Mini Reviews: Rytmik Retrobits, Harvest Moon: Grand Bazaar, Skyrim

Rytmik Retrobits (DSiWare)

Perhaps it’s that I come from a musical family, but I love playing around with music creation software from time to time. ’tis good! Pretty easy to work out to use, though selection is sometimes a little finicky, and scrolling is a little unintuitive; physically dragging right to… go right. Rather than drag the left into view.
I guess I miss the precision of the software pretending I’m actually dragging the view around. I just can’t estimate how far I’ll drag it.
I also ended up picking up the basic Rytmik, though each of the Rytmik releases is a standalone application.

Since starting on this post (quite a while ago) I’ve made a few simple things with Rytmik Retrobits. It’s easy-to-use, but transferring compositions over to anything else requires a bit of work.

Harvest Moon: Grand Bazaar (DS)

Yes, yes, secret shame, one true weakness, et cetera.
Harvest Moon has always been entertaining. Grand Bazaar is competent. The Bazaar is actually fairly interesting, though nowhere near as engaging as Secret of Evermore’s bazaar. Selling mechanics are nowhere near as detailed as Recettear or even that section in Dragon Quest… 4? Chapters of the Chosen, anyway.
Also, Windmills. Windmills do all of your crafting save cooking for you. It’s vaguely windmillpunk.
That said, does let you play as a girl without waiting for the not-usually-released-over-here updated version. That’s an improvement.

Skyrim (PC)

Needs work.
Oh, it’s as good a game as Morrowind and Oblivion were, as can be expected. Maybe a bit better, though not significantly; you probably can’t do much better in terms of worldbuilding, for example.
But why do Bethesda release such bug-riddled software? I know at this point they can count on it selling despite the assurance that the game has at least three game-stopping bugs on launch, as… well, estimates place 3.5 million copies sold in the first weekend. Maybe they know that players are ultimately the ‘best’ bug-testers, as everything but the most strange of actions will get replicated many times over, and actual players won’t get bored and don’t require employing.
…I wonder how many people Bethesda pay for QA.
Anyway, great game as usual, needs work. Desperately needs January’s release of the Skyrim Creation Kit so we can have competent people creating the Unofficial patch. And good mods. Skyrim’s world is somewhat less bland than Oblivion, but whilst there are a few random locations to stumble upon, they aren’t nearly enough or strange enough, and whilst there are a few good mods out there already, they mostly relate to UI overhauls or crafting stuff. Honestly, what’s been achieved already is more than I thought could have been done without the creation kit; I really look forwards to seeing what these people will be able to do given the rest of the tools Bethesda’s teams used.

So, Doom 3 arrived today.

Not that I’ve ever been one to enjoy Doom games, aside from some remixes of the series’ music, or even most games remotely like it, aside from Marathon which has a very good story to go along with it… but, anyway, I’m glad this arrived.

See, I enjoy stealth games, and picked up the Thief Collection a year or two back. However, due to owning a… modern computer, it’s a pain to get either of the included games to run, requiring patching and settings-fiddling and, overall, more headache than it’s worth now that the games I own have been LP’d.

Some very enterprising people created The Dark Mod, for use with Doom 3; essentially recreating Thief’s gameplay on top of a game where you’re probably expected to run in guns ablazing, to hell with stealth.
And it looks marvellous. All the standard Thief mechanics and equipment have been implemented, and if not for the splash screen that appears when you start the game, you’d never know it was built on top of Doom 3. It looks far more like Oblivion (which does have its own Thief-based mod).

…come to think of it, wasn’t Thief 4 announced a couple of years back? I wonder what happened to that.

Miniview: World of Goo (PC)

I love:
…the story. It’s not comparable to many other games I’ve played, but only due to the format; told through the very occasional cutscene, but most frequently through signs dotted about the landscape, it’s… again, it’s writing-on-the-wall, or GlaDOS’ voice through the speakers. You do things, or not, and the game talks to you. That style just isn’t the same as Final Fantasy N, or Dragon Quest, so it can’t be compared. For all its probably more realistic as a way of showing a story, the world isn’t really sensible, even by game standards, and the game admits it. Hilarity ensues.
…the integration of puzzle and story. Or something like that. I mean, this game is more like Half-Life than Puzzle Quest; what you do is very obviously what’s happening in the world, like Half-Life and its non-cutscene cutscenes, and very unlike Puzzle Quest and its ‘I’m gonna fight you now! *BEJEWELLED*’ disconnect.

