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Fraser Brown

Learning to be bad with Blackguards

Oct 19 // Fraser Brown
Blackguards (PC)Developer: Daedalic EntertainmentPublisher: Daedalic EntertainmentRelease: January 2014 Outside of Germany, many won't be familiar with the Dark Eye setting that Blackguards exists in. It's a popular tabletop franchise in its homeland, but most of my knowledge of it comes from the adventure games Chains of Satinav and Memoria. With Blackguards, Daedalic is crafting a game more representative of the source material, with a fully-fledged role-playing system and party-based combat. At first glance, I assumed that I'd be seeing battles reminiscent of the likes of Heroes of Might and Magic or Kings Bounty, but such comparisons are superficial at best. In fact, beyond the hex grid, they are entirely different beasts. Each conflict, the result of a story quest or one of the many side quests dotted around the vast map, gives players control over their party of anti-heroes, each with their own class and unique abilities. The lecherous mage can cast all manner of elemental attacks, the unfriendly dwarf likes to wade into the thick of battle, and what the protagonist does is really dependent on the class you chose at the start. Character actions are selected via a radial menu, but abilities and items can also be tied to a specific hotkey. Strategies are easier to plan out thanks to the turn order that's clearly listed on the screen, so you know who's going next and can act accordingly. The maps are elaborate creations, bringing back fond memories of the criminally forgotten Temple of Elemental Evil, rather than straightforward arenas. They run the gamut from bleak tombs filled with the restless dead to lush, tropical coasts infested with rum-drinking pirates, and none of the scenarios I sat through was like another.  Environments are both weapons and obstacles, and experimentation is needed to reveal how they can be manipulated or what dangers they hold. Deep underground in a twisting, winding cavern, the party finds themselves beset by hideous giant insects; they are many, while the adventurers are few. Above the scuffle are huge, sharp stalactites, initially appearing to be mere window dressing. The fight begins as one would expect, with the anti-heroes and insects trading blows. A powerful attack causes one of the creepy crawlies to emit a high-pitched shriek, and the cavern trembles, freeing a stalactite from the ceiling. It crashes to the ground, damaging insect and adventurer alike. With the knowledge that high-pitched noises can bring down the ceiling, players would be able to use that information to make the battle easier -- as long as they manage to properly position their party members out of the way. Enemies are just as capable of exploiting objects and terrain. The party finds itself at the site of an execution. The scenario is an optional quest, where a woman is about to be hanged by some rather horrible chaps. The lecherous mage has a soft spot for the prisoner, and has requested that his chums assist him in freeing her. It's a timed battle, and should the anti-heroes fail, they must live with that. So it's not only optional, it's possible to screw up and carry on playing. The guards spot the heavily armed party, and quickly topple some crates at the entrance to the execution site. Though a fairly minor obstacle, the crates do cost the party one turn as they find themselves unable to move forward, and the guards get the upper hand. One of the crates gets set on fire, destroying it, and the fire spreads to the rest, even damaging one of the guards. The tables turn once more. Other scenarios have traps, puzzles and objectives that require players to do more than simply kill all the enemies on the map. In another side quest, a woman requests the party's assistance in finding her lost monkey. It can be brought back dead or alive -- which seemed odd, until the monkey is revealed to be a giant killer gorilla. It's a challenging battle, should an attempt be made on its life, but even more difficult is bringing it back alive. A huge cage must be positioned over the beast and then dropped at the right time, requiring multiple party members to interact with levers, leaving the other adventurers as vulnerable bait. The vices of certain party members can even become obstacles. In the last series of battles I was shown -- several arena fights, with each one getting harder than the last -- the drug-addicted half-elf poacher has a relapse in her cell. When the fight begins, she's high as a kite and is of no use whatsoever to her allies. While I was thoroughly impressed with the fights, other elements left me a bit disappointed. Towns and settlements, for example, are restricted to one screen and don't appear to offer any room for exploration -- they are merely quest hubs -- and the small amount of story and dialogue that was shown off made me wish that we were back in a fight. It seemed a tad trite and poorly voice-acted.  It's worth noting, however, that I only saw an hour of the game, and we jumped around between various acts, so nothing I viewed was really representative off the finished product beyond the combat. I wasn't able to get to know any of the characters, and most of the story remains a mystery.  Blackguards is expected to be about 40 hours long, with hundreds of quests, huge maps to explore, a mountain of loot and gear to discover, and a continent to chart -- but even more post-launch content is being planned in the form of a map editor. So you can try to make even more devious battles and then upload them for others to die in, over and over again. Though it was initially planned for a November release, Blackguards has been postponed until January. It seems like a smart move, considering that November will be an insanely busy month with the launch of two new consoles, stealing some of the thunder from any new PC releases. 
Blackguards preview photo
An hour of Daedalic's new RPG
If you've ever wanted to tear across a fantasy realm with a roving band of criminal misfits, you might be able to live out your dream in Daedalic's tactical role-playing game, Blackguards. You might recall that I wasn't parti...

Review: Legend of Dungeon

Oct 11 // Fraser Brown
Legend of Dungeon (PC)Developer: Robot Loves KittyPublisher: Robot Loves KittyRelease: September 13, 2013MSRP: $9.99Rig: Intel i5-3570K @3.40 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 670, and Windows 7 64-bit Robot Loves Kitty is keenly aware of the things we're into right now: pixel art, permadeath, and hats. With that in mind, Legend of Dungeon caters to lovers of all three of those things. It's a roguelike-like, a term that isn't so much a solution to the problem that the roguelike genre is ill-defined and the source of many internet arguments as it is a safety net, allowing people to make games that are ostensibly roguelike in nature without needing to worry about upsetting folk who are easily distressed by genre definitions.  So, really, Legend of Dungeon is a roguelike, but with the combat of a brawler. Heroes must traverse 26 floors of a randomly generated dungeon, fending off all manner of deadly beasties, getting more powerful and -- hopefully -- more skilled as they go deeper into what may well end up being their tomb, and most likely the conclusion of the adventure will be the death of the hero. The randomness of dungeons ensures that dying doesn't mean you'll have to go through exactly the same experience again and again, but certain obstacles and monsters do tend to be more common at certain depths. The permadeath system's real flaw is that even quitting the game essentially kills your character. If you're in the middle of a dungeon delve and you get a call from a mate explaining that he's been kidnapped by the Mafia and needs you to come to the docks to rescue him, you're going to either need to just pause the game or say goodbye to all of your progress. Robot Loves Kitty is working on a save feature, but it boggles the mind that it didn't ship with something so clearly needed.  The whole romp is presented side on in 2.5D with gorgeous pixel art. This isn't retro for the sake of being retro, however -- in fact, I'd argue that it isn't really retro at all. It's a style, not a throwback. The character and monster designs are detailed and lively, and the gloomy, stone-clad dungeon is juxtaposed to the vibrant lighting. Rainbows are puked up onto granite slabs, spell effects light up pitch-black tombs, and doorways eerily glow to denote rooms you've already explored.  Accompanying you on your journey through these deadly catacombs is an excellent soundtrack that runs the gamut from ominous and foreboding to electric and groovy. The music is also randomized and dynamic, shifting and changing as you travel down into the forgotten depths of the dungeon. It's usually pretty seamless, though on a few occasions I noticed that it would stop and change abruptly. Scattered throughout the dungeon is a mountain of equipment and potions -- from objects that encase foes in vines to the aforementioned rainbow-vomit-inducing elixir. For the most part, however, you'll be finding hats. Or at least stuff that you'll be putting on your head. Some of them give you Cyclops laser vision, others are just cats. Yes, more cats. Finding a new bonnet is wonderful, because chances are it will change how you play quite dramatically, giving you insane boosts in speed or completely new abilities -- all very welcome when the basic attack amounts to slapping things with a sword over and over again with variety only coming in the form of the ability to hold down the attack button for a supercharged cleave. Unfortunately, it's often hard to figure out what a new item does. A tiny box of stats sits at the bottom left corner of the screen, almost looking like an afterthought, and at first (and second, third, and fourth) glance, it's just a bunch of numbers and brackets. It's jumbled and cluttered, making it a bit challenging to decipher what items to keep or ditch.   Confounding things even further is an inventory system that needs to be doused in petrol and set on fire, then the ashes need to be thrown into the ocean. I'm getting frustrated even thinking about it. It's the sort of system that maybe works if you're juggling three or four items, but in Legend of Dungeon you have more items than that before you even leave the tavern at the top of the dungeon.  Shuffling through one's inventory amounts to selecting the next or previous items in a single row. It's annoying enough when nothing's happening, but attempt to switch to a new item in the middle of a fight and you're pretty much inviting death. About to die mid-battle? Enjoy scrolling through the inventory, looking for an apple, consuming it, and then scrolling all the way back to your sword so you can fight again. Oh wait, sorry, you've died before you can do any of that.  Even more infuriating than the fiddly nature of it all is that it encourages players to discard most of their inventory so they don't need to fight to absurd system every time they want to quaff a potion or choose a hat. Many of the items are tailored to different approaches rather than being simply "better" -- I found myself keeping a lot of different hats and a few weapons so I could alter my tactics when facing new, challenging foes. I was punished for this. Punished for exploring the game's variety and not simply doing the same thing in every battle.  If limiting gear was the goal of this horrible system, then surely limited inventory space would be more appropriate rather than a feature that makes the mundane act of switching items a horrible, and often fatal, chore.  It's a shame that it was such a pain, because it gets in the way of the delight that is slaughtering countless monsters. The freakish denizens of the dungeon all have their own little tricks, from flinging simple magical projectiles to paralyzing you with a mere touch. Encountering a new foe is both exciting and terrifying, as there's no way to tell how powerful they are until you engage them in a scrap. Hence my aforementioned death at the paws of a kitten.  Choosing your battles wisely is paramount, and involves a lot of risk assessment. Will you take a chance and slap a minotaur around even though you have no more apples? Are you going to risk going toe-to-toe with three vampires, knowing the substantial amount of gold they tend to carry? Fights and bosses can be avoided, to take on later when you have leveled up and have a nice bit of health or some crazy gear, but you might need the rewards they spill upon death before that point. Perhaps bringing some friends along will make such choices easier to make? Then again, that might be more bother than it's worth. Legend of Dungeon is billed as a co-op dungeon romp, but it's hard to take that seriously when it's limited to couch co-op only. An online co-op mode was planned, but the Kickstarter failed to reach that stretch goal, leaving us with a more troublesome alternative. Everyone has a different PC setup, of course, so it might work better for some, but in my case an offline mode simply isn't worth the hassle of changing my room. My PC is in my bedroom/office, where I only have one chair, and certainly not enough space for four people to comfortably play a game. At least I use a big TV, but others will be even more restricted with typical PC monitors.  Despite some strange design choices and the unfortunate omission of saves and online co-op, Legend of Dungeon still manages to be a hoot. But there's a sense that it's not finished; that what I really played was a polished beta and not the game Robot Loves Kitty envisioned. The good news is that more features are being planned, and being the price of a pizza or a couple of beers, it's not a bad investment even if it's not quite all it could be.
Legend of Dungeon review photo
Death by kitten
I was feeling pretty cocky when I entered the home of a classy vampire and her kitten chum. I had a magical sword, a hat that gave me Flash-like super speed, and more health-giving apples than you could possibly eat in a life...

