Thursday, January 31, 2019

VGM Highlights - January 2019

We've already gone through the first month of the new year, time flies and all that. January can be a bit of a drag, so here are some nice tunes I've come across to light up your dark (if you're situated in the northern hemisphere at least).

First up is something that wasn't new to me, but something I had forgotten about - the great Terranigma soundtrack (and I love being reminded of great soundtracks just as much as I love finding new ones). I have a lot of great memories of Terranigma, and episode #5 of the Singing Mountain podcast dedicated to forest themes, played the forest theme from Terranigma. It's just one of those tunes that makes me all fuzzy warm inside;

Secondly, a track I am almost certain I heard not that long ago on a different podcast, but alas that was before I started these posts. The Diad Presents: A VGM Podcast plays the track "Level 2" from M.C Kids in his episode 33, "Jad the Taff", and it's just such a lovely, bouncy, happy tune that'll definitely make you smile through a snow storm;

I guess I am into happy tunes this month, because another one I want to mention is Robo Factory from The Sims Online, heard in The Battle Bards 130 "Oddballs 2" episode. I've never played any of The Sims games and never wanted to, but I couldn't help but enjoy this funny tune.

And last but absolutely not least is an incredibly cool tune named "Ekans Desert" (presumably completely unrelated to the Pokémon) from the shmupp Project S-11. VGMBassy Episode 2 brings us this one in a great episode, guested by composer Jredd who has also done the intro tune for the VGMBassy podcast, and that one is pretty dang great too. Ekans Desert is a tune that demands your attention. It's almost like a living being, I love how it transforms over the course of the track and how absolutely beautifully it uses the GBC sound. It's one of those tracks I would use as an example if someone asked me what kind of video game music I like (and I have done that already actually).

That's it for this month, but I am going to throw in something special here, a VGM podcast episode recommendation. This month I'm going to suggest the Supernatural episode from Rhythm & Pixels, where Rob and Pernell are guested by VGMBassy host Ed to talk about the Supernatural tv-series and play VGM inspired by the show. Even to someone like me who hasn't watched a single episode of Supernatural, this was a really fun episode to listen to and their joy for the show really shines through and they've got some interesting VGM picks as well.
See ya in February with more great VGM!

Monday, January 28, 2019

Return of the Obra Dinn (PC) - Review

A Fantastic Voyage
Definitely spoilers!

Some games have great gameplay, some games have great stories. Some games are memorable just because of their unique and/or peculiar premise. And some games have all of that. Return of the Obra Dinn is such a game.

How do you even begin to describe it? Someone used the phrase "murder-sudoku" and I find it fits so well I am stealing it. So the long version is that Return of the Obra Dinn (ROD) is about you finding out what happened on the boat Obra Dinn, as it sails into port with no one aboard. Officially your reason for doing this is to pay out insurance claims, but really you're just curious about what macabre finds the ship holds. You find some bodies on board, but without your magical pocket watch that allows you to see the final moments of whatever dead person you find, you wouldn't be able to guess what actually went down on the Obra Dinn. The ship started out with a manifest of 60 people, and the goal is to figure out what happened to all of them. The game only gives you clear advice on a dozen or so of the fates, the rest need to be surmised and in the end even straight up guessed. Not only do you have to figure out what happened to each person, but also who they are and who did it to them (when applicable, not everyone is murdered).

Short version, it's like Clue but with 60 people instead of one. Or like I said, murder-sudoku. Because as you travel through the ship and find out about different fates, you slowly realize where people must've been and when. It's a pretty ingenious idea and it's executed very well.

Clue, not just a good board game but also an entertaining movie

The game is designed by Lucas Pope of Papers, Please fame - a game I have not tried but that I definitely have a lot more interest for now. When I was reading about that and all I understood about it was that "you're a clerk handling immigration papers" it didn't exactly strike me as particularly thrilling. The great reviews told me that I was probably wrong, and in the end my main reason for not playing it was the tragic subject matter. Either way, it seems like Pope has an eerie knack for turning what sounds like a bit of a lackluster premise into a highly entertaining and thought-provoking game.

