Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Review Of Undertale

There are a lot of games out there people keep saying are must-plays that I haven't even tried, for various reasons, and probably never will. Minecraft, The Walking Dead, any GTA after the first and a whole bunch of indie games (well I guess Minecraft is also an indie game) I can't even remember the name of right now. Then came Undertale and managed to mildly pique my interest. I liked that it was an RPG, I was less enthusiastic about the graphics. Not because they were pixelated, I love pixels, but because it simply didn't appeal to me aesthetically. Eventually I caved however and decided to give it a shot.

Did I love it? Yes and no. Hear me out.

I always try not to be one of those people who dislikes something just because its popular. Things are often popular for a reason (although sometimes those reasons are bad reasons, like with Donald Trump or Justin Bieber), and there is little sense in hating on something just because other people like it (like complaining about Pokémon Go).

My first impression with Undertale was still a bit of... weariness. Or that feeling you get when you eat something that's a bit too sweet to be enjoyable. It's definitely not disgust or even dislike, but just "ehhh, it's a bit too much for me". Oh look here is a sad ghost, we've never seen that before have we? The overbearing care-taker that seems to have ulterior motives? An hour or so into the game I was worried it was all just going to be boringly cliché or trying too hard.

The funny thing is, it kind of is. But the characters, the story, everything managed to nestle its way into me, to a place where I just could not dislike it. Sometimes cliché or trying too hard isn't a bad thing, not if you still manage to make it into an entertaining, cohesive and memorable end-product. Another example of this is Dead Space, which is just a cliché shooter from start to finish, but the end result is bigger than the sum of its parts. Undertale takes that to a whole new level.

Because if I look at each individual part of this game I don't find anything especially amazing (except for the music! Seriously even if you have no interest in playing this game, you should at least give it a listen) - taken out of context the puzzles are pretty boring, the story is text-book at best, the characters each on their own easily teeter on becoming obnoxious and the one thing that stands out about the gameplay is the combat system. But put them all together and you get something so charming and endearing you can't defend yourself from it.

Getting back quickly to the combat, it was the one singular thing I really thought stood out in this game - it was inventive and fun and I really felt like they had managed to get as much out of it as possible. Whenever you felt like you were getting into a trot, or even long before that actually, the game would throw something new into the mix. Without managing to make it confusing! Now that is a feat. The combat system is great in that it is right in that sweet spot between easy to grasp and difficult to master and it is clear you're going to have to master it to manage to get one of the more difficult to reach endings.

Alternating endings is something that rarely appeals to me however, so the game lost a lot on me on that premise. I realize that is entirely my own shortcoming and not a design flaw of the game. In fact the game sells the idea of different endings greatly and I completely agree - it's a brilliant way to get more life out of a low budget game and yet again it seems like they've made the most out of it. Changing your playthrough will apparently change your experience quite a lot, from what I read.

Unfortunately my end impression is tarnished by the fact that I only wanted to play it through once. Because of this I realize the game did not get to show its full potential and it ended up a bit lacking for me. The things I had a problem with are probably completely unfair for me to complain about because I didn't want to play the game the way it was designed to be played. Because of this I ended up feeling like a lot of the characters were criminially underused. Just as with the combat system you were barely allowed to know someone before they were swapped out for the next crazy inhabitant of the Monsterworld, for me to adore. Just as I thought I was making friends, they were gone, over and over until the game ended, way too soon. I wanted to stay in that world and desperately wish there was more to explore, more to do. But its just not that kind of game.

For me it needed to be larger rather than repeated because eventhough the gameplay changes somewhat it could never remove the feeling of "I've done this already" for me. And some things I really wouldn't want to redo, like the fight against Flowey (if you redo it, I don't know). But that's the way the game is meant to be played, maybe you could even argue that with only one playthrough I haven't even finished it (you could argue that it failed to make me want to replay it however). If there is one thing I could say to someone who hasn't played this yet it would be - play it through several times or you probably shouldn't bother. It deserves better.

It probably sounds like I didn't like this game at all - that is definitely not true. After I had ended it I was amazed at what an accomplishment it was - created by pretty much one person nonetheless! What are you doing while Toby Fox is out there kicking ass as a game developer? This games perfectly encapsulates that you don't need a big budget or a big staff as long as you have some brilliant core ideas and follow them through. Eventhough I personally didn't love-love-love this game, as a creation and achievement it is verging on genius. It is worth experiencing for that alone and to fill you with determination.

