and we would evolve them into their darker versions as we went. I have no idea how the death claw follower would have played out had we stayed. But he wouldn't have spoken.

It was supposed to be very haunting and mysterious when you showed up to Vault 13 - the legends of your tribe told of many who tried to get in and failed, and you show up and the door is open and the whole vault is empty.

Do you think there's too much focus on balancing everything to perfection in modern games?

I have no idea what you possibly could be referring to.​

The interview also includes questions about VtMB's and Fallout's cut content, Fallout's early concepts, contemporary games with good art style (aka 1eyedking bait), and more - including an exclusive peek at how Leonard and Tim settle their disagreements.

So check it out in full: RPG Codex Interview: Community Interview with Leonard Boyarsky

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RPG Codex Report: Gamescom 2016 - Expeditions: Viking, Tyranny, Space Hulk: Deathwing, Styx and more

Editorial - posted by Bubbles on Thu 22 September 2016, 16:02:42

Tags: Brian Heins; Cyanide; Daedalic Entertainment; Expeditions: Viking; Focus Home Interactive; Gamescom 2016; Logic Artists; Masquerada; Mimimi Productions; Obsidian Entertainment; Shadow Tactics; Silence: The Whispered World 2; Space Hulk: Deathwing; State of Mind; Streum on Studio; Styx: Shards of Darkness; The Long Journey Home; Tyranny; Witching Hour Studios

Our Gamescom coverage continues at its customary breakneck pace. In this instalment we're covering Expeditions: Viking by Logic Artists as well as Obsidian's latest masterpiece Tyranny, the Asian Kickstarter sensation Masquerada by Witching Hour Studios, four games by Daedalic (Silence, State of Mind, The Long Journey Home, and Shadow Tactics), and finally Streum on Studio's Space Hulk: Deathwing and Cyanide's Styx: Shards of Darkness. All in a day's work.

Here are a few appetizers from the full, XXL-sized report:

...Overall, I'm quite happy with the current state of the combat in Expeditions: Viking; it still seems to need a fair bit of balance and AI work, and many of the active combat abilities still have to be implemented, but even in this early state it already feels genuinely fun and tactical to play.

... Unfortunately, our [Tyranny] session didn't feature any dialogue or c&c at all; instead, we spent a few minutes discussing the new spellcrafting mechanics before launching into a short dungeon delve where we got to experience various puzzles, fought lots and lots of mobs, and had a big boss battle... The overall experience reminded me quite strongly of the boss battles in Aarklash: Legacy.

... Remember how I said Masquerada was not my type of game because it's too linear and doesn't have much interactivity? Well, at least Masquerada is still a game. [Silence] is a barely interactive movie, and from the hands-on I played of it, my impression is that it would actually be better off as a movie.

...The auteur was Martin Ganteföhr and the masterpiece-to-be is his new sci-fi adventure game State of Mind. You might be familiar with Ganteföhr from his previous work, which includes beloved classics like The Mystery of the Druids, The Moment of Silence, and Overclocked. Ganteföhr began his presentation with an extensive introduction to the life and work of Ray Kurzweil, the visionary author of “The Singularity Is Near” and “Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever”...

... In short, The Long Journey Home looks to be a fun, if somewhat casual Space RPG/Roguelike with a few interesting mechanics; I'm definitely going to play it.

... Shadow Tactics is being pitched as a “modern take” on the real time tactics genre, in the vein of the old Commandos and Desperados titles...

...At its core, Deathwing is a game where you blast hordes of enemies into tiny pieces with your squad of heavily armoured Space Marines. Your characters have access to a vast range of Warhammer-based weaponry, from heavy flamers to miniguns, as well as an array of powerful psychic abilities. You equip your crew, send them to one of the many derelict “Space Hulk” vessels drifting through space, and then you start blowing up swarms of Tyranid Genestealers. There is some sort of storyline attached to all the killing and maiming, but it doesn't seem particularly important to the gameplay.

