Kimimi, Digital Explorer: Shadowrun Chronicles Edition

It’s entirely coincidental, I swear. I’m not some internet Reaper here to cull online games that weren’t able to reach their full potential. But just as the last online game I looked at – Wildstar – is due to close by the end of the month it turns out Cliffhanger Productions online Shadowrun adventure is too.

Now I have to mention that when I started whatever this online game thing is I promised to judge each game on its own merits and avoid falling into lazy comparisons against big hitters like WoW and FFXIV; but I feel this one has to work a little differently because this is specifically a Shadowrun game, and Shadowrun isn’t a unique IP just having a go at being an RPG so much as it is Shadowrun trying to be all Shadowrun-y but without the dice and the character sheets and DMs crying over careful planning being utterly ruined by that one guy spending all night asking if he can jack his pet goldfish into the matrix (“But then he’d be fish and chips! Geddit?!”).

Boston Lockdown (known for a time before launch and throughout it’s Kickstarter campaign as Shadowrun Online) also has to deal with releasing two years after the well-regarded Shadowrun Returns, about a year after the excellent Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and mere months before Shadowrun: Hong Kong completed Harebrained Schemes cyberpunk trilogy.

It’s also worth pointing out that this is an online RPG without the “Massively” part, only the tiniest dash of “Multiplayer” and, surprisingly, has been designed in such a way that the “Online” functionality could vanish overnight (and will do by the end of November) and if it weren’t for the game plastering a global chat box over one corner of the screen it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference at all. So while it’s unfair to take Boston Lockdown to task for not being an MMO I can sure as heck can still squint judge-y eyes in the game’s direction for the Shadowrun, online, and RPG bits.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here, so let’s start with the basics.

Boston Lockdown is one of those “Buy To Play” online games that has no subscription charges but does require the end user to purchase the game and any further expansions (two, in this case) using plain old hard cash. Some B2P games choose to supplement this arrangement with cosmetics-orientated cash shops and/or “premium” subscriptions but impressively there’s not the faintest whiff of that here and even the base game is presented as being complete in and of itself (such extras were considered before release, however).

Character customisation’s an uncomfortable mix of excellent ideas marred by poor execution, so we’ll start with the best bit: All hair, facial hair, tattoos and clothing is available to all characters regardless of their gender. What to make a skinhead lady with a massive beard? No problem. Ork guy in a skirt and stockings? It’s all there if you want it. Further to this, clothing isn’t “adjusted” along typical online game gender lines either, and by that I mean what appears to be a full plate top on a man doesn’t suddenly become a ridiculous metal bikini on a lady, and likewise the tied-under-the-boob-area shirt doesn’t change into a regular long shirt when placed on a guy. Clothes are clothes, and you can wear whatever you like so long as you can get the run done.

Sadly there are a few annoyances even at this early stage, such as having to cycle through every colour variant of an item before moving on to the next (ex: Mohawk (Red), Mohawk (Blue), Mohawk (Green)): A bizarre decision that offers neither the speed of a plain drop-down menu nor the visual ease of use of a style>colour picker. And while you may have a good selection of hair/tattoo/facial options seeing as character portraits are traditional pictures and some race/gender choices have only two to pick from (Female trolls, for one. Human ladies have a dozen, which still isn’t enough) you are absolutely not going to find something that represents your unique digital self no matter how hard you try.

These general UI issues run right through the game; managing to always be noticeable enough to be mildly irritating but never quite bad enough to make you quit in a huff. Examples include a “Back” button that is always placed a million miles away from everything else (ESC/right click/backspace don’t work either – I’ve tried), having to sell items to vendors as discrete individual transactions, and equipped items being bunged in with everything else (the game does at least prevent you from selling them). Again, nothing that will ruin your day, but with a game so tightly focused on a Mission>Hub>Mission>Hub loop it could – and should – have been handled better.

The game itself starts with a promising in media res segment that has you waking up on an operating table just before hazmat-suited scientists experiment on your brain, and this opening along with the next couple of missions serves as a gentle introduction to basic game mechanics. It’s only a short bit of solo moving and shooting but it does make sure you know how to interact with objects, take cover, and get used to the game’s bread and butter before getting properly stuck in.

During this initial escape my elf lady was called a “dandelion-eater” by an enemy (about as rude a term for an elf as you can get in Shadowrun-speak) and at first blush this was a lovely bit of character-specific battle banter. However it doesn’t take very long at all for this sort of chatter to repeat and then outright break down with alarming frequency. Even in my casual time with the game I’ve seen enemies warning themselves to get down because they’ve been marked, party members replying to nobody, “Combatsoft successfully deployed” said by someone missing a shot, mages thanking themselves for their own armour buffs, and perhaps most puzzling of all, “I’ve opened the lock!” said by a character who couldn’t open locks, wasn’t taking their turn, on a map with no locked anythings. To make matters worse great chunks of this generic dialogue pool is shared between everyone from street gang thugs to corporate BLOOD MAGES, as if it doesn’t matter about tone or context so long as everyone says “drek” and “chummer” as often as possible.

