As per Kotaku, Peter Molyneux is all verklempt at the Fable II reviews he’s read. He believes that Fable II is “one of the hardest games to review”, and thanked the critical community for their “patience and belief”. Not me, Petey-boy. I have no more patience in you, and I don’t believe in your game. That’s why I am making Araan review Fable II this weekend.
Review: Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood October 6, 2008
In the beginning there was a hedgehog. Well, maybe more in the post-beginning/pre-middle. Certainly in the early 16-bit era. Yes, by 1991 there was Sonic The Hedgehog. (Note: The “T” in “The” is properly capitalized. Sonic creator Naoto Ōshima registered Sonic with The as his middle name.) Over the last 17 years there have been over 30 Sonic and Sonic-related titles, including such highs as Sonic 2 and Sonic CD, and such lows as Sonic Heroes and Sonic and the Secret Rings.
Several of those games have had RPG elements. Chaos Emerald and chao collection could earn the Blue Blur extra powers or lives. Most games post-Sonic Adventure featured a “Super Sonic” mode, giving the ‘hog even more speed after he collected 50 precious, precious rings. In Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, BioWare has taken these power-ups several steps further in an attempt to turn Sonic into a “real live” role-playing game.
On a pure mechanics level, they succeeded. Sonic forms a party, gets quests, earns experience, levels up and collects loot. The party’s static skills increase automatically with each level, but the player can assign one bonus point to a stat of their choice each level. Every level also brings five more action points that you can either spend on a talent or save for higher levels of a talent. Pretty standard fare, with the exception of Chaos – cute little creatures which you can collect, hatch, and bond with to add abilities to your team.
The real question is how this stop-and-go framework fits a game world that is all about speed. The answer is that mostly, it doesn’t. BioWare has a knack for making pause-and-play gameplay seem fluid (see KOTOR), but mere fluidity is not enough for Sonic The Hedgehog. The developers tried to include running puzzles and loop-de-loops aplenty, but the fact that you have to select Sonic then push a button to enter the loop then have no control whatsoever over where you land or what you do during the “speed boost” completely destroys the illusion of fast.
Where BioWare does try to allow for real speed, it is a complicated mess. It seems as if they tried to combine their own inimitable style of pause-and-play with the 2.5D action-RPG battles of Nintendo’s Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time. The problem is that Mario is all about good jumps and better timing, and Sonic is all about running like hell, which does not lend itself to drawn-out battles. The stylus-controlled special abilities minigames are ill-explained and imprecise, and every special move requires a metric ton of minigame action to pull off. It makes you want to just hit Attack over and over and over.
All of that being said, the game is not terrible. The visuals are charming and do hold true to classic Sonic style. The RPG format in and of itself is an interesting twist for an overused, yet beloved, video game character. And BioWare does bring the story. For a Sonic game, this baby is deep. A plot with turns, surprises and revelations, all adding to the Sonic “canon”. I think the problem is that Sonic doesn’t really need a canon. Sonic needs another good 2D game full of speed and color. I wish that Team Sonic would take a page from Mega Man 9 and go solidly retro the next time out. Unfortunately, as the next few Sonic games include Sonic Unleashed (featuring a were-Sonic) and a sequel to the super-odd Sonic and the Secret Rings, I don’t think I’m going to get my wish any time soon.
For being a colorful and often witty addition to the Sonic family while also being unfittingly slow and imprecise, I’m giving Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood 3 Weiners out of 5.
Review: Eldritch Role-Playing System September 9, 2008
[Full disclosure: One of the co-authors is a family friend, and he ran us through the Quick Start Rules several months before the book was released.]
Your d12 doesn’t have to cry itself to sleep anymore (nods to Rich Burlew of Order of the Stick). The Eldritch Role-Playing system has a place for that sad die, and all of its non-d20 friends.
Eldritch is a new fantasy tabletop RPG published by Goodman Games. A classic sword-and-sorcery title, Eldritch comes with a serious pedigree. Eldritch creator Dan Cross is the author of Volume V: Insidiae of the Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds Series, and worked with Gygax on a number of projects.
Cross and Eldritch co-author Randall Petras have deisgned a simple, but elegant system. Eldritch is skills-based, with a point buy distribution. The available races will be familiar to anyone who played 1st Edition AD&D, and won’t come as a surprise to anyone gamer who hasn’t. Action and combat use most of your standard bag o’ dice, with players rolling more and higher-sided dice for each level of skill they have in an ability. Each ability can be improved through three levels in sort of a “journeyman, apprentice, master” system, with each level providing an additional, progressively higher die to checks. Any basic ability – running, jumping, standing still – can be attempted “untrained” with the tiny d4. This eliminates the “I want to climb the ladder”, “You didn’t take ranks in Climb” problem that plagues players with overly-hidebound DMs in other systems.
