Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Orcs & Elves (NDS) - Review

A boy and his wand.

John Carmack is probably among the best known names in video gaming, almost as much of a household name as Shigeru Miyamoto or Nobuo Uematsu. And even if you don't know who he is, you most definitely know about some of the games he's worked on - Doom, Wolfenstein 3d and Quake to mention a few. For a few years in the mid-90's, video gaming pretty much was all about Doom, everyone talked about it and everyone tried to copy it and it's difficult to overstate the influence Carmacks work has had on video game design since.

But I wonder how many people know that Carmacks Doom RPG engine was also used for a little game called Orcs & Elves however. Originally released in 2006 for mobile phones, Carmack has arguably had the most influence on this little gem out of all his games, as he is credited both as producer, programmer and writer here. Created together with his wife Katherine Anna Wang as an homage to their love of everything D&D, Orcs & Elves uses the Doom RPG Engine to put you in the shoes (slippers?) of a wand-wielding elf named Elli (the wands name is Ellon if you're curious), dungeon crawling your way through a monster-infested dwarven fortress. It really couldn't be any more D&D if it tried.

I came across this many years back on a pirate multi-cart (I played the DS version) and intrigued by the name (Orcs & Elves says pretty much everything you need to know about this game) I tried it out. I liked it, and have no idea why I didn't finish it back then, but it lingered in the back of my head until I decided to buy myself a copy this year and play it through fully. Turns out it's not a very long game, but every minute is well-designed and fun to play.

It wasn't until I was researching some background information for this post that I found out this was originally designed as a mobile game, but looking at the game it makes sense. While the DS version was suped up to fit the DS, with some added menu functions for instance, enhanced graphics and more levels, it still looks pretty basic for a DS game. It never once bothered me though and definitely doesn't detract from the fun.

Graphically it's reminiscent of Doom, but plays out turn-based in which every action you do corresponds to one turn - in short, the enemies move when you move. I've played other games like this, Legend of Grimrock is the first that comes to mind, and I am overall a fan of the concept. I did not have fun with Legend of Grimrock though but unfortunately it was too long ago since I played it for me to make a good comparison to this game to tell you what Orcs & Elves does right where LoG failed for me.

Orcs & Elves is very straightforward, but mixes things up enough to keep it interesting. At first you only have two weapons, but your arsenal will quickly expand as you delve deeper into the fortress. This will equip you with a wide range of abilities, both physical and magical, to tackle the different enemies you encounter. Enemies in turn have varying weaknesses that make certain weapons more or less useful, some enemies you don't want to fight ranged and some you do and so on. To aid you further you've got a bunch of different potions and drinks that improve your stats for a couple of turns. Knowing when and in which order to use your weapons and potions is a big part of the combat fun in Orcs & Elves. While I found the game to be fairly easy on normal difficulty, and rarely requiring too much tactical thinking, I can see how utilizing your arsenal (and your turns) fully and cleverly would be a necessity on the tougher difficulties.

The same touch has been used on the writing. This is not an epic story that will leave you feeling your full range of emotions before the end, essentially you are just working your way through hordes of evil-doers to avenge the dwarven king. But on the way you'll encounter interesting characters that definitely add to the experience with some fun dialogue and neat side-quest feeling adventures. There are some secrets to be found and puzzles to be solved. It takes trope elements from old D&D games and blends it all together wonderfully, you can tell this is done with pure love for the genre.

Honestly, my only complaint about this game is that it's a tad on the short side. I finished it under 6 hours which I guess is a fair amount of gameplay for a 2006 mobile game, but feels cut short for a game on the DS. In the end though, it's only because I want to spend more time cutting through enemies and with the harder difficulties there is some replay-value to be had.

If you're after some well-designed, quick and neat D&D fun, I definitely recommend this game. It's not trying to reinvent the wheel, but it will never leave you bored.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Chuchel - PC Review

The cherry on the cake.

