Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Koudelka - Horror JRPG (PSX) - Review

Resident Evil RPG.

Ever wondered what Resident Evil might be like as an RPG? Do you think the horror RPG genre is criminally underused? If your answer to any of those questions is yes you should probably check out Koudelka (and quite possibly already have) - a horror JRPG from 2000 (in the west).

I didn't know much more about Koudelka than that myself, only having watched a friend play it for a bit way back when (probably only a few years after it was released). I only remember thinking it looked like a fun RPG and then the thought lied dormant in the backwaters of my mind until a year ago or so when I decided to buy it (and it still took me until this year to actually play it).

My expectations were of typical JRPG on PSX type i.e many play hours, long loading times, either incomprehensible or cliché stories/characters, lots of grinding - even if you've played no more than any Final Fantasy game you are probably also familiar with the drill.

You play as Koudelka, a spiritual woman drawn to the Nemeton Mansion and Abbey since someone inside is calling out to her (you know, spiritually). The place is fictional but set in Wales, because of this the characters are portraid as English-speakers and the dialogue was originally written for the English language (not that that helps it much in terms of quality). She almost immediately finds Edward, a thief who's there to find loot and not much after they're joined by James, the sanctimonious priest who is there because he is pretty involved in the reason the abbey is haunted by all things horrible in the first place. The characters pretty much despise eachother throughout the game and only very reluctantly decide to help each other out. None of them is especially likeable either, although James definitely stands out as an extreme "holier than thou"-kind of guy. For someone spreading the word of love, he doesn't hold much love and the fact that a lot of his backstory gets rolled out throughout the game does little to make you like him more.

This guy is a bit of a prick. But a good spell caster, so I forgive him.

The story overall doesn't make much sense, and not even in the "ok they decided to reanimate the dead but why is everything so convoluted and illogical in this place?"- kind of way deployed by beforementioned Resident Evil. The basics are similar, someone gets resurrected and shit gets out of hand. Only here it's a man called Patrick who loses his wife Elaine when she gets murdered by a burglaring thief. Both Patrick and the groundskeeper Ogden go a bit nutty from this, Patrick swears to resurrect Elaine (by killing a truckload of women for their blood), Ogden swears to murder anyone who dares enter the grounds (because he is just nutty). In the end a lot of people die, they only manage to resurrect Elaine's body but not her soul and that body is running rampant. So are all the dead people's bodies and souls too for that matter. You find out Elaine is the one who called Koudelka to the place to fix things, while James also loved Elaine and was a friend of Patrick's.

While this could've been enough in itself, a couple of other characters are thrown in supposedly to flesh things out and harken to the abbey's long history- unfortunately they only make things more confusing. We meet the spirit of Charlotte, a little girl who was killed on the grounds. She is not happy and pester the team early on in the game, but nothing much is done with her. We meet another thief (and kill him). We meet Roger Bacon who has been alive in the abbey for hundreds of years (and looks the part). All of these people are thrown in to further the story in some way, but aren't given much substance on their own.

Personally I love the story of Resident Evil, so convoluted and confusing doesn't have to be a bad thing if you can still create interesting stories within that world (for example the fate of the Trevor family in RE remake). While the story in Koudelka has potential, and the surrounding abbey definitely does a great job setting the mood (and the enemy designs are great) the story feels rushed and so you barely have time to start caring before it's all over. I finished this game in about 14 hours, and one hour of that is the final boss encounter alone! Factor in long loading screens within battles especially and the actual story probably only holds half that time in content. There are a lot of cut scenes too, holey moley are there cut scenes. No wonder this game is on 4 discs, I swapped the first one after only three hours of game time. A quick search on Youtube show that over 1,5 hour of the game is made up of cut scenes (one 8 minutes long), and while they further the story (more or less), it leaves very little for actual gameplay.

You won't see much of these people. Or anyone else.

Which is really unfortunate since the gameplay probably is Koudelka's strongest asset and when the credits were rolling I found myself wanting to spend so much more time in this game. The lacklustre story, the unlikable (but still enjoyable) characters and loading times all together still couldn't remove the fact that Koudelka is in the end a fun game to play. Firstly, it keeps battles interesting by always keeping a very balanced challenge level. While you never feel overpowered (unless you backtrack to low level areas) you never feel like the battles are a chore or heave a sigh whenever the battle screen loads up. Which is otherwise not uncommon in JRPG's with random battle encounters. In fact, I only felt I needed to grind some levels once, somewhere mid-game, to make things run a tad bit smoother. The game is extremely generous with save spots of which it has two different types - the "regular" save spots, which will also heal you up, and "temporary" save spots which don't (and of which you can only have one). These save spots can sometimes be in adjacent rooms so also unlike some JRPG you rarely have to wonder when booting up the game if it's going to be a forced two hour session.