I like:
…the sign-painter. He, or she, accounts for the majority of the text in the game, mostly with amusing observations, but he also serves as a very good method of telling the player what they need to know, such as explaining some of the differences between the goo species.
…the many types of goo, above and beyond the common-or-garden grey-black goos from the original Tower of Goo game. There are balloonlike goos, goos that form attachments more readily, goos that act like water drops, combustible goos, reusable goos, exploding goos, somewhat-pointless goos, goos that stick at things, goos you can fling at stuff…

…tower-building. Completing levels with more goos collected than the requirement gives you goo to build a tower with, a la Tower of Goo.
…the music. Mostly. About half of it is arrangements of the same theme; that I dislike the original form of that theme, and yet love most of the arrangements, is probably testament to the composer’s skill.

I loathe:
…not finding out what the sign-painter was doing. Or about whatever the player is supposed to be. Granted, it probably wouldn’t be possible to answer those in any way, shape or form that isn’t disappointing, but it’s just a little jarring.
…not being able to use anything but the common-or-garden goo for building towers. Not being able to screw around with those types outside of the puzzles they appear in, at that.
…not being able to see other users’ clouds at the World of Goo Corporation building. I could in the demo, but is my tower really that tiny compared to all the others in existence?

The demo doesn’t really give the full game its due; whilst there are hints of how the game will continue, in the playable chapter of the demo, the game only really starts coming into its own in the second chapter and beyond. That said, the demo is a good introduction to the game’s mechanics; if you like what you see there, the game only gets better.
If, like me, you weren’t overly impressed with the demo, it can still turn out to be a great game. If you’re worried, though, see if you can’t find a friend with a copy themselves, and ask to play through the second chapter. Things really only kick off from there.

Miniview: Left 4 Dead (PC)

I love:
…the aural cues for specific zombies. As far as my limited experience goes, it’s relatively easy to tell what direction, say, a Witch is lying, but difficult to tell exactly how far away said Witch is, as the music certainly pierces walls, and the sound effects might. Given that about half the time your field of vision is extremely limited, listening to the aural cues is essential. If you don’t get disoriented playing mute, why have sound in the first place?
…limited vision, come to think of it. Too many games nowadays take the cheap route with darkness that is easily defeatable by fiddling with monitor brightness, with the result of most games being easy to see in no matter whether or not I’m carrying a torch, as I keep brightness on my monitors high by default. L4D doesn’t do that; the flashlight is necessary most of the time you’re inside buildings. Additionally, there are reasons not to use the flashlight. One, at least.
…the writing on the walls. I just love that kind of stuff. There are many more ways of telling stories than having people talk at you in cutscenes. Just look at L4D, Portal, Dead Space, and Uplink.

I like:
…that they let you carry multiple pieces of gear – pistol(s), non-default additional weapon, first aid kit, painkillers and an explosive – but limit you to one of each. That is, you can’t tote a shotgun and a hunting rifle at the same time. Fairly realistic, or moreso than any game that lets you carry and choose from umpteen weapons at once, but that’s the way things seem to be going nowadays, I think?
…pistols and a hunting rifle. I just favoured them over the other available weapons. Non-autofire weapons mean I’m likely not to shoot teammates that much. I need to learn to use molotovs at some point, though.
…achievements. Well, I like them in general, and L4D has a large collection of them. Some are sensible – achievements for completing the campaigns, an achievement for completing anything with everyone alive. Some are a bit silly, like the requirement for the Genocidest achievement.