My best gaming experiences are almost all a shared gaming experience. The countless hours I've spent in the sofa (or on the floor in front of the TV) at my parents playing games like Mario Kart, Mario Party, Golden Eye and Super Smash Bros. The even more countless hours I've spent playing World of Warcraft. But also games that you'd normally consider single-player experiences, like Final Fantasy VII or Resident Evil. To this day I am certain that a big part in why I love gaming so much in the first place, comes from watching my mom play games like Myst, Diablo and the Dig.

This, of course, is something I want to share with my son. Just as I love building lego, drawing, walking in the forest to find cool insects or play pretend games with him, I love playing video games with him. And I've found that his 4 yo brain has its special way of thinking of gaming and puzzle solving that really adds to my experience as well. Firstly he simply enjoys puzzle solving a lot more than I do, and brings the enthusiasm I need to try and retry more difficult parts. Secondly, I find he thinks about solving puzzles differently from me, and often brings the out of the box thinking that I need. Of course, being 4 yo it is clear he wouldn't get very far in the games we've played together (that have been designed with adults in mind) without my help, but while I might do the big nudging to get us forward he definitely sometimes helps me as well.

So while we also play racing and platforming games together, I often find that puzzle solving games have worked best for making it feel like we're in it together. It allows us to have a dialogue where we suggest things for each other that I find unique to the genre. I also don't have to help him (ie take over the controller to make a difficult jump) as much as I help him help himself (or us) move forward.

We recently played The Room together and had a lot of fun with it. I was definitely on the lookout for something similar to play together with my kid, but even though I heard of Chuchel already when it was released and I immediately thought it looked interesting, for some reason I didn't think about that it could be a fun game for us to play. It wasn't until the other day, when it popped up on the summer sale that I decided to give it a shot.

A lot of things verge on creepy

Just like The Room, Chuchel is a very short game. Even with me and the son playing around, not always trying to solve the puzzle but just trying to see what clicking on everything would do, I think we clocked in at around 2,5 hour gameplay when we reached THE END. Unlike The Room however, Chuchel is almost more of an experience than it is a game (like a sort of puzzle version of the "walking simulators). That is not to say that it isn't fun to play, and we definitely had a blast with it.

The premise is simple and reminiscent of the Scrat + Nut short films that air before the Ice Age movies. Chuchel, which I assume is the name of the protagonist, is a little soot ball who just wants to eat their cherry. In various screens it is prevented for doing so and you need to solve the puzzle to allow them to get to it. This game has no in-game text or dialogue, making it universally appealing to pre-reading children in the same way that for instance TV-series like Shaun the Sheep or *shudder* Angry Birds does (Pencilmation is another great example of this type of entertainment). The comparison to TV-series is actually apt in many ways, as Chuchel almost plays out more like an interactive, and incredibly whacky, cartoon than a regular puzzle game.

While the game will mostly present you with a puzzle or scene where you get to click on various things to see how you can interact with them (presented through icons rather than text) it often intersperses with cut scenes and the title Chuchel pops up so often you think the creators story boarded the game like TV-episodes (Wikipedia even categorizes it as an "adventure game" rather than a puzzle game).

While the gameplay is simplistic, and I felt instantly understandable for a 4 yo, the puzzle solving itself felt a lot more trial and error. But definitely not in a bad way. Often it is completely impossible to be able to tell how different things on the screen act and interact until you've tried to click everything at least once. Chuchel presents itself like a fever dream and all the crazy characters you encounter are probably as weirdly disturbing to an adult as they are hilariously wonky to a child.
While we never had to use a walkthrough to get through any puzzles, I credit this to the excellent in game tip system. Once you've tried a puzzle for a while, a little question mark will pop up somewhere, explaining roughly how to solve the puzzle but keeping with the rest of the in-game style. Nothing is explained flat out or in text, but rather with pictures or little animations. Sometimes the tip is as much a puzzle to understand as the puzzle itself, but I felt the balance was great and using the tip didn't feel like just being handed the solution.