While the regular save spots almost always have a boss guarding them (thus this game has many bosses), it's always flagged in advance making sure you don't run into one of them unknowingly. You also get full health and mana from levelling up, and level up you will - a lot. Every two or three fights I found myself getting another level, and like I mentioned this was even though I felt I was otherwise at the right level for the encounters. Every level up you get four points to spend on your stats, and it is wise to keep a fair balance. Giving yourself too much magic resistance goes two ways for instance, meaning while you will resist hostile magical attacks you will also resist healing effects.

Let's back up a bit to battles though, some of the critique of this game (which received mixed reviews) were the battles. They weren't designed by Hiruki Kikuta who did the rest of the game and so many people feel like they are out of style and touch with the rest of the game. While I can understand the people who feel that way, I still think the battles are fun. You move your characters around on a grid, casting magic or using your weapons. Most weapons, except ranged, only take about 10-15 uses before they break which means using your bare fists is the best way to go for regular encounters. The fact that you have no opportunity to restock on your inventory meant I was scrounging for everything, and so had a ton of unused items by the time I had finished the final boss. Because there are save spots everywhere and you get back all your health and mana from every level up (which as mentioned is frequently) I rarely found a reason to conserve and hold back on using spells. Pretty much every enemy can silence or poison you (poison is very weak though), but fortunately you don't retain any status ailments after battle.

The only few things that annoyed me about the battle system was that when one of your character dies (this only happened to me twice in the game), if the enemy has moved passed the point where the character fell (which they almost certainly will) you can't resurrect them anymore until you push the enemy back. If dying was more of a problem in this game that could've been a real nuisance. Also it's rarely particularly clear what resistances enemies have, so you'll end up accidentally healing them every now and then. You also have the option to "wait" with a character, presumably to find a better time to act but sometimes it will go back to that same character (at least) four times in a row. But overall, even though this game has random encounters like so many JRPGs, the battles never became troublesome or boring for me.

The game has some puzzle elements, again similar to the style of Resident Evil (think keys and gems being put in the right places to advance) and overall they flow well. Only one about walking on runes on the floor in a certain pattern to unlock a door gave me a bit of a headache. I can see people having more trouble with actually being able to distinguish what they can interact with in the surroundings than figuring out the puzzles, as the classic PSX graphics really can make some scenery very obscure. They've tried to solve this in game by having Koudelka turn her head towards things of interest, but sometimes even that is hard to make out. In the end I found myself just crawling every wall, clicking X frantically until I had searched the entire room, and quite frankly I found this working fairly well. Again, this wasn't something I found bothersome but rather something I expected from a game of this era.

There were only really two songs that stood out to me, and those were the Battle Theme and the Boss Battle Theme (there are in fact more battle themes than just those two, but they sort of blend together). Not necessarily because they're so good, but because you'll get to hear them so often. As so much else in this game they never ended up grating on me but meshed well with the rest of the tone of the game. When I first heard them I remember thinking that I didn't find them to be suitable as battle themes, but they really grew on me over the course of the game.

For better or worse Koudelka isn't much of an investment. You won't have lost much on giving it a try, but it also won't give you much to do before it's over. Since I enjoyed the game I found this to be quite a let down and I would've loved to explore this world more. In the end though that disappointment comes from the fact that I had really fun with it. It was well worth the few hours I got to spend with it.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Quick Thoughts on Star Trek Discovery Ep 15

Will You Take My Hand?

So we are at the season finale and they really end it in a way that can only mean they want to make absolutely sure people are going to return for season 2. But we shouldn't start at the end.

When we left off at the end of the previous episode, we'd just found out that evil-Philippa was made the captain of the Discovery and Sarek had made some deal with her that sort of hinted at the fact that he was going on a suicide mission? The reason I drew this conclusion was because Michael mentions she felt the goodbye with Sarek was very "definite" or something along those lines. Of course, like I said in my previous post we know that Sarek doesn't die until much later. And of course he didn't in this episode and what Michael mentions never seems to play any point in this episode at all. Everyone loves fake foreshadowing, right?

