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Sunday, June 28, 2009

The heat, the dragon and the dwarves

The Heat

Imagine here an illustration of someone sweating or a picture of a blazing sun*

It has been rather hot in the part where I live lately and it's making my brain work rather slowly. I barely write anything and I tend not to touch anything too brainy. Sorry to the people I usually interact with! Hopefully I'll get over it... or you'll see me again in September :|

* I was going to have a public domain picture of it here but it's apparently hard to find. I might start drawing quick doodles to illustrate my posts when the Internet fails me so.

The Dragon

In the mean time, I have gone back to the Dragon's Lair series after an old friend of mine came for a visit and we shared a few bits about the game. I've first played the series on the Amiga adaptation and it was quite something at the time, seeing what looked like an interactive cartoon on "just" a computer. And I've learned now that it was indeed quite the technical feat too.

Dragon's Lair Amiga version

Far from perfect, but incredible considering the 64 colors, slow processor and floppy format

I also played the sequel, "Dragon's Lair: Escape from Singe's Castle" (funny title considering "singe" means monkey in French :p -- it's actually the dragon's name I think?), "Space Ace" (similar concept but in space), and "Dragon's Lair 3". I missed "Dragon's Lair 2", I'm not sure why... Given the room on the floppies of then, each of the original arcade games had to be split into two games, hence the four Dragon's Lair games on Amiga in the end.

Edit note : having watched a video of DL1 just now, I come up with two things to say : "oh the bastards!" and "still, good job". "Oh the bastards!" because the game cost about $150 at the time, and lasted about 7 minutes (loading times excluded, on a perfect run) and, the worst part maybe, doubled *every* scene except the finale. How cheap is that? ^^;... "Still, good job" because I'm still amazed this ran on an Amiga and how accurate they made it on some scenes (thankfully, the most important ones)

But originally, there were two DL games and one Space Ace game, which I only discovered years later through their CD-I versions, which, thanks to the Digital Video component of the console, were actually the same as the original arcade (at least in relative video quality).

So how did the arcade look and how did the games play? Well the following video will explain it better :

Edit note : unless I'm mistaken, the moves they give are total nonsense most of the time. Was it to explain how it work without actually giving the solution? Who knows... They also show the end of the game, which is... well... would be a spoiler if the game itself wasn't so cliché to begin with. In any case, I'm pretty sure the only ones actually interested in playing the game already did uh? (somewhat invalidating my post too, yay!)
Also, "proper" TV hosts in costume playing Dragon's Lair is..... mildly amusing *giggles*.

Do note how it came out not long after Space Invaders and Pacman. Gosh, what a shock it must have been at the time! That's quite the technical prowess! It even took years before the CD support took hold of the game genre and before we got games using full video such as Phantasmagoria (at least it's one of the first games I remember going for the movie feel, but my memories might be hazy on that one).

To sum it up : incredible visual quality, but a definitely awkward game system... if you even want to call it a "game". The closest game I can think of in recent times might be... Dance Dance Revolution. Really, Dragon's Lair was more of a "step in time with the music" kind of game, except the music was video on screen and you had to guess the right move yourself.
Oh, and of course, QTEs! They've popped up in games these last years, like in Shenmue and Indigo Prophecy or God of War : press the button on screen while your character does the cool stuff. It seems almost no one likes these and I'll admit I'm not *that* fond of them either. I think it's a matter of context : a game made of QTE can be all right, but QTE in an otherwise regular game is annoying. Go figure :)

Final thing on this topic : I have also read up on DL and discovered the initial plans for the game were much more complex with actual interactivity instead of the rather linear thing it is today : you were supposed to be able to choose your path, have alternatives here and there, etc... But even without this, I've realized the arcade version (compared to the CD-I version) was actually harder in some places, requiring logical timing : push towards a rope only when the rope comes into your reach, press sword only when the enemy is about to strike at you so you deflect it, etc... If you press the right move too soon, it's taken into account... but in a negative way! On CD-I, you can keep pressing the right move way ahead of time and it'll register all right. Funny.

