Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Witcher (TV-Series) - Season 1 Review


I guess nowadays it's only fair to expect pretty much any IP to be viable for a TV-series, seeing as I am certain that most Streaming Services are constantly on the look for The Next Big Thing. They must have droves of people just scouring the internet and various books to find a potential money-maker. For better or worse Game of Thrones seems to have set some sort of standard as the way to go for the really big success - was it the mix of extreme violence and nudity? Was it the well developed characters and plots? Who knows but let's try to capture that lightning in a bottle again by just using a similar formula.

How obvious isn't it really then if you keep all those things in mind that the Witcher was going to get the TV-series treatment? It is essentially Game of Thrones in so many ways, though it actually predates it which means you also avoid any claims of just trying to be a copy-cat.

Yet I'll be honest, I was pretty confused when I first heard about The Witcher coming to Netflix. Why? And... how? At the time I had played the first two games (and loved them) and read four of the books (and enjoyed them enough) so I was in that borderland of kind of wanting more because I enjoyed it so much but also being worried that they'd mess up something I really loved.

I was especially worried about Geralt. Ever since the first game I had a gamer-crush on this exceptional character. He is fun to play and fun to be around. For me he hits every note of being well fleshed out without being overly obvious - we actually know very little about him yet I find his personality easy to grasp and understand. His actions, reactions and interactions not only make sense but they portray a multi-faceted and interesting person. As characters go he is among the best I've had the pleasure to encounter in gaming and reading.

The beard suits him.

In most ways this goes for the entire world that he lives in as well. The reason Geralt comes off as such a well-written character is probably because he has a lot of well-written lore and side-characters to work with and all these beautiful pieces come together and make an excellent whole.

When I heard that Henry Cavill was going to play Geralt I went something along the lines of "eehhh...". Not immediately bad but rather "was that the best they could come up with?". At that time, and pretty much still actually, the only other thing I know Henry Cavill has done is Superman and since I haven't actually seen those movies I only know of it because of the moustache-debacle. Having Cavill in Superman-tights as my only reference point didn't exactly make me think he was going to be perfect as Geralt.

Then pictures were leaked or released or what have you, of Cavill in that wig that everyone made fun of and I actually started thinking the opposite. "You know what, this might actually work". By the time the release date had been announced I had decided that I was going to look forward to this and try my very best to enjoy it. I usually try to not go into things with high expectations and I can't say they were particularly high for this show either, but I wasn't going to slate it until I had given it an honest chance.

And I am glad I did. The Witcher is one of the few shows I pretty much binged, as much as I am able to do that with my limited amount of free time. And while I didn't love every second of it, there wasn't any one thing I hated or really didn't like either. Now that I am through it I can with confidence say that I think it's quite good and well worth watching if magic, beasts and magic beasts are your thing.

Let's take a look at the things I wasn't too keen on first;
While I can see what they were going for, I think, the actual storytelling ends up being way more confusing than it has to be. Since I am ever the optimist I chose to view this as the show creators desire to tell us viewers that they had confidence in our intelligence and went with the most brain straining way possible to tell the story of these three protagonists. Maybe it is to reward rewatchings of the show, since I am sure you don't understand every scene unless you watch them a couple of times. Maybe it was to fully be able to use the effect of "aha, it was really this and he was actually there!".

Easy to follow yet blows your mind.

The Prestige is a good example of where you can blindside and confuse your audience throughout the story to be able to get the full effect of the puzzle coming together and all those scenes that made little sense on their own suddenly get a whole new meaning. The Witcher doesn't fully manage to do this. I'd say they don't manage to do this at all in fact and there are a bunch of ways they could've made the various jumping of timelines and stories so much easier to follow without removing too much of the surprise build up.

Even to me who have read some of the books and especially these particular books that this season is based off, a lot came off as confusing. Though I'll probably still have to say that in the end the confusion fortunately did little to detract much from the fun happening on the screen. In fact I have two friends who have watched it who have zero knowledge of The Witcher beforehand and they still enjoyed it so it's clear the Witcher manages to be more than just its storytelling.

My other issue is a similar one I had to the games. The Witcher's world is really comprised of two very different aspects - him as a monster hunter and him as a pawn in a massive chess board of politics. I find both these aspects necessary and interesting, but I definitely prefer the former over the latter. This is the reason I enjoyed The Witcher 1 much more than The Witcher 2. The first one builds up Geralts character as a monster hunter whereas the second one focuses a lot more around the politics and the wars and the factions and all that.

Because the show is trying to be about not just Geralt but also Yennefer and Ciri, there is a lot more about the politics than the monster hunting. And I'll be honest, I am actually not overly interested in Yennefer or Ciri. They're good side characters, just like Triss, Dandelion (I'm sorry, Jaskier), Zoltan Chivay and all the other people Geralt meets while running around the world. But I'm not interested enough in them for them to be main protagonists.

What does Geralt even see in her?

