Friday, November 30, 2018

VGM Highlights - November 2018

As you might've noticed if you've read one or two of my blog posts, I play a lot of video games. What I mention a lot less however is that I also listen to quite a lot of video game music (VGM). But I thought it was time to change that! I sat thinking of some good way for me to get to talk about good VGM while also promote some of the great VGM podcasts I listen to. "Hey, I have a blog after all, that's what that is for right?". Right?

So my plan is to make a round-up of some of the great tunes I've heard in the podcasts I've listened to throughout a month, and what better month to start than dreary old November. It should be noted that I am far from up to date on most podcasts I listen to, I simply don't have the time. This means a lot of the episodes I listen to are not recent and in some cases even years have passed since they were released. But I figured that shouldn't really matter since good VGM doesn't age anyway. The idea is both for me to be able to talk a bit about VGM that I enjoy, but also to give a shout-out to the podcast that featured it. It's not intended to be a ranking of any kind and the same podcast can be featured more than once (or no time) in a month if I've happened to hear several, or no, particularly good tunes from that podcast within a month - which with my listening habits is a pretty random variable. This isn't to say that this was the only music I enjoyed, in fact I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of times I've heard a VGM track in a podcast I felt like skipping. These are simply tunes that stood out a little extra to me.

You are always very welcome to comment with tunes you enjoy, I absolutely love finding new things to listen to!

We'll see how long I remember to and feel like keeping this up, but let's get started at least.

My first featured track comes from the VGMpire Podcast, episode 64, "Blast Corps Gemini" which was a highlight of the music in the games Jet Force Gemini and Blast Corps. Those are two games I remember seeing back in the day but know absolutely nothing about. I didn't even know they were made by Rare. This is by the way an example of a podcast that aired several years ago, as this was posted in February 2014. While most of the tracks were good, nothing really stood out to me, except this little gem from Blast Corps called "Angel City".

The N64 isn't exactly known for its stand-out soundtracks or sound, at least not to me. There are of course notable exceptions like Rare's GoldenEye and most of the Mario-games. And Turok 2, that stuff is awesome. And normally I am not a fan of a rock-style tune, but something about this spoke to me. I found it pretty cool.

Secondly we have a double-whammy from the Forever Sound Version podcast. First episode 52 in which the show celebrates its 2nd year with its own highlight of tracks that he's played over the last year. I guess this could be called cheating since the track in question technically is from an earlier episode, but eh *shrug*. The track is "In Game 7" from Colin McRae Rally 2.0. Even though I have listened to almost every episode of Forever Sound Version I can't remember when this was played so I am glad he played it again because I love it! While I don't play many racing games they often feature exactly the type of floaty, swirly electronica that I am personally very fond of.

The other track is from episode 54 which was the 4th VGM Battle. The entire episode was absolutely awesome and filled with so many good tracks it was difficult to choose just one, like "6:24" from Furi, "Slipstream" from Motorstorm Apocalypse and "Filmore" from Actraiser (which is one of my all-time favorite VGM tracks, but it's Yuzo Koshiro so of course). I strongly recommend listening to the entire episode. The track I've chosen to highlight though is "Theme of Exchanger" from Money Puzzler Exchanger because of its bouncy, happy style.

And finally a track from The Battle Bards podcast, which is the worlds only MMO VGM podcast and I amazed every single episode that they manage to make so much good material from that premise. There are clearly a lot more MMO's out there than you'd think. This track is from their episode 114 highlight of tracks on the move, aptly named "Vroom vroom". One of the hosts, Syp, plays the track unromantically named "Smuggler Track S Two" from GTA Online and it... is... AMAZING.

To me it perfectly evokes the feeling of driving on an empty desert road in the middle of the night, with no one to hold you company but the darkness and your own thoughts (possibly something smugglers do a lot). It does what all excellent music does and whisks me away to a completely different place, I zone out when I listen to this. It's like it's written note by note for me. I don't want to call favorites in my first ever VGM highlights post but yeah... this is probably one of the best VGM I've heard all year.

That's it for this month so stay tuned for whatever December will churn out!

Friday, November 23, 2018

Borderlands (PC) - Review

In the Borderlands of fun.

I've been on a streak of completing games that have been high on my "to-play"-list for many years, and I must say it feels good. Borderlands is no different, I've been meaning to play it ever since I first saw my now-ex bf play it back when it was released in 2009. Back then I was neck-deep into WoW though and had little time for any other game, something I've mentioned many times before and basically what I've been trying to rectify since.