Forced tournament photo
Forced tournament

BetaDwarf to celebrate launch of Forced with a tournament

And loads of loot
Oct 03
// Fraser Brown
Forced, BetaDwarf's co-op arena title, might not have PvP, but that doesn't mean that the spirit of competition can't seep into it. To celebrate the game's launch on October 24, the developer is hosting a tournament sponsored...

BetaDwarf's Forced: From classroom to Steam Early Access

Oct 02 // Fraser Brown
[embed]262842:50747:0[/embed] It's 2011 and two teaching assistants in Denmark's Aalborg University are holding a secret meeting. One of the duo is Steffen Kabbelgaard, now CEO of BetaDwarf, and he and his partner gather the best artists and programmers from their classes to ply them with t-shirts and present their game idea. The presentation ends with the foundation of BetaDwarf and a team size of nine. Six months on, development proves to be slower than anticipated. BetaDwarf is now spending most of the day at university, working on the game, and is struck with a cunning plan to focus the team and reduce its cost of living. "We realized that during the summer vacation, nobody really used the class locales, and we moved in there, but we knew that after the summer people would probably use the teaching room," Steffen tells me. But then BetaDwarf was the recipient of a second bout of good luck.  Nobody books BetaDwarf's secret home and workplace for the semester, and the developer continues to live there, working on Forced amid their beds, fridges, microwaves, and sofas. With access to a gym, laundry facilities, baths, and internet, the team decide to get rid of their apartments and move in full-time.     The semester of fortune comes to an end, and BetaDwarf are discovered -- in their underwear, no less. "It was so insane. We had been so deep into the game and had forgotten all about what would happen," Steffen says. "One random morning, a teacher went into the class locale and we were sitting there, brushing our teeth in our underwear and programming. It was extremely awkward. She just walked out without saying anything, and I felt I should run after her, but I was in boxer shorts and I couldn't run down the hallway."  BetaDwarf's staff are evicted, and essentially homeless. Not a great situation to be in, but the University doesn't press charges, indeed it actually promotes the studio's ingenuity to tempt prospective game design students to study at the institution. 2012 finds the young studio in dire straits, absent either homes or an office. This might have been the closing chapter in BetaDwarf's story, but an unexpected call from the Danish Film Institute acts as a life raft. The DFI awards BetaDwarf a $40,000 grant. "We went upstairs with all our gear and basically googled 'the cheapest place in Denmark to live,'" Steffen says. "There was like three options. Two of them were ridiculously far away, and one was also ridiculously far away, but not as far away as the others, and we chose that." Eight people crammed into one house, and development on Forced continued without any distractions. BetaDwarf's unusual path to finishing their game has paid off, with Forced almost being ready after a stint on Steam Early Access and a successful Kickstarter, but it's not a route Steffen would recommend for everyone. "It's been really risky, and it's been really hard as well. We don't really regret it, but we made really huge sacrifices to be part of this, and we didn't have time for family or anything else."   The studio's penchant for "doing its own thing" comes through in Forced as well. A brief glimpse throws up all sorts of comparisons, from Diablo to Dota, but neither are particularly accurate, even though both of those franchises have inspired BetaDwarf. "Usually people look at the game and think it's a MOBA, but then they realize that there's no PvP, so they think it's like a Diablo-style dungeon crawler," Steffen explains. "But Diablo is really loot focused, whereas Forced is extremely skill focused. Basically, every single enemy attack can be avoided, and it's your job to find out how. So in that way, it's like an arcade game like Mega Man." Ostensibly, Forced is an arena battle game with a focus on co-op. Players are imprisoned, and must fight their way through multiple worlds and 25 arenas filled with enemies, environmental hazards, trials, and a variety of objectives. But that description doesn't really do it justice, because it's also a strange game of reverse football and comes with a full single-player campaign separate from the co-op mode. The single-player mode sees players fight against different enemies and poses different challenges, so while the co-operative mode is undeniably the heart of Forced, there's still plenty to do beyond that. Progress made in single-player is also separate from the co-op component. Levels won't transfer over, offering more opportunities to experiment with new roles and start fresh. Perhaps the most curious feature of Forced is the spirit mentor (check out the exclusive feature trailer slapped somewhere on this article to see it in action), a glowing orb that mocks and teaches combatants while also activating and deactivating shrines that provide buffs and also spew out environmental hazards -- it's also key to defeating boss enemies. "You control it by a button click, and then it floats towards your character and you have to utilize the path that it takes," Steffen says. "It becomes like a reverse football: instead of kicking it, you call it. And that dynamic becomes hugely different from one, two, three, and four players." Not only does the spirit mentor dynamic change when different numbers of players are involved, BetaDwarf have also attempted to balance the game for co-op or single-player in more interesting ways than simply tweaking health or artificially increasing the difficulty. "We've seen too many co-op games where the developers decide to ramp up health to balance the gameplay, and we didn't want to do that. So instead we invented a few new enemies that you'll mostly see in multiplayer... and in that way some of the trials are totally different." One such enemy is the armored swarmer. Normally swarmers are weak enemies, easy to dispatch alone, but they can become quite dangerous in groups. The armored variation is much tougher, as the name suggest, but is a bit slower. When not near players, the armored swarmer gets a speed boost, propelling it towards its foe, ensuring that groups can surround players rapidly.  Online co-op is joined by a couch co-op mode, which thankfully doesn't restrict players to tiny segments of the screen. The view zooms all the way out, and each participant shares the same view rather than squinting at one of four sections. And since couch co-op really requires a couch, BetaDwarf have designed Forced with controllers in mind and not just mouse and keyboard, so no desks required. The 25 arenas, all with different objectives and themes, become progressively more challenging. Unlike a MOBA, abilities and perks do not suddenly vanish when a new match begins. When you unlock something, that's it unlocked for the rest of the game, but these abilities do not make characters instantly more powerful -- instead they provide utility and new synchronicities. It's the slots that abilities and perks can be placed in that make combatants more deadly. As players progress, they unlock new slots, and new options for builds. Four classes make up Forced's roster -- the Frost Shield, Volcanic Hammer, Thunder Bow and Spirit Dagger -- but they don't conform to a specific role or restrict players to any given style. "The Frost Shield is what people usually think is the tank class... but he can definitely be the damage-dealer instead, where he chooses a perk and instantly that changes him completely because suddenly the shield becomes an offensive thing." Steffen also notes that every character has a heal ability as well, so just as anyone can deal damage, they can all play a support role too.  Having all this utility will surely benefit a party of gladiators when faced with the diverse and deadly challenges arenas throw their way. BetaDwarf didn't want to make players endlessly slaughter monsters, and as a result built an abundance of unique obstacles tied to different arenas. In one instance, Steffen explains, a gigantic grinder chases players across the arena, forcing them ever forward into a horde of foes.  It doesn't sound like players will be able to get by being silent, as communication will be a necessity as parties juggle multiple obstacles. While hacking away at enemies they might also have to imbue the spirit mentor with explosive powers, throwing it between them and positioning it near statues that need to be blown up, and the whole time they'll need to get to the right place, avoid the explosions, and keep fighting monsters.  Surprisingly, Steffen cites Valve's Left 4 Dead as a major inspiration for Forced, mainly for the way that the cooperative experience is tackled. Teamwork is absolutely key to success, even to the point where BetaDwarf has removed features because they weren't conducive to working together. In an earlier build of the game, the spirit mentor gave a bunch of buffs to the carrier, leading to players hogging the orb and not working together.  While I confess that my initial interest in BetaDwarf stemmed from its punk beginnings, I came away from my chat with Steffen fascinated by the game. Forced is a lot more ambitious than it seems at first glance and has the potential to provide a unique, dynamic cooperative experience. Also, I'm a sucker for gladiatorial combat. 
BetaDwarf interview photo
A co-op arena game with strange origins
Garages are passé now, it seems. Where once indie game developers would steal precious space from cars, lawnmowers, and bikes, they can now be found living up in a tree or, in the case of Danish developer BetaDwarf, sq...

