Sunday, May 22, 2016

Crimson Shroud and Convoluted Gameplay

Oh Crimson Shroud. Who knew such a tiny little game hidden as a downloadable on the 3DS could turn out to be such a tease? I bought it back in February 2014, simply because I had some cash over in my 3DS funds, it was cheap and seemed reasonably fun. It's taken me two years and five hours of gametime just to get through the second area of the game. Yet it says a lot of the gameplay that after all that time I still had the want to give it just one more try.

There have been more games than I dare to count throughout the years where I've gotten stuck somewhere and given up. Sometimes I give up forever, which usually isn't a decision I take straight away, but after having stared at the game icon on my desktop often enough without having any interest in playing it, it normally gets the boot. Equally often I do decide to give it another go, only to find that whatever had me stuck wasn't much of a problem at all and I go on my merry way.

The artstyle isn't the only thing that feels like Final Fantasy.

There are so many different ways you can get stuck in a game - a boss or area is too difficult, or you simply don't know what to do or where to go next. If it's simply a matter of not being able to figuring something out I might resort to a walkthrough or playthrough to push me along. If it's a tough area I often give it a set amount of tries or some grinding to try and get through. If that turns out not to be enough the game has to be very fun or compelling to have me put in that bit of extra effort needed of me to get further. Ys Origin was one of those games that failed to get that from me. Crimson Shroud it turns out did get it, eventually, eventhough what it asked of me was almost laughably harsh.

You know a game is pretty off the radar when it doesn't have its own Wikipedia page nor Gamefaqs walkthrough, but Crimson Shroud is such a game. It had gotten good reviews however, and I had quite fun with it when I started playing. The quirky aesthetics, it all looks like a tabletop RPG, definitely added to the charm and the gameplay was compelling eventhough it was a pretty by the numbers and scaled down RPG. The Classic Game Room review states it pretty well when they call it "a fifth of an RPG", because that is exactly what it feels like. For what little I've played however, it feels like it's drawn out the essence of what makes RPGs fun and run with it. I was a bit bummed therefor, when I hit what almost was a literal brick wall only a few hours into the game (it was in fact a door).

You'll get to see these a lot.

At what looks like the end of the second area is a room called the Gerseym Waterway in which you fight a handful of skeletons. They're pretty tricky the first couple of times you fight them, but this will soon change as you realize you're going to have to fight them for many, many more times, especially if you're unlucky like me. When I first got here and defeated the skeletons nothing happened. The door that lead to the next area didn't open and I had no idea why. So I started trecking around, I started revisiting every room I had been in so far (thankfully not too many) and I eventually returned to the room and fought the skeletons again. And again. After more than an hour of this and not being anywhere closer to a solution I decided I was clearly too stupid for whatever puzzle was keeping me from advancing, and looked it up on the internet.

Turns out you need a special item from the mage skeletons specifically, that also is a rare drop. Even after I read that I didn't give up however, but after yet another hour or so of fighting without having seen the drop I decided it was time to move on. And I didn't touch the game again for 1,5 year.

Until today, when I decided to give it another go. I was feeling lucky, or something, but I actually really wanted to continue the game. I started playing, and I fought the skeletons again, over and over. After several attempts I decided to refresh my memory on what needed to be done and turned to the almighty internet. This is when I discovered that there wasn't an easily found walkthrough of it anywhere, and only one pretty bad quality playthrough of it on Youtube. I had to scour forums to find the information I needed, and the information wasn't being very clear. Everyone seemed to agree that a certain item was needed, but some claimed that you needed to kill the skeletons in a certain order for it to appear. Then you needed to take this item to another certain room, use it to unlock a chest to get another item with which you could unlock the door. But the first item could also be used as a trinket, making it even unclearer that it was a crucial item for furthering your progress.

Apparently there are hints to this in the game. I can tell you they are pretty damn vague! And I definitely would've never ever in my wildest dreams have been able to figure this out on my own, and I doubt I would've even been able to randomly succeed just by trying long enough. It immediately made me think of Simon's Quest and its convoluted gameplay. Fortunately for Crimson Shroud, it was fun enough to make me want to go through the effort and it turns out today was indeed my lucky day, as the trinket dropped for me eventually. Now I can continue to play it, two years after I almost gave up on it. That is probably the longest I've had a game on standby, but at least now I can see if I can finish it and move on.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Let's Check Out Rymdresa

I recently started playing Rymdresa, a "poetic, roguelike space odyssey in a procedurally generated world" according to the homepage and I really want to like it. When I first read about it, it seemed like the perfect fit for me - I like roguelikes (although I tend to get very frustrated with them) and I love space games, so what's to dislike? Well, so far I've spent about 7 hours with the game and there are definitely elements I love and some elements I like a lot less.

