Monday, September 18, 2017

Top 10 Best Games I've Played the Last 5 Years (Part 1)

One of the few things, possibly the only thing, I regretted about putting so much time into WoW was knowing I was missing out on a lot of other good games. Not just games being released while I was playing, but also games I had missed out on earlier before I got properly into gaming. One of the contributing factors of me quitting WoW was that I finally felt like I wanted to give all the other awesome experiences I had neglected so far a chance, and I feel it is one of the best decisions I have made. It should be noted however that I firmly believe that WoW was the main contributing factor to making me feel like I could handle any kind of game. Although I loved gaming before I started playing WoW, my confidence in my abilities were low and there were many games I never got into trying simply because I didn't think I could get very far anyway - games like Diablo and Half-life. By playing WoW I proved to myself that I could deal with very stressful and difficult situations in games just fine, and have hellova lot of fun doing it too. In the end I probably needed all that time in WoW to realize that I play games for my own sake and I'm pretty good at it too.

I definitely quit WoW in early 2013 - 4,5 years ago now - and decided to take a look back at the games I've played during that time, which ones stood out to me, affected me most and turned out to be as classic to me as they've been deemed by the masses. It wasn't an entirely easy list to compose. I had some given top spots, but looking at them I wasn't sure whether to rank them by what games I was more likely to replay, more likely to recommend or had the greatest impact on me at the time of playing. In the end I went with the latter. Note that the five year time frame only marks when they were first played by me, not release date.

So here is my top 10 favorite games I've played the last 5 years.

10. Shantae and the Pirate's Curse
I loved the idea of Shantae when I first heard about her GameBoy adventure. Maybe I was looking for more games with female protagonists, who knows, I can't really say what intrigued me so much about it otherwise than it looked like a fun platforming adventure. Unfortunately the game turned out to be difficult to find and expensive when I did, rather than emulating the experience I put it on hold. 

Not long after however I find out that a sequel had been released on the 3DS. I bought it pretty much immediately and had so much fun playing through the game. The characters, the level design, the humour - everything just clicked with me. Shantae and the Pirate's Curse is probably the best platformer I have ever played. The thing is, I am not normally very fond of platformers. To be honest I am not very good at them (yes I am looking at you every Mario-game ever) and so they frustrate me too much. I think the redeeming quality to Shantae was that it introduced a sort of leveling system, healing and combat items, which allowed you to improve your character throughout the game - giving hope for dunces to me. There were definitely difficult parts in Shantae too, but a fair placement of saves around the levels meant you never had to replay entire stages to get to where you were. There were interesting gimmicks, a fun story with the aforementioned hilarious characters (the Squid Boss being one of my favorites) and a well designed difficulty curve to make sure you'd never give up entirely. WayForward did an amazing job with this game and I couldn't recommend it enough, even if you don't normally enjoy platformers.

(Then I found out Pirate's Curse was actually the second sequel, and also played Risky's Revenge. I didn't like it as much as they had added some Quality of Life changes to PC that I would've liked in RR too, but it's still a fun game. I have yet to play Half-Genie Hero, but don't doubt that I really want to!).

9. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon
I had been a big fan of the Castlevania series for ages, without ever even having played any of the games. How is that even possible, you might ask? Mostly through a fondness of the music but also a respect for the series influence on gaming in general. Then one fated evening I decided it was time to get in on actually playing the games - and decided to start with Circle of the Moon. An odd place to start perhaps, why not Castlevania on the NES or Symphony of the Night? I didn't choose Castlevania on the NES because I thought it would be too difficult for me (and it was, as I found out later) and quite frankly I wanted the metroidvania experience. I didn't choose Symphony of the Night however because that game is much harder (and expensive!) to get hold of, even emulated, than the GBA ones. So Circle of the Moon it was.

This fight made my blood boil.

I am glad I didn't know at the time that CotM is supposed to be pretty hard, because I overall didn't think so, possibly because I had no expectations and nothing to compare it with. In hindsight I can't even say if I do think it is harder than SotN, but if I were to replay it now maybe I'd think so too. At the time however I was just having so much fun with it I probably didn't even notice when I got stuck somewhere. The first time I played it I did emulate it and would get horrible lag occasionally (like on the Zombie Dragon pitured above) but that didn't make me enjoy the game any less (I have bought the game since). Just like I had hoped when hearing about the metroidvania concept, I loved it. Yet again I think one of the key elements to me enjoying it so much is the fact that you can level up and use healing/combat items to ease certain parts if you are having trouble. As it turns out I also often get lost in metroidvania games, meaning my characters often ends up outleveling the areas I am supposed to be in, while I try to find my way around the castle. 