...[Styx: Shards of Darkness] is even simpler to describe: it's a direct sequel to Styx: Master of Shadows, featuring the same methodical third person stealth gameplay as the first title.​

The full article includes a variety of hideous selfies, a highly awkward interview centered around an amateur fantasy novelist from Thailand, and a lengthy rant about Tyranny's UI design. In other words, it's a typical Codex piece.

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RPG Codex Review: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Sun 18 September 2016, 15:07:42

Tags: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided; Eidos Montreal

Ion Storm's Deus Ex belongs to the Codex's all-time beloved classics, and even the 2011 Deus Ex: Human Revolution earned a place in our Top 75 RPG list. This year, Eidos Montreal released a sequel to Human Revolution, called Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, set two years after that game's events. Does it improve on or at least match the level of quality of its predecessor, or is it more of a mixed bag?

According to esteemed community member TNO, it is unfortunately the latter. Here are a few excerpts from his review:

One of the dividends of increasing technology is the mission environments in Mankind Divided have generally gotten bigger, and so they more closely approach the near-perfection of the original Deus Ex. Pallisade Bank is perhaps the best example: huge, multi-level with executive offices, lobby, vaults, connected with a labyrinth of hidden and not-so-hidden passages with lots of points of entry and egress, and similarly lots of things to uncover and find (it also benefits synergistically from being an interesting concept: a data-bank and vault for information that generally lies beyond national jurisdiction). Generally the median level of Mankind Divided approaches the most 'open' levels of Human Revolution (e.g. Hengsha Docks, Court gardens), and this move in mission design is to be warmly welcomed, although the continued reliance on air-ducts and ventilation systems for many of these alternative routes does give a blemish.

Mankind Divided has moved steadily more towards 'open world' principles too. Probably 70% or so of the game content is off the critical path, and a Codex Let's Player managed to finish the game in around 4 hours by ignoring it. They probably missed out: the 'side-quest' content is very good, covering a good mix of police procedural and espionage: a murder mystery plot is one highlight, the player's tracking down of a 'black market media' organization that threatens to blow cover of another group another, and piecing together the backstory behind a new, highly (but selectively) lethal recreational drug the same. [...]

Perhaps the most noteworthy innovation in Mankind Divided is in the field of avarice. Much of the utterly rubbish microtransaction and monetization typically in the ambit of low-rent mobile games come out in force. There's the wholly indefensible shop where you can pay real money to buy Praxis kits for your character, the entirely unnecessary and tacked on breach mode with semi-randomized rewards and microtransactions galore, the stupid mobile app integration, and the pre-order and extra item DLCs. These are all mercifully unnecessary and can be ignored during the course of the game, but they represent the early signs of metastasis of pay-to-win and monetization to single player games where they were heretofore mercifully absent. Would that the radioactive criticism the developers have received from all quarters put this cancerous development firmly in remission. [...]

The player generally expects plot arcs to have a resolution, and for characters to develop during the course of the story: subverting these expectations in the narrative can work well, and can be a fop to verisimilitude: in real life, people's characters do not always develop in step with some grander narrative, and you don't always get all the answers. Do it too much, though, and the player suspects you are not even trying (or, worse, hope to spin things out for sequels and DLC). Mankind Divided falls into the latter category. It is actually slightly worse than a hypothetical Deus Ex that stopped after UNATCO: at least in that you have learned something. In Mankind Divided, although you solve the initial case, the bulk of the narrative interest is in the underlying actions of the players 'behind the scenes', and this plot merely treads water: Adam Jensen (and you) haven't really learned anything about the world that you didn't already know at the start.

Conclusion: Not enough steps forward, a few steps back

Mankind Divided is so near and yet so far. Its elements mostly build upon the strong foundations of Human Revolution, but occasionally they retreat back from earlier triumphs, and leave some major flaws uncorrected. It is cleverly written but with a few too many mis-steps, and a central lacuna around the player character himself. At its best, the strengths of the game combine harmoniously to produce one of the best opening thirds in computer gaming; the fatal weakness is that it is no more than an opening third, and the game ends on a deeply imperfect cadence with too many themes undeveloped, leave alone resolved.