Not only is ROD a fun game to play, it's permeated by some really clever design choices that of course add to the overall impression.

For instance, graphically it is very simplistic, using something apparently called "1-bit graphics" that really have to be experienced to fully appreciate. Think old Mac games like Shuffle Puck Café and you've got a good idea. By using your magical pocket watch in places where someone has died, you can see the fate of that person. Each fate is presented by a black screen and sounds - often talking, some times just effects - and then a freeze-screen of the moment of death in which you can move and look around. This means nothing (or at least not anything I remember) is actually animated in the entire game, and yet stays very effectful and informative. If you think this sounds dull, when playing it you quickly realize that any other way would've detracted from the experience. This is the best way to tell this story. By just getting these snippets of clues (sound, an image of death) you're given just barely enough to figure out what is going on in each instance.

Never got past the second guy.

The game then allows you to fill out the information in a book you're carrying - who was this person, what happened to them and who did it to them? With 60 people to choose from and a plethora of ways to die to choose from, it is no easy task. The game will tell you when you're right only when you've got three fates correct at the same time, so just randomly guessing won't get you very far in the beginning (but might be necessary towards the last fates).

The sound effects are a big part of what drives the game, both gameplay wise and in terms of quality. It definitely helps if you have general knowledge of things like accents and boat terminology, because they will help you a lot in determining who people are. It's such a great feeling when you can figure out that a certain person has to be the Swede because he says something in Swedish. Pope is kind enough to include a glossary for the most common terms, and it's useful because I had never heard of a "bosun" before. Of course this game will also fuel your prejudices as you try to find the "Indian looking guy" based on an Indian sounding name in the ship crew manifest.

The game also unfolds in a good pace and you will never wonder where you need to go next. Only once did I get stuck because I am an idiot who thought I had opened every door, but hadn't. While the fates start out with some pretty ordinary murdery stuff, as you travel further down the decks you will find that the Obra Dinn and its crew has been through some pretty zany stuff. There were many times when I went "what the..." and for the longest time I thought Pope was almost comically exaggerating, but it all wraps up to mostly make sense in the end. This is a game best played going in blind because once you know what happens a lot of the fun factor is taken out of it.

There are several colour palettes to choose from if black and white don't do it for you.

So is this game entirely without flaws? No, there was one thing I had some trouble with. While guessing who everyone was in the ship manifest was a great and well balanced challenge, trying to figure out what exactly happened to them was sometimes just impossible. How do you distinguish between a strangling or a beheading (it might seem obvious, but isn't always)? How do you know if someone was "knifed" or "cut with a sword". How do I know if someone was drowned by a beast or just drowned? Was someone crushed by the cargo or the rigging that held the cargo?

This is my only, minor, issue I had with the game though. Everything else is so well designed it is pure joy to play through. When the game told me to wrap up (as it will) I almost said "Awww, I don't wanna" out loudly. Not because the game feels too short, but because you want to spend more time with it.

I managed to figure out 36 fates entirely on my own and roughly another 10-15 people without their cause of death. The rest I had to use a guide for and there is definitely reason to try to get all the fates correct as I found out. If you don't, you get what I would call the "bad ending" that doesn't allow you to see the entire story of the ship. As mentioned you'll get clues for the vast majority, some clues are basically give-aways and some are extremely subtle. The last couple of ones have to be guessed based on deduction. Anyone who manages to figure it all out by themselves are frakkin' Sherlock Holmes' in my book.

Return of the Obra Dinn is one of those games that just does everything right (my minor issue seriously barely worth mentioning). It will entertain you, it will make you think and it will almost certainly give you an experience that you haven't quite had before. Just like when you find a really good book or movie, it'll leave you with a feeling of happiness over having done something that was genuinely fun and so worthwhile.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Thoughts on Star Trek Discovery S2E2 "New Eden"

Spoilers spoilers!

Episode 2 does a good job of setting in motion whatever it is this season is going to be about. Wow, that sounded extremely vague though. To recap, Discovery has started to investigate some mysterious signals and Christopher Pike of TOS reference is the captain. Last episode ends with us finding out that Spock is up to something, and this episode pretty much begins with us finding out what that is.