Blackguards cast photo
Blackguards cast

The blackguards are revealed

And they all sound lovely
Sep 20
// Fraser Brown
Daedalic's evil RPG Blackguards sounds like a bit of all right, with tactical combat and less than nice protagonists. Now the German developer is finally ready to spill the beans on exactly what's up with these unpleasant fol...
The Showdown Effect photo
The Showdown Effect

You should really be playing The Showdown Effect

It's free for the weekend
Sep 20
// Fraser Brown
When I reviewed The Showdown Effect back in March, I absolutely loved it. Arrowhead are just great at making silly, fun titles. But within my review was a nagging doubt, the worry that it wouldn't be able to maintain the nece...
New releases photo
New releases

New releases: Fun with criminals

Also, Wind Waker HD
Sep 16
// Fraser Brown
Get giddy, chums. It's time to stretch those car jacking limbs because Grand Theft Auto V is upon us. Jim's already devoured it and has given us the low down, but come tomorrow, you'll be enjoying it yourself. It's rare for ...
New releases photo
New releases

New releases: Scary, porcine machines

Plus, Killzone, Kingdom Hearts, and Arma III
Sep 09
// Fraser Brown
I'm still recovering from last week's Outlast, and now we've got another bloody terrifying first-person horror title to scare our pants clean off in the form of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. I confess that reviews, such as ou...

Review: The Dark Eye: Memoria

Sep 09 // Fraser Brown
Memoria (PC)Developer: Daedalic EntertainmentPublisher: Daedalic EntertainmentRelease: August 29, 2013MSRP: $19.99Rig: Intel i5-3570K @3.40 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 670, and Windows 7 64-bit Memoria tells two tales, inextricably linked, but separated by almost 500 years. There's the continuation of Geron's story, the unknown and sardonic hero of Andergast, as he attempts to find a way to turn his fairy chum back into her original form after being transformed into a raven. His quest for a cure leads him to a traveling merchant who claims to know a spell that will make Nuri herself again, but there's a price: Geron must answer a riddle. While riddles and adventure games make excellent bed fellows, this is not one that can be solved quickly. Discovering both its meaning and the answer leads Geron to explore the ancient history of his world through dreams, journals and stories. You see, the solution to the riddle is found in the journey of Memoria's second protagonist: the deposed Princess Sadja. Centuries before Geron was even born, Sadja travelled from her land, across swamps, forests and mountains to reach the site of an upcoming battle between holy orders and a demonic horde. Her goal? To become a legend. Unfortunately, she failed to be remembered by but a few individuals and her story was unfinished, waiting to be completed by a simple bird-catcher turned unwitting hero hundreds of years later. Splitting the game between Geron and Sadja allows Memoria to spin multiple, equally interesting but extremely different yarns. Geron's plight is more immediate and smaller in scale, while Sadja's adventure is a world-spanning epic, a tale of gods, elemental forces, and the potential end of the world. Memoria jumps between them, and they transition seamlessly as Geron discovers more about Sadja's life. Though Sadja is under player control for her portions of the game, Memoria manages to retain the feeling that we are learning about her second-hand. It is in one of the later acts where this used to the greatest effect. Geron is reading a diary written by an elemental mage who met Sadja, and because of this, the player is unable to hear certain conversations or witness everything that she does, because the author was similarly limited.  While both protagonists are well written, it is Sadja who steals the show. Where Geron is slightly bumbling and mopey, Sadja is strong-willed, competent, and adventurous. Both characters, like everyone in Memoria, are flawed, but if you needed to choose a companion to join you on a dangerous adventure, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better ally than the Princess. Geron also perpetually sounds like he's waking up from a very deep sleep, which grates on the nerves within five minutes. The voice acting, in general, is pretty uneven (occasionally not even reflecting the text, or being in German in one instance), though it falls somewhere in the middle when compared to Daedalic's other adventures. Better than the abysmal A New Beginning, but not nearly as proficient as The Night of the Rabbit. Again, it is Sadja who stands above the rest, as her voice actor puts in the best performance, closely followed by her sarcastic, talking magical staff. Though Bryda, the novice wizard and ally of Geron, is also well-performed and well-written, helping to make her a significantly more interesting character than her bird-catching pal.  Adventure games have a history of creating likable, compelling female characters, and Memoria certainly continues this. Even Nuri, who spends most of the game a victim, is more competently crafted and fleshed out than the lassies found in so many other titles. Not only does she help to make Geron a more sympathetic character, as we look more favorably on him for spending the entire adventure trying to help her, her internal struggle to retain her fairy-self in the face of her new raven identity drives players to root for her. It's Memoria's phenomenal puzzles that really make Daedalic's latest title stand out from the crowd, however. I'll be the first to admit that 20 years of devouring adventure games has made me a bugger to please, setting my expectations high and rarely being satisfied. But barring a couple of obtuse or pointless puzzles, most notably a forest maze that can actually be skipped, Daedalic has struck a balance between taxing even veteran adventure gamers' brains and keeping solutions logical. Fiddly inventory management is nowhere to be seen, as only a few items will grace your inventory at any one time, and when they need to be combined, it makes perfect sense and there are usually some sort of dialogue hints, and the focus is, instead, on creativity and experimentation. Magic plays a large role in solving puzzles, with both Geron and Sadja employing several spells. The most inventive is probably Sadja's "send vision" ability, where she is able to place images of items in the scene into the mind of another character, subtly bending them to her will. The diversity of their magical repertoire means that no one spell outstays its welcome, and they are often used in unexpected ways. Memoria's greatest achievement when it comes to its puzzles is that there's both a constant sense of progression and a pay-off for almost every interaction. A good puzzle shouldn't just have players scratching their noggins, it should leave them with a sense of accomplishment. Using a gargantuan stone statue to rip out a door, allowing Sadja to escape from a stone tomb; reading the thoughts of petrified villagers to create the final part of an arcane ritual; getting revenge on a murderous, cruel one-time-ally with a new spell -- these were all tricky puzzles requiring clever use of the game's tools, and there was a visual and emotional pay-off. More than just striking a balance between difficulty and rewarding success, Memoria also throws some surprisingly modern, helpful features into the mix that ease some of the frustration inherent in the genre. Pressing the spacebar, for example, reveals every single point of interaction on the screen. Equally convenient is the feature that assists adventurers during the occasional item combination puzzle, making it easier to discern which items can be combined.  Don't let all of this trick you into believing that this makes the adventure leisurely, however. I found myself thoroughly stumped on more than one occasion, leaving the game for a while so I could go and clear my thoughts, hoping that putting distance between myself and the game would inspire the solution that eluded me.  And joy of joys, I had to take notes. If you've had the misfortune to read many of my other adventure game reviews, you'll know that I'm a big fan of slumming it with pen and paper. When a game inspires me to doodle arcane symbols in a notepad, I know I'm in heaven.   You'll undoubtedly be spending quite a bit of time staring at the same screens, so it's a good thing that Memoria is sumptuous. The exquisitely detailed backgrounds are jaw-droppingly beautiful -- genuine works of art, really -- and the art style is taken full advantage of with the fantastical locales the game sends its adventurers too. Lush, wild forests, thick with mist; towering arcane cities, floating above vast mountain ranges; dirty, vibrant settlements, full of life -- it's a simply stunning game.  The only point where I found myself less than enamored with the art was in the, admittedly, few instances where scenes would switch to focus on a character's face. Terrible lip-syncing and the dissonance between how characters appear from a distance compared to how they are painted close up were unwelcome, but these scenes happen so infrequently that it never becomes a serious problem. The well-realized fantasy world, high-stakes adventure, empathetic characters, and remarkably well designed puzzles combine to make Memoria an extremely memorable game. This is Daedalic finally perfecting its formula, producing a title with imagination and ambition backed up by solid mechanics and a captivating, cohesive story.  Even though Sadja's tale is wrapped up by the end of the journey, there's plenty of room left for more adventures in the Dark Eye setting. I can only hope that Daedalic's next installment continues to build on what they've managed to achieve here. 
Memoria review photo
Riddle me this
Daedalic Entertainment, prolific crafter of many a point-and-click adventure, has returned to the world of Aventuria, continuing the yarn spun in last year's Chains of Satinav, a gorgeous, but slightly uneven game with that d...