I find the show actually does an ok job not only with expanding on the characters, especially Yennefers, but building up the story around the three so that we care about what is going to happen to them. But I can't help but think what a different kind of show this would've been if it had focused more on Geralt and his monster hunting and maybe gotten to the heftier political stuff a bit further in instead. That way it would've had a similar arc to series like Supernatural and the X-files which starts out with "monster of the week" and slowly carries you into the "Big Things" that you then care about because you've become so invested in the world and the characters.

The Witcher tries to make you care about a lot of things really quickly and I'll give it big cred for actually succeeding well enough with this. But I think a show more to my liking would've dared to work this up slower. Maybe that is just not how TV-shows are made anymore, Star Trek Discovery has the exact same issue for instance.

That is because when I truly enjoy something I want it to linger. I don't want it to race past my eyes. When playing the Witcher 3 I can sometimes just walk slowly through the shrubbery because I want to immerse myself in the feeling of being in that world. The Witcher TV-series cuts out too much of that aspect for my tastes at the moment.

So to the things I did like then;
Henry Cavill as Geralt. I think you can really tell what respect he had for the character and the IP because overall I think he nails it. I have no trouble with the wig, I think he gets the facial expressions and demeanor just right without just trying to copy the games for instance. He makes Geralt to his own and manages to stay true to the character, hat off to Cavill for this.

Blue Steel

And Cavill is not the only one where I think they've got the casting right, in fact I am happy with pretty much everyone - except Triss. I did just mention that I am not that interested in the side characters, but they are an important part of the world building and immersiveness of said world. I can understand the reasoning behind focusing on the three characters they have now, but I wouldn't mind seeing a bit more of some others as the series moves along.

Queen Calanthe was excellent, loved her entire performance.

Just a quick word on Triss. Speaking on WoW to someone about the new Witcher series that person got really angry about the fact that they were going all "agenda" on Triss. I didn't even understand what this person was talking about, but I think it had something to do with the fact that she is not a red-head in the TV-series, though she is in the games. I hadn't even thought much of it, but when I looked it up it turns out that Triss isn't even supposed to be a red-head in the first place. The way she looks in the TV-series is actually more faithful to what she is "supposed" to look like than what they did to her in the games. I care little about exteriors though, as long as they are superficial. I have no issues with Triss whether she had been a red-head or not. The way she looks is not the problem I have with Triss.

I do feel however like the person they cast for the TV-series seemed to hone in on Triss' "gentle" trait a bit too much. Yes Triss is a gentle person who might even come off as nurturing for the untrained eye. I never thought she was just that. Triss is one of the more interesting characters in the Witcher games if you ask me, especially because she is so much more nuanced than what she initially seems like. I feel like they failed to capture this in the TV-series, and I hope upcoming seasons will do her more justice. The Triss in the books has a lot less "screen-time" (What do you call that in literature, page-time?) but then why even add her? It feels like they tried to cater to the game-lovers by adding her and giving her as much screen time as they do, but then they don't make her as interesting as she can be. This Triss seems like a bore and not someone anyone would like to get to know better. The Triss I know from the books and games is way more interesting and fun to be around.

No kisses.

But I seem to have gotten a bit sidetracked there from the things I liked.

The effects and fights were great. Love that they seem to have used a lot of practical effects, I am always a fan of that. My bf who is a bit of a fight choreography snob thought the fights were "ok" but I thought, especially that first one in Blaviken, they were really cool.

Most of the dialogue hit the right levels of cheesy/cool for me.  

I didn't mind them digging/making up background stories for Geralt and Yennefer because I think they actually turned out pretty neat. Sapkowski is in fact part in the creative process here (similarly to GRR Martin in Game of Thrones) so one can hope these background stories are actually something that he came up with at one point or other. Either way I don't think they betray any of the characters and definitely don't detract from the entertainment.

It's difficult I think to point to any particular things that this series gets right, because it actually has a lot of things I think it needs to improve. But in the end, somehow, they really manage to nail the Witcher feeling for me. If it is Cavill or whatever it is, I had so much fun watching it and just want more. If I could wish for anything for season 2 it would be to expand on the "witching" part of the series and maybe put a bit less effort on the "political" part of it, but seeing as Geralt has finally found Ciri I doubt that will happen. In any case I think it is lame that I have to wait another year for season 2.

Images from gp.se, imdb.com, reddit.com, cinemablend.com, winteriscoming.net, Youtube.com.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Game Up Your Life

Many years ago I read a book by Jane McGonigal called Reality is Broken. While I remember not agreeing with many of her points (you can read my review of it here) I did find her main idea intriguing - the idea that everything not only can, but maybe should be turned into a game, to motivate people to do things they wouldn't normally do. Things that would not only benefit themselves by having fun (ideally) but also have an added benefit of helping someone or something else.

This is in fact something that has been explored further and even put to use in many different ways since. One that comes to mind is allowing the public to sort through vast amounts of pottery shards to find the ones that could hold interesting information in some ways. Rather than having some poor archaeology students spend countless of man hours on what would ordinarily be considered a tedious and menial task, you can turn the "pottery shard sorting" into a sort of mini-game and by making enough people interested you can not only get the job done quickly, but by people who are having a good time doing it.