I hate:
…how my mouse kept freezing every ten or twenty seconds. I use an optical mouse and I usually don’t need a mousemat, even for Half-Life 2, but for some odd reason Left 4 Dead just hates that. I don’t know whether it’s the mouse or the lack of a mousemat, but next time I play, I’ll find out. Either way, finding yourself unable to turn whilst anything is running at your backside is not fun.
…the lack of a manual? It’s an odd thing I have against Steam/Valve games. The one occasion they have a ‘user manual’ available directly from Steam’s game list, it’s for Team Fortress 2. Have you read that thing? It’s not helpful. I know L4D is mostly the standard Steam-FPS controlset, but… nowhere thus far has L4D outright explained the controls, and for half of my recent game I had to stay away from Witches as I didn’t know how to turn off the frigging flashlight. For someone like me who only goes into FPS territory on a fluke, for the most part, it’s a rather high barrier to entry when a manual is not easily available.

Well, usually I don’t play this kind of game. I’m bad enough with horror as it is; I prefer my shambling monstrosities to… you know… shamble, rather than leap on me as soon as I’ve spotted them.
Somehow, though, L4D isn’t as frightening as the normal horror games I play; the Ch’zo Mythos games, for example. This is probably due to me playing with one other living person – horror isn’t as horrifying when you know there’s someone else around, helping and… honestly, being better than you in almost every respect other than protecting other characters and avoiding getting hurt.
The only thing that at times prevented this game from being enjoyable was my problems with my mouse. When it wasn’t playing up, L4D was really quite fun. I get the feeling the game would be much worse for my pulse in single-player, honestly.
If you have people to play with, by all means, go for it.

Miniview: Eversion (PC)

I love:
…what it does with platforming, and the different rules you have to learn just to get through each stage. Though superficially this game looks like any given Mario-type platformer, I’d class it as more of a puzzle-platformer, due to the thinking you have to do to get through each stage, but I don’t often see those with a strictly level-based structure.

I like:
…the music. Every single piece. Much like the pieces in Spelunky, the
music here just… fits, extremely well, the atmosphere I presume the
designer was aiming for when producing this game. Unlike Spelunky,
though, the music is a very important element of the game that tells the player when they can or cannot do something. Probably.
…the graphics. Nice pixel graphics. They’re used much like the music is, and I do love how they’re used… but I don’t really love the graphics.

I hate:
…not that much at all, really. For a game that requires precision jumps in places, the controls seem a little sensitive, but it’s not a great problem, and I seem to have infinite lives, so…


Miniview: Spelunky (PC)

I love:
…that, despite looks, it’s essentially a roguelike. It combines the randomly-generated levels, violent shopkeepers and ranking on death with 2D platformer action similar to LA-MULANA. Similar enough that the programmer mentions the game in his description, anyway.
…the music. It sounds very nice and of the three or so pieces I’ve heard, none of them fail to fit the game.
…the intro that changes slightly each time I open the game.

I like:
…the graphics. Yeah, it looks like a cross between Treasure Hunter Man and LA-MULANA. That’s not a bad thing. It does take a few enemy sprites from Cave Story, but… again, not a bad thing. I miss this kind of style; what are people thinking that 3D is the future?
…being able to mess around on the title screen, and how the intro leads to that point. Admittedly, you can’t do much, but it is a nice touch all the same.

I hate:
…the giant two-tile-wide spiders; they’re the sole highest cause of death, with everything else mostly split evenly between ‘jumped without thinking’ and ‘attacked too late’.

Get Spelunky here.

Halloween: Genuinely Creepy Games

There are lots of horror games out there, but horror doesn’t necessarily equate to scary or creepy; werewolves and vampires are too well-known to provide much if any lingering shock, and zombies, though they can be scary, aren’t scary because of what they are, but rather how they got that way, and how other characters react to them. Take Resident Evil’s zombies as an example; the dead walk, which would be a bit of a shock if you didn’t look at the cover of the game, but it doesn’t last. That the dead can actually move surprisingly fast, or are difficult to re-kill, or ambush you… that’s definitely a shock, but again it doesn’t last long after combat, aside from making you a little more paranoid about ambushes in future, which is something, at least. Why the dead walk is a lot scarier to think about, in this case, than that they’re walking towards you.
I suspect vampires and werewolves would be more frightening if humans showed a paranoid ‘it could be any of us’ reaction to them that lasted longer than however long it takes for the resident vampire/werewolf hunter to turn up. Oblivion almost makes it with one of its sidequests, but there’s hardly enough bloodshed, even if you’re ‘wrong’.