The game indicates considerable talent, and the writing team know their craft well. My hope is that the impressive story Mankind Divided intimates has been mostly written, and that subsequent additions to the franchise will adroitly fulfill the undoubted promise manifest here. Yet these games do not yet exist, and thus Mankind Divided remains a promissory note for a series of games which in combination may form a masterpiece. Unless and until that happens, this opening act, despite its qualities, cannot justify its own purchase.​

These excerpts do not, however, do justice to everything that the review talks about, so be sure to read it in full: RPG Codex Review: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

(Warning: the review contains some mild spoilers.)

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RPG Codex Report: Gamescom 2016 - Mount & Blade 2, Kingdom Come, SpellForce 3, South Park 2 and more

Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Fri 2 September 2016, 01:11:55

Tags: Gamescom 2016; Grimlore Games; KING Art Games; Kingdom Come: Deliverance; Morning Men; Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord; Pixel Federation; South Park: The Fractured But Whole; Spellforce 3; TaleWorlds; The Dwarves; Ubisoft; Warhorse Studios

Our chronicle of Bubbles and JarlFrank's visit to Gamescom 2016 continues. In this chapter, we discover what JarlFrank was up to during Bubbles' long stay at the Larian booth, when he departed to check out TaleWorlds' Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord and Warhorse's Kingdom Come: Deliverance. We also get a look at various other games that they saw, such as Grimlore's SpellForce 3, Pixel Federation's Morning Men and Ubisoft's South Park: The Fractured But Whole. JarlFrank was pretty happy with what he saw of Mount & Blade and Kingdom Come. Here are his thoughts on the latter:

And thus ends the presentation of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, and it was one of the most impressive presentations at this year's Gamescom. It has come so far from last year's early build, so much more content and gameplay was implemented, and the multiple approaches to the quest we were shown looked really great.

Last year, only the sword combat was implemented. Now, they also have polearms and daggers, and in the enemy camp we've seen a couple of guys doing some unarmed sparring with each other. Unarmed combat is non-lethal, and we were told that you can challenge most NPCs to a friendly duel if you want to.

I really like the disguise mechanic, and the stealth gameplay looked pretty damn good. Coupled with an AI that is aware of changes - such as shunning the food if they discover one of their comrades dead from poison, or sending out some men to look for the missing patrol if you kock out or kill them all - this looks to be a game where dicking around and trying out different approaches is going to be a lot of fun.

I'm really looking forward to the game and hope that most quests will be designed as openly as this one. And, as everyone who remembers Bethesda's pre-release Radiant AI videos knows, gameplay presentations like this can be treacherous. I really hope that all of this was as real and unscripted as we were made to believe. I'm willing to give Warhorse Studios the benefit of the doubt there. The presenter gave the impression that sometimes, he really didn't know what was going to happen, and the player was very cautious in his actions, especially when there was a danger of being detected - and they reloaded the game once, and NPC reactions were different each time.

This made this such an interesting presentation: they actually showed some live gameplay rather than a pre-recorded video, and this showed the dynamic elements of the gameplay, such as AI reactions, much more effectively than a pre-recorded video would've done.

If everything we were shown during this presentation makes it into the game, we'll have a real gem on our hands. Explorefags are going to love this shit.
SpellForce 3, on the other hand, was not what Bubbles had hoped for:

Bubbles: The last time we were here, we heard about a stronghold mechanic. Is that still in the game?

Dev: No. We have…really, the focus is...we have this one giant pillar of bringing these immersive RPG aspects, like character progression, abilities and items, together and merge them with the base building. You can see the dialogue window, and it isn't pausing the game. You really focus on that, that you never pause the game when we have a dialogue, and that will be the main source of the whole experience that brings it together.