Combat is fairly unique. There is no “automatic” hit. The attacker rolls the number and level of die for her attack (e.g. a d4, d6 and d8 for a Master archer), and then the defender chooses an active defense such as dodge, roll, or standing his ground. An attacker needs to wear down the physical or magical defenses of a defender before dealing damage. These defenses are skill-based and their “pools” can deplete and replenish over time. This makes a great deal more sense than “Oh look, I rolled a 20. Your armor fails.” (Really, how does the entire world of D&D survive all these saving throws against wardrobe malfunction?)
There is one central “body of magic” in Eldritch, called Arcanum. Players can specialize to gain Mastery as a priest, psychic, etc. Cantrips require little energy to cast, full spells cost considerably more. The most interesting part of the Eldritch magic mechanic is that players are actively encouraged to create their own spells. There is a functional but limited spell list in the book, but there are also detailed rules on how to branch out into your own personal Arcanum.
The Eldritch sourcebook is a quick read. 96 pages, softbound, with five chapters and an appendix. It is clearly written and contains grayscale illustrations where needed. Upon reading the sourcebook, one thing becomes very clear – this is a source book. There are some adventure ideas and a preview of the official campaign setting, but what Cross and Petras have really provided is a framework to Make Your Own Adventure. This is both its greatest strength and its biggest drawback. Experienced DMs and world builders will love the freedom and the new mechanics, but newcomers to tabletop role-playing may find themselves looking for more guidance. I expect this to change once supplemental adventures begin to be released.
At only $19.99 (or $12.99 for the PDF version) you can’t go wrong picking this one up and at least running three or four friends through the starter adventure. If nothing else, it is a a wonderfully inexpensive night of creative entertainment.
The Eldritch Role-Playing System Core Rules Book is available in hard copy at Amazon, and in PDF at YourGamesNow.com. The official Eldritch website, including free-to-download Quick Start rules, is EldritchRPG.com.
The Future September 6, 2008
First, I just placed my Amazon pre-orders for Fable II, Little Big Planet, Mirror’s Edge, Rock Band 2, And Sid Meier’s Colonization, so look for previews and reviews of all of these games and more in the weeks to come.
Second, after about a day of downloading and patching, I am finally ready to play the Wrath of the Lich King Beta. Look for weekly in-depth updates as I take a toon from level 70 to as far as it will go before release.
Finally, it has come to my attention that this site needs more weiner. Look for pics of the titular weens this weekend.
PAX Tabletop Game Reviews September 3, 2008
PAX is wonderful in that it features all kinds of gaming. Here are my comments in the Department of non-video games:
World of Warcraft Miniatures Game: I swore I would never play the WoW Trading Card Game because I didn’t want to get sucked in like I did in 1997 with Magic: The Money Pit. My resolve faded when my best friend bought one booster pack to see what the art was like and found a Papa Hummel’s Old-Fashioned Pet Biscuits Card to be used in-game. Despite the several boxes of cards I’ve bought, I don’t really dig the game. It’s an improvement over Magic in that anything can be used as a resource, but, just as in Magic, all it takes is a few number crunchers to break the game.
The mini game seemed different. For one thing, it didn’t drag on forever and eighteen days. There was a solid, achievable win condition that could be reached in a reasonable amount of time. For another thing, the “inventory management” was much smoother in this game, where you select just a few powers to be in your “hotbar” and use them strategically, instead of managing thousands of options to get a deck of around 60, inside which is that one special card you hope comes up. Finally, the little pieces look cool. You can either keep them on their little game pedestals or take them out and let them adorn your desk. For a WoW geek like me, this seems like a good idea.
The WoW Mini game is coming from Upper Deck in November, and I think I’ll at least pick up the Starter Pack.
Duel of Ages – Imagine that the gods became bored, picked up a handful of people from throughout history, and tossed them into an arena to fight for their deific amusement. This, then, is Duel of Ages. It is a board game with a dynamically-constructed hex grid and the ability to play as Beowulf with a flamethrower and and ATV. Silly, yes, but a lot of fun and some good strategy, too. Different historical characters have different attacks, defenses, ranges, etc., and with more than a few players the game plays out not so much like a duel but like a tiny war. There is enough dice-rolling to inject some fluidity into the game, but enough stat-based fighting to make sure it doesn’t become random. For me, the best part of this game was taking home it and its first expansion (of eight) after playing in a small tourney with me on one side and Peter on the other. Stacking the odds? Me? Never.