Hand-crafted story dialogue can’t escape these problems either, with side quest characters casually dishing out major plot information that the main storyline doesn’t get around to bringing up until several missions later, the excitement of finally getting a non-bear summon vanishing into thin air when I notice the in-battle info (only, y’know, where you spend most of your time) referring to my new friend as a Wolf “Sprit”, and during one mission having to watch my apparently idiotic avatar say “We’re looking for medical supplies, but we should still be able to sell these”, as she opens a supply container with a medical item inside. Now this was definitely just an unlucky combination of auto-triggered text and a random loot crate (I was so incensed I quit and restarted the mission to check), but it still looks sloppy. Why not write something less specific? Why not make sure medical items weren’t on the loot table for this mission?

Almost all of your character’s dialogue is voiced, with no option at all to choose how you sound. Now of course it’d be unfair (and expensive) to expect Cliffhanger Productions to have hired a dozen different voice actors to record the exact same lines, but I’m not any more connected to my character just because I can hear a voice alongside the text. Why not leave the player text-only and give them the choice of a few different generic grunts, yelps, or whoop of joy instead? It doesn’t help that the writers seem to have decided that “streetwise” means teenager-grade sarcastic all the time. ALL. THE. TIME. You’re playing a character who would sass a vending machine if they were given half a chance, and it’s exhausting to listen to you smart-mouth everyone who crosses your path, friend and foe alike. But then for a sentence or two you’ll be inexplicably nice – maybe it’s me, right? Maybe I’m just picking the wrong dialogue choices? I wish. I have been playing Boston Lockdown for seventeen hours at this point, and there have been precisely zero (0) choices for me to make. I’ve read ahead and apparently there’s one decision, right at the very end, that’s all mine. That’s it. For the record, Shadowrun Returns offers three potential responses to the first sentence of dialogue in the game. Now of course an online game has to remain largely static because it needs to be able to broadly accommodate everyone at every point in the adventure, but for something that made grandiose promises like  “Shape the future! Developed jointly with the table-top RPG books, your actions in the game will shape the future of the entire Shadowrun universe!” it feels lacking even without considering the obvious competition.

Rather than allowing you to freely wander sixth-world Boston you instead spend your downtime in a small hub area that plays host to all of your friendly local ex-cops, fixers, journalists-looking-for-a-scoop and legitimate (honest, guv) firearms businesses – think Phantasy Star Online’s Pioneer 2 area and you’re not far off the mark – before heading off to your latest mission.

Mission objectives are appropriately Shadowrun-y and always tie in to the overall main plot – even the non-critical side missions, meaning no “Kill ten wargs” filler for you. The downside being that these secondary tales move along whether you take them on or not to make sure they’re keeping up with the main storyline so unless you do all the side quests, all the time, you’re going to permanently miss out on some aspects of the bigger picture (there are also no replay options or even a simple journal function, so skipped quests are lost forever). No matter what you decided to do or not do your avatar will always react as if they’ve cleared every quest and picked up every personal email, resulting in potentially nonsensical conversation openers like “So how’s your imaginary cat doing?” without any explanation or chance to read a brief recap.

Missions are always firefights and always require a full team of either two or four shadowrunners to start (including yourself), and the game assumes that you will be using its wide range of player-controlled NPCs for the job as creating a team made up of other players requires old-fashioned global chat box organisation, no drop ins or queued-up auto fills. While we’re on the subject there are some seriously obvious missed opportunities here: You can’t hire yourself out as a runner for someone else’s quest (beyond typing “Looking for group” in chat), and you can’t lead a gang, join a faction, or hang out with your crew but you can… invite someone in chat to be your friend (in-game terminology, not mine).

Visually battles greatly resemble their Harebrained counterparts albeit with a much simplified combat system that boils your choices down to little more than “Do damage” or “Do damage, but in a different way”. Hacking success is down to the RNG gods as the matrix is reduced to a single chat room wheeled out in the breaks between longer missions, all summoners really like bears, and riggers are virtually useless as the game only allows two extra summoned party members for the entire group. So if your summoner’s got a bear and a wind spirit out then that’s it, you’re left crouching behind a rusty pipe having a smoke.

Skill trees have been likewise pruned to reflect this simplified focus, stripping out all the expected roleplaying stats like “charisma” and even “strength” and reducing progression to, at best, an either/or choice along a short path. The one benefit to this is that the game is true to its word about the lack of levelling required to progress, although this did leave me longing for the chance to care about my character beyond dumping all my karma in my chosen profession and making sure I had the best equipment from the shops (which is also greatly stripped back: One of five or six pieces of equipment, one of which is an obviously great all-rounder, come back in a few missions time for the same thing but with “Improved” stuck on the name). If you’re not going to give me a story to sink my teeth into then you’d better damned well give me a battle system that forces me to fuss over details, but Boston Lockdown offers neither.

Skirmish maps are often reused in full or lightly repurposed for other missions, even when they’re meant to be in completely different areas of the city. There are of course many reasonable and practical explanations for this in a random quest generator or a teeny-tiny indie game, but I’ve got no time for excuses in such a story-focused title, one with such a small and static main hub that won’t even allow you to do something as radical as walk inside a building.

 

I just don’t know what Boston Lockdown’s supposed to be. It’s not an MMO – fine. But it struggles to fulfil even the most basic expectations of an online game, and in this case it’s nothing to do with it being on the verge of shutting down. The game never tries to group you with anyone. There are no emotes. No social get-together area (like a bar, for example). No PvP. No gangs or factions in a setting that’s all about gangs and factions.