Dragon's Lair at Digital Leisure

I might make other posts for Dragon's Lair II and Space Ace. If only to post videos... I like posting videos >.>...

The Dwarves

Hmm, I'll have to be short on this as heat + typing = headache. Meh!

Simply put, here's another game I keep coming back to year after year. Not often and never for long, but still, it says something about its quality.

Dwarf Fortress is about.... managing a dwarven fortress. Yup. It's all in ASCII (look at the screenshot), though more graphical tilesets now exist, and it's all about simulation depth. At first you're just trying to survive winter by building workshops, bedrooms and dining rooms... hunting, fishing, crafting goods, etc... It's very similar to the Settlers I think. But the more time goes, the more things pile up. After a while you get nobles and special dwarves who can manage the fortress, set export bans, make foolish demands, etc... You also have to deal with enemy invasions (goblins, humans, others...), floods, magma and other things I probably don't even know about. It just changes scope as the population grows. No more micro-managing, no more truly caring about those seven initial dwarves when you have more than 50 roaming around the halls.

I keep coming back to it because it's a quiet game, where many things can happen and it keeps evolving (I just discovered how much it stores about the world it generates the first time... so many details!) And I tend to give it up because it still has a rather obscure interface (only helped by the Wiki) and it's still a sandbox game with not a *lot* of room for mistakes (it plays like a roguelike, so when you're screwed, you're screwed).

Anyway, if you don't mind the graphics and think it sounds at least a bit fun, try it! It's free.

Oh and if there's one thing you should read, it's the Boatmurdered "Let's Play" of the game :
It definitely shows how hilariously crazy things can get :)

Dwarf Fortress (by Bay12games)

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

On the fly roleplay

I did something a bit strange today. That is, stranger than roleplaying solo :P

I have this commute time in the morning (and evening, really) of about 40 minutes. I'll usually either vegetate when I'm too tired / still waking up or read some roleplay material on my Nintendo DS, or play a game on it, but it's become quite rare these days.

I have been eating tons of superhero rpg material lately and I guess it's slowly boring me now (the reading of rules and setting I mean! I want to play now!) And today I tried something new : using Mythic on the fly during the commute.

The only thing I need is a little imagination and a random d100 generator (since rolling dice while standing on a sidewalk is not practical). Solution? Reading numbers on car ID plates :D. And so this morning I was an elven ranger who got robbed by bandits and went to get his revenge in the nearby forest where they set camp. Worked like a charm!

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Fate Heroes - Part 0

Last time on Moni's Catbox...

I finished Freedom Force some time ago and started the second opus a few days later, just giving myself some pause to avoid getting sick of it (I tend to consume media as one would consume his favorite meal). But was it really a pause? I ended up picking up my solo roleplaying and what else but a superhero setting could I choose? :)

I have been spending weeks on reading Marvel Superheroes RPG material and with Freedom Force on top of this, let's just say I'm very much "Supers!" minded these days. I almost went with a custom character but then realized it would be simpler to pick a character I just learned a great deal about : Minuteman, the main hero of Freedom Force.

This first post, titled "part 0", will explain the RPG systems I use to play, without going into details too much. Next post will be the actual adventure.

How I do it

First, I should explain what I use for my solo roleplaying.

My RPG system of choice is Spirit of the Century, by Evil Hat Productions, a pulp pick-up game based upon the FATE v3 system (itself based on Fudge!). I allow myself to sprinkle it with bits of Starblazer Adventures, by Cubicle 7, the space-opera counterpart to SotC. And last but not least, I apply my own variations (which I call Fate Fantasy but it's nothing official) whenever I feel the rules are lacking something or are not to my taste (if there's something I've learned from RPGs, it's the "customize at will" advice!). For this particular superhero adventure, I have started a new set of variants I call Fate Heroes, which follows advice from Marvelous Fate, a Fate adaptation of the Marvel Superheroes rules.