It turns out that Spock has somehow known about these signals long before they were picked up by the Federation, and Burnham finds out he decided to go into a mental institution because of it. Before they can go and talk to Spock about how he knows about the signals, they find another one. This one is in the Beta Quadrant however and they realize it would take them generations of time to get there. If only they had something that allowed them to jump anywhere in the galaxy instantly? Hmmm…

Stamets was about to leave last episode but has now changed his mind. He wanted to leave because everything reminded him of Hugh, now he wants to stay because he thinks Hugh might be somewhere in the spore drive, or something. Either way, they jump to where the signal is and find an Earth-like planet with actual humans on it. There is also a distress call coming from the planet that they somehow can hear has been running for 200 years. But that's longer than humanity has been able to use the warp-drive?! How did the humans get there? Also, when they look down there they don't see anyone who seems to be in distress.

Aliens, that's how. Or at least it's heavily insinuated. Pike first decides that because the humans are pre-warp, the Prime Directive is in effect. Or Operational Directive 1 as he calls it (I think that's what he said). Burnham disagrees and this turns into an interesting discussion, which I will say more about further down. He secondly decides that they need to take an away-team down to the surface to find out what is up with the distress call so he goes with Burnham and Owosekun. Finally we get to see some more of someone from the bridge.

When they get to the surface they go to the church-like building from where the signal comes and find that the people seem to be following some sort of mish-mash religion, using many of the main religions of Earth. When the people of the planet discover them, they pretend to be visitors from another territory, but one of the natives isn't so easily fooled. The away-team first takes part in an exposition heavy welcoming where we find out that their ancestors seem to have been brought to this planet, church and all, by some mysterious beings. 

Meanwhile Tilly tries to mine a bit of the meteor they harvested in the last episode but it turns out it has extreme gravity and is extremely volatile and almost kills her. Then the people back on Discovery also notice that there is going to be a massive radioactive fallout from the rings surrounding the planet, causing a planet wide extinction within the hour. Saru comes to the conclusion that this might have been what the signal was all about and they try to save the natives and the away team (which can't be beamed out because of interference). Tilly in sick bay has a discussion with some odd character about how to solve the situation and comes up with the idea to use the high-gravity meteor piece to pull all the of the ring away from the planet. In an extremely complicated and risky move they pull it off. Which means they don't have the meteor anymore, I guess?

As the away team rummage around the church basement to find out more about how the native humans got there, the suspicious native confronts them. He basically tells them he knows they're from a space ship, but Pike insists he's wrong. The native throws a stun grenade at them and then locks them in the basement and steals their technology. He uses this to try to convince the other natives that he is right, but they don't want to listen. The away team manages to get out of the basement and try to explain the situation. Then Pike gets mortally wounded by whatever the writer could come up with first an exploding phaser and they have to teleport out, witnessed by some of the natives. Diabolus ex machina?

Pike has a discussion with Burnham about the natives on the planet. Burnham is of the opinion that the people deserve to be brought into the fold of modern Earth, Pike means that they have split from Earths evolution and are on their own path. I find this to be an interesting discussion as we can see the same thing happening right here among us right now. We still have societies who are completely (or as much as you can be in these times) cut off from so called modern society, and the general opinion seems to be to leave them be. While I don't have an opinion one way or the other because I am simply not informed enough, I can definitely see arguments for bringing these people into modern healthcare and education. Are we depriving them of a full life? Who gets to decide what that even means? They haven't chosen not to be part of our society and modern amenities, as such, they don't even know of them. But once they do know of them, there is no going back. These people have never come into contact with many modern diseases, so there is of course a very real health risk, but it's still not an easy question I think. Either way we are making a decision on their behalf without knowing or even being able to find out what they would want.

They also mention "Clarkes third law", which is "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.". Apparently it has been re-worked into something about "any alien sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from God". I didn't quite understand the meaning of this scene though.