I Have No Mouth on GOG photo
I Have No Mouth on GOG

I Have No Mouth, but I Must Tell You About This Game

The psychological adventure game returns
Sep 05
// Fraser Brown
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, Harlan Ellison's post-apocalyptic short story, was quite affecting to a young me. While many cite 2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL or Terminator's Skynet as the greatest AI villain, for me it w...

Review: Outlast

Sep 04 // Fraser Brown
Outlast (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4)Developer: Red BarrelsPublisher: Red BarrelsRelease: September 4, 2013MSRP: $19.99Rig: Intel i5-3570K @3.40 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 670, and Windows 7 64-bit There's something deeply invigorating about horror. Being scared increases awareness and focus; everything becomes more intense. That being the case, I'm in the throes of the horror equivalent of a cocaine high at the moment. Every time I put down Outlast, leaving the world of survival horror and the rundown Mount Massive Asylum for the more mundane world, and stop being investigative journalist Miles Upshur, I'd smoke a cigarette and pour myself a glass of whisky. These are two things that I enjoy immensely normally, but after an hour or so of running down dark corridors, evading psychopathic, deformed monstrosities, and screaming like a wee lassie, the dram of peaty nectar and stick of slowly burning tobacco and carcinogens seemed like a care package from God.  I want to write about how Outlast is a lot like Amnesia, but I'm hesitant to do so, because -- despite the obvious parallels like the genre, first-person perspective, and lack of combat -- they both manage to tread such different ground even though they have clear, surface similarities.  Outlast is loud. Explosions, screams, roars, smashing glass, and nerve-shattering music that starts off quiet -- all you can hear is Miles' breathing and whimpering -- and then builds up to a deafening crescendo filling ears and rattling bones. When it's silent, it's a trap. Something awful is about to happen, and the game takes almost no time at all to teach you that. But then sometimes nothing will happen, because Outlast is also treacherous and untrustworthy.  Matching its volume is its graphic nature. There's gaudiness in how grotesque it is. The disfigured things that you'll be confronted with are stomach-churning, because they look almost like normal people, until you realize that they are humanoid canvases of scabs, scars, gaping wounds, and surgical fuck-ups. And everywhere there is blood and viscera, smeared on the floor, clinging to the walls.  Red Barrels, the obviously disturbed developer, is showing off. It's hiding decapitated heads in toilets, it's forcing you to crawl through a sewer tunnel filled with shit to escape a seven-foot-tall hulking behemoth, and it's throwing cadavers at you when you open doors.  Gaudy, loud, and shocking -- Outlast revels in being these things, but what elevates it, what differentiates it from jump-scare horror like Dead Space, for example, is its surprising subtlety. There's nuance amid all the noise and violence; a welcome juxtaposition that plays with expectations and works towards making the title excellently paced. There's the way that Outlast slowly reveals the history of Mount Massive through documents like patient files and descriptions of experiments. You're not simply fleeing monsters, you're a journalist, investigating a corrupt Asylum, following a lead. There are moments of quiet exploration, hunting down clues, where there's nary a ferocious, stalking creature in sight. And then there's the subversion of videogame limitations. Typically, especially in first-person games, you're free to fight and usually shoot anything threatening, empowered by guns and fists, but then when anything important happens, you're artificially locked in place. Your view becomes fixed, your feet become encased in concrete, or sign posts slap you on the head. Outlast turns this on its head. Instead, there's no fighting. Your only chance to survive when confronted by an enemy is fleeing, hiding -- under a bed, in a cupboard, or just in the darkness -- and praying that nothing finds you. But there're none of the artificial shackles found that are found in the, arguably, less limited first-person titles. Despite the fact that the game's job is to scare the bejesus out of you, you're free to look away, miss something horrifying, and not spot that shadow moving erratically at the end of the corridor.  When you do lose that freedom, it's because someone has literally taken it away from you -- not because the game has wrested control from you. You're strapped to a chair, you're drugged, you're being gripped by massive hands before being flung out of a window.  I've mentioned the first-person perspective a bit already, and I do hope you'll forgive me if I bring it up again. It's just that Outlast exploits it so masterfully that it demands emphasis. It's not merely the perspective itself, but rather all the things that accompany it. It's not enough to force players to look through the eyes -- not hampered by a HUD -- of a trapped journalist, Outlast makes you feel like you are in Miles' body.  When you crouch, the camera isn't just lowered. There's a slight wobble, and when you look down, there's Miles' hand -- your hand -- tentatively sticking out, just in case you fall. And when you give up all pretense of stealth and just make a break for it, running, fleeing, desperately attempting to find some way to escape your pursuers, you shake, you bounce, and it's frenetic.  Mirror's Edge, oddly, springs to mind when I consider the movement and physicality. Especially when I found myself dragging my exhausted body into an air vent or climbing over objects. There's a sense that effort is being expended, even though it's mechanically very smooth.  Absent firearms -- or weapons of any kind -- only one tool is available: a trusty camcorder. It's essential, because the night vision feature is a life-saver. Although it's a tool used to assist, it's also the source of a lot of Outlast's most horrifying moments. Night vision chews through the camera's batteries, so you've always got to be on the look out for more juice. The device always seems to run out at the most inopportune moments, leaving you vulnerable, surrounded by impenetrable darkness, even if just for a few seconds. Not only a light to guide your path, the camera also gives you a distinct advantage over most enemies. When there's nowhere to hide, a dark room or the end of a poorly lit corridor is almost as good as a locker. With night vision on, you can see your pursuer hunt for you, but he can't see you. He can feel you, though, and he can hear you.  Individually, the stealth, movement, camera, and music are all excellent, but it's when they are combined to create a perfect horror scene that Outlast truly becomes something special. Imagine: you're crouched in the corner of a room, shrouded in darkness. The chains of insane, wailing patients, trapped in their beds, rattle. A mad doctor is hunting you down, and he knows you're in the room -- he just doesn't know where.  He turns to face you, the night vision giving his eyes a demonic glow, but has he spotted you? Or is he just looking in your direction? The music is quiet, atmospheric, but there's a screechy undercurrent hinting at terrible things to come. The doctor moves towards you, sharpening his knives as he mutters.  It's all too much. You're a nervous wreck. You stand up, and just run. The music explodes, all manic strings and booming horns, as you bolt through corridors, frantically looking over your shoulder, flinging closed doors behind you and pushing cabinets up against them, leaping over beds and drawers, until you can find a cupboard to cower in or get far away enough from the doctor so that you can breath easy, at least for a moment.   Then there's a banging on the door, the wood splinters, and a knife appears. He's laughing now, the mad doctor. You weren't safe. You're never safe in Outlast. And the chase begins anew. It's exhausting and horrible and it's absolutely wonderful. While such chases are great, my most memorable experience saw me take on the role of Pavlov's dog. I found myself outside, soaked from rain, and tightly wound. The camera was rendered almost useless outdoors, and I was running through thickets and trees, utterly lost. Occasionally lightning would strike, and I'd see something awful, but maybe it was just a statue.  As I made my way from a fountain, that I initially believed was a giant monster, to another building, the music sprang to life, and howls ripped through the noise of the rain. I couldn't see anything, I could only hear. I'd been trained well, though, and heart in mouth, I bounded around looking for escape, screaming "no, no, no" until my flatmate had to come in and see if I was okay. I'll never know if there was anything behind me. It is only if you get caught that the impending doom reveals itself to be something of an illusion. Should one of the savage denizens of Mount Massive get their mitts on you, they'll do one of two things: grab and throw you, giving you an opportunity to escape, or hit you until you run away. You're given so many chances before you actually die, that fear of death is possibly the least prominent fear in the entire game. Yet this is, perhaps, a rather accurate portrayal of horror. It's the chase and the torment, not death, that really inspires discomfort and terror. In game terms, death merely means you end up at an earlier point, and this time without the shocks and surprises.   Outlast simultaneously reminds me of the grainy slasher flicks of the '70s, the gruesome body horror of Clive Barker, and gratuitous modern torture porn. It manages to squeeze a great deal of diversity into what is quite a small package of around six or seven hours, but it doesn't burst or struggle to reconcile the different elements.  When I finished my journey through Mount Massive, a wave of relief washed over me. I was free from the asylum, able to turn on the lights, take off my headphones, and not jump every time I saw a shadow. But as I soaked away in the bath, washing off the sweat and stench of fear, I heard the floor creak. It sounded just like the old floorboards in the asylum. I knew it was just my flatmate wandering about, but I couldn't help looking at the door, expecting to see a knife, and I wondered if I could fit my flabby, naked body through the tiny window of my bathroom, and just leg it down the street. 
Outlast review photo
Hello darkness, my old friend
I'm entirely cut off from the world. Noise-canceling headphones cover my ears, the lights in my room are switched off, and I've thrown a sheet over my curtains so that not one speck of light will appear from the street lights...