All of the gameplay is handled with just one mouse-button, and while most of it is just clicking around for various ways to interact with objects, there are also more action-packed parts to give you some variety. For instance there is a Space Invaders-puzzle, flying or jumping through obstacles stages and all of these can still be controlled with just the mouse button. You are also given the option to control these stages (that require a bit more reflexes) with the arrow keys and I personally preferred this while my son preferred to stick with the mouse button.

Of course this isn't a game where you can die nor are you on a time limit, so the bf said over my shoulder that the game seemed void of challenge (and thus in his eyes pointless). I just replied that in a puzzle game the puzzles, namely solving them, is the sole challenge and that goes for pretty much all of them. This does leave the non-puzzle parts feeling "pointless" in the meaning that there is no way to fail them, but yet again I feel like they are more there for providing an experience in between the puzzle solving bits. And this works perfectly to mix things up for a 4 yo, in fact one of my kid's favorite parts of the game is where you have to run and jump your way through a section (think a very light version of Bit.Trip Runner).

Gameplay-wise Chuchel isn't doing anything new. It's basically a hodgepodge, and in some instances versions, of existing games and gameplay-elements. But that's not why you want to play it. It's all in the presentation and aesthetics of the game. You simply haven't seen Pacman or Tetris this way before. The sound design is an equally lovely bunch of hums and umms that adds to the overall style. Chuchel itself just spouts gobbledygook and flails its arms to communicate with various things and my 4 yo loved pointing out how funny everything sounded. Since Chuchel has a soundtrack I am assuming it had music, but to be honest I can't remember any of it. It doesn't detract from the experience, but what you'll remember are probably the sound effects rather than the score. (Listening to the score on its own it's actually pretty cool).

Once you've beaten a part you can revisit it to replay it, and and for myself I'd have to admit I wouldn't say there is much replay value in Chuchel. The kid enjoys replaying some of the more platformey bits (as mentioned above) but overall I think once you've beaten it few people would care to revisit.

What a visit it is though. You just don't see things like this every day, and the sheer surprise effect of almost everything on screen, the amount of times you're thinking "what am I even looking at" and of course the laugh from my 4 yo when Chuchel gets smashed flat by a hammer out of nowhere, his enthusiasm when you play a Pacman clone and to see his joy when he experiements with turning Chuchel into different animals at one point - it's like a really great movie experience but with the added fun of interactivity where you control the story.

Chuchel won't provide you with much challenge, maybe not even a lasting effect. But it will definitely brighten up a few hours of your day, and I can definitely recommend playing it. And if you have the opportunity to play it with a kid, I'd say that is the way to go about it.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

I Saw Avengers: Infinity War And I Have So Many Questions


I saw Avengers Infinity War Friday evening, and while I thought it was a highly entertaining movie and recommend anyone with an interest in the MCU to watch it, it also left me with a bunch of questions.

Now I realize my knowledge of the lore and intricacies of the MCU are very limited and that comes a lot from the fact that the comics aren't so easily available in Sweden and some from the fact that I haven't even watched most of the other movie entries in the Marvel Superhero franchise yet. Some of the questions I have from AIW might already have been answered in the previous movies, most of which feel like they've all been setting up for this one.

While I don't think it's essential to have seen ALL the previous movies, because there are a lot at this point, I do agree that some of them are pretty dang important to get the right feel of the characters and story.

Dr Strange is definitely one of those movies. Black Panther is another. I had no idea who Vision, Scarlet Witch or Red Skull were (other than that I know they exist in the comics) because I haven't seen Age of Ultron or Captain America: The First Avenger, so they are worth watching first as well. Some things in AIW I didn't really know the background of, like who the heck the guy with the arm was (apparently the Winter Soldier from another Cap America movie) but he was more of a cameo than a plot element. The movie references events that happened in the latest Thor movie (Ragnarok) which I also haven't seen, but recaps it well enough that you get the gist. I also haven't seen any of the newer Spider-Man movies, but Spider-Man is Spider-Man. I guess the final scene where he vanishes loses a bit of its punch if you haven't built up some emotional attachment to that particular Spider-Man yet though.