Burnham makes the argument that whatever the signals are about has precedence over the Prime Directive and it turns out Pike agrees because he decides to go back down to the surface to tell the suspicious native the truth. In return he gets camera footage saved from the original ascension ie abduction ie relocating of humans to a planet in the Beta Quadrant for mysterious reasons. The video footage really doesn't tell us anything they hadn't showed already in the episode already though.
We also find out that the weird character Tilly has been talking to is actually a long dead friend of hers. So is she also hallucinating? I say also because Burnham has already seen the weird angel-aliens that seemingly took the Terralysians (as the planet is called Terralysium) there and Stamets sees Hugh here and there.

Terralysium is nothing like this though.

Overall the episode has an interesting premise (how did humans end up tens of thousands of lightyears from Earth without warp and why?) but as usual it feels like they try to cram a lot into one episode. This isn't necessarily something out of the ordinary for Star Trek though. Some of the episode has some sloppy writing though. For instance to save the life on the planet from annihilation, Stamets has to get from the Bridge to the Spore Drive and jump in 2 minutes. There is just no way that can happen and it would've literally been as easy to fix as just say any other (larger) number. Why 2 minutes? Why not 10? It's sufficiently stressful and still believable.

It's also very oddly edited in places, with a lot of cutting back and forth between characters who are having conversations, panning shots of people and multiple shots of the same person in the same scene which just irks me. It's actually directed by Jonathan Frakes of Riker-fame and he has done some really good episodes so I don't know what happened here. 

I'm really liking Anson Mount's Christopher Pike though and the episode was entertaining enough. It was better for driving the bigger story-arch forward than the individual parts that took place within it , but it points towards something grander and more interesting that almost gave me The Expanse vibes. That is definitely not a bad thing.

And as we haven't gotten the latest season over here in Sweden, I need all the Expanse fix I can get.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Thoughts on Star Trek Discovery S2E1 "Brother"

Loads of spoilers as usual!

While half the internet is upset over the Gillette ad, the other half is upset over the fact that I haven't posted this yet. Actually, the fact that I haven't got around to watching the new season of STD (I think we agreed it wasn't going to be called STD for obvious reasons, but I can't remember what acronym people went with. A quick Google later I see one version is DSC) gave me reason to think. DSC has completely vacated my mind since it ended a bit under a year ago. Part of that might be because the bf gave me a ST Voyager box for my birthday (which is in April) and I have slowly been making my way through rewatching that, sort of filling my Star Trek needs. Me and my baby daughter watch half an episode here and there when she decides to wake up at 6 am, she probably thinks Janeway is her real mother now. But then when I was on Netflix I saw that a new episode of DSC had been released and I was like "ohh yeah, DSC was a thing". It still took me two more days before I got around to watching it because even though I enjoyed season 1 well enough, I just wasn't that hyped for season 2 anymore (and then it took me another day to finish this post, because I always write more than I intend to).

A bit of humour is inserted in the series with this scene.

But I've watched it now and I am glad I did because it didn't feel like a waste of my time. That's always a good thing, right?

The episode starts with the mandatory flashback to season 1. And it's a bit funny to think back to season 1 after you've watched this episode because they seem completely, or at least almost completely, unrelated. If I think back to the other Star Trek series there are, like TOS, VOY or DS9, they all have a bigger story arch that motivates the series and underlying stories. TOS has its 5 year mission. VOY needs to get back to earth. DS9 is next to a worm hole with all that entails. What is the goal of DSC though? It seemed to be to fight the Klingons and then suddenly we were thrown into the mirror universe and the whole Klingon thing sort of died off somewhere. And so did the mirror universe arch very quickly. And now we seem to be into something completely else. But I am sure it will all tie in at some point. But for this episode we seem to be off for something new.

It starts with a lot of fan service, which was already hinted at the end of S1. After a flashback to Burnham's childhood (after the flashback to season 1) in which we see a child Spock, Discovery gets hailed by the Enterprise and its captain Christopher Pike, who of course was the captain there before Kirk. I'm not sure how much Pike had of a backstory before, but I find it interesting that they seem to be trying to give him a proper spot in the Star Trek canon now. If you are unfamiliar with the whole thing about Pike, I suggest you read up a bit on it.