The book in cuneiform.

That is the idea in a nutshell, and I love it. Like I said it has been used many times before and I think it holds great potential. I have also explored the idea before myself in a couple of blog posts. I guess you can see this blog post as a pre-cursor to this one. So yet again this idea had me thinking and it made me wonder if not maybe we could put it to use at a much smaller level. I mean much, much smaller.

How about using it as a way to motivate and even enthuse a child to the prospect of having to do something they would ordinarily not want to do? As the proud mother of a 6 year old I am always eager to find ideas that allow me to keep my child happy and me less nagging and annoyed. Some times when you just want and really need your child to co-operate you usually have two paths to take - the one of threats and the one of bribes. I am not a huge fan of either of these. What if there was a third path? One that made the child interested in the project at hand without you having to resort to future wrath or promise of goodies?

Well, in a way I guess this idea is a bit of both really - but packed and presented in a way that makes it clear that we're not talking about any real threats or bribes, but game-ones.

I'll give some examples from my own experiences:
Going from point A to point B (that'll take more than 5 minutes). I'm not even kidding, most of the time even though my kid can run around and scream endlessly if he wants to, when he doesn't want to he is suddenly struck with debilitating laziness and can barely walk. It can be beyond frustrating, especially if you have a time to keep (which is often the case). I've had my kid tell me he couldn't walk because his leg hurt so much, but if he got to take the longer way around it was fine. This kind of illogical reasoning is something that crops up all the time with kids, but it all boils down to one thing - this is boring and I don't want to do it.

Most of the time if I can allow my kid to get it his way (and it also suits my way enough) I will. But some times that is just not the case. Maybe you need to get to the train station and you just missed the bus? Your kid doesn't enjoy the prospect of having to walk (maybe exasperated by the fact they had been looking forward to a bus ride) and the idea of carrying him and the luggage the entire way is just not feasible. What to do?

The book in regular letters.

What about turning the walk to the train station in to a video game? If you've got time to prepare it's of course the best, but even a quick plan could work wonders. Quickly map out the path you're going to take in your head. Where could there be a "boss" for you to fight? Where is there a "pit" to jump or a "treasure" to find? Add "npcs" and "objects of interest" as it fits the path and a dash of invested story telling and you'll suddenly, possibly, have a really interested 6 year old.

I use the word "video game" but really it's just a game or any old adventure. To me personally it helps to think of it as a video game because video games are usually well structured in the way of "levels", "items" and "bosses". If Dungeons & Dragons is your type of reference that's just great.

Me and the 6 yo actually had to take a rather long walk the other day and while we could've taken the tram I decided I wanted and needed the fresh air. As we started walking it took about 3 minutes before my kid said he didn't want to walk any further. I told him he better get prepared because over at X place there was a boss waiting for him and he still had to find the SWORD to beat it with. He got a big smile on his face - "where is it?". I pointed to a row of stones - "it's behind one of those but beware, because the wrong ones have monsters behind them instead". He ran ahead to the stones and started to look. "Tough luck, there is a monster!" I said and he had a pretend battle with it. After a couple of other monsters he managed to find his "sword" which he proudly carried (invisible in his hand) all the way to the boss.

On this trip we also had to find a shield, kill that first boss, then find a scroll of turn-to-stone to get past the cave troll, then speak to the fairy to recharge the scroll, then find our wings to fly up a mountain... The entire time there wasn't a word about not having energy to walk, just eagerness to continue forward to the next thing.

Not the cave troll in the article.

Another example - cleaning/tidying. If you could grade kids on a scale of how easy it is to get them to at least do some tidying I think my 6 yo ends up somewhere around 2, 1 being impossible. It doesn't matter that he literally just threw every book in his bookshelf on the floor in the search for something, when I ask him to pick it up (even offering to help) the answer is always "I don't have the energy to do that!". Well duh. Like anyone does.

Suffice to say, many tactics have been used to try to motivate my kid to pick things up after him, or at least help out in doing so. Whenever he does show interest in helping out with cleaning it's often things where I don't really trust that things won't break like him doing the dishes or him swinging around a mop. I still try to encourage him when he does show interest, because at least it is something.

But what if cleaning could be turned into a game? I tried it. We drew up an avatar, I told him it could be anything (he chose a jellyfish) and I said there were different things he could purchase for this avatar i.e draw on to the picture. Things like spikes, sun glasses, a fish pal or a big shark. But these things cost points that he had to earn by doing different chores.

He was excited. "What can I do to earn points mom?". "Well you can start by picking up all these Legos, that's 10 points.". "How much is the fish friend?". "That's 50 points. The sunglasses are 10 points". "Ok, cool". He started picking up the Lego. I can't emphasize enough how much more nagging and time this would've have taken normally. Threats, which I am generally not a fan of anyway (but every parent resort to them eventually) just do not work on this kid, so that's never been a real option. Just asking him to do it out of the kindness of his heart and because it would make mom really happy... well let's just say he hasn't really grasped the benefits of that yet (I'll get back to this momentarily).

