Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Choose Your Own Adventure

 Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? Sure you do. Bet you haven't actually played one in years though. Neither had I until I stumbled across one because I was looking for something else.

I am a big fan of the Judge Dredd series and I am currently collecting the ever-long Complete Case Files series (I've only made it to book 6 out of 42 and I think they are still being released). If you've never heard of Judge Dredd... well that is just impossible. Sylvester Stallone did that very 90's action movie as the titular hero (completely butchering it yet still an entertaining watch) and you've definitely seen that (you should also watch the other Judge Dredd movie with Karl Urban which is also great). Other than that you don't really need to know more than he's a British comic book character from the 70's, with the comic still running. And I love it. In post-apocalyptic Mega City 1 literally anything can happen and the stories are wonderfully entertaining social commentaries while also exploring the human nature. Judge Dredd himself is also simply the coolest protagonist of any comic, I'll fight you for it.

So while looking for more Judge Dredd comics to throw my money at I found out that they had released the Complete Dice Man which is a collection of Choose Your Own Adventure series originally published in the 80's. The cover has Judge Dredd on it. I had to get that, of course. Judge Dredd only makes up one out of 15 of the stories in the book however, but it's a great one.

In it Judge Dredd has to go into a creepy mansion to face one of his most formidable foes, the Dark Judges lead by Judge Death, who is just as peachy as the name suggests. If you've seen the Hellraiser movies, you can think of them as a type of Cenobites but inspired by the Four Horsemen. Judge Death is accompanied by Judge Mortis, Judge Fear and Judge Fire to make life shitty for everyone around them. Judge Fear is pretty useless against Judge Dredd though because he can't feel fear. Grab you pen, paper and dice and jump in!

As you know with Choose Your Own Adventure, you get a selection of actions to take throughout the story where most of them end up in brutal death (or is that just the stories I read?). Video Games like King's Quest must've been heavily inspired by these kind of books. It takes a bit of discipline not to read ahead in these books, especially the comic book ones where the imagery is right there in front of your eyes. A well designed book won't have the pathways you can take right next to each other, but require you to jump around from page to page, that way you decrease your chances of accidentally looking ahead.

It took me four tries to get through the Judge Dredd Adventure, that bastard Judge Death crushed my heart three times (he loves doing that) before I could find my way through the mansion that allowed me to trick him back to his own dimension (yeah, he never dies). But it was such a blast and now I have a craze for these CYOA books that I felt I needed to share with you guys. So dig in your cellars, check your flea markets or even better, go order some from your local book store. You will have some great non-screen-time fun.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Arx Fatalis (PC, 2002)

 I didn't really start playing PC games until around 2005, coincidentally just after World of Warcraft was released *cough*...

So when I say I have a special place in my heart for PC games from the time between 1995-2005 I suspect it must be false nostalgia at play. Or maybe these games just capture the essence of the zeitgeist in gaming for me, story-wise, graphics-wise and game design-wise.

Because of World of Warcraft it took me a long time to get around to actually playing games from this time, but since then I have slowly made my way through games like Deus Ex, Thief, System Shock 2 and Anachronox to mention some. If there is something I've learned that the main thing that is stopping me from enjoying these games is how badly the controls have aged.

This ogre makes questionable art.

And now I am at it again, playing the action RPG Arx Fatalis. Arx Fatalis was released in 2002 and developed by the French studio Arkane Studios. They went on to develop the much liked Dishonored games, of which I have played the first and really enjoyed it (you can read my review on that game here).

In Arx Fatalis you start out as an anonymous hero who has, surprise surprise, lost his memory. When you create your character you can choose which stats to focus in. I am not fooled anymore and always go for melee heavy stats, since magic usually turns out to be powerful but difficult to use in PC games of this era. Arx Fatalis is no exception, but more on that in a bit.

You wake up in a goblin prison, probably destined to become the meal of some monster, but fortunately for you getting out of said prison turns out to be quite simple. 

You can tell Arkane went a long way trying to make a control system that would fit everything that you should be able to do and also not be cumbersome. Compared to some of the solutions we have nowadays though they've definitely not ended up with the best system.

Your character can basically enter three different modes - combat, casting and inventory. To wield your weapon you have to press "tab" and to cast you have to press "ctrl" (at least in default setup on my version). You can't wield a weapon and cast a spell at the same time. Combat is straight forward enough, your weapons have a certain damage and durability, pressing the left mouse-button will let you swing it.

Casting is a different beast however. Arkane has opted for a system in which you as a player have to "write" certain magic runes, with your cursor, across the screen to cast them. Not only that, but you have to combine magic runes to do most spells. Add to this that the game is extremely finnicky when it comes to accepting your "drawings" and I pretty quickly realized that combat casting was not going to be a thing in this game. Fortunately the system allows you to pre-cast and store up to three spells to quick cast in combat. You find runes lying around in the game and I have yet to find any combat-worthy ones, so I can't say if magic is useful in combat or not.

The inventory works well, in a similar style to how I remember Diablo working. Basically a grid in which you can store items, certain items take up more slots than others. To use an item in your inventory you have to open it with right mouse-button and press F over the item. It's very unwieldy in combat, which might be intentional, but works fine outside of it. The system as a whole is a bit counter-intuitive to me and if you take a break from the game it takes a while to get back into, but it's perfectly acceptable.

Dark and claustrophobic!

The graphics are typical for the time. Dark and claustrophobic. The game is set underground, which is probably more because of technical limitations than active design choices, the story is just built around it as an excuse. This means everything is candle/torch lit, but it works well enough. Another classic for the time is the color scheme, which at least so far in the game has been 50 shades of brown. If there is music in the game I have not noticed it. The soundscape however is extremely... weird. Items, weapons, enemies are all making noises that work well, but the ambient noise are these odd swirly whirly sounds that just adds an extremely creepy atmosphere where it doesn't really fit. 

As far as I have gotten into the game, about 3 hours of gameplay, the story isn't about anything other than me trying to figure out who I am. As I escape the goblin prison I stumble upon an outpost that requires help from the kind. I promise to deliver a message to the king and then the king asks me for another favor and I reckon it is going to continue this way. Every here and there you come across some character that gives you an odd side quest or there is some other issue to solve. These problems are definitely not self explanatory, but neither are they obscure. Not far into the game I have to get past an ogre, but he won't let me. After trying to figure out how I can appease the ogre, I try to jump into the moat and sneak up the path behind him instead. That worked fine.