There aren’t many games out there that achieve genuine creepiness. Even less that I’ve played, as a lot of them don’t fall into genres I play often. I have, however, played a couple, and they’ve all stuck in my mind for various reasons. Naturally, to spoil these is to ruin these, so you’ll just have to take my descriptions and my word for it, and check them out yourself.

Knytt Stories, by nifflas (An Underwater Adventure, by nifflas)
An Underwater Adventure is one of nifflas’ official expansions, part of the A Strange Dream pack of levels. They’re all very well made, as you could expect from the person who created Knytt Stories, along with Knytt and Within a Deep Forest.
An Underwater Adventure is a distinctly different telling of how the world was saved from Dr. Cliche’s plan to freeze it solid, though anyone who played Within a Deep Forest beforehand will keep spotting tiny things reminding them of the original tale.
Best Played:
After playing A Strange Dream for practice. Within a Deep Forest isn’t necessary, but it can’t hurt, as that’s also a good game.

The John DeFoe series, by Yahtzee
The John DeFoe quartet, also known as the Ch’zo Mythos series of adventure games – I think that one sounds better – is comprised of 5 Days a Stranger, 7 Days a Skeptic, Trilby’s Notes, the three countdown text adventures (available on the 6 Days a Sacrifice page), and 6 Days a Sacrifice, in that order. It’s the only entry on this list that obviously set out to sit firmly in the horror genre from the very beginning. In my opinion, the best games are Trilby’s Notes and 6 Days a Sacrifice, but the first two games are still perfectly creepy by themselves.
Best Played:
Late at night, when you’re the only person around.

Yume Nikki
This one’s difficult to describe. Imagine you can almost dream lucidly; you remember everything about your dreams, and though you don’t have control over the dream itself, you feel as if you’re entirely awake, within that dream. Wouldn’t that be rather strange? Dreams and nightmares are half-digested fragments of reality and imagination, and we dream or nightmare every single night, rarely remembering it all once we’ve woken up.
Yume Nikki is another person’s dream; someone unfamiliar, whom we know next to nothing about.
Best Played:
In small doses… and, sadly, with Japanese language support. You need that as a minimum to get the thing running.

In general, AI are creepy, no matter where they appear, whether they’re on your side or not. ADA, SHODAN, GlaDOS, Durandal, Tycho, Leela, HK-47, C-3PO, Kryten… even if by some fluke they’re going right, there’s usually something unsettling about them; they’re far more intelligent than the meat talking to them, and the only thing keeping them from going insane is their programming. Far be it for a human to look at themselves in the same terms and notice they’re not too far different. Known AI, like robots, if they look or act human in any way, tend to fall within the uncanny valley.
That’s prejudice, for the most part, but insane AI is still creepier than sane AI, assuming the sane AI isn’t out to kill you anyway.
Best Played:
With cake, taking the time to really listen to everything GlaDOS says.

When people abruptly go missing… it’s right to worry about them, about whether they’re okay or not.
Best Played:
All in one sitting; go ahead, it’s short. Not as short as my description, but… anything else I could say would spoil it.

Immortal Defense
This game is absolutely amazing. It’s from the same people behind Missing, above; put very simply, it’s a ‘tower defense’-style game with a wonderful plot to it. You’re given reasons for what you do, above and beyond your points total.
Best Played:
Mission by mission… by mission… by mission… there are a lot of missions.

All the games on this list have something in common; whilst some of them may provide short shocks, they all left me with an unsettling feeling, and things to think about, that lasted long after I quit the game for the night. Much better than that pure adrenaline fight-or-flight reflex.

Mass Effect: Alien Species

I think I like Mass Effect’s aliens. They’re not all ‘forehead’ aliens like you get in Star Trek.
The Asari are a big disappointment, being the blue-skinned
really-close-to-human-looking race. They aren’t that bad when you look
at the information about them, but physically they’re a letdown.