*sigh*

But with this system he not only tidied without any problems, he asked for more things to help out with. I soon struggled to keep him occupied - my fault really as I should've been ready with enough chores for him to do to be able to get every special item for his jelly fish. Funnily enough, even when he had enough points to buy things he decided he wanted to save them. Maybe for the next time we tidy.

So far so well, I can see this system with a bit of tinkering easily being adapted to a whole plethora of situations. I do have thoughts though and I don't think it's just a wonder wand of solving every issue regarding motivating my 6 yo.

For instance, as mentioned, shouldn't kids learn that tidying is its own reward? That listening to someone else and doing what they want can be a nice thing to do even if there isn't an immediate reward involved? Are immediate rewards really the right way to go about everything? Some things in life simply don't pay off until later on, and isn't that a really important lesson to learn as well?

Yes, I totally agree with all these points and they require some careful consideration. I often tell my kid that everything can't be fun right now. Some times, some things you do are not so fun right now so that you can have more fun later. Having a nice and tidy home or making your friends and family happy can be its own reward and a good one at that.


But I also subscribe to the Friends school of altruism, i.e that there isn't any. Everything we do, we do in some way or other for our own sake. If I give money to charity it is to make myself feel better about making other people feel better. If I clean my home it because I feel good about having a clean home. I don't think this is a bad thing. A deed can be "good" regardless of the underlying reasons behind it. I don't think a recipient of a needed organ for instance really cares of the reasons behind the donors wish to donate.

So where am I getting with this? That yeah, it's important to teach a kid about different ways things can be rewarding but I also think that it's important to find ways that something can be rewarding for that person (in this case my kid). When you're 6, it's good to hear someone ask you to be nice for its own sake but it's also good to just get to have fun doing something.

And maybe we do things for future reward because we haven't learned how to make it fun right now? I would feel good from doing excercise for instance, but that doesn't mean that the excercise in itself can't be fun too? I like when things are clean but that doesn't mean there is anything wrong in making the cleaning part fun as well?

The main drawback to this system would be that it requires either some planning or good on the spot thinking/improvisation. Also, as with anything else, different people enjoy different things. If your kid happens to be the kind that just listens and does their tidying then congratulations! What your kid needs really depends on what kind of person they are and there isn't just one way to do things. This isn't the way, this could be another way when you're sick of nagging or just having to do it yourself. I think it could also teach the lesson that things that might look tedious on the surface can be made fun if you try to.

I think the reason this appeals so much to me is because I am not easily motivated to do things I don't enjoy. The whole "just do it" or "discipline!" way of doing things has never worked for me. Fortunately it is offset by my optimistic personality and the fact that I see the possibility of fun in most things. But there are some things I just don't like doing. Exercising… cleaning… getting out of bed before 12 (before I had kids, now they're my motivation and I haven't slept past 9 for the last 6 years). I am not a goal hunter, I need to find the journey to my goal entertaining as well or I will struggle to get it done. I guess in that way I am still like a child, for better or worse.

As you've noticed it's an idea that really jives with me. We like to set up goals and motivate ourselves to get there, but maybe we should spend equal time trying to make the journey there fun?

Also, credit to a book that still has me thinking about it 9 years down the road.

Images from wired.com, skullstore.ca, fantasyflightgames.com, me.me.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Jade Empire (PC) - Review

The waning empire.
Definitely spoilers.



Have you ever come across a game that is almost offensively bad at living up to its potential? I'm guessing most of us who play games come across some every now and then that are more or less not to our liking, either because they don't strike any of our chords or because they're simply very uninspired.

I can't say that about Jade Empire though. It seems extremely inspired and could strike many of my chords but it never managed to bring any of its many, good, ideas to an interesting and fun fruition.

I had long been interested in checking out Jade Empire once I had first heard about it. A Bioware RPG? That no one really seems to talk about? A bit odd, isn't it? And it's about martial arts? Definitely sounds like it could be something I'd be having fun with.

Jade Empire was released in 2005 as an Xbox exclusive. That explains a bit about why it took me so long to take notice of it at first. In 2005 I had just started my 8 year adventure into World of Warcraft and was nowhere near an Xbox (I have still never played one). I don't think it was until 2007, when it was ported to PC or maybe even later than that, that it first caught my eye. As information about the game slowly trickled into my consciousness across several years my curiosity grew. It seemed really odd to me that the company behind games like Baldur's Gate, KoToR, Mass Effect and Dragon Age had also developed another (action) RPG that I at least seemed to be hearing very little about. Even more oddly, it seemed to have been originally well received and then fallen away into obscurity, at least when compared to the above-mentioned games.

KoToR, another game that frustrated me but for completely other reasons.