Pike tells Discovery that he is there to take over command of the ship because they need to explore some weird signal they've found and the Enterprise has been rendered useless when trying to find out what it was. Having a new captain on board allows for some bridge exposition when Pike asks everyone to tell us their names. I wonder if this is a small hint from the creators to acknowledge that hardly anyone on the bridge was given any screen time or depth in season 1, but on the other hand they're probably not that clever... Here's to hoping we will get more character developing episodes like in every other Star Trek series to date.

As Discovery gets to the spot of the signal they find some sort of meteorite that is falling apart. Their presence seems to push the meteorite towards a pulsar, because of course it does. They also discover that a starship, the USS Hiawatha thought destroyed in the Klingon war, is actually lodged on the meteorite and Pike immediately orders for a landing party (because they can't be teleported out, that would make things too easy) to save any survivors. He is of course reminded that it is highly unlikely anyone has survived and the rescue mission itself is likely to kill everyone involved, but not only is Pike adamant to go through with it, he wants to lead it himself. Because of course he does.

It's worth noting here that Pike brings two crew members from Enterprise on to Discovery and none of them are anyone we've seen before. One of them however is a so called "red shirt" and I immediately thought that this person will die. But the episode subverted my (and probably a lot of other peoples expectations) by killing of the other guy instead. I don't want to write "nice one" right after saying someone died, so let's just say that it was cleverly written.

Fashion kills.

As they hurl down towards the surface of the meteorite in what is almost a needlessly dramatic scene, not only does one of the four members of the away team die, Pike also almost dies but Burnham manages to save him with some extreme luck. I'm no expert in physics though, but if you are falling at great speed and stop quickly, does it matter if it's against rock or by upward thrust? Surely both should be just as damaging to biological matter, it's not like Burnham is one of the Mars landers that can do that kind of thing.

On the Hiawatha they find that the engineer has stayed behind to deal with several wounded members of the crew who weren't able to join in on the evacuation. The survivors have been there for ten months and just now find out that the war with the Klingons is over. Then they all need to get the heck out of there before they get melted in a pulsar. They intend to do this by strengthening the transport signal to the teleporter and teleport everyone out. Just as they are about to leave Burnham gets knocked over however and misses the beam out. It seems like a hopeless situation but the only thing that comes out of that whole ordeal is that she discovers that the meteorite itself doesn't teleport. The implications are apparently something-something about dark matter that isn't expanded upon much in this episode. But getting to where that is revealed is yet again somewhat of a needlessly dramatic scene where it seems like Burnham is about to die. (She also gets her femur impaled but is fine a handful of hours later, because of course future medicine).

I haven't mentioned yet that Stamets says he is going to leave the Discovery because there are too many memories of Hugh, but then suddenly not? It's not entirely clear.

Overall the episode was very high energy and action and had a good pace. It was entertaining even if I felt like some of the action was shoehorned in rather than thought through, but at least it was pretty to look at. It seemed like the director had gone through a list of cinematographical tropes too, we've got the symmetry shot, the "different setting, same shot"- shot, the "extreme close up of peripheral"-shot and so many more. It's almost worth making a Bingo chart over and see how many you can spot when you watch it.

Bringing in Pike and all the mentioning of Spock (there is a reveal that Spock is off doing something stupid towards the end) brings out one of the issues I have with this series. It's lodged between the 60s aesthetics of the Original Series and the modern style that it wants to use, so it kind of uses both. We see Tilly using the "flip cover" walkie-talkies of TOS but everyone is also using the badge com of subsequent series. When Pike and his crew come on to the Discovery they are wearing a version of the uniform from TOS, but then they swap to the Discovery one. There are some neat references to TOS throughout though, like them calling it "warp factor" instead of just "warp". We also see Stamets use one of the personal holo-decks seen used by the captain of the Equinox in Star Trek Voyager season 5 episode 26, a sort of pre-cursor to the holo-decks used in series set later in time.

Pike himself seems a bit out of character though. Not that there is much of him to go on in TOS, but he comes off as a bit of a stiffie. His appearance in the Menagerie hardly counts as he doesn't do any acting, but in the original pilot and in the Star Trek movie he doesn't seem to be the down to earth, pleasant guy he is in this episode. I'm ok with that though, stiffie Pike isn't very interesting.