Not a single one of any of the things I’ve mentioned above is a huge problem by itself, but this is a game filled with missed opportunities and little issues that keep holding back something that could’ve been great at every turn. I’ve certainly played far worse than this, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a game swing and miss this often. Shadowrun’s an enticing setting even at the worst of times and I don’t hate Boston Lockdown, not by a long shot, but it is infuriatingly disappointing, and in many ways that’s much worse.

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Kimimi, Digital Explorer: Wildstar Edition

[First up, a reminder of what this post is: One week, one MMO, one person’s thoughts and experiences reflected in the text below. A more thorough explanation/apology can be found here]

[One more thing: Wildstar shuts down forever in just a few weeks time and the game was already in “Buh-bye!” mode when I played so I’m aware that I didn’t get to see the game exactly as intended as far as player activity, server-wide events, etc, were concerned. This means that this write-up isn’t necessarily a fair representative of pre-death Wildstar but as it’s literally now or never I’ve got to work with what they’re offering or not play at all.]

Before playing I’d been generally aware of this game’s existence but as discussed in the previous blog post giving up precious paid-for time in other MMOs meant I’d never gone beyond the “Huh, looks like some neat sci-fi/Western… thing…?” stage until now. And it was pleasantly easy to slide in even at this eleventh-hour stage as registration, installation, and signing in were straightforward, fast, and painless – and there’s even a helpful note on the character creation screen to remind you to check which server your friends are playing on before you go any further. These are all small details that should be virtually invisible when done right but can become massive game-uninstalling headaches when screwed up, so I appreciated how easy it was to get it all done right the first time.

Which naturally brings us on to character creation: The magical “secret sauce” of MMOs where it’s not so much about the customisation itself – which can range from as detailed as individual forearm length to as little as “Face 2 with Hair 5” – but whether the player feels they’ve come out the other end with an avatar they don’t mind whacking bears with for a hundred hours or more and would quite like to dress up in a very fancy hat. Wildstar had lots of options for visual customisation and it was easy to see what was changing as I prodded and poked all the sliders and buttons, and I generally liked the selection of different preset body builds/jewellery/other optional fripperies on offer too. However certain races are locked out of certain jobs – it’s far from the first MMO to impose these restrictions, mind you – which did make for a bit of back-and-forth between the job/race menus as I was trying to work out exactly  who was allowed to do what. It was here that I noticed every job seemed to be classed exclusively as either a tank or healer which implied a different setup from the usual tank/DPS/healer trinity but I could’ve used more info on how these choices play out in game  (coming up in a bit) to make my decision feel more informed.

I say “informed choice”  like I care about being anything other than either a Final Fantasy-y White Mage (REZ PLZ) or a Phantasy Star Online-y FOnewearl (will /dance for Trifluids) type but the fact is as soon as I saw the Aurin with their ears the size of sails I knew I was going to be whatever the heck they could be no matter what, those adorable aural appendages were far too good to miss.

The game kicks off with a set of instanced tutorial areas that felt very thorough; I loved how it started with the absolute basics of just moving around, getting to quest markers, and jumping. When taken alongside all the other little bits of help dotted around these early parts of the game it helped Wildstar come across as a game that really wanted everyone to join in and have a good time. Much love to games that are prepared to help with everything, as no matter how long people have been playing games something always has to be someone’s first ever. These explanatory segments were straightforward without feeling condescending and visually varied and pretty inventive (basic movement followed up by a “pass through the rings” hoverboard ride to make sure you’ve really got the controls figured out? Now that’s fun!), allowing people to get to grips with playable examples of basic concepts such as item manipulation and AoEs before smooshing all of these practised skills together in a climactic boss battle.

All of that was great, and I think giving newbies the chance to play around in an obviously closed-off space before the game started proper was a really good idea. There’s a huge fly in the ointment though, and it’s the inescapable cost of playing one of these “Free” games: Part of the tutorial also takes you on a compulsory tour around the player housing and real-money cash shop menus, even going so far as to force you to use the cash shop with a literal “first hit’s free” test payment. Anyone who’s ever played a mobile game that involves mooning over an SSSR .jpg of some attractive person bought with orbs/crystals/tokens/tickets will find this experience a familiar one, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it (or that Wildstar’s “premium” users escape this arm-twisting either).

Let’s move on to more positive things: Wildstar’s bright art style comes across as pleasantly chunky and bouncy no matter how underpowered your computer may be, and the fantasy/sci-fi mish-mash works really well with neither dark underground laboratories or lush forest havens feeling out of place even when you’re doing something as potentially jarring as riding a spaceship from a beautiful little town to a B-movie themed asteroid full of monsters. As we all know I may have only played for a week, but these opening zones (not a major city or dungeon amongst them) always looked impressive and even a screenshot-crazed lady like myself found plenty to coo over.

Combat felt good too, with a strong emphasis on moving around and actively dodging attacks as well as manually aiming your own offensive skills at enemies too. All damage markers were easy to see in the heat of the moment and I never struggled to read what was going on even with a dozen or more critters baying for my blood. I never could quite tell if double-tap-to-dodge action was tied to character position or the camera, but that may just be my plain old beginner’s idiocy showing.