Yes, it's fair to say it's a big mix of ideas, but overall, it's just FATE v3, adapted to a particular setting.

Last but not least, I use the Mythic GM Emulator from Word Mill Games. I know, I know, a GM emulator? Pfah! But you'd be wrong thinking that. It's actually a very simple but incredibly effective mini-system that allows a GM or players without a GM to come up with what happens in an adventure AND still get surprises out of it. While it does have a few tables for random picks, they don't provide anything set in stone and setting specific and rely on one's imagination and interpretation instead, not unlike tarot reading. The main part of the system, though, is based on asking questions (Magic 8 Ball like) and having the dice answer for you.
I won't get into it more than this as it will be more easily explained during the actual adventure write-up.

Well I guess that's it! All I can add is that I currently play by writing what happens in a notepad-like program to keep track of everything.

See you next post!

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Freedom Force review

Here is what I have been playing for about a week. It's, simply put, a superhero realtime tactical game with a coat of RPG.

I heard about the game for the first time when they released its sequel, "Freedom Force VS the 3rd Reich" and I tried the demo. I remember not being thrilled by it as it felt clunky and difficult, in spite of a bunch of charismatic characters and a nice superheroic homage feel. I know I wasn't much into superheroes back then either, which probably didn't help.

And then, I read that Steam has a promotional pack with Freedom Force 1 & 2 for a very small price, and I get curious again. I grab the demo again, but of the first game this time! And the little tutorial you get to play (Mission 1, really) was just what I needed to realize how fun the game was (the FF2 demo had tutorial bits too, but they were not enough).

The team takes on some bad guys

How does it play?
You go through a campaign which is a string of short missions (about half an hour each on average). You start with one hero and get additional ones as time goes. You can soon pick which heroes deal with the next mission. A bit later, you can recruit new heroes thanks to the Prestige you have acquired. The squad sent on missions can have 4 members max and sometimes one or two characters are forced upon you because of story requirements.

Missions take place on a single map or are divided in two or three chapters if there is a need for a map change. The game is in real-time but you can both pause it (ala Baldur's Gate / NWN) or slow it down at the press of a key... and it's more than needed as dealing with a whole team in real time is nearly impossible.
Objectives are varied : the usual "defeat all", check points to reach, artifacts to activate, time-limited activities, protect the civilians and/or buildings, etc... What you have to do is usually updated throughout a missions as you learn more about what's going on. We're not talking RPG quests though. It's more like the objectives you'd get in a RTS.

Man-bot and Alchemiss against... a bunch of bad guys!

Now, in all honesty, the game *is* clunky and even hard for various reasons. I didn't really believe the "tactical" part until I got my ass handed to me in one of the early missions.
So yes, it's tactical : there is a lot of friendly fire if you don't watch it. Beams, projectiles, explosions (eek!) and even wide melee attacks are all things you want to consider carefully and you should place your team members where it's safe. Then, there's the fact the game uses a physics engine for a lot of things and maps are not always flat, which makes elevation a good and a bad thing (mainly when it blocks attacks). And I will add that resistances and weaknesses can be the difference between win and lose in some missions. To summarize : it might be a superhero game, but it doesn't mean you fly through as an invincible group, which is nice for the challenge.

Mentor, the "brain" of the team, and his mental powers

About the RPG part. Even though we control superheroes, they are not set in stone from square one. Instead, you get to see them evolve through the campaign. Admittedly, their main attributes (Strength, Speed, etc...) are fixed, but they get new powers and abilities and can upgrade them.
This does mean they get XP, but it's based on a fixed rate : 300 points if they were in the active squad, 200 otherwise. As you can see, the game is not harsh on letting you try everyone out, though you might end up with characters who are not fully developed by the end of the campaign (happened to me).

Overall, it mostly means that you get a sense of accomplishment and reward for going through missions, but it also helps becoming familiarized with initial powers before getting new ones. So it's a rather good thing.