The Turians remind me a little of Alien Soldier, and the…
bone/mandible things bordering their mouth begin to look quite
insectile once you notice them moving as a Turian speaks. Salarians,
meanwhile, look a little like thin, stretched-out Asgard with different
skin colour and texture.
From the non-Council races, the Elcor are one of my favourites;
elephant-gorillas that take a long time to finish speaking, and specify
what tone they’re talking in beforehand. It’s quite amusing watching
one talk with a Volus, which look like cute little Big Daddies in their
suits. Hanar are also very nice, looking like tall jellyfish, or
colourful tiny versions of Morrowind’s big Stilt Striders. The Geth
just look like Star Wars droids, though I suppose it’s a vaguely
sensible shape if you have any tasks that need a humanoid form. Then
there are the Krogan. They’re something with a hunchback between
lizards and birds.
Oh, yeah. Also, the Keepers. Green six-limbed (quadrupedal) things that
are apparently bugs, but something tells me they look similar to
something (bipedal) from Star Wars, or something else.

So, aside from the Asari, Mass Effect was a very good effort towards creating aliens that don’t look human. There are probably a few more out there that I haven’t encountered yet, but I’m not all that far in as yet.

Hypothetical Ideal Game: First-Person RPG Edition

I’ve been playing a bunch of different games recently, like Oblivion, Two Worlds, Dwarf Fortress and Mother 3.
Well, for a given value of ‘recently’, I suppose.
Oh, and Atmosphir. I got into the beta. It’s great, though since I’ve been playing Oblivion lately, there’s one thing about the controls that I keep tripping over. That’s more because I’ve been playing Oblivion recently than any kind of fault in Atmosphir, though.

ANYWAY, whilst playing Oblivion, I remembered when I was writing about Two Worlds and how it’s not as good as that game in certain areas. I mentioned that Two Worlds was actually superior to Oblivion in one area; its weather, specifically the mist and fog effects. I don’t remember if I saw it raining in Two Worlds, but Oblivion‘s rain is pretty close to how depressing rain is where I live, at any rate. I was thinking, ‘Oblivion would be better if it had Two Worlds‘ weather…’

The logical extension of that thought is, ‘what would my ideal first-person RPG be?’ This is one part praising certain mechanics or elements of specific games that I happen to like, and another part game design, as I try to explain WHY I like them, and why they fit in.
Currently, my idea of the ideal first-person RPG sorta goes like this:

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (base game) + Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul (yay, difficulty!) + Two Worlds (weather effects) + Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (the soundtrack) + The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (general character of the region)

Oblivion because… well… it’s Oblivion. It’s the best (read: only) first-person game, RPG or no, I’ve actually played and done well at, aside from Morrowind. I played the Ultima Underworld games years ago, but didn’t do anywhere near as well with them. It’s a great game that allows a number of different ways to be played, even without modding it, which is another brilliant feature, that really extends the playability of ‘Oblivion’… even if it’s not quite Oblivion any more, afterwards.
So Oblivion is the base game, here, but that doesn’t mean all things listed after it simply modify as detailed. Oblivion‘s good enough to play by itself, and if there were a mod to, say, quietly filch Two Worlds‘ weather, I’d jump on it and probably never let go, but I’d (probably) really like an entirely new game that took all the good features of Oblivion, then added the stuff from the other listed games. Oblivion‘s just the game I think has the most great features of the lot; requiring a small amount of skill from the player even IF the character’s skills are all at 100 – Speechcraft (not much skill, admittedly – I should seek out one of those mods sometime…) or Lockpicking (the ability to recognise when a tumbler will ‘stick’, either by sound or sight – try guessing which is easier for me, huh? – if you don’t just have the game autoattempt it for you) – for example.
This isn’t an exhaustive list; games that illustrate what I’d love to replace a given element with don’t always come to mind, if I’ve even experienced anything like what I’d like to see in the first place.