Watching over the shoulder of my ex, I liked the way Borderlands looked. While I thought the intro gavethe impression of the game being a bit try-hard, it looked like it had some fun shooting and looting going for it. Having tried it now though, nine years later, I can say that whether you have any fun in Borderlands really depends on how you play it.

Borderlands is essentially the simplest kind of shooter. Ever heard of Space Invaders? Yeah, it's actually not many steps removed from that. You can pick from four different classes - Soldier, Sniper, Siren and Berserker. Note that I've only played the game as a Soldier so obviously this review is limited to that viewpoint. I have a tendency to choose what many say to be the most "boring" class, so maybe I should reroll and give it another go. Unfortunately what I experienced as a soldier gives me no desire to do so.

Graphics have changed a bit though.

Not that Borderlands is an awful game, even if I am really making it sound that way right now. It's just very... meh. It was difficult not to compare it to Fallout 3 and New Vegas, because they both take place in a post-apocalyptic setting with a lot of different gear, wonky characters to meet and zany enemies to fight. While Fallout 3 and New Vegas definitely also has its flaws, that's a whole 'nother post, suffice to say that a lot of the things they have got in common mostly work in Fallout and not so much in Borderlands.

What kind of things for instance?

Well, Borderlands is loot-heavy. A lot revolves around gathering or purchasing new gear and comparing it to already existing gear. Unfortunately you rarely get excited about any of it because they all feel pretty same-y. Maybe this is where the different classes come in? As a soldier I was pretty much limited to just using arms (not the ones you flail with, the ones you shoot with) but as I understood it it's not much different with the other classes, just which weapons you choose to use. In Fallout, I often use pretty much every weapon I come across at some point, giving me a lot of variety in how I choose to tackle an enemy. Here, I found that there was really only two types worth using - one spray and pray for close combat and one sniper gun for far away. The only time I swapped was because I ran out of ammo.

It's raining guns.

There are skills to put points in, but they don't feel like they make much of a difference really. Some of them are even specifically for multiplayer, and therefore pointless (pun intended) if you're playing at it alone. This says a lot about the game actually, and I will get back to this.

You'll meet NPC's, most notably probably the Claptraps (who along with the guy who seems to threaten to kill himself, because that's cool, are the faces of the game), and fight a lot of monsters, but the game is really struggling to make me care. There are also little details that just doesn't make me feel like the world is real (which is obviously a tricky word to use with something that is technically not actually real). While some things I do have a permanent effect on the surrounding, they are few and far between. Most locations are only available through teleports and so feel more like stages than actual sites. Most places in Fallout are seamlessly connected, you open a door to the subways or a vault and you are there without a loading screen in between that teleports you to a new location. It makes a world of difference for immersion, at least for me. Borderlands is just a whole bunch of disconnected areas for you to do quests in and that makes everything you meet and fight in them feel disconnected as well.

Not only that, you interact with the areas in the exact same way every time you return. Enemies come charging at you in the exact same way every time you turn the same corner. If you play this game often enough I am sure you could play it blind-folded, because there will be literally no surprises.

The DLC I tried were just more of the same.

And the quests themselves are never particularly inspired, at least not the lot I came across during my total of 14 hours played. While in Fallout you can find some really weird and memorable quest chains, in the eight hours I managed to get myself to play singleplayer of Borderlands I can't recall a single quest I did except for "kill named supermob X". It really wasn't much different in multiplayer either. Also, something I sort of have mentioned already, the quests seem to have little effect on the surroundings. Killing off a tribe of bandits or the beforementioned supermob doesn't mean the tribe or the moblings will be gone or changed in any meaningful way. They will still be there the next time you pass through, as if you hadn't done anything to them.

Even if I might be exaggerating reality a bit, this is exactly how it feels when you play the game - as if everything is just a giant Sisyphos project and you are struggling without a purpose. What is the goal of the game anyway? I have no idea actually. If there was a main quest chain in there somewhere, it completely failed to catch my interest.

Graphically I was happy to see what felt like a fresh take with the cel-shading, and I am sure the game would've only felt even more dull without it. While it only emphasizes the promise that Borderlands makes and can never deliver, because the game definitely looks like it could be a lot of fun, it's still one of the better components of the game. I mostly enjoyed the enemy designs as well, both gameplay wise and aesthethically. It's interesting then that combat still manages to be overall quite boring, but that wasn't down to the enemies or how they acted as such. Instead I put it down to the beforementioned issue of repetitiveness. While a fight with a group of enemies could be fun the first and second time, when you ran into them the tenth time and knew exactly what was coming, the fun had definitely worn off. And to show that the circle always is complete, I read reviews of Fallout 76 and find that a lot of the critique of that game reminds me of the problems with this game, at least regarding world-building.