We have a saying in Swedish: "koka soppa på spik", basically "making soup out of nails". There is a whole story behind it but in essence its about how you can take something inedible and mundane and make a delicious soup out of it by tricking the consumer to change the ingredients. Undertale takes what looks like simple ingredients at first glance and turn them into something absolutely delicious when they're all mixed together. There is no trickery here though but I will say it is magical how Toby Fox has managed it all, the gameplay, the story, the characters, the world, to come together to such a charming and memorable experience. I loved Papyrus, I loved Undyne, I loved Napstablook. I wish there was more of it, but that has to be a good thing, right?

Sunday, July 17, 2016

First Thoughts On Pokémon Go

Of course it's a post on Pokémon Go, what else could you expect?

Just like millions of other people around the world I have started playing Pokémon Go recently. When I first heard about it I was absolutely thrilled. At that time (I can't recall exactly when that was, late last year maybe?) I had already been playing some Ingress casually and liked the concept. The idea to turn that into a Pokémon game seemed brilliant. If you know nothing about Ingress, in short it is pretty much like Pokémon Go. There aren't any Pokémon of course, but the equivalent of PokeStops and Gyms (in Ingress they are the same) and the core idea to walk around to gather supplies to battle it out against the other team (there are only two factions in Ingress) is all there.

Looking back at it I am surprised I didn't realize what a smash hit Pokémon Go was going to be. Ingress was already very popular - the day I started playing it I was invited to my factions local Google group in my hometown, which arranges walk-arounds where you can take down opposing "gyms" together, and boy were they active. I never did join in because it rarely fit with my personal schedule, and quite frankly I didn't enjoy Ingress enough to go out of my way to play it. It was fun, but more of a "I've got nothing to do while waiting for the bus"-kind of fun.

Then you've got Pokémon. I don't have to tell you how popular Pkmn is. Combining these two ideas, which also allows pkmn fans to come a step closer the ultimate dream of becoming an actual pkmn trainer... it was a match made in heaven, really. So what do I think of it?

First off, I'm not even going to complain about the technical issues. Do they annoy me? Of course they do. But I've given up hope that any company can deal with huge server-loads, I mean if Blizzard still can't get it right after five expansions and 12 years of experience then who can? And after all, it's not a game I've paid for so I am alright with it. For now.

Otherwise it is pretty much what I hoped for. It's not perfect, but few things are but seeing as catering to my very specific needs is probably impossible in a game clearly aimed at pleasing everyone on the planet. I'm ok with that too. My initial impression is definitely good so it is probably easier for me to adress the things that give me cause for mild concern (keep in mind however this is solely based on my personal experience with the game);

A little bit too empty around my place...

Or lack thereof. To me it is clear that Niantic, that is the developer of the game, has simply taken what is called "portals" from their Ingress game and transferred them over as PokeStops and Gyms in PGO. Thing is, there are about four times more portals in Ingress than there are PokeStops in PGO, so why the difference? My first guess was that they don't want to make it too easy to gather items but that doesn't make sense - you could just make each stop give less items in that case. In fact, it is clear to me the game hasn't been designed around getting people to walk around at all. If it was, there would be more PokeStops and they would definitely be more evenly distributed. As it is now they congregate around areas where people already move around, like town centers, making me believe that Niantic has designed the game to be something you do while you're already on the move for another reason - rather than being the reason itself. They clearly did not foresee the playstyle that players are adopting now which doesn't make sense either since they should have years of Ingress data to tell them otherwise. Admittedly, Ingress portals aren't exactly common outside of city centers either, but at least a lot more common than PokeStops.

Ok, so you can at least catch Pokemon anywhere, but after a while you run out of balls and then there is literally nothing to do in the game anymore. Oh wait, unless you pay for more balls. But the way the PokeStops are distributed now it makes it really unfair on anyone living more countryside (or like me, 10 min walk from city center). Another guess is that maybe Niantic doesn't actually want to encourage people to walk off outside to more uncivilized areas but the way the PokeStops are distributed around here you really don't have to walk two steps outside the city center before they become way too scarce. Too soon Niantic.

Actually, not much to do in Ingress either.

This might be something they've planned to implement, but I am sure a lot of players, myself included, wish there was a way to fight it out between eachother in the game other than attacking Gyms. There isn't in Ingress however, so it's possible it's not something they've thought of doing. Of course, one would have to ponder how it could fit into the game design, although if you ask me it could be implemented just as a stand-alone feature to test your strength against eachother without it necessarily having a lasting impact on anything else in the game. I can otherwise see the possibility of cheating, if say you could strengthen your pkmn or gain items through battles. But I see no harm in just-for-fun skirmishing.

Which T-shirt are you?