Review: Worms Clan Wars

Sep 03 // Fraser Brown
Worms Clan Wars (PC)Developer: Team 17Publisher: Team 17 Release: August 15, 2013MSRP: $24.99 Maybe you don't have a clue what Worms is. This is unlikely, and certainly embarrassing for you if true, but I'll refrain from judging you. The Worms of a decade ago is much the same as the Worms of today, with newer titles adding a few spins and twists on the classic formula but generally sticking to what made it work all those years ago (other than the terrible 3D Worms titles).  Teams of tiny, pink warriors (now up to eight, once more) fight each other across a 2D, fully destructible and obnoxiously colorful map, using weapons from the mundane -- but not too mundane, these are worms after all -- like uzis and bazookas, to the completely mental, like exploding sheep and banana bombs. It's all in the name of good, not-very-wholesome fun. Until one of your pals slaughters your beloved army of diminutive soldiers with an airstrike, that is.  All the lovely new features from Worms Revolution have been retained by its wriggling, younger sibling: classes, water, and physics, most notably. Combatants are split up into soldiers, scouts, scientists, and heavies, all with different movement speeds, health, and special abilities, like the scientist worm's knack for healing his chums. They've been tweaked and balanced since Revolution, with area of effects for special abilities being added or increased, for instance. Water, which was probably the most welcome addition in Worms Revolution, returns. It's much the same as it was before. Chucking water balloons at enemy worms will see them sliding down slopes and into a watery grave, and maps are filled with objects just waiting to be dislodged or blown up by missiles. But it's been augmented by machinery, with water gates, for example, allowing players to flood entire areas and drown their enemies.  Physics puzzles have been thrown into the mix, too, with all manner of buttons, levers, swinging bridges, and the aforementioned gates being strewn throughout the battle arenas of the war-torn museum that Clan Wars resides in. Oh yes, the museum -- that's definitely worthy of a mention. There's a story, you see. I know, you're incredulous. A story! How preposterous. And you'd be right, it is preposterous. A nefarious chap has pinched a sacred artifact known as the Stone Carrot, and is attempting to control all worms, because that's just what you do when you're completely barmy. The only thing that stands between him and complete worm domination is a ragtag band of worms and sociopathic crypt-robber Tara Pinkle, who's basically a loony Lara Croft voiced by Katherine Parkinson of IT Crowd fame.  You might recall that Matt Berry, also from IT Crowd, narrated the worms' last outing, so clearly Team 17 have a bit of a crush on the cast, and rightly so. While Berry's hilarious narration is sorely missed, Parkinson is delightfully silly while briefing the A-Team of the worm-world and describing all the terrible things that she's done while looting treasure from unfortunate tribes.  The single-player stuff isn't usually the draw of Worms, and while it's hardly the highlight of Clan Wars, it's an entertaining romp that eventually becomes tricky in places, sometimes because of fidgety platforming, sometimes because of challenging level design. There's a checkpoint system now, too, so replaying entire levels is a thing of the past unless you explicitly want to. Maps loosely follow the museum theme, with Stone Age, Viking, and Aztec-style battlefields, just to name a few. A day and night cycle adds a bit of visual variety to these maps, to boot. They are, as you would expect, ripe for deforming with explosive weaponry, and littered with objects that can be dislodged to block the route of an enemy worm, loosened to let forth a torrent of water previous held back, or just blown up to create a gargantuan explosion. While Revolution's object interactions were a bit on the fiddly side, Clan Wars offers a greater level of control over item placement mid-battle. What really elevates Clan Wars above its predecessors is the effort that has been put into the multiplayer component. There's local multiplayer, then your standard online PvP shenanigans, but the truly special, properly new addition is the titular clan feature. With the same tools used to make a team of deadly, slimy worm-warriors, you can put together a whole clan, with a distinct appearance along with a shiny emblem and a clan name, and then recruit members to this clan.  Clans compete for leaderboard positions, creating a perpetual worm-war and, hopefully, all the splendid drama, grudges, and competitive intensity found in eSporty games. Ultimately, its success lies in its ability to maintain a healthy population, which certainly won't happen if Team 17 keep churning out more Worm titles, so one hopes that they will take a breather.  In a novel twist, the floodgates have been opened up to user-generated content, with Steam Workshop integration. So in addition to the new weapons like flying monkeys and teleporter guns -- both of which can be used to help and hinder by moving objects and worms around the map -- there are a slew of cosmetic items and player-created maps just waiting to be downloaded.  While it doesn't stray too far from Worms Revolution, a game less than a year old, the focus on competitive multiplayer and custom content adds both longevity and depth to the long-running pastime of wormicide. If Revolution was the best that Worms had ever been -- and it was, because I said it was last year -- then Clan Wars is now the definitive version. 
Worms Clan Wars review photo
Bigger, fatter, and juicier
I think that Team 17 needs some help. Some dastardly villain has clearly locked the developer up and abandoned them, because less than a year after releasing the excellent Worms Revolution, the invertebrate-obsessed studio ha...

Blackguards beta photo
Blackguards beta

Evil RPG Blackguards' closed beta starts next week

Save the world by being a bastard
Aug 30
// Fraser Brown
With Daedalic's peculiar turn-based RPG Blackguards getting closer to release, the developer is opening the doors to beta testers interested in fighting evil with evil. Set in the same universe as Memoria (which I'm already i...
Paradox Humble bundle photo
Paradox Humble bundle

Get acquainted with Paradox in the latest Humble Bundle

It's worth it just for Crusader Kings II
Aug 30
// Fraser Brown
The latest Humble Weekly Sale is a cracker, putting up a bunch of Paradox Interactive's biggest titles. Pay what you want and you'll get War of the Roses (along with access to the War of the Vikings alpha), Warlock: Mast...
Prison Architect update photo
Prison Architect update

Prison Architect update kicks off with a sale

Tunnelling prisoners, oh my!
Aug 29
// Fraser Brown
The latest Prison Architect update sees some significant additions infiltrating your lovely prisons. Alpha 13 gives prisoners the ability to dig tunnels, giving guards more things to worry about. Introversion's Mark Morris ex...
Precinct cancelled  photo
Precinct cancelled

Pour one out for Precinct

Precinct gets cancelled
Aug 26
// Fraser Brown
It wasn't that long ago that I was chatting with Jim Walls and Robert Lindsley about Precinct, the spiritual successor to the classic adventure game series Police Quest. The prospect was an exciting one, and both gents were b...
New releases photo
New releases

New releases: Killers everywhere

Plus, Final Fantasy XIV, Lost Planet 3, and your funny football-like game
Aug 26
// Fraser Brown
I'll be spending this week playing catch up, but there's no dearth of new releases. Killer is Dead is tempting me, because bloody hell it looks flashy, but I'll probably leave until I'm not drowning in games. Final Fant...