Another Pike.

Burnham continues to bring the same tortured expression she had throughout season 1, and I am ready to see her look a bit less constipated. But thinking of it, a lot of Star Trek characters have a "face", as in an expression they seem sort of to be stuck in, so maybe this is the one she is going with.

After having watched so much Voyager (I am on the final season) it is very interesting to see the differences between that show and this one. For now, the visuals of DSC are so bombastic I find it difficult to sift through whether that's mainly where the differences lie or if there are also broader storytelling differences. There are some I've mentioned of course, the focus on basically just the one character (Burnham) instead of multiple characters from previous series and what seems like a lack of a greater story arch (but I am sure that will materialize soon, and TNG didn't really have that either?). It's only on season 2 so it probably still doesn't dare to calm down a bit to give us some more joyful and less action-packed episodes, lest it loses our attention - but they are the episodes I am looking forward to.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery (PC) - Review

Swophisticated or Swo-Swo

It's unclear how the EP relates to the rest of the game.
One of the things I like best about indie-games is the feeling I get that a lot of them weren't made solely for the purpose of making money. Instead, I can almost believe that some were made because the creator believed in the story or experience it would give. I am sure they also hope that their game will make money, but I have so much respect for the integrity of standing behind your idea and not compromising details because you think they would work better for the mass market. I have nothing against money-grabbing triple-A titles as such, you either buy them or you don't, but I am glad there is a great variety nowadays - from the really peculiar to the extremely standard.

But in all of this I still have one rule - the game has to be fun (ok, I have some exceptions to this rule). Because if your game is mostly tedious to get through, it will probably affect the impact the story or experience has on me as well, and unlikely to the better.

And then we have a game like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. It's definitely interesting. It's cool. It's unique. It has great music and a very special art style. But is it fun though?

S:S&S is one of those games that are really more of an art project than just a game, and as such whether you're going to enjoy it or not probably comes down to how much patience you have for those kind of things. Just about everything about this game will either rub you the right way or the wrong way. Just look at the title, "sworcery". Is that a good idea, or a dumb one? EP, as in "extended play" as in a vinyl record? Cool? Or... lame? The game allows you to tweet your progress at pretty much every turn. Hip? Or annoying? This game managed to simultaneously make me think the creators knew exactly what they were doing and just tried to cram every idea they had in there.

There are people here, but they can be hard to find.

Released in 2011 for Iphone and Ipad, Wikipedia calls S:S&S an adventure game, but I thought of it more of a puzzle game. There is a story to follow, but it honestly makes no sense and my lasting feeling was rather of bumbling around trying to find the next place to interact with and to solve whatever I needed to solve there. Accompanying you is some pretty sweet music and a roster of odd characters. Sometimes something evil chases you. Something about moon phases. You can pick up mushrooms and eat them. I couldn't even try to explain what the game is really about more than that, because I can't say I understood more than that. And maybe that is just as well, as I suspect half the fun of this game is to discover it for yourself.

I first heard of S:S&S on a podcast (I can't remember which one unfortunately) and again an enthusiastic description won me over. But I was sceptical almost from the start. And I've played some odd games. The art style gets a lot of praise, but to me it was just a gloomy pixel style and really nothing special. The gameplay is probably the weakest part, but I wouldn't go all the way to saying it is bad. Walking around, talking to cryptic people with their cryptic and barely helpful dialogue, trying to decipher the world and what I am supposed to do, it was half-interesting at some times. It didn't help that the world feels pretty constricted. There aren't many things or screens to discover. For a game trying so hard to be deep it really lacked a lot of depth.

Who knows what people are trying to tell you.

The music has been praised as well, and it is very good. I even wish there would be more of it but the creators seem to be wanting to use it sparingly. I'm ok with that though because it makes it more impactful when you do get to hear it, unfortunately it has the drawback of adding to the somewhat empty feeling of the rest of the game. Jim Guthrie's soundtrack does immensely for adding atmosphere to the game however, I would say this is where the game nails whatever it is that it's trying to achieve and tell you (I don't know what it is, but it must be that). Either way you end up thinking about this game you should really give the game OST a listen.