But wait, wait, wait! This is all good but that's not what superheroes are about, right? So let's focus on what makes Freedom Force really fun : mayhem!

Alchemiss sends enemies a-flying

That's what I discovered with the FF demo the second time around : the game does a lot of things to make you feel like you're in a superhero adventure.
First, it provides, through its main characters, many superhero archetypes you would expect in such a game : Minute Man is the usual Captain Something (strong, leader), Alchemiss is the mystical, reality-altering sorceress and Man-Bot is the slow but powerful human-in-a-machine. It's easy to recognize the inspiration for all of them, but the great thing is that they still manage to feel unique : more homage than rip-off if you will.

Traffic light, coming right up!

You also get the powers you would expect : beams of energy or elements, various melee attacks, mental control, regeneration, flying, high-jumpers, jet-fast runners, etc... And for the strong characters, you get the ability to pick up heavy things and either wield them or...

Mind the flying car, robot!

... throw them! Hell yeah! Not only cars of course : trashcans, postboxes, boulders and anything else that is not too incredibly heavy. I haven't tested the very limits of it... There's a bus I'd like to see flying one day :). Of course, what one character can lift, how far and hard he can throw it and how fast he is when carrying it is all dependant on his Strength attribute (melee characters can usually handle posts, strong ones will throw many things around and psy-types will keep to trashcans).

And that's where the physics engine shines. Objects fly, people fly, debris are projected all around, buildings crumble in a billow of dust. Even when you destroy your first building by mistake, it's more of a "woah, I can do that?" than "oh no!" moment. So yeah... the moment you realize you can pickup a streetlight to use as a bat and send three thugs flying... that's when it gets good.
But many other super-abilities give that "super!" feeling : flying around, jumping on tall buildings and crossing the city hopping from one to the other, sprinting like the Flash to avoid an explosion or do some hit & run... it's all there and it's fun!

All the classic themes are here too! It starts with thugs and then you get your first super-powered villain. But it ends with the epic stuff while touching all the usual pulpy stuff in-between (city-destroying robots is one I can "reveal" since it's on the screenshots).

Minuteman's voice is a bit on the "too much" side

The campaign story bits tend to look like the above : in-engine sequences with comics fonts and thumbnails. One thing that is a bit hard to get used to at first is how over-the-top everything is. The actors are good, but it's obvious they push it to make each character's archetype show. Minuteman is all "For Justice!" and "Whaaat is goooing ooon?" with a low-tone voice. It's almost annoying at times and realizing it's all about having fun without looking for something too serious can save the day. That said, the characters tend to be endearing after a while, partly because of that.

It had to be Russians! (aah, clichés...)

The villains fare similarly, with quite a few stereotypes thrown in, but again, they're fun to interact with (interaction being blasting them :D).

The campaign offers quite a few environements to visit, from the basic city and frozen parks to canyon deserts and pocket dimensions. The city is the one to appear the most often, albeit in various forms (snow, night, rubble, ...)

For more superhero goodness, all characters get a "The Secret Origin of" introduction sequence, either in-game or on demand for the heroes you recruit manually. They're all rather well done, using a semi-animated comics style and showing how everyone became what they are.

And to finish this long review, let's talk about... custom heroes!

Le Fantassin est là! (my minimal mod of Minuteman)

Once again, this is something I totally missed when I first tried the FF2 demo : you can create your very own heroes, stat them up, power 'em up and throw them into the fray. Only in skirmish? No sir! You can actually recruit them during the campaign!

Statistics allow you to make a slow Hulk, or a speedy Flash, or maybe you want a magically powerful witch. Then, you create each power individually, choosing which type it is (melee, projectile, beam, area, direct or special) and how it works : does it do electrical damage? Piercing damage? How much? How much energy does it require? Does it stun or knockback the target? How much? Is it accurate? Is a projectile like a grenade or homing? Does it explodes over a large zone? Does it spawn multiple sub-parts in flight? Let's just say it offers choice. And when you're done with this, you can pick the character animation and the associated visual effect.