Review: Europa Universalis IV

Aug 26 // Fraser Brown
Europa Universalis IV (PC)Developer: Paradox Development StudioPublisher: Paradox InteractiveReleased: August 14, 2013MSRP: $39.99 Maps and menus are damn sexy, right? If your response to that was "God, no" then you're looking at the wrong ones. The map and menus of Europa Universalis are windows into the stories of nations, and ones that you won't have to spend hours wrestling with to comprehend. Fluctuating borders, gigantic mountain ranges, continents changing with the seasons -- the world has never looked so alive in a grand strategy title. It's so good looking, in fact, that I spend most of my time playing in the regular terrain mode, not wanting the various trade, political, and religious overlays to spoil the gorgeous vista. I pause the game and switch when I need more information, but I quickly go back to ogling the Alps or admiring the way the leaves turn orange during Autumn. The menus don't have the same visual appeal, but the way that they break down the complex facets of Europa Universalis into easily discernible information makes them just as impressive. At a glance, a high inflation rate might just look like a random percentage, but in reality it's the result of a decade-long war and loans constantly being taken out to pay for a huge mercenary army. Or perhaps it's the result of greed, with the nation creating too many gold mines and mismanaging the economy. Merely hovering over the inflation number reveals the reason the nation is in dire straits.  This convenience extends to the entire interface. There remains a lot to take in, as the game flings a huge array of information at players the moment they take control of a nation, but between the tips tab, robust tutorial, and the way the information is elegantly broken down for easy consumption, it's not nearly as intimidating as its predecessor.  With the interface helping rather than hindering, newcomers and old hats alike can jump in and lead their chosen nation -- out of almost any era-appropriate nation you can think off, from England to the Aztec Empire -- from 15th century to the 19th century without freaking out when their peasants start rioting for no particular reason, or another power declares war out of the blue, simply because such things don't happen. There's always an underlying reason, and it can always be found. Europa Universalis lavishes players with countless missions, offering some handy direction. At any time, there are several missions available, all logical for the nation they are given to and the situation it's in. England might get a mission to conquer territory in France that it lost during the Hundred Years' War, or after years of economic mismanagement, any nation might be offered a mission to lower inflation.  Not merely a guiding hand, missions result in rewards like increased prestige -- which affects the opinions other countries have of you -- or a higher military tradition, buffing the armed forces.  This new addition doesn't change the fact that Europa Universalis has always been about setting your own goals, encouraging players to live out their "what if?" historical fantasies. And with there being no set victory conditions, it's less about winning or losing and more about the journey. My attempt to turn Scotland into a wealthy colonial power completely failed when England declared war in the 1600s and my French allies refused to help me. My burgeoning colonial holdings were gobbled up, and soon the English marched into Scotland and put my cities to the torch. I didn't feel like I'd "lost" the game, however. That story had merely ended violently instead of ending with an unlikely Scottish empire. That didn't make it any less entertaining or worthwhile.  Beneath the historical narrative lies a slew of fine-tuned, interconnected systems. As Venice, my first goal was to get fat and rich from trade. As a Merchant Republic I didn't have to wait for leaders to die before a new one took over, as I could choose a new Doge during frequent elections, so the first chance I got, I installed the bureaucratic candidate. The new Doge generated a lot of administrative points, which in turn I was able to spend on increasing my administrative technology.  The administrative upgrades increased the efficiency of my realm, but more importantly: it unlocked my first national idea, letting me customize my realm. I could have explored the espionage ideas, the variety of military ones, or invested in colonization, but instead I opted for the trade idea.  Spending more administrative points eventually conferred boons like increased trade power and more merchants, letting me collect money from trade nodes in my own territory, or steer trade from foreign nodes back to Venice. The basic principle of trade is that you use your power to direct or dip into revenue, but it becomes a bit more complex when the New World is discovered, as you unlock more nodes and attempt to juggle an increasingly large trade network.  Nice and wealthy, I looked at my pitiful neighbours and decided to dabble in a spot of conquest, and again the monarch points, national ideas, and technology came into play. I switched between military and diplomatic Doges, spending the points generated on quelling rebellions, fielding more generals, demanding more land and money from peace negotiations, gaining more advanced military technology, and working my way down a military-focused national idea pillar. Viewed separately, these systems might seem a tad mind-boggling, but considered as one system where every action ties into another, it's a lot easier to wrap your noggin around. It remains intricate and complex, but entirely logical -- once you spot the threads that connect everything from trade to conquest together, it becomes more about mastering them and learning how to exploit them than figuring out how they work.  Playing with these systems often results in some tough decisions. "Do I spend my military points to stamp out a potential rebellion, or do I upgrade my soldiers so I can face a threat amassing on my border?" The challenge is in identifying the most immediate concerns and then planning for others. Much of my time with Europa Universalis has been spent with the game paused, pouring over menus, investigating my neighbors, and fretting over what my next step will be. It can be intense and exhausting, but the rewards of outsmarting a devious foe or surviving an invasion from a significantly more powerful country make it worthwhile.  Europa Universalis IV's greatest triumph -- beyond being a deep grand strategy title that doesn't obfuscate everything and leave newcomers weeping in the corner -- is how it makes every new game feel like a new game. Some nations, like England, France, and The Ottomans have clearly had more time spent on making them distinct, but even smaller powers like Native American tribes get their own unique units, even though less attention has been paid to their missions and historical events. They all offer new experiences, however. Whether it's because of the part of the world they are situated in, the player-defined goals, or how the AI nations around them are acting -- there's always a surprise ready to assault you. Old friends can turn into enemies because they fear your conquering ways -- nations now hold grudges that can last for lifetimes -- or your entire population could rise up against you because they are sick of frequent wars, national debt, or feel like they are living under a tyrant. Few plans can go off without a hitch, because Europa Universalis is such a reactive game. You're not playing in a vacuum; you're playing with hundreds of nations with diverse populations, and they've all got their own goals and ambitions. Rivalries develop over time, coalitions pop up, with your neighbors teaming up against you, and religions violently collide. Something is always going on, and it's not always a given that you'll be able to control it. Even taking the reins of the same country multiple times can result in a completely different jaunt through history. I've played as Venice twice now, and the first time -- which you can read about here -- ended with Austria utterly spanking me, but on my second attempt, Austria was completely smashed by France and I, the Holy Roman Empire ended up being controlled by Bohemia, and I united Italy. Adding multiplayer into the equation makes thing even more unpredictable, and if you've read any of my articles recounting my LAN experiences with the game, you'll know that I was looking forward to spending a lot of my time with Europa Universalis IV online. Lamentably, the fates have conspired against me. Using Steam instead of the atrocious metaserver from previous Paradox Development Studio games, the multiplayer promised to be a lot more stable and nowhere near as fiddly as past iterations. There's even a handy hot-join option, letting players jump into a game-in-progress without having to faff about. I've not been able to test it at all, however, as I can't even see the games my chums are hosting, nor can I connect via IP. I know that a lot of folk are enjoying the multiplayer with almost no issues, but I'm not one of them. Despite the multiplayer issues I've encountered, Europa Universalis IV has been the most stable and bug-free Paradox title I've ever played. I spotted some Belgian troops going completely crazy, moving back and forth in the same provinces for an entire year, and when I first started playing clicking on colonial provinces would bring up no information, and I had to click on the region next to them, but since the first week I've not seen anything like that again. Even more surprising is that I haven't crashed once.  I'm quite willing to admit that I've become obsessed with Europa Universalis IV. When I'm not talking about it, I'm desperate to bring it up, and when I chat to someone that I know for a fact plays it, I'll happily natter away for hours, regaling them with the history of my nations, demanding that they entertain me with tales of their own. Paradox Development Studio has shown that it understands grand strategy like no other studio. Europa Universalis IV is the defining game in the genre, laying out the whole world in front of players and just letting them have at it. It's a polished, almost terrifyingly vast title that gets its hooks in you the moment you click on that first country, and simply refuses to let go. Now, if you don't mind, I've got some peasants to oppress. 
Europa Universalis review photo
Crushing peasants and building empires
I've just united Italy after over a century of bloody conflicts. From Doge of The Serene Republic of Venice to the first King of Italy -- it's quite the step up. Along the way, I've upset the gargantuan Holy Roman Empire, gon...

Outlast at PAX photo
Outlast at PAX

Scare yourself stupid with Outlast at PAX

Start practising the fetal position now
Aug 25
// Fraser Brown
There's nothing I like more than to curl up into a little ball and weep like a wee lassie, and Outlast looks like it's going to give me plenty of opportunities to do so. The pants-wetting survival horror title is due out on S...