In it you play as a "Spirit Monk" and start out as the top disciple in a school for martial arts. So far so classic martial arts movie. I thought the game was off to a pretty decent start. The graphics looked typical for the time and functional enough without exactly being eye candy (I kind of have a nostalgic thing for those graphics though). 2005 was a year when game designers were able to start making character models detailed enough to not be laughable but still had pretty bland environments (just look at before mentioned WoW as another prime example).

Your master tells you of secrets he wants to finally divulge to you and you also get to try out some of the rather (wannabe-)intricate combat system that you'll be spending a truck load of time using throughout the game. In that first hour as you run around the school and try to make and break friendships the game seems quite promising. But it was also within that first hour I got the first glimpse into one of the bigger issues with the Jade Empire game design - the story telling and the pacing.

The overall story is nothing special nor worthy to write home to mommy about. You turn out to be, as mentioned, a special kind of warrior and you are quickly set on the path to save your martial arts master when the school is being attacked. As you travel through the world you meet new people that join your cause, for varying reasons, and also get involved in a bigger plot to save the kingdom from a seemingly evil emperor that has set the spirit realm in unbalance causing the dead to come back to haunt (and kill) the living. The story is fine, it's not bad and the characters you meet actually have the seeds of being quite interesting.

Might not look like fun, but I still wish I could spend more time in each area.

It's really unfortunate then that the pacing seems to have been set to "FTL". "Quickly" is definitely the key word here. Wherever you go or whomever you meet you barely get a chance to be there or talk to them until it is time to move on. When it first happened and I was unceremoniously thrown out of the martial arts school very early in the story I didn't think that it had to be a problem. But before long I noticed that this wasn't something that was limited to that first area. The second area you come to, a swamp filled with pirates and other scum people made it very clear that this was the style of the game and I started to get a bad feeling. In the swamp you get a quest to save a woman from pirates who have kidnapped her and are keeping her in a cave. One of the pirates is also linked to the martial arts school and your master, so seems to be a character that deserves a fair chunk of story time. Not so, the cave and the quest took some ten minutes to finish and that was basically the very swift end of that story line.

The game just continues at this break neck speed. Just like in Dragon Age and Mass Effect you're soon surrounded by an entourage of characters with which you can build relationships. Apparently. It was only by chance I managed to get into some sort of love story with one of the characters. Trying to build a relationship with them seems to not be encouraged, and whenever I try to strike up some conversation they shut me down after a few lines of dialogue by saying something with the essence of "enough talking and more action!".


Throughout the game you get the feeling that the designers have been extremely careful not to allow the player to grow bored of anything. But this is taken to the extreme where instead I am also not allowed to grow attached to anything. Areas come and go like I am looking through a Viewmaster. I am bombarded with new fighting styles a lot faster than I have time to try them out, develop them and have fun with them. The same goes for the characters that you meet. While they are all potentially interesting, from the young girl possessed by a guardian demon, to the crazy inventor or my childhood friend who can sense spirits, I am never given enough time nor opportunity to develop these relationships.

Speaking of the combat, it is another area in which the game unfortunately fails greatly. It almost saddens me to say it though because it really feels like a lot of love and thought has gone into the combat system, as there is, at least superficially, a lot to do and tinker with. Like I mentioned you get many different combat styles to fight in, and also magic and weapons. To use these you have both Chi (basically mana) and Focus (basically stamina) and depending on what you use to fight with you'll deplete one bar or the other. To add to this you can transform into various demons and ghosts and all of these different options have their own strengths and weaknesses depending on what enemy you are fighting. Each option can also have different areas strengthened with points you gain each time you level. For instance you can make a style or a demon hit harder or cost less chi/focus to use.

Enemies are varied, but not fun.

So there is a lot to do and take in and none of it is even particularly confusing. But why is it so gosh dang clunky to use? Your character moves like she is cosplaying a refrigerator and you get a lot more stressed about trying to wrestle your character around the fighting field than you ever are about the enemies. At normal difficulty the enemies aren't too hard, but the controls are so incredibly bad that you end up failing anyway because you can't target the right way, get in proper position to hit your target or avoid damage smoothly enough. It is extremely frustrating and feels through and through unfair whenever you fail a fight. It only took me a few hours into the game before I put the difficulty down to easy (something you at least thankfully can do) because I just couldn't take the rage-inducing struggle of the combat system any longer.

At the easy difficulty the game is unfortunately extremely easy. At normal difficulty it is probably quite doable but every fight becomes about a fun a chore as doing the dishes and just kills any desire to play the game. On easy I could at least breeze through the game quick enough to want to finish it despite its many flaws.

The soundtrack is one area where this game gets it right though. Heavily influenced with eastern sounds for obvious reasons, most (but definitely not all) of the tracks still manage to stay away from cliché territory and keep things interesting and fresh. But overall I find the tunes strong enough to hold for listening to even outside the game and I always consider that a mark of good quality. The sound effects too do their job well and there is a lot of different moaning, groaning and punching noises to accompany you in the many fights.