Rymdresa was released by developer/publisher Morgondag in August 2015 and has all the feels of a nice little indie-game. Semi-interesting anecdote here - both Rymdresa and Morgondag are Swedish words and mean Spacetrip and Tomorrow (sort of) respectively.

When I first started playing it I had no idea what to expect and had clearly missed the "poetic" part, because whatever idea I had about the game it turned out to be nothing like it. Not in a bad way however. Essentially you play as a spaceship trying to survive and scavenge resources in space. You can't attack anything and initially there isn't anything to attack you back either. Not that space isn't full of dangers to kill you faster than you can say Rymdresa backwards, but in the first two chapters of the game (there are three) these are of the passive sort that merely need to be avoided. Trust me, it sounds a lot simpler than it is.

The first chapter, without spoiling too much, felt a lot like a tutorial of sorts to me, something to allow you to get acquainted with the concept of the game before the actual game begins. As such it was a tad on the dreary side and things definitely look up once you get to chapter two. So let's break down gameplay;

Your goal is to find materials in space to rebuild what is left of humanity. To find said resources you need to do a lot of searching around in what is a lot of empty space. There will be a big chunk of time spent doing little much but drifting around waiting for something useful to come into view and I think this can be a divider for many of players. Personally I quite enjoyed even these parts as soon as I understood what the game was trying to do. Some effort has been put into trying to instill a feeling of vastness and emptiness of space, and the game definitely succeeded with this. As such you can't play the game hoping to get action around every corner (mostly because there aren't corners in space). This game needs to take its time and it wants you to take time with it. If you allow yourself to just relax, maybe let your mind wander a bit and enjoy the stillness during these moments, I found that it was quite meditative and possible the best game I've played before bedtime. Don't relax too much however, because in a heartbeat that calm will change into quick death if you're not on your toes.

Your ship works on resources, which basically serves as both ship fuel and ship health. Whenever you use your engines you lose resources and whenever you take damage you lose resources. You can regain resources by exploring objects you find, things like planets and asteroids. In chapter two and three these objects also reward materials with which to rebuild your base. Also found in space are something called "spacepoints" which are basically the currency of the game. They can either be gathered or awarded through different events of the game, pretty much anything gives you spacepoints. With these you can buy better ships for instance. Your ship also gets experience with which you can upgrade stats that can improve you exploration success rate, experience gain rate and other things like that. And then there are items that can either be consumables or upgrades for your ship. Experience, items and spacepoints are saved on death.

It's nowhere near as confusing as my rambling explanation is making it out to be but I do feel like all these elements give you a false sense of power. You get tools to level up and upgrade your ship, but never during my gameplay did I feel like it made a big difference on the actual game. Maybe I just haven't gotten enough upgrades and levels yet...

The poetic part of the game is obvious albeit not easily understood. The main thing is what I am assuming the pilot of the ships (namely you) voice recordings that activate at regular time intervals throughout the game and that can also be found floating around space. I'm not a big poetic buff myself, I rarely get the thing about poetry, but I found these recordings to be alright. They fit the frame of the game. Unfortunately they can ruin immersion somewhat since there doesn't seem to be any programming preventing the same recording to repeat. Since it's a roguelike I wouldn't demand for a recording to never repeat ever again, but twice right after eachother within the same turn of playing? That just removes the poetic feeling and makes it sound silly instead. There are also various message displayed all around space and they make little more sense other than to further instill you with the feeling of emptiness and fragile hope the game seems to thrive on.

If the first chapter feels a bit slow, the second chapter is where I thought the game really brought out its best potential. In this chapter you're basically trying to find as much material as possible, and there are moments when you've floated around for what feels like several minutes without having come across anything of interest when suddenly BAM! A goldmine of objects to explore and mine and fields of starpoints to collect. These moments are quite enjoyable and gives you a nice kick to want to explore more. At this point in the game it is a lovely little roguelike where challenge and reward are neatly balanced. The goal is clear and the gameplay manages to throw itself between relaxing and stressful without any hitches. Just as in any roguelike you can have unlucky runs where you die shortly after you've started, there are plenty of unavoidable death situations where an asteroid just comes rocketing from left field and you barely have a chance to avoid it. But just as in any good roguelike it's ok because you just buckle up and launch out again.