One ever-so-slight ‘problem’ I had with normal Oblivion was that it wasn’t much of a challenge; I invariably play a mage, and Destruction is a very efficient school of magic for exploding stuff, even if you never find the (celebrated) Enemies Explode spell. Without changing anything, it’s pretty easy to get far into the game and still only be using Weak Fireball, Shocking Touch and Cold Touch, two of which you start with if you pick Destruction for a major skill. Normally, like Morrowind, most enemies you encounter are based on your level, so unless you really neglect your offensive skills, you can always (easily, in my experience as a mage) beat anything you encounter, except bosses. It makes the game a little more… I don’t know. ‘Swashbuckling’. ‘Movie-style dramatic’, rather than dramatic because it really was a close fight between that Bandit and me.
Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul drastically changes things; I routinely find myself running away from things like Minotaurs, Trolls, Bandits and Mystical Imps at level 1 – stuff you either shouldn’t be seeing for a long time, or weren’t a challenge originally. Highwaymen are still rather wimpy, though.
Probably doesn’t help lighten difficulty any that I pick the Atronach birthsign for both of the mage characters I’ve played with this mod, which adds something else to difficulty with not being able to rest to recover magicka between fights, but triumphing against a Troll because you fought intelligently rather than just tanking it and poking it with Flare, thanks to the health even a mage has after enough levels, results in a sense of achievement I otherwise just don’t get from the game. Oblivion’s natural difficulty – or lack thereof – isn’t something I noticed as a problem in the first place, but I really don’t want to go back to that now that I’m playing with OOO.

Two Worlds‘ weather effects. The game’s fog and mist effects just look that real. I’m really not sure how they got that so right, and yet a lot of other things in the game, like… well, character models… look so odd.
Then again, years ago I was impressed about how realistic Final Fantasy VIII‘s graphics looked compared to FFVII‘s. Graphics aren’t that major a thing to me; I honestly prefer sprite-based or ASCII graphics to 3D stuff, and wish more games followed the examples of Breath of Fire III and BoFIV. They’re just… part of the game, and I don’t understand how graphics can be anything from a major concern to everything, as some people on Guild Wars seem to me to think, from what they say about World of Warcraft’s visuals. Part of me still suspects they just don’t want to admit they don’t want to pay continually for a game after they bought it. ’cause I’ll happily admit I don’t enjoy that model.
Graphics will rarely turn me away from a game. Far more important is whether I like the plot and gameplay mechanics. All the same, having Two Worlds‘ weather effects in a game like Oblivion would be nice.

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. This is just a really nice game in general, and it’s what I was playing when everyone else was playing Diablo II, I think. Even with really strange graphical problems due to using the same graphics card as came with the ancient computer that was mine at the time, I loved it. Still do.
So, the music. Arcanum gave us a decidedly-fantasy world in the throes of an industrial revolution. Steampunk with magic. Well, magic-punk with steam power? Not magitek-punk, as magic and technology do not get along. Well, to get to my point, the world in Arcanum was decidedly Victorian, or just teetering on the edge of a Belle Époque if some of the problems in the world ever cleared up, and Arcanum‘s soundtrack, similarly, was in the style of the era, or close enough to my ears. Go ahead, download and listen to it, as Sierra and Troika Games put it up for download years ago. It’s the kind of music you can see (hear?) being composed by people living in a world like Arcanum‘s.
Oblivion, whilst it has orchestral music, doesn’t have anything that stands out; for want of a better way of explaining it, it’s modern orchestral, of the typical kind of pieces composed nowadays… for videogames, as I admit I haven’t listened to many other new orchestral pieces composed for different reasons and audiences.
I like it, but it’s the same as so much else that I have no reason to listen to Oblivion‘s music in particular; Arcanum‘s soundtrack I still keep going back to, and that music’s getting close to a decade in age. There are good modern-orchestral pieces that stand out – anything by Masashi Hamauzu, or Hitoshi Sakimoto, but they both compose pieces so different that they probably wouldn’t be considered the same genre, anyway – and then there are pieces that simply stick to the conventions and do nothing new.
Both Arcanum and Oblivion have large and pretty-detailed worlds, but Arcanum has music that matches its world, or what we’d expect from that world, from history. Oblivion‘s music is pretty generic. Though I admit that also matches Oblivion; see my next, and final, point for today.