The transformations are fun and varied, but equally clunky to use.

Somewhere in the middle of the game you get to the Imperial City and I don't know why but suddenly the game really made me think of the first The Witcher game and how much better that game is than this one. Overall the two games feel similar in style and gameplay but The Witcher ends up being way more fun. While The Witcher is two years younger, it was pretty much agreed upon at the time that it was a bit outdated graphically and gameplay wise for its time. And still The Witcher gets everything right that Jade Empire doesn't. You get to spend more time in each area and with each story-character, allowing you to build relationships with them that make you care about what you do and what happens. The big city you end up spending most of your time in (Vizima) and the outskirts around it where you do a lot of the quests feel a lot more lived in and real and immersive. Quests and characters link together, you revisit them and they allow you to be a part of them. In Jade Empire it always stays at feeling like a stage that you will soon leave and even sooner forget everything about.

Yet it really seems like so much love was at least meant to go into this game. It's like they had all the time in the world to develop the ideas for the game and no time or money to actually create the game. Because, yet again, there is so much about this game that could've been truly great! You get to infiltrate an assassins guild and your master turns out to be the main bad guy in a plot twist that I stopped caring about before I even knew it was going to happen. You end up dying and have to fight your way out of the spirit realm. It could've been cool! It could've been fun! What happened?

Was it lack of time? Was it bad prioritizing? Like I mentioned before this game seems to have been quite well received when it was first launched, most of the complaints seem to have been regarding its short length (it took me 15 hours to complete playing about two thirds on easy, which to me seems like perfectly fine game length. But yeah, if you're comparing to Baldur's Gate that may seem short). Since I didn't play it at the time and haven't checked any revisited reviews of it I am unsure if it has just aged badly or really didn't click with me.

Jade Empire is just an empty shell of a lot of really cool ideas. It feels like such a waste both of your time but especially of all the things that actually could've turned out really well and made a good game. Some of these ideas Bioware did in fact take, either intentionally or not, and develop in later games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. While I am not a huge fan of either of those games either I would definitely recommend you play one of those instead of this one.

Images from mobygames.com, gamerselixir.com, amazon.co.uk, jadeempire.fandom.com, lparchive.org.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Albion (MS-DOS) - Unfinished Playthrough Review

This review contains spoilers for this 24 year old game, so beware.

Albion is the kind of game I wish I had come across 20 years ago, when life was... more full of time. I so wish I had the skill and patience for it because I know I could enjoy it greatly if I gave it the proper amount of love. There is a lot to like here, but it's buried under gameplay that doesn't jive with me anymore.

Albion, released in 1995 to MS-DOS and not to be confused with some other game named Albion Online, is a role playing game developed by Blue Byte. The German video game company Blue Byte are maybe mostly know for their Settlers series, at least by me but Albion and the Settlers couldn't be more different.

Maybe the inspiration for Avatar

The game takes place a couple of hundred years into the future and seems to be a pure science fiction game at first. In it you play as space ship pilot Tom Driscoll who is sent out on an expedition to scout out resources for his home ship. He and his co-pilot end up crashing on the planet which, contrary to reports, turns out to be inhabited. And not by any kind of life, but advanced and intelligent humanoid cat-people called Iskai.

The Iskai rescue you from your wreckage and you're quickly thrown into a plot where an important Iskai is murdered, you being outsiders are the first to be suspected, and the only way for you to get out of the mess is to uncover who the real murderer is. This is only an excuse to get the story going however, giving you both means and motivation to travel around and discover more about the Iskai race and their planet.

You'll quickly find that there is quite a lot to see and explore on Albion. The Iskai and their planet really feel well fleshed out and thought through, it is a world you want to know more about and definitely save from the threat of exploitation that looms from your home ship.

Visually and audibly the game sells its ideas too. While the audio can get a bit repetitive, this is 1995 after all, the visuals are colourful and bright and lovely to look at. Most of the time you have an idea of what you're looking at and when you don't it's not because of bad design but because it's alien to you.

Initially the game plays out with a top-down perspective, and you can choose to control your character (at least in my GoG version) either with the arrow keys or by dragging the mouse. Personally I found that the arrow keys worked a lot better since it ended up controlling more accurately. At the very beginning, when you're still on the space ship and preparing for your trip you play alone but it won't take long before you get party members and you can choose to control either one of them.


Soon you'll discover that instanced areas, such as cities and dungeons (but not the space ship for some reason), use a first person perspective similar to Doom. At first this confused me and it took me quite some time to get used to controlling myself this way. While eventually you get used to it I would've much preferred it if they had just kept the top-down view throughout the game. The first-person perspective makes it so easy to lose track of where you are, you have much less overview of your surroundings and I spent a lot of time just feeling lost. It is fortunate that there is a convenient map to use that allows you to see which direction you're moving, because you're going to need it a lot.