It's unfortunate then that it doesn't last. As soon as you've fulfilled the goal of chapter two, which felt way too easy in my opinion, and you get to start on chapter three, the game introduces gameplay elements that sound great on paper but just don't come together to a fun experience. Firstly there are now enemy ships that, although they don't actively hunt you down, are so difficult to avoid and impossible to survive you just feel like giving up immediately when you see one. Secondly, the goal of this chapter is to find "keys" that are scattered so far off into space it takes forever to get to them. Fortunately progress is saved between each one of them, but trying to reach each one feels more of a time sink than anything else because your ship is so fragile and the difficulty is upped quite a bit. Whereas in chapter two you could choose between playing it a bit safe and slower, or venture further out for more rewarding but more dangerous scavange hunts, in chapter three you are basically forced to do the latter eventhough your ship is just as shitty. Maybe if I felt like leveling and gearing up my ship made more of a difference I would've gone down that route first, but it never manages to feel like anything but a big waste of time.

There is a lot I like about this game. I love the mellow parts where I just drift around space and the fact that I don't mind that nothing much is going on. This game manages to pull those parts off for me, and the middle segment of the game manages to balance perfectly between what practically is a "walking simulator" (or maybe "floating simulator" in this case) and a stressful roguelike. I just wish they would've stuck with this formula for longer, but it's like they didn't trust it enough to keep people entertained, and the third chapter has too much of a bad roguelike in it to be fun. Eventhough I am only halfway through chapter three, when reading reviews of the game I see that the latter half of chapter three is apparently even worse than the first half. If you can find it on discount I still recommend it, I've overall enjoyed my experience with it. Maybe I will just leave the game where it is now and enjoy those serene moments of vast emptiness of space that we had together. Those parts were great.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Dark Souls + Easy Modes = True?

I read an interesting blog post the other day, and the first few paragraphs immediately struck a chord with me;

"I understand the game [Dark Souls] on an intellectual level, and in my first play session years ago I basically zipped all the way to the Taurus Demon without much pause. I’m not bad at the game, but I certainly don’t possess the personality traits that would make me excel at it. I’m often impatient. I don’t like to lose progress. I don’t enjoy doing something over and over again in order to learn how to do that one thing (I bounced off Bloodborne for this reason).

However, I love the way the game is put together. I love the little story moments. I love the characters. The relationships between those characters, the ruins, and the grand narrative of the world are balanced in such a perfect way. But, due to the way I like to play games, I mostly have to get those things packaged for me from Twitter convos, wiki readings, and channels like Vaati’s."

(The entire blog post is very good and you should definitely read it, I don't know what my post can add to the discussion really but what the heck).

This could've just as well been a description of my feelings for Dark Souls, and not just Dark Souls, but a ton of other game series I love and respect, yet don't have the patience or skill to play. So I can definitely sympathize when I hear players ask for an easy mode for a game, and maybe especially a game like Dark Souls. Do I think Dark Souls should have one however? Yes and no. Let me try to explain.

I try to avoid Easy Modes whenever games have them, but I'm not ashamed of going there if I feel like the game is giving me too much of a hill to climb. Geneforge is a good example of this as it allows the player to change difficulty mid-game if necessary. Starting up a game I am worried Easy Mode will remove from the experience as in if the game is too easy, I won't enjoy it. The same goes if a game turns out to be too hard however. I think this is where the first disctinction comes in - easy, normal and hard mode are just names that try to convey difficulty relative to eachother. Just because it's easy mode doesn't mean it's easy nor does hard mode have to be hard. Some games have easy mode as "normal mode" in different regions for instance, showing what the developers think of the intended audience gaming skills. The important thing to remember is that the varying modes are there to allow for individuality since we perceive challenge very differently. This is why I often dislike when game developers actually change content depending on which game mode you play, for instance making easy mode shorter or have other modes have different endings. I realize this is to incentivize people to try the game on harder modes because why would anyone play the difficult modes if you can have it all on the easier modes? This basically boils down to a discussion on whether players can be trusted to manage their own "fun level" in a game - essentially relevant for this post but still a bit of a sidetrack that I will forego for now (although my answer would probably be "no").