Morrowind. This one’s a doozy, the most difficult one to explain in the current not-short-when-explained list. It’s also the one that takes the award for ‘most impossible to add to Oblivion without it not being Oblivion any more’.
The region of Tamriel Oblivion takes place in – Cyrodiil – is… well…
It’s pretty typical. Plainsland. Forest. Swamp. Mountain. Snowy mountain. A typical checklist of terrain. Ancient Ruins dotted around the place. A city, a bunch of towns, and many small assorted villages and hamlets – actually, the city, towns and villages aren’t a problem; they’re great. They seem just the right distance apart. It’s just everything else.
Don’t get me wrong; Oblivion has a great world, but there’s still something about it that just seems ‘typical’ or ‘generic’ to me. It probably comes from living somewhere that’s actually quite like it; the UK and other pretty-closely-associated land. We have plains (most of the countryside, or at least most near the roads), we have rather boggy areas (anywhere it rains, it seems, but we have proper wetlands, too; look at Ireland), we have mountains (Scotland), and we have woods and forests, too (though not as many as there used to be). It’s too familiar, even if I’ve never been to a proper wetland, just live in a land where it’s usually more or less wet, or normally only go past a lot of the countryside in bus.
Morrowind‘s ‘world’, Vvardenfell, is swamp and ashen wasteland, and not all that much else. I never really got a feel for Cyrodiil whilst ambling around trying to save the world; even in the midst of an invasion, it still looks like idyllic rolling plains, quiet forests, cold mountains and altogether-too-damp swamps, all drawn from a UK template. I don’t know. It just never clicked as more than a place, somewhere that could be real, for all the similarity to the UK-and-company I listed above.
Vvardenfell always seemed hostile. Partially because it was; I’m reasonably certain Morrowind is tougher than Oblivion for more reason than only my lack of experience at first-person stuffs when I first picked up Morrowind. But also because that part of Tamriel was always dark and overcast, in my memory, with storms of ash. It wasn’t just hostile to you, it didn’t like the NPCs either, and they knew it too. It had things like Cliff Racers, and whilst not exactly liked by any player, they did add to the overall atmosphere of hostility Vvardenfell always had. And though Vvardenfell was actually bigger than Cyrodiil, it didn’t have a great amount of variation in the terrain; some people see this as dull, others (me, at least) as a bit more realistic – the UK doesn’t have a lot of swamp, I think. Is Cyrodiil where a lot of different terrains meet? I think so, and it’s not helping Cyrodiil grow an identity for itself.
Vvardenfell also had ancient ruins, but they didn’t stick out so much; Ayleid ruins in Cyrodiil look like they’re self-cleaning, for all the wear they’re supposed to have gone through since the Ayleids were forced from their throne, and it’s really difficult travelling far without tripping over one or another, but the Chimer ruins in Vvardenfell were actually pretty difficult to find, due to Vvardenfell being huge and Morrowind not giving us a map like Oblivion did, but also because they were covered in ash. I’d at least expect Ayleid ruins to be heavily overgrown or buried by now, but… only the one, and that’s in the latter case.
In short, Vvardenfell has a personality. And Cyrodiil, though it has a personality, has a much weaker one. I liked how the Oblivion Gates altered the landscale in a very localised area; maybe if older ones affected a larger area? Maybe if the area affected was more than just a few metres from the gate, but spread out – effects getting thinner – for a much further distance? Cyrodiil just doesn’t hang together as well as Vvardenfell does, and it’d be difficult to change Cyrodiil that way, as part of the problem is Cyrodiil itself.

That’s all that comes to mind, at the moment; for this hypothetical maybe-ideal first-person RPG, I mean. I have ideas for more articles on this theme, and I’ll hopefully get around to writing them at some point. And continuing with the Blaze & Blade articles, miniviews-in-many-formats, and anything else of which I made a short series.