I am not sure what the thought process was behind the first person perspective areas, maybe they wanted you to have a more immersive experience. While it's not horrible I really do think the game would've been much better without this style. The first Iskai city you come to is pretty large, with many different shops and guilds worth visiting and I spent way too much time just trying to find my bearings.

I have no idea where I am

Combat plays out in yet another fashion, in which you're moved into a grid-like area where you move your characters on the fighting field like on a chess board. You can choose to do a number of actions each turn and there is both melee, ranged and magic combat in this game. Combat is pretty straight forward with your character swinging (shooting) away at the enemies as you command them. Some things are more obscure, like the fact that you can use items during combat. It's easily missed but on the other hand once you realize this it makes the whole combat experience one that works well enough.

You will be bad at it to begin with though and this is where one of the bigger flaws of the game becomes clear. Being designed according to the older school of "git gud", it is very easy to not only venture into areas that are well above your ability grade, but also to completely miss areas and items that are essentially crucial for your continued existence.

While the story is well paced and I rarely found myself stuck as to what I had to do next, it is too easy to miss things that are really helpful in your endeavours. Just after I had crashed on the planet and I found the first dungeon I just kept dying to some mobs that I found in there, also the first enemies I had even encountered and fought in the game. At first and for some time I felt really frustrated. How could the game already be so difficult that I didn't feel like I had a chance against the very first enemies of the game? Had I missed something?

The combat is actually well designed, too bad it's so dang hard.

Turns out, I had. First of all, apparently there was an entire area on the space ship that I could've gone to, which would've awarded me a very useful weapon even before I crash on the planet. But it is entirely possible, even stressed, to just continue with the story. At no point is there a hint or indication that there are other areas to check out in the space ship. The only way you'd find it is by ignoring the call to go to your launch and wander around exploring.

Usually I would enjoy gameplay that rewards curiosity, but in this instance it was too well hidden and I only ended up feeling snubbed of something I really needed.

Secondly, as I end up looking at a walkthrough I find out that these first enemies are optional, but it's definitely not something that is particularly clear. As you move through the dungeon there is a possibility to trigger a cave down that traps you with the enemies, it happens if you just move through the dungeon normally as one would do. What you're supposed to do though, especially if you're nowhere near ready to fight the enemies (which you don't know yet since it's your first combat), is to avoid triggering the cave down and not venture further into the cave.

Realizing at this point, some hour into it, that the game had already tricked me twice I felt a bit annoyed. There is definitely a fine balance that needs to be struck between rewarding curious players, and punishing the not so smart ones (like me). In Final Fantasy VII it is possible to find a lot of secrets that are cool and useful to you. But they don't just require you to be lucky enough to find them, for almost every one of them there is some component of extreme farming or skill involved to acquire these rewards. Furthermore, the game is entirely possible to beat without too much trouble even if you never find a single one of these secrets.

All Iskai furniture are made of plants, it's pretty cool.

In Albion however you realize that you missed a really important item just because you happened to not take the right turn at some point, and there is no going back for it either. You didn't just miss out on a fun item, you've missed out on something that makes a huge difference to your gameplay.

It is also too easy to stumble into areas that are way above your capabilities and there is little way to know if you're just doing something wrong or should head in another direction. Mostly it turned out I just really needed to farm for more skill and levels.

When it's so easy to get lost, die and have to start over it makes it all the more annoying when you know you've missed some item that could've made it so much easier for you. It makes me feel like a bad player, and that is pretty much the opposite of fun.

The inventory system didn't give me much trouble though.

Which is unfortunate, because I really do feel like so much about this game is great. There is literally a whole world waiting for you to be explored. A world filled with interesting characters and places to meet and see. There is a story that, at least for as far as I got, has a lot of potential to be really interesting. Not only do you realize that the planet you're about to exploit is actually inhabited, you eventually end up finding other humans, living rather humbly, on this planet as well. Where did they come from?

But the gameplay and world design ends up being too punishing for me. What killed it for me was when I set off on a boat toward another continent to continue the story. As I get there I find that I can barely move anywhere without really having to struggle for my survival. Yet again a walkthrough explains to me that unless I've come to a certain level and acquired certain skills there is no point in me going to this area yet. But how was I to know this? Grinding for levels and money is painfully slow and arduous and the prospect of having to do this throughout the entire game just put me off it, even though the story and world really intrigued me. Just watching let's plays of it makes me really want to give it another go again.

In the end I still want to recommend Albion. For a 1995 game it is actually pretty ambitious and if you're one who is more familiar and used to the older style of game design I think there could be a lot of fun to be had here. Me, I guess I have to give it another chance when I am a pensioner and have more time and patience. The game deserves it.

Images from: Private, gamesnostalgia.com, hardcoregaming101.net, mobygames.com.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Let's Talk About Addons [WoW Classic]

Let's talk a bit about addons shall we?

Oftentimes when I have thought about going back to playing WoW (before Classic was announced), one of the main things that held me back was thinking about all the addons that I would need to install and get into shape before being able to play. The mere thought of going "naked" into retail barely even crossed my mind and that's even knowing that Blizzard had implemented a great deal of the addons I used to use into their own UI.