Few people on the ship know Philippa is from the other universe so Michael tries to out her at some occasion which doesn't really make sense. Clearly Michael has accepted Starfleet's decision, or she would've surely gone through other than petty means of trying to remove Philippa? This short transgression from Michaels side doesn't really lead anywhere either so I'm not sure what the point of it was.

There is an opening for an interesting dilemma here though, the choice between having to follow a leader who uses immoral methods or maybe losing a fight for existence. Is it ok to sink to your enemies level to stay alive? It'll turn out this is the theme for the episode as well.

And they look a lot like She-Hulk.

With the help of Tyler and his "Voq memories", they manage to find the best way to enter Kronos to drop their drone and map the cave system - the plan I mentioned was assembled in the previous episode. Turns out the place they need to drop the drone is now the Orion-ian embassy grounds. In case you've forgotten who the Orions were, they're the green slave girls from TOS. Philippa mentions they're basically pirates and slave traders in her universe and Michael says it's no different here. It seems the show creators have decided to not change the Orion species at all, so they're portrayed pretty much exactly as they are in TOS.

Philippa, Michael, Tyler and for some reason Tilly beam down to the surface to find the hole they need to drop down the drone into. Apparently a bunch of humans asking weird questions on Kronos in the middle of an all-out war between the Federation and the Klingons is no problem as long as said humans pretend to be a**holes. So humans that are not part of the Federation are such a common sight on Kronos that practically no one cares? Pretty sure that wouldn't work the other way at all. And all these humans are just A-OK with Klingons trying to wipe out their species? I have many questions here, but don't worry - there will be more.

They decide to enter a shady looking place with the mandatory stripping of Orion ladies, now also accompanied by men. We get a guy who looks just like Clint Howard as a sleezy Orionian trying (and eventually succeeding) in getting Tilly high on some sort of volcano ash (don't forget Clint Howard was a really annoying kid in TOS The Corbomite Maneuver, and also featured in other Star Trek episodes. I can't see him credited for the role in this episode though, so not sure.) . In the meantime Philippa walks off with two strippers to have some sexy-time and leaves the drone to be guarded by Tilly. Now we understand why Tilly was brought with the away-party;

Just picture this in green.

It would make more sense for Philippa to bring such an important item with her rather than leaving it in the hands of Tilly whom she knows little about except that she comes off as a klutz. Philippa mentions that she thinks Tilly is more like her evil-counterpart than Tilly thinks, but this still seems like odd reasoning from Philippa. Tilly gets high and maybe-Clint Howard tries to steal the drone that is chained to her wrist. By doing that he wakes Tilly up, she asks what they're smoking, he says volcano smoke which makes Tilly realize the volcanoes are still active and will destroy the drone, which prompts Tilly to look at the drone in the suitcase (for some reason) only to find out it's not a drone at all but a hydrogen bomb. Did any of that seem like it could casually realistically happen? I mean yeah, sure it could. But only if you decide to bring Tilly for no reason and then leave the most important part of the mission with her, alone in a bar, for no reason.

As soon as Tilly finds out that Philippa to no ones surprise has secret evil plans, she tells Michael and Tyler who have gone off to do some talking. This gives us a scene where we realize that even though Tyler isn't a Klingon anymore, he sort of seems like he wants to be.

Before Michael can come and pick up the hydrogen bomb however, Philippa is back. She has forced information about the drop-hole from the two strippers and goes to drop the bomb in there. Michael and the gang beam back up to the Discovery and calculate that the effect of the bomb would devastate the entire planet. They also realize this is not just Philippa's plan, but the plan of the Federation. Michael is not ok with that.

She talks to Cornwell and tells her that the Discovery will rather go to mutiny than break their moral code, Cornwell agrees to trying a different plan. That plan is to give the hydrogen bomb, which is now firmly planted in the belly of Kronos, to L'rell so that she can unite the Klingons by threat of destroying the planet. Philippa is given her freedom, in the sense that she is allowed to walk away. And here I have some more questions.
  • Why would L'Rell ever be ok with using a weapon like that? Even for the sake of achieving her life goal, surely destroying your entire home planet could never be an option?
  • Again - is planting a bomb that destroys an entire planet really that easy? Really?! Why have they not done this before?! Did they really need a Philippa from the alternate universe to think about it? I guess if you argue that it is so unthinkable for the Federation to do something like that, yet we're shown that they're clearly eager to try it out once it has been suggested.
  • And how is any of that really going to stop the war? The episode almost literally ends with Michael saying "L'Rell united the Klingons and the war ended". But why? Why would the Klingon desire to wipe out humans now be gone? And even if that is what happens by a stroke of luck, how can Michael be so sure that is going to happen when she hands over the bomb? She has absolutely no guarantees any of this will lead to anything good.