After having finished CotM, which is pretty much like any of the other entries in the handheld metroidvania series - cliché story and characters, great gameplay and music - I realized I wanted more and was happy there were so many more Castlevanias ready for me to be played. I got through all of the handheld ones in quick succession after that (didn't complete Order of Ecclesia though, because it's so damn hard), finishing up with the grand finale of Symphony of the Night.

CotM cemented my love for Castlevania though. It could've made me think that even though I respect the series, I don't enjoy playing them - much like Metroid Zero Mission did for me with the Metroid games - instead it only made me wonder why I hadn't gotten in on them much sooner.

8. Faster Than Light
To me Faster Than Light was one of, if not the first, indie game that really got my attention. A massive Kickstarter success, and proof of all the good that could come out of that concept, it got a lot of attention right around the time when I started considering quitting WoW and trying out other games. I didn't get around to it however before the Advanced Edition had been released, but that was probably for the better.

Faster Than Light is otherwise one of those really difficult, and sometimes unfair-feeling games that usually don't interest me. Maybe the sci-fi setting is what got me to give a try anyway, either way I am glad that I did because I ended up spending so many hours with it (over 50 actually). I only ever managed to beat it on easy, but I'm damn proud at that. The luck-factor to it could give it that feeling of sometimes being unfair to you, but it was easy enough to just play another round, and fun enough to tinker with different playstyles and approaches that I never minded being vanquished. In that way it reminded me a lot of all the nights I spent wiping on difficult raid bosses in WoW. Rather than getting angry and frustrated about it like I probably normally would have, I got right back up feeling like there was something I could've done a little bit better to maybe make it work the next time.

As did this fight.

Maybe I needed more weapons? Or more crew. Or less crew! Or hard-hitting crew. Or maybe the teleporter? Maybe I shouldn't check out that weird looking planet the next time I encounter it? 

The pause function also allowed it to shift expertly between a mellow space-floating experience and a stressful full-on space-battle experience. The strength of the game was in the battles however, and the immense satisfaction it gave you when you managed to pull off some crafty scheme or it turned out you had invested in the right equipment. The final boss fight was the exact amount of hellish, requiring every ounce of your attention and quick thinking. FTL has one of the best and most satisfying feedback loops on your decisions in a game of this style, and is definitely the best rogue-like I've ever played.

7. The Witcher
I had just finished Dragon Age: Origin and Mass Effect and been pretty disappointed with both. While ME was good enough for me to at least get through it and consider checking out the other entries in the series, DAO felt like a slog from beginning to the end. I didn't feel like an important part of the world nor did most of the characters elicit much feeling from me other than annoyance. Then I decided to try The Witcher and was thoroughly hoping it wouldn't just be another let down. It definitely wasn't, at all.

Instead I found all the elements I had been missing from the other two games - like an immersive world, well-designed characters and a mostly interesting story. The Witcher has flaws, don't get me wrong, the sexual encounter TCG being one of the biggest (I mean what the hell was up with that? I tried to ignore that part of the game as best I could). The other ones like outdated graphics, even for the time, I could easily set aside when it did so many other, more crucial things, right.

The swamp area made my blood boil.

I liked the linearity for instance, because it gave a sense of focus and purpose to my actions. One of the worst things ME did was telling me the world, nay THE UNIVERSE, was about to be obliterated - but why don't you go off and do this unrelated side-quest, I'm sure the bad guys will wait. The Witcher also had one of the best realized choice-systems in a game I've played, where the player gets to make choices that will affect the entire game, choices with genuine grey areas rather than the thinly veiled moral choices in some other games I've played (I chose Shani and Siegfried btw).

It also made me realize I definitely prefer a game with a strongly defined and active protagonist rather than the stupid-faced character you play in DAO that just stares at everyone who talks to them. Geralt is one of the best characters in a game I've played in a long time, exactly because he feels like a person and not a puppet.