That's how much you can customize (for projectiles!)

Sadly, the game doesn't come with many models or skins, nor that many effects. Thankfully, it was meant to be an utterly moddable from the very beginning! Making new skins is rather easy (they're TGA files, you just need an image editor and some talent). Making new models is much mode difficult, but there is a very good community which has done a big part of the job over the years : : the main community about the game : one of the first websites I found with new models, mods and with most basic questions about the game answered in the FAQ.

What did I forget? Let's see... it has multiplayer (though it's mostly skirmish I think), a Danger Room mode where you pick your team and the villains and the map and duke it out. Nice to test custom heroes but I don't think it stays fun for long given the little number of maps given. You can play through the campaign maps with a fully customized cast, though... aaand, that's pretty much it. That's the one "bad" thing for replayability : I hope the campaign will be satisfying with my custom heroes included because otherwise there's little "pick-up yet fulfilling" gaming on the side. Except for mods maybe. I will have to check it all out. Chances are I will go straight to FF2 now, though :)

Conclusion? It's not perfect because of some clunky design and even a few random bugs (stuck carrying a car), but it provides a lot of fun and a setting of its own in the purest superhero fashion. If you can get it on Steam, at the price it's at, there's barely a reason to hesitate (I mean... two whole games for $5!)

Here's the link to the Steam promo-pack :

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Monkey memories

Of course, now that I have made this previous post, I find new things to mention. I don't know if it's better to edit or to create a new post. I suppose edits don't show up in aggregators, but tiny changes might warrant an edit.

So yeah, I don't know why but I keep thinking of Monkey Island as a "cartoony" series. And then I see the screenshot above and wonder... Is this what the art guys were picturing back then? Were the sprites made with realism in mind?

Also, Ron Gilbert talks about Monkey 1 :
I like how he goes over some choices that were valid back then and would make everyone cry nowadays.

Edit (nyargh!) : "P.S. I was always bothered by these close-ups. While they were great art, I never felt they matched the style of the rest of the game."

Now I know :)

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Monkey Island... again?


Tales of Monkey Island :
Monkey Island remake :

Looking good, Elaine!

I'm a big fan of the Monkey Island series. But let's be more precise : my first Monkey game was the second opus and I only played the first one later on. Was it because 2 was prettier than 1 or because it was my first? Who knows... Then came the third opus which I also liked, probably better than the first, but not as much as the second (or at least quite differently).
In order from best to worst for me :
  1. Monkey Island 2
  2. Monkey Island 3
  3. Monkey Island 1
What about Monkey 4 then you say? Only played the demo. Puked at the 3D and visible drop in overall quality.

So what about these news?

Tales of Monkey Island doesn't look great to me. The 3D is once again quite subpar compared to what's being done these days. I'll never understand why they keep going 3D for a reason that seems to be "just because", when 2D packs so much more soul and with so little hardware requirements.

On the other hand, the remake of Monkey 1 is actually somewhat appealing. The fact that it's voiced doesn't do much to me, but it's still nice to have. The graphics are visibly hires and not horribly disfiguring our past memories. Looks like something in-between Monkey 2 and Monkey 3. I'm *not* fond of how it's animated, though. That is... yes it's incredibly faithful, but it's a case of "too bad" as it doesn't fit the remade graphics. It's also nice to see people who are *clearly* trying to modernize it while retaining everything that made it cool in the past (which so many claim but never do when touching old franchises). The new interface also intrigues me.
This said, though, I'm not the right audience for this and except for compatibility issues, I don't see much incentive to get a remake : I didn't mind the graphics and still don't... and the interface wasn't bad, so... New shiny graphics and voices wouldn't cut it.

Obviously, what I'd really want is something that looks like this remake, with better animation (say, Monkey 3) and, most importantly, which is actually in the same spirit as the first three Monkeys.

- Never happy Moni :p

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