Tyler decides to go with L'Rell and that's probably the end of a vastly underused potential, I'll get back to that. Shazad Latif who plays Tyler is very good at looking like he is about to cry and he uses it in every episode he is in. Somewhat understandable given the situation he is in, but it gets a bit tired after a while.

It needs more smiles.

Michael gets pardoned, everyone gets a medal, everything is good. Then right at the end, the Discovery is escorting Sarek to Vulcan when they receive a weird message. It's from... the Enterprise! Captained by Christopher Pike! And there it ends.

I read an article (unfortunately I can't remember where) a week ago where someone said that a good thing about Star Trek Discovery was that it was very low on the fan service so far. Well, you can't get much more fan service that throwing in some actual TOS in the mix. Although, the only crew member from TOS that also had Pike as a captain was Spock and somehow I doubt he'll make an appearance.

They even made the outro, after this Enterprise reveal, to be the original outro song from TOS. Fun touch.

Now that we're at the actual season finale, how should I wrap this all up...? What I liked about this season is that it sort of blind-sided me by pretending to be about one thing and then coming out of nowhere with another or underlying story-arch. The war against the Klingons wasn't a fake storyline by any means, and it's apparently coming back for season 2, but as the beginning of the season was sputtering along I found myself thinking where they were going with this. At the time it didn't feel overly original or interesting. Then they had me confused by suddenly throwing them into the mirror universe. Then by the end of the season it all made sense and I feel like I've gotten that wrap up and connecting of dots that was needed to bring it all together.

I'm on to you...

Rewatching this some time in the future will be even more interesting, knowing Lorca's motives and being able to read them into every scene he is in. I feel that part of the series was probably done the best, because thinking back it was made very clear that something was off about him. It was hinted in everything he said and did, but subtly enough to not make it too obvious. Or at least that is what I felt watching episode 13 and thinking that was the season finale. The extra two episodes, which move things along way too quickly for comfort makes the actual ending feel a lot less refined. We get back to the Klingon war but everything gets resolved so fast you barely have time to take it in.

My critique would be just that - the series has a couple of ideas that could almost be their own seasons or half-season story-arches and they're not given enough time to breathe or do their work. Lorca actually being from the alternate universe? Cool! Gets two episodes (albeit a lot of build-up). Tyler actually being Voq? Cool! Doesn't really amount to anything useful that couldn't have been done differently. That entire subplot almost feels like it could be removed and it wouldn't change much. Evil-Philippa now in the prime universe? Cool! Gets 1,5 episode. Although she is now lose somewhere so she could still make an interesting return.

The dark tone though, that I know has irked a lot of long time fans, doesn't bother me at all. The fact however that we haven't got to see many "standalone episodes" makes me a bit sad. This is where the series has a chance to be comedic, let loose or develop its characters and I feel Discovery has had, or chosen, to focus too much on the main story-arch. The dark tone fits for the kind of story-telling Discovery has been doing, I just wish there would be more room for side-tracking in the upcoming season. Am I actually asking for filler episodes here? I guess I am. No one does filler like Star Trek.

All in all however, I am quite pleased with this season. I thought it was an alright series somewhere halfway, nothing special but not horrible. But looking at it all together now I would actually recommend it and think it is a pretty worthy contribution to the Star Trek universe(s). It'll be interesting to see what they do with season 2.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Room - Review

When life is like a box of puzzles.

Since my bf is in somewhat in a gaming slump, and it makes me sad to see him drown his time in Dokkan (google it) instead of, you know, a real game, I am always on the lookout for something that might get him back into it. As I was listening to the Cane & Rinse podcast about The Room, a game I had heard and knew nothing about, I thought this could probably be one of those games. Described as a short but well-designed puzzle game I thought it would be right up the alley of someone who loved Safecracker and enjoyed Myst. Personally I have very little patience and thus fondness for puzzle games of all sorts, so when I decided to give The Room a go it was solely with the purpose of seeing if I could get my bf interested in it.

Turns out I was the one to complete it. Also turns out my 4 year old absolutely loved it and we had a blast finishing it. 

But before I jump too far ahead of things - I did catch my bfs interest with the game, but I found myself not wanting to relinquish control. This was a puzzle game I could actually figure out. This was a puzzle game that didn't bore me with its obtuseness and abstractness while at the same time not being so simple it was talking down to me (although that is often needed, I really do suck at puzzles).