6. Pokemon X&Y
For a long time I thought the Pokémon franchise could do no wrong. All the way from R/B/Y up to X&Y I felt like all they did were improve on the concept, while at the same time each individual entry is till worth playing. I recently replayed Red and it is still an absolutely amazing game. Pokémon Sun & Moon broke that winning streak however. I bought it on launch date and have yet to get through it. But this isn't about what I dislike about Sun & Moon - however it made me think about how much better I felt X&Y was, and in many ways the best Pokémon game to date. I think I might've even taken X&Y a bit for granted, and S&M really made me see all the effort and good design choices that went into it.

Froakie ftw

Like I mentioned all it really does is exactly the same thing as the previous entries in the series, so there isn't much for me to add since I assume everyone who has any interest in gaming knows at least the basics to Pokémon by now. But what an underwhelming way to describe this gaming experience that is. Pokémon X&Y brings new high-notes in regards to gameplay, overall balance, replayability and connectivity. And Pokémon was basically perfect already from R/B/Y! If I were to recommend a newcomer to the series to play any entry in the game, it would most likely be this one.

And that's it for the first part of this list!

Any thoughts on the games on the list? And what would be your top games list of the last couple of years?

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Crypt of the Necrodancer - Unfinished Playthrough Review

Great concept, great music, great gameplay - SO WHY DO I SUCK SO MUCH AT IT?!

That's my short and sweet review of Crypt of the Necrodancer, a game I was gifted by a good friend of mine but took ages to get around to. That was mostly because I had heard it was pretty difficult and I felt I needed to be mentally prepared to put in the effort needed to advance anywhere. That, and that it had a rhythm-based gameplay. I was the girl who did everything backwards and forgot where I was whenever we did anything remotely rhythm-requiring in P.E or music class. I wanted to play the drums, but they took me off them because I just couldn't manage to do two things at once (let alone four things at once!). Same thing with the piano and hey, pretty much any intrument requires that you use both your hands simultaneously and stay in rhythm (they put me on singing, which I guess I am the least awful at).

Isn't it weird though, I thought, that I can do these advanced raid healing combinations - moving from fire, timing cooldowns, targeting AND typing - yet I can't get any other kind of timing in life right? Anecdotally that had me thinking about designing a program that would let you play music like a video game. I'm not thinking AudioSurf where you react to a track that already exist, but rather a game that would let you create music by playing it. There, someone go make it, earn the big bucks and credit me for it.

Back to Crypt of the Necrodancer though. It doesn't let you create music by playing it, but I was instantly intrigued by the awesome intro-tune, and the soundtrack was a gift that just kept on giving with every stage I tried. I did prefer the snazzier tunes over the slower ones but there were no duds for sure.

Visually it's great too. It has the indie game retro pixel graphics so common nowadays, but I don't really tire of it, especially not the striking colorfulness employed in CotN. I rarely found myself confused as to what I was looking at, which is basically all I need from graphics. I love the fact that a lot of the enemies were also dancing to the music and the levels had just enough touch of looking like dance floors without taking it too far either.

So CotN is rhythm-based, which means the basic idea is that you need to move in time with the rhythm of the music to be able to deal damage to the enemies. When I first read about it I was very intimidated because of the above-mentioned lack of skill in the rhythm department. I can ease the minds of anyone else worried about failing miserably at the core concept though, it is fairly easy to learn. Problem for me was, it is just as difficult to master as you might imagine.

Fortunately the game allows you to gain equipment to make your journey easier. There are all kinds of things, most of them typical for rogue-likes. Items that increase your visual radius, your damage, your health, that give you health. Weapons with different features, that can be thrown, shot or have more reach. Unfortunately, like any rogue-like, you don't get to keep any when you die. You can improve on your characters health but otherwise you pretty much start from scratch each try. There are also many different characters to unlock, each change the playstyle in some way, basically acting like game modes. One character you start out with even lets you play the game rhythm-free, just like an ordinary rogue-like, so there you have that problem solved if that is your main worry.

Never made it this far...