Bubbles: So the stronghold is gone, basically?

Dev: Err… in the campaign there will be a hub level.

Bubbles: Like a village? Or a city?

Dev: Yes, something like that, and you can improve that... ...you'll find the master smith, and he will join you, and he will say "okay, I will make much better swords for your human army." And the human army is permanently improved from that point onward.

Bubbles: Are there still dungeon levels with lockpicking, disarming traps, and so forth?

Dev: ...no... ...there are dungeons in the game, but... there will be... ah... locked chests, and there will be a lockpicking ability, but it will be rather simple. If the lock is a certain level, and if your hero has a lockpicking ability, he can open it.

Bubbles: There was talk that the story would have political intrigue and some complex stuff in it.

Dev: We have political intrigue, but it is still a high fantasy story. It's true to the lore of Spellforce. You'll get all the elements you know and hopefully loved from the older Spellforce games in the game.​

Read the full article: RPG Codex Report: Gamescom 2016 - Mount & Blade 2, Kingdom Come, SpellForce 3, South Park 2 and more

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[Quickie Nr. 005] Turgor, Tension, The Void Review

Review - posted by VentilatorOfDoom on Thu 1 September 2016, 09:17:30

Tags: Ice-Pick Lodge; Quickie; Tension; The Void; Turgor

While we're waiting for the next Gamescom report, let's insert a brief pentaquickie. With the fifth entry to our prestigious Quickie review series Konjad takes us on a voyage through Turgor, Tension, and The Void, different versions of a game published by Ice-Pick Lodge. Technically not an RPG the game nevertheless managed to win Konjad's affection.
The Void is the most unique and enjoyable game I have ever played. Visuals are astounding, the soundtrack is a delight, the gameplay is engaging and the dialogues are enchanting. Tension gives so much joy that after finishing one playthrough I instantly began another one to reach a different ending that is more difficult to achieve. I have an impression, however, that this game is not for everyone. Nonetheless, those who will be sucked into it will be held spellbound. To appreciate this game you must have an open mind towards unusual games, enjoy gloomy settings and imbibe poetry. In my opinion, whatever your taste in games is, Turgor deserves your time to give it an honest try. Do keep in mind, however, that it is one of the most difficult games I have ever played and the player is constantly faced with a challenge to stay alive and to cultivate enough colors for himself and for the sisters. I only completed the game successfully during my fourth playthrough, failing the first three attempts. This might discourage a lot of people considering most modern games are made to be completed without much difficulty in the very first try.
Is the game really that good or is Konjad just a young, impressionable nerd swayed by the female nudity in this game? Discuss!

Read the full article: [Quickie Nr. 005] Turgor, Tension, The Void Review

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RPG Codex Report: Gamescom 2016 - Divinity: Original Sin 2

Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Wed 24 August 2016, 21:59:25

Tags: Divinity: Original Sin 2; Gamescom 2016; Larian Studios; Swen Vincke

Last year, we sent Bubbles and JarlFrank to Gamescom, the annual video game trade fair in Cologne, Germany. The resulting multi-part report was one of the finest pieces of content the Codex has ever produced, and so when August came around, it was a no-brainer to send them there again. I can already tell you that our Gamescom report this year is going to break new records. For its first part, though, we'll start small - not with an article covering a dozen different games, but just one very important one. Bubbles and JarlFrank expected to have just half an hour with Divinity: Original Sin 2. They ended up spending almost three hours with it. Here's some of what they learned:

Bubbles: Since you mentioned the origin stories, let's talk about the writing…. I've played more of this version than I played with the prototype, but I still remember what was on the prototype. I saw some changes in the prototype from the original game, but I wasn't fully convinced that it had changed. What I'm seeing now is a radically different style of writing; stunning, absolutely...

Swen: I'm happy to see that you recognize it.