The idea is simple - you're in a room with a box. The box has all the bells and whistles of a well-designed puzzle box that could only exist in the gaming world and it's up to you and your wits to open it up.

While there are many games about opening boxes, Safecracker is probably one of the better.

I do recommend listening to the Cane & Rinse episode on The Room if you're interested, even if you haven't played it before. They talk about The Room 2 and 3 as well, but I found there was nothing to spoil about the first one (it's not as they talk about specific solutions to puzzles anyway) since the story matters very little for the gameplay. While I agree with the episode in that The Room was a fun little game to spend some few hours with (some very few hours, but I'll get back to that) I disagreed with them on a couple of things.

For instance they praised the tactility of the mobile version of the game and definitely recommended players to play that version rather than the PC version. Since I don't own a tablet I got it for my phone. While I was worried that the screen would be too small for comfort, even though I own a 5,5 inch phone, this turned out to be no problem. The tactility however, I didn't have much enjoyment out of and would've personally preferred a mouse to click myself around rather than using my fingers. That being said, I haven't tested the PC version so I can't attest to the quality of that gameplay, only that the way I imagined a mouse working with the puzzles seemed to fit better with how I wanted to deal with them. 

There is a lot of dragging, spinning and pulling - all of which worked well enough, but I realized I am just a lot more comfortable using a mouse than my fingers for playing games. I guess experience has something to do with it since I don't really play any mobile games otherwise.

Graphically it's practical. Subtle and "hidden" drawers were just that, rather than completely hidden from view or requiring pixel perfect interaction to react. I also rarely felt that the game didn't understand what I was trying to press or do with a puzzle. Sometimes my clumsy fingers couldn't quite "grab on" to the right part of a drawer or lever to make it do its thing, but this never became an annoyance. EDIT 12/2-18: On subsequent playthroughs I have more often come across instances where an object simply would not interact in the way it needed to, most often something that needed to be pulled. At one point I even had tor restart the chapter because of it. Other things that I really liked about the game design was that you only really had one puzzle going at the time and once you were done with it, it became completely inert, so signalling that there was nothing else to do there and you could move on. That way I never got stuck with a handful of cranks, cogs and buttons that didn't fill any other purpose other than to confuse me. 

Not like some other games I know...

While I barely noticed the music, I found it definitely needed the sound effects as some of them signalled functions to a puzzle that would otherwise have been difficult to figure out. One of those puzzles in fact was the only one I got stuck on long enough to feel the need to use the hint system. That should say a lot since, as I have already stated several times, I am completely useless at puzzles.

I wouldn't say that that necessarily means that The Room is too easy though. Rather that the puzzles are quite logical in their design, and like I mentioned before you do them consecutively, further removing any confusion as to what to do next. Because of this I sort of disagree with the podcast saying the game can be quite difficult - while I realize it's very subjective and I should probably be the last person to complain about someone finding a puzzle difficult, I found that these were some of the most step-by-step logical puzzles I had come across. Even when the next step is a hidden button the box is only so large and scouring the surface doesn't take long or much effort. Which is fortunate, because other than the puzzles themselves there is little to entice you to move on.

The story, if it can be called that, is about as fleshed out as in a Mario-game i.e virtually nothing. You find notes lying around the puzzle box and they speak about elements and especially the null element although I can't say I paid much attention to any of it. From the podcast I gathered that later instalments put more time into the story aspect, but not necessarily with good results. You need the story in this game about as much as you need a story to play Mario Kart, if it hadn't been there at all it wouldn't have made the game any less fun to play. The puzzles kept me interested throughout without any trouble and it was perfect to pick up for a 5-10 minute session while commuting or waiting for something, just as a good mobile game should be.

Even shorter than this.

The game is short though. Even knowing it was short, I was shocked by how short it was. I didn't exactly time myself but it can't have taken more than three hours at the very most to complete the game. Still, for the 2-3 hours it lasted it was quite fun to tinker around with the box and actually feel like this was something I could wrap my head around. Like I said it was extra fun to be able to play it together with my 4 yo and see how he tried to solve the puzzles and he thought it was a blast (so much in fact he wanted to replay it instantly after finishing it).

This game now comes with an Epilogue part, which as far as I know was added later to the game but is now a standard feature. It simply elongates the game for about 30 minutes with more of the same and was no more or less fun than the rest.

I've used 1 euro a lot worse than this so I can only recommend The Room, even if you usually really don't like puzzles.