Beyond the standard “hitting stuff” part of combat lies a whole bunch of customisation settings and skills that I hadn’t a hope in hell of getting the hang of before my week was up, so I’ll decline from talking about those other than to say “Wow, there’s clearly a lot of something going on there”. What I did like though was how limited the all-important action palette was, forcing you to choose a few skills to use and use them well over dumping so many spells and fancy moves on you that you needed one of those mice with a thousand buttons on the side just to stand a chance of accessing everything you’re supposed to do. These restrictions naturally bring with them the looming dread of making a character “wrong”, of spending months fine-tuning a character into something you love only to discover nobody wants to party with someone who didn’t follow the accepted builds on letsmakemmosnofun.wiki, but this is avoided entirely as you’re able to freely switch back and forth between unlocked abilities at will. So you can have a solo-play action palette, a “I’m the dungeon healer/tank” palette, and just generally have a go and find out what you like doing best without having to commit or fuss over spell text minutiae.

At this point I do have to bring up the most Marmite of all of Wildstar’s unique quirks, and that is Voiceover Guy. On the surface his KHURAYZEE “Crazy Taxi announcer on Killer Instinct duty” delivery is just a fun way of keeping track of your kill combo and level gains but over time it did begin to undermine the action on screen and felt downright inappropriate when I was supposed to be busy helping people escape a massively destructive enemy force before they burned alive or was searching through corpses in an abandoned lab. I adore games that take their stupidity seriously (Dino Crisis 2 will be with me until I die), or games that take time out for a daft segment or bonus mode (Lara Croft and the Temple of Light’s Soul Reaver DLC is an unexpected delight), but Wildstar would give me an earnest quest about helping a concerned queen connect with the voice of a magical techno-tree and then TRIPLE KILL or YOU LEVELLED UP WAY TO GO CUPCAKE come booming through my speakers and the mood whiplash was frankly staggering.

The misstep carried through to the storytelling, too: At first I was impressed with Wildstar’s copious amount of dropped books and notes to collect and read at my leisure, as well as quest dialogue that allowed you to optionally ask a question about the task at hand before ploughing through with the latest checklist. But because this is all optional the game just assumes that you’re not really all that interested, and made caring about the characters and the places I was in feel like more work because it was all on me to give enough of a damn to break off from the “C’mon, hurry up! We’ve got people to save!” quest chain and make sure I was picking these things up and going through them all – and even when I did it didn’t help my character specifically become any more involved with surrounding events. I ended up feeling like a random nobody who was a mere convenience to the various NPCs who never interacted with me long enough to remember any of their names; presumably part of the rush to get me to hit the level cap and start the “real” game (endgame grinding for loot), although as I didn’t get anywhere near there that’s obviously all conjecture on my part. The quests themselves were at least as varied as anyone could reasonably expect them to be, including goals that had me protecting NPCs or piloting water-spraying aircraft in addition to the usual “Kill X of Y then go for the boss” business.

Overall Wildstar was… OK. Not bad enough for me to regret playing it, but not good enough for me to feel sad I hadn’t played it sooner. Battles were engaging even if enemies were universally on the easy side (for a game with such a punchy action-led style it could’ve done with forcing you to really get stuck in there), but between the game not really taking itself seriously but not being silly enough to go full comedy, and the world-building being best summed up as “Eh, we don’t really care if you care, here’s another book you don’t have to read, ever.” it’s one MMO where, sadly, I feel justified in sticking with what I already knew when it launched back in 2014.

As someone who’s been absolutely ga-ga over Shining Force II since 1994 it’s more than a little embarrassing to admit that I hadn’t played through series starting point Shining in the Darkness until just last month, but here we are.  I’d like to pretend that this was just down to a fear of running into another Dinosaur, Carmine, or something slightly more interesting than the plain old truth but the fact is there are simply an awful lot of games out there and only so much Kimimi to go around.

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I want to start this blog post by talking about something that doesn’t normally get (nor deserve) praise in a 1991 console dungeon crawler – the excellent script as well as the fantastic localisation work that brought it to life for overseas players. Now at this point I could mention the wonderful plot twist that sees the delicate rescued princess cheerily join the party to dish out a demonic butt-kicking, or how the terrifying Big Bad admits he’s actually been a little bored since discovering he’s so powerful nobody (but you) can stop him, but as good as those points are it’s all the little details that really make a difference: There’s the beautiful variable-width English font with proper dangly bits for letters like ‘y’ ‘j’ and ‘p’. Battles concluding with ‘[Hero]’s party stands victorious!’ rather than the standard ‘[Monster] was defeated’. Magical herb water is sprinkled, spells are weaved, and powerful attacks land as awesome blows. It may not sound like much but small flourishes like these add that special little sparkle to a oft neglected part of the dungeon crawler experience and the game’s all the better for it.

It’s not flawless though, and a few problems typical of the era still raise their head from time to time: Japan’s nefarious Mephisto became Dark Sol in English, presumably to avoid the most enduring of all localisation sticking points, religion; and there’s a range of more minor details such as the kingdom of ‘Storm’ became ‘Thornwood’ and ‘King Storm’ being renamed ‘King Drake’ – probably because the poor soul deserved a name all of his own. But bar Dark Sol accidentally ending up with the same name as his own father everything else can be brushed aside as either a good editor’s personal preference or a mild case of the nineties, and there’s really no reason for most people to fuss over the authenticity of the official translated script when it reads as well as it does.