As this game wants you to connect with social media, I thought it only suitable to seek out some other thoughts on this and went to check out some Youtube comments (always the best source of human greatness, slash end sarcasm). I was actually surprised to see how many people were saying a lot of the same things I was thinking regarding this game.

I couldn't finish this game. I got about half-way through before I got stuck and there was something about moon-phases and more cryptic information and I leant back in my chair and had to think about whether I thought continuing was worth my time. Did I really want to know what was going to happen next? Not really. Instead, I decided to enjoy the soundtrack on Youtube and move on in my game library.

In the end I can't bring myself to tell people not to play this game though. It's a divider, and it probably has to be experienced for you to really know if you think it goes down as an extremely memorable and eye-opening experience or not. It's a bit like the movie Donnie Darko that way. It's either cool-weird or just silly-weird. Neither of those options have to be good nor bad, it probably mostly comes down to your mood the day you decide to play this, because while a lot of the Youtube comments were like the ones above, there were plenty like this one as well.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Mount & Blade (PC) - Review

Be the hero the land deserves

When I was but a wee lass, I played a shareware game called Escape Velocity on my Mac and I absolutely loved it. I know I've mentioned it a couple of times before. In it you play as the captain of a spaceship, with all of space at your feet. How you want your space-story to unfold is pretty much up to you. You can stick around in the safer regions of space and get rich by trading (like I used to play it as a kid) or you can get yourself an armada and go kick some space-pirate behind. Or become a space-pirate yourself. Either way, it's a game that opens up by giving you free reigns and slowly but suredly you discover your way through it. But why am I talking about Escape Velocity when this is a review of Mount & Blade? Because Mount & Blade is essentially Escape Velocity, but in a feudal-medieval setting instead.

I know that comparison probably won't help anyone understand how fun Mount & Blade game is, since I don't think anyone has played EV but me, but it was such a pleasant surprise for me when I started playing Mount & Blade. M&B is one of those games I at some point decided to play pretty much based solely on someone else's recommendation of it. I can't even remember who it was or where it was, but I read such a passionate tale of M&B (albeit the Warband edition) that I felt like I just needed to give it a shot. I am glad I didn't read up more on the game beforehand, because I normally avoid sandbox-style games without a storyline. M&B is a sandbox game that tricks you into thinking there is a storyline.

World map doesn't offer much to feast your eyes on

You start out as a person with a horse and some money (and I suspect I only got the horse because of some character creation option I chose in the beginning). Around you is land, villages and cities. No one tells you what to do, so you probably head to the nearest village to see what there is to do. Once there you learn that you can recruit fighters, talk with the village elder or for instance do some trading. You've got nothing to trade so you decide to recruit some fighters, unsure what for yet. You leave and get attacked by some bandits hiding in the nearby forest. You and your new crew of scrubs meet them head-on in a glorious battle and win. You get some loot. Your recruits get some experience and become better fighters. You decide to go sell some of the loot and buy some better gear for yourself. You recruit more fighters. You fight more bandits. You decide to help some village elders with their quests, like bringing food or cattle. You level and gain the ability to take prisoners. You come across a big faction fight at a castle, decide to join in with your now sizeable group of trained and veteran warriors and manage to take a nobleman captive. People offer you a lot of money in ransom for him. You decide to join one of the factions in their war against another faction, in the hope to gain more experience, gear, warriors, glory and so on...

The above short-story is pretty much how my game went on. I didn't mention the occasional setback I had, like when I got attacked by a much bigger army from the opposing faction, and stubbornly decided to grind my entire group of fighters down against it instead of taking my losses and flee. I was too proud and my men had to pay the price. How your story would unfold in M&B could and probably would be completely different, at least to some extent.