Bubbles: It's hard to imagine it being in the same game series. Bioware sometimes changes writing throughout their game series, but I can't think of many companies that would allow an example like this; this is actually a very strong example [of a stylistic change] for me. It's good writing… it convinces me. It's real – it's an enormous achievement compared to Original Sin 1 for me.

Swen: ...took sweat and blood and tears...

Bubbles: …how much has your writing team changed?

Swen: You'll be surprised, maybe, to hear that the leads on this team are the same writers that wrote OS 1. But they have time now, and time makes a very big difference. We've been iterating the writing [a lot]; if I would show you the initial dialogues, you'd say “that's shit!”, but that's just the process, right? Writing is something were you need to have time to go over it, start to get into the characters. We now have 8 writers, and they now have time to get into the heads of every single character and they have to “speak” like that character. So we think about each character: “What would they say? Would they say that? No, they probably wouldn't say that.” So it changes and changes, and the result… it feels a little better. We were also very explicit that it had to be the way you talk… it's a much more natural conversation style now. Of course, you played that noble [The Red Prince] and he still talks like a noble, but that's “him”; that's because of his upbringing. If you take Lohse [a lady who acts as a vessel for demons and spirits], she's gonna be talking like a jester, which is a completely different tone; same thing goes for Sebille, she was a slave in the Ancient Empire, so she's very bitter, she hates everything. It really changes from character to character; it's also different writers who write each of them, so they can really get into their heads.

Bubbles: Which part of this writing is by Chris Avellone?

Swen: He's doing the Undead origin story, and that one you're not seeing. That's gonna be something very special, so we're keeping that for later. So you haven't actually seen any of Chris's writing yet.

Bubbles: You mentioned 8 writers – who are they?

Swen: Let's see, we have Sarah Baylus, we have Jan Van Dosselaer, Devin Doyle, Charlene Putney, John Corcoran, Steven… uhmmm… Steven, so that's six, then Kevin vanOrd, then Chris, eight, and Kieron [Kelly], nine. So it's actually eight and a half, cause Kieron does writing as well as other artistic stuff.

Bubbles: Do you think that's a good amount of writers for the kind of project you're doing?

Swen: Yeah, I think so. The output of these people if they “just write” is enormous; I could fill what other games have in ten days with a team like that. But they don't [“just write”], because they take so much time with each dialogue.

Bubbles: If you've hired more people over the last few months, does that mean that the game has expanded in scope?

Swen: We've hired more people because we've learned we needed more. I will be brutally honest about this: we only figured out the identity of the game a couple of months ago. We were looking a long time for the right tone, and now that we've we figured it out – it's easy!

Bubbles: What did you figure out?

Swen: How people should talk. The length of the dialogues, the length of the phrases, the way that they talk, the things that they say – we figured that out a couple of months ago because of Sarah. It started with that one character that Devin did; we were playing Act 1, and we said, “That's a really good character!” Sarah picked up on that; she changed all of Fort Joy to fit that, and then we all played it and said “Fuck, this is good!” And then we started expanding it everywhere and we rewrote pretty much everything.​

Read the full article: RPG Codex Report: Gamescom 2016 - Divinity: Original Sin 2

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[Quickie Nr. 004] Prelude to Darkness Retrospective Review

Review - posted by VentilatorOfDoom on Tue 23 August 2016, 12:31:10

Tags: Prelude to Darkness; Quickie; Zero Sum

I know that a lot of the regulars around here were holding their breath, anxiously awaiting the next entry in the prestigious RPG Codex [Quickie] review series, and despite that it took years for the next entry to emerge, Konjad bounces back big time, bringing us his retrospective review on the merits of Zero Sum's Prelude to Darkness.

The turn-based RPG called Prelude to Darkness was released many years ago. So many years that its most current version is already a decade old. Nonetheless, few role-playing games fans have even heard of it and even fewer played it. Here, on RPGCodex, we even have an official subforum for this game… and it’s almost dead. Posts rarely are written there and few people bother to even visit the place. Is the fate of the game well deserved or is it just a decent product that never managed to gather enough players to reach the critical mass of popularity and spread around through positive word-of-mouth?​

Stay tuned, fasten your seat belts, and follow Konjad into the depths of the rabbit hole. Read the entire [Quickie Nr. 004] here.