But I also know there are a lot more characters in the MCU, or at least within the Marvel Universe, that I wondered why they didn't show up. Like, where are any of the X-Men when you need them? I am sure Phoenix (when she's not just going all bonkers) could've been useful against Thanos. I also missed the Fantastic Four. While the Four themselves might've been of limited use (but to be fair, since they still try to make me believe Black Widow is anything but useless I am sure the Four could've contributed quite a lot) it would've been cool to see what Dr Doom had to say about Thanos' plans. Since I don't really know much about Dr Doom and judging by his name it probably wouldn't have benefited Earth however.

I realize any characters missing were probably due to legal issues, and also the fact that the movie already sports a massive array of super heroes (some of which, like The Falcon, seem completely unnecessary). I think the movie did a tremendous job to manage to get this plot come together to something that wasn't just a mess trying to follow. Each storyline manages to make sense and come together to a marvellous (see what I did there) whole.

So while it would've been cool to see even more super heroes get involved, and they might still be, I understand why they weren't.

My questions instead regard a lot of Thanos' reasoning. Now, as you must've understood by now I know very little about the MCU in general and not much about Thanos either. These questions are raised by someone who basically only has the information from AIW to go by. I think AIW does a very good job at layering Thanos' motivations, making it a lot more than just black and white. While Thanos wants to kill people, and a lot of them, he does it for the "greater good". Essentially he is no different from any hunter who culls a herd of animals for the greater good of the rest of the eco system, and in the end the animal itself as well. Rather than having a lot of people suffering, you have a few people living in prosperity. So far so good (even if, rightfully, a lot of people don't agree with his reasoning). 

What I don't get though is that if Thanos has the power to wipe out half of all life in the Universe once he gets his grubby hands on all the infinity stones, then why doesn't he also have the power to provide for the life that is already in the Universe? If the argument is that that wouldn't really solve the issue as resources are finite I would argue that reducing any population by half to remove overpopulation also doesn't solve the issue as populations will rise back up again, at which point Thanos would have to redo all the work (of having to snap his fingers to kill people). Will he do this on a set time schedule or whenever people reach a certain amount or ratio of overpopulation? Or maybe continuously? It makes more sense to terraform planets into livable area for the people that already exist, because A: no one would have to die and B: with the infinity stones resources aren't limited in the Universe in any practical kind of way. 

Are you even alive?

This also saves him the hassle of figuring out something else - who to kill? In the movie it's not clear whether people die randomly or Thanos has chosen them, but that's not the big issue here. Do only people die? Only sentient beings or any living being? Because let's be frank, there are more animals on Earth than just humans who can be quite devastating for an eco system. Also taking into account every other planet with living organisms on them I think it's safe to assume that the range of sentience is quite wide, so where to draw the line? Is Thanos going to wipe out half of everything living just to make it easier for himself?  What is a virus classified as? Where to draw the line with people with disabilities or species with different levels of sentience, like elephants and dolphins? Wiping out half of everything living would also be extremely counter-productive as it would basically put the resources vs people ratio to the same levels he is trying to avoid. So let's assume he doesn't want to get rid of half of every tree, beetle and duck. What kind of scale does Thanos use to judge whether something living is enough of a burden on an eco-system? Has Thanos even thought this through?

Worst of all though, once Thanos has all the infinity stones, or even beforehand when he plans on what he is going to do with the infinity stones, he only has one plan. He doesn't even try to consider any other way of dealing with the issue. When he looked at the devastation going through his home planet of Titan he never once thought "how can I provide for all these people?" but instead all he thought was "how can I make half of them die so that at least we don't all suffer?". It says a lot about his inner workings and is definitely worth calling him out for when he starts on his "holier than thou"-rant of trying to help people. Nah dude, you just want to kill people. Why even bother trying to justify it?

But maybe the infinity stones don't work that way, maybe they can only destroy. If that is the case it's not very clear in the movie (in which they're only basically portraid as giving the wielder immense power of any kind).

And in the end this is all just a lot of over-analyzing from someone who really should read up more on the lore first, and maybe not write rambling blog posts when tired and hungry. If anyone finds the time and want to clear up any of these questions though - I'd be grateful.