Challenge in a game is a huge factor to how fun it is - maybe not 100% of the fun, but definitely important. But how big a factor? If you had asked me, and probably a lot of other people, ten or even five years ago, I think most would've said that it is the single most important factor. Graphics and story were important too, sure, but people play games to overcome challenge and get that satisfactory kick of succeeding, right? Then came the interactive story games (again, technically) or as they were lovingly nicknamed - walking simulators. Anyone who has played The Walking Dead, Gone Home or To the Moon know that the challenge factor has been turned down to almost non-existant, something that would probably have been unthinkable not that long ago. Yet these games have been very well received and although debates have gone high and low on whether they should even be called games, one thing is clear - people have fun with them. So is challenge really that necessary for a game? Can any game be made into a walking-simulator for the people who prefer to experience the story rather than the challenge?

This is where opinions differ but first a quick sidenote. There is another argument being held up as a reason not to add easy modes to certain games - artistic integrity. I respect artistic integrity, but personally I don't think it should ever stand in the way of having fun with a game. I wonder if the people who shout about artistic integrity when people want easy modes in a game, or change the gender of Link, have never ever used a mod for any game they've played? Have they played a DotA game or Counter-Strike perhaps? Reimaginings of existing content is hardly a thing of evil and I doubt the gaming world would be any way better off without it. So when some of these people say that the way the game was originally designed is the only way to enjoy it, I tend to just think they're narrow minded. But it's rarely that simple and I can see where they're coming from. So let's wrap it back up to where we were, because these two issues are related;

Can any game be made into a walking-simulator? Can a game be played in any possible way and still be the same game?

Playing differently doesn't have to be bad.

See when I first read the above blog post I totally agreed. I would love an easy mode to Dark Souls. My SO, who is a massive Dark Souls fan and belongs to the arrogant pricks that likes to tell people that it's "not that damn hard", made me try it out. And I instantly understood what he liked so much about it, equally fast I put down the controller and told him it just wasn't for me. Just as the blogger mentions I get very quickly bored with bashing my head against a wall and find absolutely no enjoyment in repeating my actions over and over. My problem is that the satisfaction I feel from finally overcoming a huge obstacle in no way makes up for all the frustration I felt overcoming it (funnily enough this was never an issue in WoW where I could wipe 100+ times on a boss without getting bored, but that's matter for another post). I even get frustrated with how easily I get frustrated. I hate failing too much and I don't enjoy winning enough to play those sort of games, simple as that.

This unfortunately makes me miss out on so many good games, Dark Souls being just one of them. Basically any NES era game is out of the question and most platformers/puzzle games as well. So at first I was all go for adding an easy mode to Dark Souls. But then I started thinking about what would happen if I did the same thing to other games I like but don't have the patience to play. My first thought went to the Resident Evil series of which I am a huge fan but have never finished a single game. And the more I thought about it, the less I liked the idea of putting an easy mode into Resident Evil. The tank controls are part of what make it fun, the risk of dying is what sets the mood I love so much about the game. In essence, if you made it too easy, if you removed the risk of dying or the feeling of dread and peril around every corner, if you didn't jump when the dogs came crashing through the window - it wouldn't be Resident Evil anymore.

How about a Resident Evil/Gone Home mashup though?

It might still be a fun and enjoyable game! But it would be a wholly different experience. And that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done - if people accept that they won't be playing the same game and still want to check it out, then really what is the harm? But I really think that some games have the difficulty so firmly inbedded in the core concept of the game that changing it too much would completely alter the experience. So if you play Dark Souls on easy mode can you really say that you have played the same game? I've got to agree with the nay-sayers who say "probably not".

Imagine the reverse, like putting enemies that need to be avoided/killed into a game like Gone Home or swapping the Walking Dead QTEs for FPS shoot outs. You could still experience the story of the game, but the end experience would be very different from someone who played it the "original" and if you like, intended, way.

And in the end I am fine with that. I still think that adapting games so that more people enjoy them outweighs any fears purists might have that the altered experience might... what exactly? Ruin the community? Ruin the legacy of the game? Even though I can understand those fears I choose to believe more good than bad can come from it and there is plenty of proof to show it's true.

(Seriously though, how cool wouldn't a RE + Gone Home crossover be?)