- Zero Sum homepage
- download version 1.7
- download version 1.8
- here's a small patch by Codexer Fowyr that fixes a few things (see readme)

Read the full article: [Quickie Nr. 004] Prelude to Darkness Retrospective Review

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RPG Codex Preview: The Great Whale Road

Preview - posted by Bubbles on Thu 28 July 2016, 21:26:22

Tags: Sunburned Games; The Great Whale Road

The tactical turn based RPG The Great Whale Road is entering Early Access today, and we've had the great pleasure of receiving a preview copy, as well as the distinctly lesser pleasure of playing through it.

What does the game have to offer for the discerning hardcore RPG fan? Everybody's favourite front page writer Bubbles has the scoop:

Boredom and monotony. Unceasing repetition. The mind is sedated, lulled to sleep among the endless waves. No hope. No relief. [...]

On paper, The Great Whale Road seems like a perfectly interesting little game; it's basically a cross of The Banner Saga and King of Dragon Pass, staged in the historical setting of the North Sea around the year 650 AD. You play the newly selected leader (male or female) of a small Danish settlement; storylines for the Picts, Franks, and Northumbrians are promised to follow later in development. As the chieftain, you have to manage the economy of your settlement while simultaneously playing through a linear storyline of political frictions and intrigue. You have to decide how to distribute your people's manpower between diplomacy, trade, warfare, or any of the various ways of gaining food; you need to deal with a variety of random events, from pirates to the plague; and you have to lead your warband into turn based battles against your people's enemies. During the winter months, you rest at home; during the summer months, you set sail to trade and parley with your neighbours. Sounds good, right?

And yet, in the current state of the game, none of these elements are actually fun. [...]

Should you go play The Great Whale Road right now? Absolutely not, you'd be bored stiff! But should you buy it right now? Well, perhaps. The game is coming off a failed Kickstarter, and the Early Access income would probably be helpful to Sunburned Games in their efforts to deliver a complete and hopefully entertaining experience. If the idea of a Banner Saga/KoDP hybrid with lots of stats and random events is inherently appealing to you, and you have money to spare for a game that so far delivers nothing except some pretty 2D screens and a half-complete campaign full of shallow and repetitive gameplay, then you might as well throw some funding at this project. Support your indie developers! Just keep in mind that none of the promised features are actually guaranteed to ever make it into the game.​

Well, they can't all be winners. Maybe we'll check back in a few months and see how the game has improved.

Read the full article: Preview: The Great Whale Road

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RPG Codex Review: Torment: The Explorer's Guide

Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Tue 12 July 2016, 01:01:50

Tags: Monte Cook; Numenera; Torment: The Explorer's Guide; Torment: Tides of Numenera

As a PC RPG focused website, it's been a while since we covered anything PnP. The last prominent instance of that, I believe, was our 2014 review of Monte Cook Games's Numenera, on which the upcoming Torment: Tides of Numenera by inXile is based. Well, recently, Monte Cook Games contacted us to see if we were interested in reviewing Torment: The Explorer's Guide, a PnP sourcebook accompanying the video game and exploring the same region of the Ninth World.

Given that Tides of Numenera is a game a lot of people here are looking forward to, it shouldn't come as a surprise that we agreed to review the new sourcebook. Thankfully, esteemed community member and everyone's favorite Pillars of Eternity reviewer Prime Junta agreed to help us with that, and was prompt enough to write up his impressions that we are publishing this on the day the review embargo has been lifted.