The Teams
Like I mentioned in Ingress there are only two teams, green and blue. The rivalry between those teams is enthusiastic but respectful, for what I observed at least. I really hope it can stay that way for PGO as well, but I've already seen posts and memes calling certain teams things that are probably intended as a jest (and most are quite funny) but are only a step away from being hateful. I mean, where does it even come from? It's a faction people had no relation to only a week ago. I think it worked fairly well in WoW, eventhough there was always a lot of namecalling in BGs, each faction calling the other faction a bunch of 12-year olds, or 40-year old virgins still living in their moms basements, but it usually stayed at that. This might've been in part because you can always play on both sides and because the both sides can't actually communicate. In PGO however you choose one side and as far as I know that is what you are until you somehow create a new account. Another thing to consider is that you will actively meet people of opposing factions when walking around, you might even end up staring eachother down over a Gym. Let's just say I am a bit worried that any hateful attitudes online might spill over into the real world.
To be fair however, everyone seems just so gleeful over the fact that they are playing pkmn together that maybe I am just being a worry-wart.

Honestly, I don't think the whole "paying attention to your surroundings"-thing is a thing. I mean, it clearly is since people seem to be hurting themselves left and right over this game, but then again with this many gamers you're bound to have pretty much anything happen sooner or later. I don't think the game is absorbing enough to make me forget I am crossing a road however. What I do have a problem with though and that I wish that they could change/fix somehow, is how you need to keep your screen active for the game to respond properly. I had the same problem with Ingress, and that game didn't require me to stay active to catch pkmn, so it was even less of an issue there! I'm not sure how it tracks egg-hatching progress, but I'm pretty sure that I don't get any notifications for pkmn if I don't keep the screen active. This drains so much battery, and quite frankly it's just tedious to stare at your screen for that long. Maybe the wristband that there has been talks about could solve this, because surely Niantic themselves has nothing to gain from whether the player stares at the screen or not? My guess it has something to do with how apps run passively so they might simply not be allowed to send/receive data from the game as long as you don't keep it open. It makes sense, but I would love for there to be some option somewhere where I could just walk with the phone in my pocket and have it vibrate or even make a noise whenever I am close enough to a pkmn. If it's already supposed to do that I can tell you that it's not working for me.

Speaking of long.

Personally, I am worried PGO will go the same way Ingress did for me. I played it (Ingress) quite actively the first couple of weeks. Like mentioned I joined the local group (eventhough I didn't walk with them), I Ingressed all the way to work on my bike, I tried Ingressing while I was out with my kid - but in the end it didn't really feel practical. Playing while bicycling was just plain dangerous I noticed and I couldn't push the pram one-handed which meant stopping all the time which just annoyed my kid in the end. This left me the option of taking the opportunity to play whenever I had an errand somewhere or to go out specifically on my own to play. Ingress couldn't make me want to, I'm not sure PGO can either. I think the key issue is that I don't have anyone in my vicinity who plays it and walking around on my own doesn't feel particularly enticing. Ideally I'd go with the bf, but someone has to watch the kid and the kid is too young to play.

Overall however it is a fun little game and quite the phenomenon to boot. It is true that few things beat catching long time favorites (I am working myself to a Gengar) and I am actually quite happy they've limited themselves to the first gen (at least initially). Niantic has probably made a smart move when they decided to streamline elements from the games to make them more appealing to the casual smartphone audience. For instance I don't think it would've worked as well if you had to actually battle the pkmn before catching them - aint nobody got time for that!

When I told the bf a couple of days ago about how much PGO had already been downloaded he said that every pkmn for the handhelds had been popular too. I pointed out to him that the main difference is that eventhough a lot of people have Game Boys, a whole lot more have smartphones. It is such a massive market to tap into, and a game like this is perfect for it. Now let's just hope it can stop crashing.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Warcraft: The Beginning Review

By the way, there are teeny spoilers...

I can't remember the first time I heard about the Warcraft movie, and I can definitely not remember ever being excited about it. Considering how long it has been floating around I probably was at some point, but if that was the case it had vanished completely by the time the movie was actually released.

I guess my problem with the movie (as I imagined it) was two-fold: firstly, good video-game to movie adaptations don't exactly grow on trees. I really liked the Resident Evil movie (I enjoyed all of them but thought the first one was really good). I actually like the Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter movies (the first ones, respectively), although far from brilliant movies they manage to entertain. And I am among the 0.1% who thinks the Mario Bros. movie is completely misjudged and misunderstood. But then you have movies like Prince of Persia. It was so boring I can't ever remember what happened in it. Silent Hill is another good example of squandered potential. And there are a ton of other video-game movies that I haven't even bothered watching because I just knew they would waste my time, like Bloodrayne and Alone in the Dark.