I made it to world 2 without much trouble but for the life of me I can't get further than that. Most enemies except the most basic ones have some rhythm-based trick to them and that's where I fail. If they're not stationary or not paying attention to me I am basically guaranteed to take damage because I make the same mistakes in the game as I do when I try to time things IRL - I get it wrong. A lot of it is like a choreographed dance - you move two steps forward, one step back to avoid an enemy hit, one step forward to hit it, one step back again and one step forward to finish it off. Or maybe you move four steps forward to hit it because it's a slow enemy and then you have to remember that on the fifth beat it'll strike you. And so on. The problem for me was never what to do with each enemy, I learned their trick fast enough. The problem was simply to execute it.

So would the game be impossible for a rhythm-challenged person like me? Well, no. I don't think that. It just requires a lot more time and concentration, things that I am unfortunately not known for having a lot of patience with. I play games to relax, not to get frustrated and irritated with my inability! But I really liked CotN. So now I am debating whether I will feel it's a failure if I play the game with the rhythm-free character instead?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

I Was In The Fjäll (And Survived)!

I survived a week in the mountains! And my son survived a week at grandpas. Everything went fine, like I knew it would. And the trek was every bit of horribly awesome that I knew it would be. I did learn some new things about myself as well, and that's always cool.

Funny thing is, I had probably stressed more about actually getting to the trek with all the things I needed way more than how I would deal with the actual trecking. I figured, once I was there things would work out, as long as I remembered to bring everything! This meant a 8 hour train ride with a 3 year old, backpack, two duffel bags and pram. Everything went fine though, as the only real issue is getting in and out of the train with all that stuff. Here's a riddle for you - do I leave the 3 year old alone/unsupervised in the train or alone/unsupervised on the platform while I unload bags and pram? Unsupervised because there were a thousand other people getting on and off the train at the same time, so a small child was impossible to keep in eyesight. I had spoken very sternly to him about the importance to listen to me, especially since he's in a phase where he loves just running off. This, and remembering to bring all the gear I needed, were probably the two things that worried me the most. But fortunately, most of the time there will be at least someone who takes pity on you so I got some help dealing with the bags while I dealt with the kid. The trip went just fine.

We walked the red line

I got up to Abisko on the Sunday and met up with my mom and her boyfriend who were going to guide the group. Basically the first thing they tell me is that we're going to have to completely repack my bag. Partly because the weather was turning out to be significantly better than expected, and partly because I had packed some needless crap like a deck of cards. I had to leave some clothes (and food, more about that shortly) and other nicknacks behind and the bag still weighed in at 18kg, which for comparison is roughly a third of my body weight. "No problem" I thought. That's what the son weighs and I carry him around all the time. Well, turns out I was wrong about that.

I slept in a 6-people dorm room, but fortunately no one else was there so I got it all for myself. We started walking the day after, and eventhough we were going to be a group of ten people, me and three others (one of which was my mom) did an early start because one guy had twisted his ankle and wasn't sure he could walk at all. We figured if we started walking before everyone else we could walk slower. Everything went fine and we made it to our planned campsite without a hitch.

I was completely ruined though. My feet were in agony. Did I mention I have never done proper trecking before in my life, and especially not while carrying any kind of equipment weighing anywhere near 18kg? Probably in my previous post. Fortunately exhaustion is all it was, no blisters or breaks and after some pain killers the aches soon went away. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes didn't.

I think I also mentioned in my previous post that the week before had been very rainy and cold, and in fact the entire season had been unusually rainy and cold. Hence us being told to bring warm clothes. Then suddenly, pretty much exactly the day we start walking, that part of Sweden gets the warmest and nicest weather of the entire country. I was sweating so much. This also meant that the mosquitoes started hatching and because it had been so rainy and cold before everything and everywhere was nice and moist for them to thrive. I knew there were going to be a lot of mosquitoes, but I couldn't fathom just how many and how big they were. OH LAWD THE MOSQUITOES! Throughout the week they were easily one of the biggest nuisances and drawbacks of the entire trip. I got bitten probably about 30-40 times a day and had some sort of reaction to them which made my legs look like I had gotten some modern version of the bubonic plague. I would show pictures but honestly, it's too unappetizing. The only positive thing I can say about that whole ordeal that fortunately it didn't itch very much. Or maybe I was in too much pain from the walking to notice.