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Of course there’s no point writing about Shining in the Darkness without taking a look at the great labyrinth itself, and it’s my pleasure to report that while I was busy bracing myself for a maze of Psy-O-Blade proportions the game instead offers a relatively compact and hassle-free experience that’s skewed in the player’s favour with no invisible walls, disorientating teleports or teeny-tiny grey buttons hidden in grey walls (sorry, Dungeon Master) in sight. Even a total wipeout sees your party’s souls whisked off by valkyries to the town church shrine with your XP and gold unmolested, and as the first floor of the labyrinth acts as a hub area to all the other parts it never takes more than a minute or two to get back into the action.

Other user-friendly help comes in the form of an automapping spell that costs just 1MP to cast and shows everywhere you’ve walked as well as your exact coordinates and direction, a quick bit of pop-up text informing you where you are when you enter or clear a trial, and saving the best bit for last – the designers were kind enough to make all four trials their own entirely self-contained mini-dungeons to be started, puzzled through, and completed as a standalone experience – something that really doesn’t happen as often as it should and spares the player an awful lot of backtracking.

The game’s exceptional graphics help enormously with dungeon navigation too, with decorative touches such as elaborate statues and torches used to break up the twisting cobblestone corridors into bite-sized memorable chunks. Even puddles of water are carefully considered features in Shining in the Darkness, with your party either making a small harmless splash or on random occasions disturbing one of a selection of unique water-based enemies as they pass through them.

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Bar a bit of unpleasant but unsurprising grinding here and there I had a lot of fun with the game – proper fun fun too; the sort where I was looking forward to my next session with the game again rather than taking the ‘Well I can appreciate what they were trying to do’ approach I sometimes need to wheel out for older titles I didn’t catch the first time around.

Twenty six years after its initial release Shining in the Darkness can still stand proud as an excellent example of console dungeon crawling done right; it’s a well-designed and beautiful game with enough optional story content and missable equipment to make it worth playing through more than just the once. It’s not an especially cheap purchase in English if you want a cartridge all of your own (although it’s far from the insanity of Vampire Killer, to name just one of many through-the-roof Mega Drive titles) but the good news is Sega have it available digitally on Steam for the grand sum of seventy-nine pence. Not even a pound for a fantastic game that kickstarted a much-loved series? Brilliant!

Kimimi: Digital Explorer?

MMOs are big business, even in this age of wallet-destroying gacha mobile games and real cash loot boxes in full price retail releases (Can you hear me groaning all the way over there? I do hope so.). For over twenty years now they’ve remained money-making behemoths that swallow lives whole, make or break relationships, and have people who should know better rolling in to work bleary-eyed after another late night raid. Many of these titans, current and past, are at least vaguely familiar to all: World of Warcraft. Ultima Online. Final Fantasy XI/XIV. EverQuest. EVE Online. Ragnarok Online. If you haven’t played them you’ve almost certainly heard of them, and even wholly disinterested individuals who’ve never held a controller in their lives will have stumbled upon a mainstream news report on one or more of them at some point.

But even with these games raking in literally billions of dollars over their lifetimes (World of Warcraft, to name just the obvious one) or having more subscribers than most countries have people (RuneScape has over 200 million accounts?!) there still has to be some wriggle room left for the little people, surely?

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Thankfully, that assumption holds true: Remember Maple Story? Dead, right? Dead and ancient and dead and done and dead. Except it apparently generated $279 million USD in 2017. And that game’s not second, third, or even fourth place in the collective gamer MMO consciousness. I’d like to “lose” as hard as Maple Story’s “losing” – who wouldn’t? Or how about Phantasy Star Online 2, a game which was born out of the ashes of a long line of OK-ish titles (the original PSO is rightfully legendary, but who honestly hankers for more Universe/Zero/Nova?) and remains stubbornly Japan-only has not only survived but positively thrived; spawning three expansions, officially licensed eyewear, an anime, a companion mobage, inflatable Rappies, and more soundtracks, concerts, and related gubbins than anyone could hope to keep up with.
I mention those two in particular because I think they highlight a very good point: Being the number one MMO – in terms of raw takings or mind share – and being a profitable, sustainable, and enjoyable MMO are very different goals; and as such there are actually an awful lot of original-IP online experiences out there trying to carve out their own happy little niche. Some are bound to be better than others (or more cynically centered around their cash shop than others), but nobody’s really in the MMO business with the aim of making nothing more than a fast buck; even if only because many of these games – big and small – prove there’s the potential in a good one to generate profit for years and years to come.

However many of these titles tend to fall through the cracks for most of us: Not due to poor quality or a lack of interest, but because MMOs are so darned time consuming even at the best of times and for those who have already sunk countless hours into another or have a monthly subscription elsewhere it’s harder than perhaps any other genre to let go and have a dabble in something else, no matter how appealing the trailers make it look or how many flaming wings the endgame armour sets promise to have.

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Which is an incredibly meandering way of bringing you to the real topic at hand: I’m always interested in learning more about games that’d otherwise go unplayed and it seems the best way to find some beginner-level information on these under-appreciated MMOs is to try them out for myself and get typing!