Too bad he didn't really like the book much, though, aside from the Bloom. Here are a couple of snippets from the review:

Torment: The Explorer’s Guide is a pen-and-paper sourcebook which describes the setting for inXile Entertainment’s upcoming Planescape: Torment successor. It’s about Greater Garravia, a region around an inland sea beyond the Beyond (a region described in the Numenera corebook). Monte Cook Games made it clear to us that it is not a strategy guide, hintbook, or supplement for the cRPG; rather, it is intended for game masters who want to run pen-and-paper campaigns in the Last Castoff’s footprints.

Sagus Cliffs, the location of the Torment: Tides of Numenera beta, is present in faithful detail in the state it is in before the Last Castoff’s arrival on the scene. The maps and many of the illustrations are plucked directly from the computer game or its concept art. Aligern, Callistege, Tybir, Fulsom, Imbitu, and many other major and minor characters from the game make their appearance. The Guide outlines their behaviour, background, and motivations, and even side quests pop up in “Hearsay” blurbs, although they are presented as adventure hooks only, rather than full-blown quest lines. There isn’t much in the Guide that’s not present, one way or another, in the game – and the game has a good deal of detail the Guide does not cover at all. [...]

With one notable exception, all these locations are standard Numenera fare, not all that different from Guran, Stirthal, or any of the others in the Corebook, although written out in greater detail. They are colourful and filled to the brim with random weirdness, but have little by way of internal logic or coherence, let alone a sense of history or place beyond a general “atmosphere” helpfully described in margin notes. [...] The one area where the Guide rises above its general level of all spice, no curry is the Bloom: a city-sized transdimensional predator inching its way along a ravine near Sagus Cliffs. Thought has gone into what the Bloom is, what it wants, what its capabilities and limitations are, and how it relates to the beings inhabiting and surrounding it. It has some of the internal logic so sorely lacking in the rest of the setting, and consequently the characters and factions in it are much more engaging and relatable than anywhere else. The Memovira is more than just a crimelord in fancy armour. The Bloom cultists and their lost prophet Chila are more than just another robe-wearing victim-sacrificing evil cult. The deranged, damaged, or changed human wrecks circulating in the Bloom’s bowels are more than just local colour. The Bloom shows that an imaginative world-builder can take the random bits and pieces of weird scattered around the Ninth World and make something genuinely exciting out of them. [...]

Other than the relatively unproblematic descriptors and foci, the translation of cRPG gameplay into pen-and-paper form has not been altogether successful. One of the most notable features of Castoffs is their extreme resilience and rapid healing. The Guide mentions this in the description, but provides no mechanical explanation of its gameplay effects, leaving that entirely to the GM to arbitrate. Instead, it introduces a Tidal Surge mechanic which triggers whenever the Castoff takes damage: the Surge passes some of that damage to someone else in some particular form, fixed on character creation. One castoff might cause a selected enemy to go blind, another might cause him to get stunned, or run away in fear, or take extra Intellect damage. This is shallow and repetitive, an automatically-applied awesome-button mechanic requiring no thought to use, and which will get boring fast – more so if playing with a full party of Castoffs.

Worse, however, is the Tides mechanic as described in the Guide. [...] The mechanic, in other words, requires the GM to be so intimately familiar with what each of the Tides is that he can award and track Tidal points on the fly, without interrupting the flow of the action or conversation, and the outcome is a vaguely-defined “reputation” plus something which allows attuned players to awesome-button every single tidally-conformant action with pyrotechnic critical successes every time. This, in a game explicitly intended to be as fluid, low-accounting, and low-arithmetic as possible, and one where most actions are already trivialised through the Effort and Recovery mechanics. Both the awarding/bookkeeping and eventual and occasional scripted results of tidal affinity can work perfectly well in a computer game, but defined this way for pen-and-paper… really, people, did you even playtest this?​

Ouch. I believe George Ziets was involved with the computer game version of the Bloom, so I wonder if his designs influenced how it's portrayed in the sourcebook too - and why it stands out compared to other locations.

Anyway, be sure to read the full review: RPG Codex Review: Torment: The Explorer's Guide

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All funds raised in this special campaign will be sent to Bubbles as a thank you for his contributions.


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