Fast forward a bit and Classic was announced and suddenly my brain goes all puritan - now I want to experience the game with as few addons as possible!

But that doesn't mean I don't need a couple though… Technically you don't need any addon to play the game of course, and I did play it completely addon free for several weeks before I caved in.

Unrelated picture of me playing.

There will always be some addons that I will never* install. A quest addon is one such addon. While I do occasionally google a quest here and there, having help with every one of them feels like it robs a bit of the fun out of the game. I enjoy reading the quest text and having to think for a bit for myself, at least for the most part. Some times the quest text is so damn vague I wonder if the whole idea was to actually go have me run all over Barrens to find that one dude hiding in a hovel somewhere. Probably. There are points to that as well - more experience as you fight your way through areas and a good way to discover places you maybe wouldn't go to otherwise.

It didn't take long before I realized that just as there are addons I really wouldn't want to use, there are addons I really wouldn't want to play without this time around as well. And it all comes down to one of three things. Either it's an addon that gives me information about something that I really think the game should already provide me with. Or it speeds up a process I often use. Or it's just for fun. And considering I used to use somewhere around 30-40 addons back in the day, the four I've settled on so far feel like nothing.

Let's get the "for fun" addon out of the way - Recount. Yeah, I like to see how much damage people do. It's not just about peen-measuring, I actually use it to test the efficiency of skills and rotations that I use. If I see someone doing good damage I like to pore over their stats to see if I can learn something from it. I try not to be that person who links damage meters in chat every two seconds and I think I've succeeded pretty well.

Recount

Now for the information ones - VendorPrice and ClassicAuras.

VendorPrice: Classic has a combination of facts that in themselves aren't a problem, but combined become quite the issue. At least for me. Firstly, you don't really have much bag space. And secondly, everything seems to drop a ton of crap. Every murloc has the possibility to drop Murloc Eye, Murloc Fin, Shiny Scales, Shells and other stuff. Kill a couple and your bag will very quickly be filled with loads of things that is everything from grey to green (and even blue if you're lucky!). You will have to prioritize, ie throw things out, unless you want to run back to some vendor and unload every fifteen minutes. But how do you know what to throw? Is a 5 stack of Murloc Eyes worth more than a 10 stack of Sharp Claws? I don't know! And after having played a couple of weeks not knowing I decided money was hard enough to come by as it is without me literally throwing it away. So I got an addon that does nothing but show me the vendor value of items. That also allows me to see if it's even worth putting that stack of Linen Cloth on the Auction House, when the going price is just coppers above what the vendor gives me for it anyway...

I don't want an addon that tells me how much things are going for on the Auction House though, which might seem odd. For some reason I don't mind having to find that out for myself, and besides, the prices can fluctuate so much there that in the end that's probably what I would have to do anyway.

Spiders also drop a lot of crap.

ClassicAuras: Classic also has a big problem in that it doesn't show you the time left on your debuffs on your target. The fact that it doesn't actually absolutely baffles me and feels like straight up bad design. You might think, as I am guessing the designers did, that there isn't more to it than just looking at your target and seeing when the debuff runs out. That quickly becomes completely impractical when you've got more than one target, or even worse, another class using the same debuffs as you. Partying with another warlock is a nightmare when I no longer can tell if that is my Immolate on the target or not! I shudder to think how this works in raids...

Then the one that speed up some things - Clique

Back in the day I used to pair Clique with Vuhdo for some easy healing, because the in-game raid frames are frankly just... not good. At least they weren't back then. Since I only do lowbie dungeons now I have settled with Clique, at least for now. It allows me to bind my spells to clicks with my mouse, so that shift-right click does a certain heal on my target for instance. The default way is to click a target and then choose one of your heals in your bar. Clique not only saves me time since I choose spell and target at the same time, but it also saves slots on the action bar since I don't need to have my spells on there (I usually do anyway though, just in case). It just makes healing so much more practical, which doesn't matter much when you do lowbie dungeons but it makes a ton of difference when you're raiding difficult bosses. So now I'm so used to it I really don't like doing it the original way. (Clique has an issue in Classic though in that it can't distinguish between different ranks of spells).

I have a big wish for an addon to add... on... to this list here though. That is AutoBar. It's an action bar that auto-updates with contents from my bag. For instance it would automatically update with a Healthstone if I have one in my bag, or automatically put up any food in my bag. What I have to do now is locate any food in my bag every time I want to eat, or swap it out on my action bars as I get new types. It's just a little handy thing that doesn't make you a better player or anything, just saves a lot of hassle.

And that's it. For now. I know for sure I will get more addons because that is just how these things go. You tell yourself that one addon won't hurt. Then there is another. And another. And suddenly you're sitting there with 40 addons and wondering how the heck that happened and still you couldn't get yourself to turn off a single one. But I think I am still some ways off that yet.

What addons are crucial to your gameplay?

*never say never though.