The ultimate aim of this little exercise is to pass on a week’s honest experience and hopefully have some fun as I go. Why only a week, when I clearly won’t even come close to scratching the surface of any MMO even if I spend the full seven days in my undies chugging energy drinks in front of my laptop, you possibly wonder? It’s partly down to how much energy I’m prepared to commit to a pot-luck experience in my own free time, but mostly because this is not about reviewing a game, or picking apart endgame raid mechanics, or discussing skill tree balance, or why that one guy keeps standing in the fi-GET OUT OF THE AOE OMG YOU M-*cough*; this is intended to be about sharing a genuine personal experience, hopefully showing off some beautiful locations along the way (MMOs do tend to have some of the most incredible vistas, and I’m all for magical digital landscapes), and just offering a rough-edged little window into a world most of us have never visited.

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So starting Monday I’ll be playing Wildstar! It looks like just about the perfect game to open this topic with seeing as it’s visually stunning, definitely outside my usual MMO wheelhouse, and to top it all off it’s shutting down on the 28th of November so it’s quite literally now or never. I’ll be tweeting plenty of screenshots and little thoughts as I go (AKA: “The Usual” as screenshot-spam seems to be known as on my Twitter), followed up with a more thorough blog post back here about my adventures a few days after that. Sound good? Let’s hope so!

One last thing: If this proves to be not utterly exhausting for me and generally interesting for everyone reading then I’d like to cover more than just this one game – there are a lot of weird and wonderful old and new MMOs out there, and I’d love to play more! Now I don’t wish to hold anyone’s kindness to ransom but how much further this goes really is up to you: To be blunt, I need to be able to see that this is worth the effort I’ll be putting in. Not in terms of site traffic or Twitter RTs (not that it isn’t nice to see lots of people passing these things on), but genuine interest – a few kind words from someone who took the time to even just skim-read the article really do make the world of difference, and lets me know that I’m not just typing into the void. Thank you for reading.

Sharing the Love: The Last Remnant Edition

(I’m sure most people reading this will be aware that the following post previously appeared on my old blog; I’ve reuploaded it here to celebrate/explain what’s so great about the game in light of the PS4 (!) remaster (!!) announcement)
The Last Remnant is a unique, exciting, and beautiful RPG from what’s now considered the last generation – so long as you’re playing the later PC version, that is. Now before everyone runs for the hills for fear of being caught up in some awful “Master Race” rant I want to take a moment to stress that the PC version really is objectively better, as the team went back and reworked everything from the graphics to the fundamental nuts-and-bolts of the gameplay for the PC port. Pick a fault levelled at the 360 release and it’ll have been adjusted, fixed, and polished for the PC version – then they’ll have stuck knobs on it and made it look prettier too. The total list of tweaks, tucks, and outright do-overs comes to sixty-eight bullet points according to this wiki, and they aren’t being particularly specific about it either.
So, with that out of the way I can get on with gushing about this lovely game! If I wanted to distil it down to a quick sound bite I’d say it’s the closest we’ll ever get to a true Final Fantasy XII-2; another world-driven story with a fantastically quirky battle system that is misunderstood by some, simply not to the taste of others, and raved about by weird people like me. In fairness the game had the stupendously bad luck of being released on the “wrong” format twice, with neither the 360 or PCs of the time being particularly receptive markets for no-name JRPGs with experimental fighting setups.
The main character’s a young chap called Rush, although as with Final Fantasy XII he’s not the most powerful, experienced, charming, or intelligent member of the cast, outshone as he is by super-researcher family members, important political friends and powerful generals. This style of storytelling can put a few player’s noses out of joint but in my opinion this approach coupled with the worldbuilding that comes in bits and pieces from NPCs, location information and side quests (rather like modern RPG-ish darling Souls games) really makes everything come alive – shopkeepers, caves, and the idle pub chatter feel like they’d all be there whether Rush and his array of four-armed catmen, fishmen, not-frogmen and plain old human friends happened to be adventuring in the area or not.
But even with my deep love for this sort of worldbuilding at the end of the day liking (or not) this form of storytelling is merely a matter of personal taste, so I’ll leave that there. The battle system however is another matter entirely, frequently misunderstood and leaving gamers feeling intimidated by all the weird stats, lack of direct control over individual units, and random skill acquisitions. The main thing to remember here is that it’s really not half as complicated as you think it is, it’s just a bit different from your typical JRPG (as you’d probably expect when you learn some of the staff previously worked on the SaGa series).

So while it’s not your usual line-up-and-hit-each-other-in-polite-turns scenario this shouldn’t scare you off, because what it’s been replaced with is amazing. Fights are beautifully chaotic affairs with multiple squads on both sides manoeuvring about the battlefield and rushing to intercept enemy forces, backing up other team members, and skilfully flanking a powerful foe. Before each round you get to choose which enemy units to focus your teams on and issue a relevant general order from a choice of five for your team to act out – standard commands include “Attack with combat arts!” “Attack with mystic arts!” and “Attack wisely!” – now these may not seem especially helpful at first glance, but the game always displays an info bar at the top explaining exactly what each option does and the AI is incredibly smart, capable of changing the actions of team members further down the turn order line – throwing out another heal if an earlier one didn’t turn things around, for example. Basically the important things to remember are that:

A) The game was designed around dishing out general orders from the beginning – no control’s being taken away from you, because it was never there in the first place.