Munchkin Quest – Munchkin Quest, Steve Jackson Games’ latest, is Munchkin with a dynamically built, interlocking board and monsters that followed you around. If you are not familiar with Munchkin the card game, it is a game based on dungeon crawling without all that finicky “character development”. You kick down a door, you fight a monster within, you gain loot, you level. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Munchkin Quest takes the ever-growing insanity that is Munchkin (there are several thousand different Munchkin cards spanning several genres, all of which can be used together) and attempts to tame it into a board game. It mostly works. I appreciated having a die-rolling element in my battles, as opposed to straight level vs. level. The movement through the dungeon gave new like to the idea of exploring rooms and finding what lurks within. My favorite new twist, however is the introduction of a real endgame. In Munchkin Quest, instead of just “I beat a monster, I’m level 10, I win. Woohoo.”, you have to achieve level 10, then get back to the entrance of the dungeon, where you have to fight a level 20 monster to escape.
One thing hasn’t changed, however. It still takes forever to win. One of the more clever mechanics in Munchkin is the ability to throw monkey wrenches at your opponents by growing their enemies, summoning more monsters, or worse. Munchkin Quest gives some disincentive for this by letting monsters roam, meaning that the level 1 Potted Plant you pumped up to level 25 against your buddy might come to feed on you, Seymour. That isn’t true of the exit monster, though. If you lose, it disappears. Thus, the end of Munchkin Quest is just like the end of Munchkin proper – a war of attrition until someone runs out of whammies.
Munchkin Quest comes out in October, shipping sparing. Peter wants to get it, I don’t really need it.
PAX video game previews in review September 2, 2008
So many games, so little time on each. Here’s my post-PAX roundup of the games I played.
Starcraft II – I was fortunate to get a total of 40 minutes with this one, thanks to team-camping it with Peter. He tried the Humans, I tried the Protoss (everyone and their grandmother’s dog tried the Zerg, so I just watched them). The order of the day is “streamlined”. Starcraft II feels like Starcraft, but it also feels very slick and smooth – almost too slick and smooth. For example, gathering has been made quicker by allowing your forces to get more from each node they whack. Units don’t move, they glide, no matter which race they are. The Protoss are still unbelievably shiny, and the Zerg still make noises that should never be combined with eating. The humans are, well, human, and sometimes they zig zag where they should have zug zugged. That is to say that command and control seemed a bit of an issue, but whether this was because of new controls or the fact that its been so many years since we’ve used the old ones remains to be seen. As an admitted Blizzard fan, I’ll be watching this one with great interest.
World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King: Ah, WoW, my not-so-secret vice. You see, I have this gnome, and she’s stabby…and l33t, and lots of other things that I will never be in real life. Thus, any new expansion to this cash cow in the Blactivision barn warrants my full attention. I waited longer to play the beta for ten minutes than I waited for any other single thing at PAX. And here, readers, is the heresy – it wasn’t worth it.
Yes, I am looking forward to WotLK. Yes, I will buy it and level my gnomes and roll my tiny pink-haired Death Knight. That being said, what I saw on the show floor (when the Beta was up) felt not so much like an expansion pack, but rather a major patch. Of course, I didn’t have time to explore all the new crafting, the second new zone (I only entered the Howling Fjord), or even get a tiny haircut, but I did run around and kill things in an attempt to gain loot, which is the essence of the thing. The killing was the same as it ever was, the loot was vendorable grays. I think there is a lot here, to be sure, I just think it will take some deeper delving to discover it.
Spore: “What’s with all the screaming?” I’m a Wright fan since Sim City. (The original, Maxis version, thank you.) I like God games. I farm my pinatas and research feudalism with the best of them, but for some reason, Spore is not grabbing me. Create your own creature and allow it to evolve? I’ve played Flow. Bring a civilization through time? I’ve played, well, you know. Launch ’em into space? I remember Sim Earth. Yes, it’s shiny, yes, penises abound, but I think the proof is in the primordial soup here, and I’m not appetized. Spore doesn’t feel new to me, it feels like work, and I have enough of that on my plate these days.
I feel the same way about Little Big Planet, by the way. It looks adorable, but frankly, I’m overwhelmed by the choices. I absolutely understand that there is a market for these games, and I look forward to the delights that the superusers of these games create. I’m just wondering when we decided it was a good thing to encourage people to charge us $60 to do their job and make a game.