Truly though, the body ache was fine. I was prepared to be tired and in pain and I was. In fact, I was a lot less tired than I thought I would be. Overall it wasn't particularly strenouous, but definitely demanding. Eventhough Kungsleden, King's Road, as it's called is one of the most trecked parts of the Fjäll it's still no walk in the park. You constantly have to keep track of where your feet are so as to not misstep and some of the ascending bits were extremely exhausting. Other than that I was happily surprised that I didn't find it more straining. And like I mentioned I learned some other interesting things as well.

For instance, getting dirty and not being able to clean myself properly was probably the worst part of the trip. It even beat out on the mosquitoes (which to be fair could be handled fairly well with repellant and clever covering-up). I only had two sets of clothes with me. One for walking and one for camping. Mom had warned me that the walking clothes would get sweaty and gross but I thought I wouldn't be too bothered. I was. Eventhough you try cleaning as much as possible you still have to slip into the dirty clothing as soon as you start walking again so you just never feel clean. Bathing in the lakes is near impossible due to the extremely cold temperatures. The water all comes pretty much directly from melted snow, so it's only around 10 degrees, if that. Just washing your hands in it hurts (it's very pleasant to drink though). I am definitely no clean-freak, so this bothered me a lot more than I thought it would. Maybe it just takes some getting used to.

Secondly, I thought I would get ravenously hungry from all the extra excercise. This didn't happen at all. I had pretty much the same appetite, and mom had instructed me to bring high-calorie food to make sure I got the energy I needed without putting more food in my tummy. It makes sense really, my stomach doesn't get bigger just because I use more energy, I just need more energy.

Speaking of food, I will promote dry-freezed food as some of the most convenient and tastiest food I have ever eaten. If it wasn't so expensive I'd have it for lunch at work every day. Just pour in hot water, stir and wait and presto - delicious meal. It beats the microwave-food we have in Sweden by a mile. The fact that all the other food I had brought turned out to be pretty boring and a disappointment might have led to me loving these meals even more. I had planned to have müsli for breakfast and lunch and dry-freeze food only for dinner (because like I said, it's expensive as hell). That müsli really turned out to be a dud though. Firstly I got sick of it on the first day. Secondly, I had brought about 2 kg too much of it (because I had anticipated I would eat so much more than I did). On the fourth day of walking I poured out about a kilo, and I also left almost a kilo behind to begin with. I had prepared 14 "portion sized" bags, I left 4 behind even before we started walking, I poured out 5 halfways through the treck and I still had two bags left at the end of the walk. The "portions" I had prepared turned out to be about three times too big. That was probably my biggest mistake of the trip, fortunately probably my only real one. For a first time I am ok with that.

Would I do it again? I remember thinking, while walking and sweating and swatting mosquitoes, that "hell no!". Not because I didn't have fun, I had almost nothing but fun. The group was great, the scenery was great, I got to spend time with my mom and I do love to be out and about. Right at that moment it just felt like I wouldn't do it that way. I kept thinking, that if all I do is walk all day, when am I going to spend time just enjoying all the beauty I am being surrounded by? But after a while I realized that walking has to be part of the fun for you, and if it isn't then well... you're going to have a bad time. I think one week was a bit excessive for me. Not in terms of effort, but in terms of convenience. I wasn't ready to be without a shower and clean clothes for that long (using the outdoors as a toilet worked fine however /tmi). I can see myself doing shorter 2-3 day trips or maybe renting a cabin somewhere and do daytrips from there though.

All in all it was definitely the awesome experience I had hoped it would be and I am especially happy that none of the things I had worried about became a problem. I am really looking forward to bringing my son and boyfriend on a trip like this (albeit a lot more kiddie friendly). Speaking of kiddie friendly, we did meet a lot of people who had brought their kids along which I think is awesome as long as you're properly prepared. The most hardcore one of all though was about halfway through our trip and several kilometers from the closest cabin - we had just set up tent for the day, it was mid-afternoon, when a guy walks past us. He's carrying a toddler, about 1 year old, on his back, he's holding a girl, maybe 7 years old, in his hand, and has a boy of about 10 years running behind them. I was quite concerned for them seeing them walk off in the distance, and I hope they did ok. That was a guy who really wanted to go on a hike and didn't let three little children stop him, cool.

So that's that done, back to video gaming!