Police Interrogation: Getting the skinny on Precinct

Aug 19 // Fraser Brown
Contrary to the path walked by many developers, Jim Walls did not enter the industry after being surrounded by videogames, playing them to death, and then thinking "I could do this." Between 1971 and 1986, he was a California Highway Patrol Officer -- far more familiar with catching criminals than using a computer. It wasn't until Jim was on leave from the Highway Patrol following a shooting incident that he found himself working for Sierra, at the request of Ken Williams. The studio co-founder wanted to draw from Jim's experiences and knowledge to make Sierra's latest title Police Quest as realistic as possible.  That desire for authenticity continues today, at the heart of Precinct. "The main thing, for me, is to take the player and put him into the shoes of a police officer," Jim tells me. "Let him experience how his hands are tied, and the things he can do and can't do." Precinct will be Police Quest for a modern audience, according to Jim and Robert. One aspect that sets it apart from its forebearer is the change in setting. While the first three installments in the original franchise took place in the small town of Lytton, Precinct follows rookie cop Maxwell Jones as he works his beat in Fraser Canyon, a drastically different locale.  Inspired by the likes of Chicago and Detroit, Fraser Canyon suffers from the crime problems found in larger American cities. Even though Maxwell starts off on a foot beat, he'll face crime and corruption as he attempts to make a difference, rather than beginning with the more sedate pace that Police Quest protagonist Sonny Bonds experienced, initially.  And where Sonny was a veteran police officer, Maxwell begins on the lowest rung, learning the ropes. "You start as a rookie officer, fresh out of the academy," Jim clarifies. "You're going to start off on a foot beat, rather than directly into a car, and then you'll work your way up into traffic, and you'll expand your world as you become a car cop a little later into the game." Police Quest was infamous for demanding that players follow proper police procedure. Sonny could go deaf because he didn't wear the proper safety gear at the gun range, had to properly maintain his firearm, and the only leeway that was given was in one instance where he could overlook a speeding motorist. Jim explains that Precinct will be a tad more relaxed in terms of punishing players for mistakes, but there will still be consequences for not playing by the rulebook.  "If you arrest someone, and don't pat them down first, we might set some flag that says the very first time... maybe nothing happens," Jim offers as an example. "You cuff him and he goes to jail. But if you develop that habit, two or three arrests down the road, he's going to have a weapon of some kind, and that's going to teach you your lesson." The end result could be that Maxwell gets fired, or worse: shot and killed.  Unlike Jim, Robert Lindsley has been part of the industry for most of his life. From 15, he worked at Sierra, boxing games and doing other small jobs, until Roberta and Ken allowed him to show off his programming talents, leading to roles in Kings Quest V and Phantasmagoria 2, to name but a few. After Sierra, Robert joined Microsoft and the original Xbox launch team, and has since worked at both Atari and Harmonix.  Robert stresses that many parts of Precinct are still at the conceptual stage, with the team exploring potential mechanics, some of which sound very ambitious, and may have to wait for future games -- Precinct will be a series of five titles. Perhaps most intriguing is the "bad cop" route, with Maxwell not just fighting corruption, but becoming part of it. "I think it's an interesting concept to explore," Robert says. "It's just how deep can you go down that fox hole? How corrupt do we want the player to become?" He'd like to see surface-level corruption, but not necessarily allow players to experience the bowels.  Jim's explored the idea of allowing players to become corrupt, to the point where he's considered some rather deep ramifications. "You're going to be tried in a court of law, and then Internal Affairs comes in, and they try to work a deal with you, where if you agree to do an undercover operation, you could have the charges dropped... and be redeemed." At this point, such mechanics exist only in Jim's notes, but they are certainly fascinating. Good cop or bad cop, there will be moments where Maxwell is called upon to use his firearm or get physical, but this is another aspect of the game that's being debated. I brought up Telltale's The Walking Dead as an example of an adventure game that I thought pulled off physicality rather well, but Robert made it clear that QTEs would not be a good fit for their vision. "They're just too restrictive," he tells me. "We want the player to have the opportunity to make the wrong decision." Precinct is being designed with the classic Sierra adventure game player in mind, and Robert doesn't see the linear action offered by QTEs appealing to that type of player -- one that prizes choice.  In regards to specifics, the action is still being hashed out by the team. The consequences of said confrontations is something that Jim's been contemplating, however. "You have a shooting board... see that's the experience I want to try to put in there. What you do in a split second of time is going to be picked apart by a panel of people, and they'll tell you what you did right and what you did wrong, and we want to put that in there."  Chatting about police procedure and shooting boards got me thinking about how policing has changed in the last 20 years. "Steadily it's become more dangerous," Jim laments. "The nutcases out there has grown, exponentially. And the predators..." We discuss the differences between the American and British police, notably the fewer firearms in the UK. As a child, this altered my experience of the original Police Quests. While serious in tone, the gun violence, dangerous gangs, and armed police seemed like a world away to a young lad from rural Scotland -- it was almost fantastical.  Of course, things have changed here, too. We have a lot more armed police, and gun violence is very much a reality we live with. Just last month I unfortunately witnessed a gang scrap outside my bedroom window, one which led to the murder of a young man with an illegal firearm. Such gangs will feature in Precinct too, according to Jim. "Every bad guy out there has a gun. The gangs are so prominent, and that's going to be part of our story, but I don't want to give too much away." Gangs are far from the only lawbreakers that Maxwell will have to tackle, though. Jim describes a database of crimes that would spawn illegal activities throughout the city of Fraser Canyon. He wants to make the world feel like it's full of life, with dynamic crimes that might lead to life or death confrontations. Some of them will even take place on the roads of the city.  While the moment-to-moment details of the driving is still being hammered out, Robert admits that driving is something they really want to do right, since it was frustrating as hell in the original series. Using Unity and working in 3D has allowed the team to work on crafting a more realistic approximation of driving in a squad car. Jim's description of what he wants to do with the driving aspect sounds significantly more exciting than what one would expect from an adventure game. "It's going to be an experience. Getting in a high-speed pursuit, having to terminate the pursuit with a PIT maneuver or something, or maybe a slower speed before you ram the person to get them to stop, and that's the main reason I want to use a first-person perspective, because I think that can bring it home more effectively." When Precinct was first announced, it was revealed to be employing the crowd-funding model, with it going up on Kickstarter soon after. Not long after this, the kickstarter was canceled, and the studio has since been getting funding through its own site. One reason for dumping Kickstarter was the lack of traction Precinct gained on the platform, and Robert didn't see it achieving its goal, which would lead to it getting none of the funds.  "We rolled up our sleeves, and said we're going to build a platform on our own, and we're really going to think about what worked with the Kickstarter campaign and what didn't work." One of the key problems that Robert cites was the lack of information about how the game actually functioned. Instead of trying to convey it in text, Jim and Robert want to actually show off a functioning proof of concept, and that's where the four-stage funding campaign they put together comes into play. The first stage is the $25,000 mark. This will allow the team to develop a proof of concept, a "short but playable sample of Precinct." The goal of this phase is to showcase the interface and navigation. At $90,000 a "vertical slice" will be delivered to backers, revealing a partial or completed mission. The $250,000 mark will be the game demo, and $400,000 will be the amount needed for a finished game.     There does seem to be a bit more risk for backers with this method. However, each backer, no matter how much they donated, is being promised a digital copy of the game. Employing this model, Jim and Robert hope to be able to engage backers more, not asking them to wait for a long period with nothing to play.  Throughout development, backer feedback will be integral, Robert tells me. Yet -- and this is something that always concerns me about crowd-funded games -- I wonder how they'd strike a balance between maintaining their creative vision while working in backer feedback. "Design by committee is a tough way to go, and doesn't make for a great product," he acknowledges. Community involvement is built into the design process for Precinct, it's an extra layer feedback that creates a series of checks and balances.  It's clear that while Precinct is being developed with modern sensibilities for distribution on consoles as well as PC (should the stretch goals be reached), the Sierra community is always being considered. Jim and Robert want to make the type of game they would have made at Sierra On-Line in the '90s, had they the technology that they have now. It's a new game, with mainstream appeal being considered, but it's very much for the people who loved the Sierra classics and, despite the many years since the name Sierra On-Line was relevant, still consider themselves active fans.  If ever there was a time where a spiritual successor to Police Quest could succeed, now would be it. With Heavy Rain, L.A. Noire, and The Walking Dead gaining mainstream success while ostensibly being adventure games that eschew the tropes of scene-stopping puzzles and illogical inventory shenanigans, focusing instead on investigation and action, then the pioneer of that style is well positioned for a comeback.   
Precinct Interview photo
Investigating the Police Quest spiritual successor
It's 1987. Politicians are terrifying people with Cold War rhetoric, The Simpsons is born on The Tracy Ullman Show, U2 releases The Joshua Tree, and Bono has yet to become completely intolerable. I'm two years old, ...

New releases photo
New releases

New releases: Purple is back in style

Plus, The Bureau, Splinter Cell, Disney Infinity, and more
Aug 19
// Fraser Brown
Bloody hell, this week, calm down. A slew of games are clamouring for your attention over the next seven days, some of them really rather good. At the top of the pile, however, is Saints Row IV. I didn't think the series wou...
Spelunky PC Port photo
Spelunky PC Port

PC Port Report: Spelunky

Pugs for everyone!
Aug 18
// Fraser Brown
[Want to know how a developer handled the PC version of a multiplatform game? Check out the PC Port Report for the full scoop.] The original Spelunky, now known as Spelunky Classic, was a freeware PC title, but it was XBLA pl...
Dragon Age Inquisition photo
Dragon Age Inquisition

Dragon Age: Inquisition caters to all races

Fantasy ones, anyway
Aug 16
// Fraser Brown
Am I still going to be derided for admitting that I rather liked Dragon Age II's Hawke? The focus on a human character was more in line with the second outing in Thedas' narrower vision, and I found that I wasn't all that fus...