Fallout 3 – Just to prove I’m not a crank, let me say Fallout 3 is so dirty-shiny it hurts. I loved watching the VATS system in motion, and I praise Ceiling Cat that Bethesda has learned that first and third-person views can live together in one game without creating a civil war. I think the leveling system is great, the visual design is spot-on for the retro-apocalyptic flavor of the game world, and I think that scorpions suck. That is all.
Lock’s Quest – From the folks that brought you Drawn To Life, 5th Cell, comes Lock’s Quest. First off, let me congratulate 5th Cell for sticking to its DS Wireless Download method of demo this year. It worked very well for DTL last year, and it was fun to use my DS wireless for something at PAX besides PictoCock and getting creamed at MarioKart. Not having to wait in line was another big plus.
Lock’s Quest is a strategy RPG which recently won IGN.com’s Best of E3 Strategy Game award. Don’t let the game’s faint competition at E3 deter you, though – Lock’s Quest is a solid strategy game with a colorful steampunk art style. More importantly it brings the building-type strategy RPG firmly to the DS. You have four different building materials to mine and work with, ala Starcraft or Warcraft, and an able commander in Lock himself. The DS stylus is an excellent building and drawing tool, allowing you to fashion fortresses and walls with ease. I’m looking forward to owning this one.
As a gamer who can vacillate between WoW PvP ganking and scritching a Nintendog between the ears in mere seconds, I thought that giving a “fair and balanced” review of a Sims Pets game was going to be tough. Not so much. I guess I require my pixellated pooches to actually be more than blurry pixels with mediocre control schemes.
I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the “plot”. After the ever-so-detailed character creation experience (featuring both genders and no less than five top and bottom clothing options), you are plopped down in a teeny tiny Sim apartment with an nearly invisible Sim parrot. If you can get your stylus to touch the parrot just right, it will give you a Sims-type pop up window which will allow you to play a DDR-style minigame with the bird. Not a bad minigame, moves a bit fast, but it’s a rhythm game, and who doesn’t love those?
Wander around your new space for a bit and you’ll get an e-mail on your PDA (*cough iPhone*) from your Uncle Bill, who owns the apartment and the pet spa below it. He says he’s off doing research somewhere and thanks you for looking after the place. In case you have an itch for interior design, Uncle Bill has an “arrangement” with the landlord that gives you carte blanche to paint, paper, and generally tear the place up as you see fit.
This isn’t your mother’s Sims game, though. No sooner do you begin looking at swatches then the doorbell rings, and your friendly building maintenance guy hands you a puppy. Why? Because he found it, of course. Now you have to care for it.
Unfortunately, it is the pet care phase that makes this game less a member of the Sims family and more a subpar Nintendogs clone or wannabe Imagine: Veterinarian. Pets can have a number of negative states, including such technical states as “stinky” or “dirty”. Your job is to “diagnose” and “treat” these states through washing, perfuming, etc.
The big problem here is the controls. For example. it is very difficult to “treat” Stinky when you have to both target his hotspots using the stylus and “spray” him with the same hand (using the right shoulder button). In addition, there are not one, but two timing mechanisms in play during your task: a standard clock timer and the pet’s “annoyance meter”, which will invariably cause Stinky to run away for a few seconds during the middle of any treatment. Good luck getting the percentage of treatment needed to “cure” Stinky when you can’t even make him sit still.
And that’s just the pets that are dumped on your doorstep. You also run a Pet Spa downstairs, which is how you earn money to pamper your pooches and make Uncle Bill’s pad plush. You get an e-mail when a customer arrives and, if you can force the impossible pathfinding to allow you to take the elevator down, you may even get to diagnose and treat these customers’ pets! Joy! Meanwhile, your own motive scores (fatigue, hygiene, etc.) continue to erode over time, as do the scores of each and every pet in your personal menagerie.
Finally, the game doesn’t look great, even for a DS title. Nintendogs, which was a DS Lite launch title, presents cuter pooches, and Viva Pinata: Pocket Paradise shows what the littlest console can do with textures in a sim game. Next to those guys, The Sims 2: Apartment Pets looks like a GBA title at best, or at least the parts you can see – the camera only moves up, down, left and right – no swiveling whatsoever.
Looks like I’ll have to go back to having my gnome rogue farm up pets in Azeroth and Outland. I’m giving The Sims 2: Apartment Pets – 2 Weiners out of 5.