B) As with any RPG the main thing is to hit stuff hard and not die, so as long as you’re keeping your teams HP up and aren’t doing anything daft like trying to take on four enemy groups with one half-dead team you’ll be fine.

Oh wait – there’s kind of a C) point to consider as well! After every battle all HP/AP and any incapacitated teams are completely restored, which is the game’s way of encouraging you to use every trick in the book during every battle and avoid the old “Play in a really dull and conservative way then blow everything on the dungeon boss” not-tactic tactic.

If you do find yourself enjoying what is actually a pretty straightforward game (just one with a lot of minor variables) then you’ll be pleased to know it’s stuffed to the gills with optional quests, secret party members, item recipes and even a groovy New Game + mode too! Hooray!

The Last Remnant suffers from a broadly similar issue to Vagrant Story in my opinion – people overthinking things and/or trying too hard to break the system. Is it possible to do better if you learn absolutely everything and faff around farming specific item drops for weapon recipes? Yes, it is. But this is called “Being rewarded for putting in some extra effort” not “Playing the game properly”. Just winging it and going in with a bit of RPG-tinged common sense will do the job just fine and the end result is an enjoyable adventure in a fascinating world with an endlessly exciting battle system – so why not give it a go and see for yourself?

Galaxy Angel 2: Eigou Kaiki no Toki

How do you solve a problem like Galaxy Angel 2? Players looking to start this final installment will have already endured a male lead who has “developed” from Beigey McBeigerson to outright unlikeable, a selection of ladies who only manage to show brief glimmers of what could have been if they hadn’t been saddled with a writing team that seemed to hate their very existence, and a revolving door of unimpressive evil weirdos who all talk too much and all buy their generic Ships of Eviliness from the same evil military surplus store.

 
It’s not looking good, is it?


But Eigou Kaiki no Toki’s not going down without a fight; a game determined to not only go out with a bang but kick off with one too: Unlike the previous (and generally expected) introductory sequence of a pretty intro FMV followed by a quick recap of the previous game and then the expected slow slide into a fairly tame opening chapter we’re instead dropped into the middle of an unexplained emergency – all sirens and shouted orders and explosions and panic. Kazuya desperately dashes off to check on his beloved Angel (this is decided by the player as he’s making his way there)… only to find her room utterly devastated, the Angel in question missing, and a massive hole in the wall leading directly into the cold vacuum of space (emergency atmospheric shielding is a thing on the Luxiole, in case you were wondering)…

 
On its own that’d be a damned good start, but the game’s not done toying with your expectations yet: The game then smash-cuts from Kazuya’s anguished cry to the standard like-you’re-playing-an-OVA musical intro video and then unceremoniously dumps players straight into the first chapter of the game without any explanation or apology for this rollercoaster of emotions. To make matters worse they leave you hanging on this plot point for around two-thirds of the entire game – perhaps a little too long in practise, but for a series that honestly felt like it was actively killing itself off just one game ago this is a bold move that really packs a punch. In this tiny firecracker of an intro alone Kazuya demonstrates better leadership and more consideration for his fellow cast members than he did in the previous two games combined. GA2-3 doesn’t merely want to apologise for the past two games, it wants to make up for them.

 
Before we go any further I really need to comment on the new art style: This all-new look mercifully reverses the slightly disturbing “over-inflated chihuahua” style of the first two Galaxy Angel 2 games. Every single piece of character art and their corresponding portraits have been redrawn in this new style, and in a pleasant turn of events the quantity of art has increased in line with the quality, boasting more frequent unique event graphics than ever before and contributing to the feeling that you’re actually observing events as they happen rather than scrolling through the transcript of a radio play. The CG movie segments are unfortunately as “Well, I guess they exist” as ever, with the unchanged Angels-heading-to-battle scene as happily skippable as it ever was. It’s reasonable to assume that it would have cost more than it was worth to create a set of fresh replacements but for a pretty lengthy scene that they insist on playing before every battle it feels quite flat and more of a barrier to getting on with things than the flamboyant rallying cry it should have been. The good news is that when they did take the time to make all-new CG scenes to show off plot-related shenanigans the quality is more in line with GA2-3’s newfound love for itself and they do a good job of conveying the action.


As I’ve mentioned before the opening moments of the game aren’t so much an introduction as they are a statement of intent: The first chapter proper opens with Kazuya and his love in a sombre mood next to the grave of Roselle’s sister, recounting the events at the climax of the previous game that lead to his death. You do remember Roselle, don’t you? He was the impossibly-perfect “By the way me and my prototype craft are going to replace all of you Angels once we’ve worked out the bugs” guy who not only threatened their unique position as a special defense force powered by (essentially) love and justice but could also potentially cause a rift in the relationship between Kazuya and whoever his chosen partner was. Long story short: Not only was he not particularly pleasant to be around, but his character actively undermined some of the most fundamental aspects of the Galaxy Angel setting. Not a lot to love there, really. But this one-sided chat with a dead person neither the characters nor the player had ever met before was handled with style and grace, making for a surprisingly sensitive and sincere scene without swerving off into melodramatic misery.