Review: Dishonored: The Brigmore Witches

Aug 16 // Fraser Brown
Dishonored: The Brigmore Witches (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)Developer: Arkane StudiosPublisher: Bethesda Release: August 13, 2013MSRP: $9.99 The Knife of Dunwall's slightly contrived tale of a broken assassin attempting to atone for his heinous acts was surprisingly impersonal. Daud's not very charismatic, helped little by Michael Madsen's half-hearted vocal talents, and while his investigation into the mysterious painter known as Delilah was a good excuse for lots of wonderful stealth and murder, it wasn't in the least bit gripping. The Brigmore Witches immediately fixes this with its sharp focus: Daud's out for revenge. There's still a lot of nonsense about atoning for past sins, but playing in high chaos like I was, there's little forgiveness to be found or earned. Instead it's a hunt for Delilah. She who caused Daud's protégé to betray her master. We're still dallying in the realm of clichés, but it's one that doesn't come with the baggage of dissonance.    The first of the three missions sees Daud sneak into Coldridge Prison, not long after Corvo's escape. What could have so easily been a regurgitated level manages to be entirely fresh, and Arkane use it to expertly showcase the features that make The Brigmore Witches stand out from both the core game and its sister DLC.  Favors remain, introduced in The Knife of Dunwall, and continue to completely change the dynamic of a mission. For a fairly small amount of gold, Daud's able to get his hands on an Overseer disguise, and makes it into Coldridge right through the front door, unimpeded. None of the intensity provided by slowly sneaking into the imposing prison is lost, as Daud's instructed to stick to only a small part of the facility, and there's always that sense that he's going to be discovered.  Goodies locked away behind bars, like gold or elixirs, are a splendid excuse to use Daud's new power. A simple ability gifted to him by the Outsider, allowing the master murderer to pull items towards him. Upgraded, it can even snare people, leaving them vulnerable to a killing blow from Daud's bloodied knife.  Coldridge is on edge after Corvo's escape. The guards are meaner, more paranoid; the river has been drained, stopping anyone from leaping off the bridge; and those considered responsible for letting the Lord Protector slip through the grasp of the Lord Regent are about to be executed. It's the smallest of the three missions, but it does the best job of connecting the old with the new. It is in Drapers Ward, the textile and seamstress district making up the second act, where most of Brigmore takes place. Canals, sewers, once glamorous streets now filled with detritus and crumbling buildings, factories, and a dock collide, making it by far the most diverse location. A savage gang war is tearing the place apart, with the dapper, top hat-wearing Hatters on one side, and the Dead Eel smugglers on the other. While criminals paint the streets red with blood, Daud prowls above them. They fight amongst themselves, against the hungry rats, and like all the enemies in both expansions, they patrol erratically, making them tricky bastards to predict. Initially, both gangs will attack Daud on sight, but a side is taken, and deals are struck. Where The Knife of Dunwall fleshed out the grisly whaling industry, Brigmore gives depth to Dunwall's criminal element and its textile industry. There's plenty of history to be devoured, all of it interesting, despite textiles not normally conjuring up exciting images. It's a history of oppression, and a fall from grace that revealed the true face of one of the city's most popular districts. The criminals are just more open about being criminals now. Dark, claustrophobic tunnels sit beneath towering apartments and wide open spaces, demanding players switch strategies to tackle the varied geography of this slice of Dunwall. Options are plentiful, with additional objectives, side-missions, secrets, and puzzles making the ward a content-rich space. A quest from Granny Rags involving a corpse wedding, locked safes and homes, the opportunity to eradicate a whole section of the city in one fell swoop -- there's plenty to keep Daud busy. Even while exploring a prison filled with mechanical security systems and the one-time heart of the textile industry, magic flows throughout The Brigmore Witches. Runes and bone charms return, of course, giving Daud new abilities or upgraded old ones, but with them comes corrupted charms. Made from broken bits and pieces of other charms or put together by amateurs, they do not work as intended. A charm designed to make its owner's attacks stronger also makes said attacks slower, while another gives the wearer preternatural speed at the cost of hardiness.  Frankly, they are a bit crap. Daud's a pretty deadly fellow as it is, so they payoff isn't really worth the negative side effects. There are so many regular bone charms (especially if you're using a save from Knife of Dunwall, letting you keep all the ones you found in the earlier DLC) that there's simply no reason to cripple yourself unless you want a bit of extra challenge.  It's a missed opportunity. There are a few books and accounts of these corrupted charms scattered throughout the maps, and there's a huge difference between those being described and those Daud finds. One charm apparently made its bearer able to deflect attack as if he wore armor, but every time he was struck, one of his teeth would turn black and fall out. Another account describes a man purchasing a charm that would allow him to dream of a night spent with the object of his affections, but instead fed him nightmares where he saw her sleep with every single one of his enemies. I would have loved to see a more creative application of these dark objects, but instead they provide some minor buffs and debuffs. Elsewhere, magic is more deftly handled. The eponymous witches are bloody horrifying. Decaying women consumed by magic and nature, they fight with powers similar to Daud's, but with greater intensity. Blinking in and out of existence, they viscously stab and slice, before vanishing only to appear far away, where they start to shriek like banshees, assaulting Daud with their screams.  Deadly and unpredictable on their own, these harridans are unfortunately rarely alone. In the once beautiful and now dilapidated Brigmore Manor, the setting of The Brigmore Witches' final act, they not only tend to patrol in groups, but are flanked by hellish mutts that will hunt their quarry to the ends of the earth. What both Dishonored and The Knife of Dunwall sorely lacked were truly threatening antagonists. The Brigmore Witches is not so hampered.  Daud's final mission is undoubtedly his most challenging. I confess that I'm glad I was going for a high-chaos run, as staying hidden from this army of eldrich women and avoiding all conflict would be a tall order -- though it's one I will endeavour to attempt somewhere down the line. It is only in the final moments where I felt let down by The Brigmore Witches. A shaky, humdrum "boss" confrontation that throws stealth and planning out the window, and then an epilogue that flies in the face of my own experiences in Dishonored felt tacked on, but they fail to mar an otherwise superb expansion. All I really wanted was more Dishonored, but what I got was something that surpasses it. Intricate level design, nuanced worldbuilding, and gameplay that demands a thoughtful approach even when resulting in flashy, bloody violence -- The Brigmore Witches is setting the bar very high for future stealth romps. 
Brigmore Witches review photo
Never anger a witch
I'm meant to be playing a cold, calculating murderer -- a man who assassinated an empress and gave her innocent daughter to traitors. So why am I hiding atop a broken chandelier, a mess of tightly wound nerves and sweat? Beca...

New releases: Get your dragon on, and then do it again

Aug 05 // Fraser Brown
[Image Source] PS3: Dragon's Crown, Tales of Xillia Wii U: Disney's Planes PC: Divinity: Dragon Commander, Guacamelee! 3DS: Disney's Planes, SteamWorld Dig Vita: Dragon's Crown, Superfrog HD PSN: Superfrog HD, Ibb and Obb  XBLA: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons Divinity: Dragon Commander (PC) [embed]259445:49871:0[/embed] Tales of Xillia (PS3) [embed]259445:49872:0[/embed] Disney's Planes (3DS, Wii U) [embed]259445:49873:0[/embed] Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons [embed]259445:49874:0[/embed] SteamWorld Dig (3DS) [embed]259445:49875:0[/embed] Ibb and Obb (PSN) [embed]259445:49876:0[/embed] Guacamelee! (PC) [embed]259445:49878:0[/embed]
New releases photo
Plus other non-dragon related games
Apparently it's shark week in the US, but more importantly, it's also dragon week. Dragon's Crown and Dragon Commander -- two extremely different scaley games -- are dropping, and fans of winged reptiles are likely rejoicing...

Wargame DLC photo
Wargame DLC

Wargame: AirLand Battle gets some hefty, free DLC

More war!
Aug 03
// Fraser Brown
I was thoroughly impressed with Eugen Systems' Wargame: AirLand Battle; an extremely complex, realistic take on modern warfare. It's one of the most impressive RTS titles to come out in the last couple of years, and one that ...
Saints Row IV Australia photo
Saints Row IV Australia

Australians rejoice: You're allowed to play Saints Row IV

And you won't become drug addicts
Aug 02
// Fraser Brown
After a ridiculous amount of faffing about, Saints Row IV has finally been deemed appropriate for adults to buy. Until now, Australian men and women were considered responsible enough to get jobs, buy homes, and get married, ...
Whore of the Orient photo
Smacking folk around in Shanghai
Leaked footage of Team Bondi's Whore of the Orient recently surfaced on, courtesy of a "trusted source." The gameplay video reveals some awkward fighting, some brisk running, and a lot of hiding behind bo...

Square Enix news photo
Square Enix news

Square Enix not giving up on AAA PC and console games

But will be expanding more into mobile, tablet and online titles
Aug 02
// Fraser Brown
Square Enix has been a bit of a Negative Nancy this year, specifically when it's come to sales. Although it shifted quite a few copies of Sleeping Dogs, Hitman Absolution, and Tomb Raider, as well as garnering quite a bit of ...
Europa Universalis IV photo
Europa Universalis IV

Crusader Kings collides with Europa Universalis

Lead your people from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance
Jul 30
// Fraser Brown
Europa Universalis IV, one of my most anticipated releases of the year, is only a fortnight away. As we enter August, the final pre-order bonus has been revealed by Paradox Interactive, and it's a doozy: a free copy of Crusad...

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