Secondly, I never really cared much for the lore in Warcraft. I haven't even played the first three games (and only after watching the Warcraft movie did I realize it is in fact based on the first Warcraft game, rather than World of Warcraft). I haven't read any of the books or series on the lore and I only cared so much as to get the basic grips of why I needed to kill the next big end-boss. Eventhough I spent 8 years in World of Warcraft, I am shamefully ignorant about the Warcraft Universe. My ignorance both led me to believe that whatever lore there was would be boringly convoluted and confusing, and if I haven't had an interest in it so far, how could this movie change that?

But it was part of something I had already invested 8 years into so I still wanted to see it. And I am damn glad I did because it was great.

Needless to say, going in to the theater my expectations were almost as low as they come. I didn't think it would be Dragonball Evolution bad, maybe not even The Last Airbender bad, but not far from. With me I had a friend who has absolutely zero knowledge of the games and even less knowledge of the lore than I did. She's barely played any game, let alone any Warcraft game. I asked her why she even bothered seeing it, and she replied with "I liked the trailer". I feared for her as we sat down, worried it would be two hours of torture for her.

It turned out to be two hours of delight. Not only did the movie manage to be far from convoluted and confusing, it actually managed to really get me interested in the Warcraft universe and lore and made me crave more. When I asked my friend what she thought of it afterwards she said she had really liked it and that it reminded her of Lord of the Rings in style.

I'm not saying this is a masterpiece of a movie, but it does what it sets out to do and it had me entertained the entire way through. If I was worried the two hours would end up filled with bloated and cringeworthy scenes, I couldn't have been more wrong. Some people might dislike the stage-set looking aesthetics of the movie (however they manage that with so much CGI going on), but it is done completely shamelessly. Not only did I get the feeling that the creators knew and udnerstood what Warcraft was about, they didn't back down from it either. If you're making a movie about orcs and demons and mages that can teleport and turn people into sheep you need to embrace that. Backing away or trying to ridicule it is only going to alienate your own material. That was one of my biggest fears for this movie but it was definitely not a problem.

When watching the movie I felt like the guy playing Anduin Lothar, Travis Fimmel, stood out in a weird way. He played his character differently to everyone else, not necessarily in a bad way but like he was playing in a slightly different movie. Afterwards I read that Travis Fimmel had absolutely no previous knowledge of the Warcraft series or lore, and somehow I think it shines through on the way he portraits Lothar (it could also just be my imagination). I still thinks he does an ok job however and it's nothing that ruins the movie in any way.

The story is simplistic enough to be coherent but not too cliché to be boring. Even if there weren't exactly any twists or deeper plot points that a five year old couldn't have figured out, many characters (especially on the orc side) were given enough depth to make up for any flatness in the story.  In fact the movie is smart enough to not even try to treat the few twists there are as some sort of revelations, but only play them for as much as they're worth (probably because they assume everyone watching will know the story anyway). And I didn't expect much from the story, but I also didn't expect them to do such a great job with some of the characters, so that was a nice surprise for me.

I think it's hilarious that there is such a huge discrepancy between critic reviews and regular movie goers. Because I can't personally judge how well this movie performs without any pre-knowledge it's hard for me to say what they're complaining about. Maybe it's because they don't get that tingly feeling in their gut when they see Lothar greet Moroes in Kharazan or when Draka puts Go'el in the river. Little things that hold little meaning to them but huge meaning to me and I suspect a lot of other movie goers.

Still, I'd recommend this movie both if you've played any of the games related, but also if you have an interest in fantasy movies but no previous knowledge of this game-series. I wouldn't say the movie stands completely on its own, but it's not far from. My only gripe is that I really wish there would've been more of it! I wanted to see undeads (I realize they don't come into play until later), I wanted to see more of the elves, I wanted to know more about Go'el. The movie managed to make me more interested in the Warcraft lore than 8 years of WoW ever did. In essence I desperately want them to make more of these movies and I don't think there is any better praise than that.

Things I learned from the movie I did not know beforehand;

  • That the main orc character was Durotan, I had assumed it would be Thrall.
  • That Garona is a half-orc, I always thought she was just plain orc. Probably because her model in WoW is orc.
  • That Medivh was the guy who invited the orcs into Azeroth. I knew he had been corrupted by the fel magic, but not what he did. The movie doesn't explain how he nor Gul'dan gets to the magic however.
  • Pretty much everything the movie tells you about Khadgar was news to me.