Overall Borderlands left me with a feeling of almost wanting to be mindless. And maybe this isn't trying to be a memorable or awe-inspiring experience, it's supposed to just be some thoughtless run and gun fun! In many ways that takes me back to my comment about Space Invaders. You'll see and fight the same enemies over and over and maybe that is supposed to be the fun - you're simply not supposed to have to think much about what you do. And I would never have realized that might be the case if it wasn't for a funny coincidence.

The graphics are pretty much the only thing that makes the world come alive, at least a little bit.

After having played Borderlands for eight hours on my own, I decided to give it another couple of hours to wow me before I uninstalled it and moved on. As I was playing that final push, one of my oldest and best friends asked me on Steam if he could join me. Sure thing, I thought, it can only make the game better, surely.

And I was correct. The multiplayer skills in singleplayer mode had already given me the hint that this game didn't seem designed for singleplayer experiences at all. Running around with someone you enjoy playing with, allowing you to heroically save each other from gunfire or death and discuss which loot should go to which person really made all the difference. Most games are made better when played with a friend but that doesn't necessarily mean a game can't have a fun singleplayer mode, like Heroes of Might and Magic 2 and 3. Here I'd say the difference between singleplayer and multiplayer fun is almost as profound as in a Mario Party game.

But in the end Borderlands still suffers from a great lack of depth. It seems to try to mask this by showering you in loot like some sort of Diablo-clone and let you talk to wonky characters that still manage to leave no impression. Throughout my game time with Borderlands I never once thought "oh I just need to do this" or "I wonder what happens next" or even "huh, that's cool". When I play a game like Pokémon I'll look at the time and wonder what happened to the last two hours. With this I look at the time and wonder how it's only been twenty minutes.

In before someone chimes in "you should use this and that mod though"; firstly I am against a game needing mods to even be fun and secondly I really don't think mods could've fixed the issues that made the game tedious in the first place.

If you happen to have a buddy and you're looking for a game you haven't played together yet and you can find this cheap, then sure, I think it could provide you with a decent amount of fun for a decent amount of time. Otherwise, there is a lot better things you can do with your time. Play Borderlands 2 maybe?

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Lifeless Planet (PC) - Review

Joyless Planet
With zpoilerz.

I don't know guys... This one was a bit difficult for me to write, because I want to say nice things about it but I just... can't.

Let's see if I can find somewhere to start. I am a pretty big sci-fi nerd. Put the word "space" or "planet" or any other astronomical phenomenon in your product and I will probably be interested. I am pretty sure that is how I got my eyes on Lifeless Planet. Apparently I must've let the name woo me enough to buy it, because I did not read the plot synopsis on Steam, nor watch any images, revealing that you find a Russian town on this lifeless planet and thought that was a genuine plot twist (albeit about three minutes into the game) at first. While it's not a plot twist as such, uncovering why there is a Russian town on the planet is one of the driving forces of the story.

50 shades of brown.

You play as an American astronaut who wakes up after crash landing on a planet that you've been travelling towards with two colleagues. They're gone and you're about to suffocate. Good thing you've got the solution to that problem in your immediate vicinity and it literally takes no effort. That should be your first hint that this game isn't what you hoped for it to be, but you will trek on. You will think "oh boy, this place is ugly and boring to look at, but it's lifeless so that makes sense I guess". Maybe that will even make you excuse the fact that the game is sporting basically Playstation level graphics. Not Playstation 4 mind you, PSOne. Graphics are often the last thing I care about as long as they're functional enough to play the game, and here they work well enough in that regard. What I often forget about tedious graphics however is that they can make a tedious game even more tedious. See what I did there? Repetition is tedious.

Pretty immediately after you set off to find your lost colleagues you encounter buildings that look strangely familiar. They're clearly built by humans, so now you've got two mysteries on your hands. Why is the planet lifeless (because of course you didn't set out to explore a lifeless planet) and who got here before you? It takes another two seconds (I am exaggerating, but not by much) to find out that the Russians got here some decades before you through some portal. Sounds pretty promising right? Unfortunately that is as good as it is going to get.

Yay, platforming.