Inventory screen couldn't be more clear

Something I found very refreshing about M&B is that it favours the bold. While you start out as an absolutely newb with no knowledge of anything, the game quickly rewards your curiosity. Taking calculated chances often pays off. While the game may come off as obtuse the first hour, when you know nothing about the gameplay and might feel deterred by its openness, it unfolds itself so brilliantly in front of you that it's easy and fun to take the next step and the next. While I had to look up a few things (like how to herd the damn cattle), most things are discovered simply by trying and I absolutely love a game that can pull that off in a satisfying way. Throughout your game you will see terms and items and wonder what they do or how you use them and before long, just by trying, you will figure it out. It takes me right back to how games used to be played twenty years ago, when walkthroughs weren't readily available and we had all the time in the world to experiment and try ourselves. M&B managed to pull this off with someone like me, who has limited time to play and endless options if I get bored.

M&B is the kind of game that puts its eggs in all the right baskets. Don't get me wrong, it is ugleh and the area you run around in would be considered tiny by today's standards (and even by 2008's standards, as that was the year we got GTA IV and Fallout 3). It also basically has no music (unless I had unknowingly unticked some box somewhere). Instead, it focuses entirely on fun, well designed and especially deep gameplay, proving at the same time that in the end that is basically all that matters. A good example is the combat, that range from you vs a few ambushers and your army vs some other dudes army. Some times you've got what feels like hundreds of people fighting at the same time (but is closer to dozens, still impressive). While the fights aren't pretty to look at they just feel so right. While I have never actually ridden a horse in real life, if I were to venture a guess it must feel exactly like it does in M&B. When I first got to try it, I was completely blown away by how some ugly pixels on a screen could make it feel so real. You can decide yourself if you want to cowardly swing at your enemies from a horseback like me, run into battle with a spear or master horseback archery, to mention just a few options. Riding into battle and striking down your foes is so fun and satisfying it's never once gotten boring over the course of my so far 17 hours played, whether I was fighting five lost forest bandits or the 100-man strong army of an enemy lord.

People are surprisingly willing to risk their lives to join your cause

Like mentioned, M&B nails the joy of discovery and learning, making sure to throw you another curve ball just when you thought you knew what there was to do. Then you discover that you can recruit named characters, and that they level up with stats like you do. They even have their own personalities, that can clash, or jive, with other named characters in your group. You discover that you can put endless hours just into becoming a master of trade, because some people will pay a lot more for wool than you paid for it. You'll get missions like sneaking into cities, capture noblemen or just deliver messages. You wonder whether the lord of the land will hunt you down if you raid a village for supplies, or attack a merchant caravan. You discover that you have it in you to become a cruel tax collector, squeezing the farmers for their last pennies just to make your lord proud. I read somewhere you can even own your own land and castle, but I hadn't gotten that far when I decided to write this review.

It employs a "move when you move"-principle, meaning that time stands still when you do. Around you, as you move around the map, others agents such as lords, caravans, deserters and bandits will roam around with their own goals. You'll see that so-and-so has fled a battle or been taken captive, or that a certain city is under siege (allowing you to come join the fun if you feel up to it). A lord who has given you a mission will rarely stay around for you to come back and claim your reward, he has his own life to live and I've had to hunt certain people for (in-game) days before I could find where they had run off to next. The world around you feels alive and it doesn't feel scripted (except maybe the village elders who stand out waiting for you 24/7). It feels like everyone you meet couldn't care less whether you lived or died, you are not the hero of this story unless you make yourself the hero. And you don't have to. You can probably get very far just being a dang good trader in a little corner of the map, if that is your cup of tea.

The village elder is always the old guy who stands around outdoors, day and night

And I am no expert on sandbox games, seeing as I tend to avoid them, but I am pretty sure that is one of the defining factors - allowing you to go big or small, finding your own way through and not only allowing you, but enticing you to experiment and rewarding you when you do.

To be fair, if you were to seek this game out it's probably better to go straight to the Warband expansion, which as I understood it is Mount & Blade but with a lot of enhancements. In fact, I found it hard to find information or images that aren't from Warband, because I guess only idiots like me play it Vanilla nowadays. I am also happy to hear that there is a proper sequel in the works - Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord. That's a sandbox game I am definitely not going to miss out on.