(Review) Portal: Prelude – Torture

So, yeah. Portal: Prelude was released recently – yesterday? – and thus far, opinions about the game seem to be in two camps.

First, there’s the camp that sail through. This seems to be populated by veterans of Portal‘s advanced maps; they have the absolute precision required to beat certain maps.
Then there’s the camp I’m sitting in, populated by people who can’t make the jumps, maneuvers, or aim the portalgun in midair whilst being fired on by at least two turrets in a window of opportunity lasting less than a second… in the first chamber.
I don’t doubt they had some people test the game, but my guess is that their sample group wasn’t exactly representative of Portal’s entire audience. It’s been mentioned by one of the designers on the mod’s forums that none of the testers got stuck for more than ten minutes, but isn’t that too long anyway? If I was attempting a puzzle for ten minutes straight, I’d quit the game for then and do something else to take my mind off things.

But it’s not the puzzles. I think the problem is that the designers of Portal: Prelude got things the wrong way around; Portal had puzzles; spotting the answer was the difficult thing. Portal: Prelude, on the other hand, has what are for me very difficult maneuvers and tricks; the answers are very obvious – you can very easily tell you need to take out the turrets before you can get to the exit, though it’s just a few metres away, but that’s not the same as doing it.
Note: I only reached part way through 02 before giving up. This is not actually representative of the rest of the game, but judging from the moaning on the forums*, it’s a good guess.

There are a couple of other things I found irritating, but they pale in comparison to the sheer frustration this game caused me. Not even the final boss of Orphen: Scion of Sorcery, a hideous monstrosity entirely dependent on sheer luck to defeat, forced me to give up so quickly or risk hurting myself trying.
Frustration of this kind makes me feel sick to my stomach, and it’s a horrible feeling. I don’t want to risk it… or even go through it for a game like this.
See, nothing about Portal: Prelude makes me want to stick around, so I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything at all important. The two humans… using synth voices in English… are nowhere as compelling or interesting as GlaDOS. What GlaDOS has isn’t exactly charisma, but it’s something – maybe it’s her insanity…? – and these two technicians just don’t have it. Not even slightly. The two puzzles I managed to solve – I’m not counting the test chamber, as that almost happens automatically – demonstrate two things puzzle-wise:
1. How to kill a player (me) over twenty times with the same set of blasted turrets, and…
2. Crouching? What? Crouching in the middle of a jump? Chell never needed this; Portal never even hinted it would do a thing. Apparently you get a hint about it… in 03, though.
I understand understanding we don’t want to go through learning to use the portalgun again; we have proper Portal for that. But…
Why. So. Difficult?

For nine months’ worth of work, it seems like a waste; I estimate this mod is unplayable to a moderate-to-large portion of the people who played and enjoyed the original Portal, either due to the lack of anything compelling from the original game to keep players’ interest, or earnest frustration reaching breaking point at being unable to solve something no matter how many times you quickload, maybe tweak a portal’s position, and try again. Even someone who reputedly breezed through the advanced maps had problems.
If the target audience of Portal: Prelude was purely the ‘hardcore’, solved-every-advanced-map crowd, then the designers succeeded. If the audience wasn’t just the ‘hardcore’, they made serious mistakes; underestimated the difficulty of the maps, severely overestimated the appeal and drive to continue through hardship and rampant death on the part of the players, I don’t know. Mistake, or mistakes, plural.
But, since they don’t rely on this mod as their significant source of income – though they have set up a donation page since so many people asked** – they can make whatever they want of it, without fear; they don’t have to appeal to a wider audience, or even think about being appealing at all.

It’s tempting to think they never did, in the first place.


* To be fair, it’s more-or-less balanced on the forums; some love it, some hate it. Some think it easy, more (?) think it difficult and/or impossible. Some write rave reviews, slightly more write ‘what Portal: Prelude did wrong’/condemnation. I figure whatever I have to say has been said there already, so I’m posting here instead.

** Needless to say, I haven’t donated. Plus, who knows that they didn’t plan it after all, and would have put the page up even if virtually no one asked? That’s just my Internet skepticism and cynicism, though.

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