The major problem with this game is that it just doesn't know what it wants to be. If it had settled on being a walking-simulator á la Gone Home or What Remains of Edith Finch and just focused on the story I think this could've had a lot of potential. But for some reason they've thrown in platforming. So much platforming. So much pointless platforming. Pointless because it's hardly ever a challenge and it always feels as just a way to make you travel from point A to point B or from unrealistically placed audiolog to unrealistically placed audiolog.

I usually love audiologs. I know a lot of people don't and think they're overused at this point. That's bullcrap, I think they're still a great way to convey story - but that doesn't mean you can just let them lay around anywhere you think it's time to continue the story-bit of your game. This game does this all the time though, and it's just structured so badly. You'll get to a platforming part and right before it you receive a tool to traverse through and right after the tool is snatched away again (until next platforming bit where it is specifically needed) and now it's time for some more story-telling so let's leave an audiolog lying around in the middle of nowhere for the player to find. It feels forced and unnatural game-design wise.

I think the bad structuring of the game is affecting the structuring of this blog post.

You'll get another tool that will allow you to move rocks from a little crevace to another crevace and that feels pointless too because there is just no challenge to it. Imagine if in the Mario games there was a switch that you needed to stand on at the end of each stage before you could enter goal. Not out of range or hard to get to or anything, just right there next to the goal.

And here is an invisible wall, preventing me from going in this direction.

A couple of times you'll get the prompt "NEW OBJECTIVE: You're running out of oxygen, find an oxygen source before you run out". This could've been interesting if it wasn't solved by the oxygen source often being only a few steps away. I have literally no idea what the purpose of these sections are.

The story is the best part of Lifeless Planet, but it's not given any time to grow, shine or even make much sense. And there is so much potential here, but other than the nameless protagonist and a Russian alienplantwoman (don't ask) there are no characters and even these two are as flat as a sheet of paper. The astronaut has a subplot about his wife that also doesn't amount to anything. Apparently, before the astronaut leaves for his mission, she goes missing in the forest by their house and when he finds her unconscious, moss has started to grow on her toes. How long has she been unconscious for?! But this doesn't lead anywhere or affect the game in any way. Maybe it is meant to make us understand the astronaut's choice to leave Earth and venture into space and... I really have to struggle to over-analyze the thinly slized pieces of story that we're gotten here. Each new revelation is thrown at you without much or anything inbetween making them feel grossly under-explained. This is actually well illustrated by the fact that after most of the cut-scenes you are inexplicably thrown into a completely different area and it's always very confusing. In one instance it's even suddenly night. Or the fact that you'll find random buildings and other derelict structures standing around without any consistency or sense of realism.

You never once feel like you're walking a planet that has been through what the audiologs tells you, every part feels like it's been designed to give you the next platforming "challenge". Over and over the game fails both at the story-telling, because it just doesn't sell the story with its setting, and the platforming because it just doesn't hold any challenge.

Here are some other random annoyances;
  • Why do you have a "Save & Quit" option when it doesn't actually save? You'll be thrown back to the nearest checkpoint, which admittedly rarely is far off, but also almost always means you have to replay some part and thus is the opposite of the meaning of "save".
  • Why can't I strafe? With all that walking you'll really miss a strafe option.
  • This game has way too much running. All the platforming just feels like you're running, and in-between the platforming there is more running. It took me 5 hours to finish and it could've been done in two with some tighter writing and a whole lot less unnecessary platforming. It most likely would've left much less of a "meh" aftertaste too.

Similar concepts, completely different results.

I feel like this game really wants to be Another World, with its mysterious otherworldly setting and one-hit kill platforming challenges, but it fails in execution. Like I said in the beginning, I want to say some nice things about it too though. The checkpoints are very generous, which is nice because even though the platforming isn't challenging you'll die plenty from clunky controls and/or hard to judge distances. Oh, guess I went back to complaining again.

I really like the soundtrack, which actually puts down a great ambient sound that helps you endure all the brownish graphics you're about to experience. And Bob Carter who voices the astronaut has such a nice voice I really wish he had a lot more lines than he does.

Interestingly enough, Stage 2 Studios that made the game aren't your average game studio. Looking at their homepage (they don't have a wikipage from what I could find), they seem to be focusing on science-apps and movies and Lifeless Planet is meant as a way to promote interest in science and space-exploration. Well I am sorry to say, that is probably one of the last things it does!

For some reason I decided to finish this game, and I think that was purely on the fact that it was basically just to run through. But those are still five hours I actually wish I had put into something else. Here's a suggestion; Develop that story into a novel and I will gladly spend five hours reading it while listening to the soundtrack.