 
So far we’ve had a shock intro and a touching moment handled well; you could almost feel hopeful after suffering through the past two games! Except GA2-3 then goes and shatters this fragile joy by reintroducing the the original and best women, the Moon Angels, in full force and in their iconic original uniforms too. Are they here to once again steal the show from under the new team’s noses? Thankfully not. The writing here frames it more as a meeting of equals rather than goddesses returning to save the day, and they leave almost as quickly as they arrive. To further underline their new role as a support act – and reassure the player that they won’t spend the rest of the game forcing the new crew into the background again – the plot then requires both the Moon Angel’s mothership Elsior and all of their original Emblem Frames (empty, I should add!) to be blown to smithereens, never to return. And the game stays true to this promise until the final battle where they do show up once again piloting generic support craft, only capable of taking out endlessly respawning minor ships while the Rune Angels take down the more dangerous targets and eventually the final boss.

At first blush battling these new enemy forces appears to be very similar to what’s gone before – and in very many ways it is – but it’s been tweaked in all the right ways and these interstellar scuffles now tend to require real input and strategy from the player; you will lose if you don’t pay attention. Fast ships are now noticeably more nimble than their counterparts in previous entries in the series and do need to be prioritised, and the slow-but-powerful cruisers will utterly destroy your home base if not destroyed or outmaneuvered. It was never going to be a fantastic stat-heavy space battle sim (and was never meant to be) but at least now it feels like a part of a game and not some brainless padding between painful chunks of dialogue.

 

The villains themselves have been drastically reduced in number which has the welcome knock-on effect of making those that do appear feel like a memorable and meaningful threat as opposed to a weak excuse for yet another tedious battle. And even when Sorbet (yes, Sorbet) is inevitably defeated and replaced by The True Ultimate Evil this event doesn’t feel plucked out of thin air as the plot had not only been building up to this point all along but it also managed to add something significant by raising the stakes even higher and tying in with the ending of the previous game by reintroducing a mind-controlled (and as mentioned, previously dead) Roselle as well as finally looping around and then building upon that dramatic opening.

 

By now I’ve hopefully established just how committed Eigou Kaiki no Toki is to being Not A Pile of Trash: Characters do things other than wait for Kazuya to admonish them for behaving exactly as they’re expected to behave, and Kazuya himself finally expresses a whole range of genuine emotions while successfully being the Angel captain and close friend that he was supposed to have been two sodding games ago.

 

Considering that the game had to continue on from the garbage that preceded it, GA2-3 is nothing less than an absolute triumph, tying up everything that happened before while simultaneously righting a sinking ship as it did so. Quite how they pulled this out of the bag after the iffy-but-OK Zettai Ryouiki no Tobira and “This has got to be deliberate internal sabotage” Mugen Kairou no Kagi is anyone’s guess but there’s no arguing with the fact that they did it, and I’d recommend playing Eigou Kaiki no Toki – and only Eigou Kaiki no Toki – to anyone who wants a little more Galaxy Angel in their lives. The Galaxu Angel II series as a whole is generally considered “The other one” and rightfully lost in the original Galaxy Angel’s shadow, but this last game tries so very hard to fix two games worth of major issues and does deserve to be considered fondly and treated as a good game in its own right.

Galaxy Angel II: Mugen Kairou no Kagi

You may recall that I came away from my time with the first game in Galaxy Angel II’s sequel-trilogy feeling as if the series and taken an unexpected stumble: Definitely inferior to what had gone before but not so much so that I didn’t feel ridiculous holding on to the hope that this sequel couldn’t get up, dust itself off, and set things right.
I was wrong.
It turns out I’ve been playing the Galaxy Angel equivalent of the Star Wars prequels, except they’re all The Phantom Menace with Attack of the Clones infamous “I don’t like sand” quote shoved in there for good measure; and with that poor analogy I don’t simply mean “This bad thing is bad, let’s all gather ’round and mock the bad thing.”, but “Here’s an in-house follow-up that misses the point of everything that made the originals so good in the first place.”.

 


But before we rush headlong down that particular rabbit hole that let’s start with positives:
The most immediate one is noticing that Broccoli took the time (and money) to redraw all of the Angels’ standard body poses, allowing for their faces to finally become about 90% eyeball. Whether you like this slightly more extreme eyeball-to-face ratio is one thing, but it’s worth a mention here as most games will reuse whatever they can get away with for as long as possible regardless of budget (and sometimes even longer than that – hi, Morrigan!. On a more serious the original trilogy’s Moon Angels and their ex-captain Takt have thankfully almost entirely retreated from the plot this time around, finally giving the Rune Angels team a chance to shine.
Unfortunately that’s honestly about it, so all I can do now is plough ahead and hope that the following text at least adequately explains exactly where and how tediously often Mugen Kairou no Kagi (“Key to the Infinite Corridor”) falls flat on its stupid face.
Mechanically speaking there’s no real change to what has gone before; the game is still divided into the now-familiar adventure/pick-your-location-on-the-map adventure/battle scenes formula that it’s always had. Battles again offer no surprises or particular refinements over what has gone before but in all fairness they’ve had the basics of these skirmishes nailed down pretty well since Galaxy Angel: Moonlit Lovers (GA1-2), so on paper that’s not a huge issue, as commanding multiple units in real-time is as smooth and swift on a controller (I will always find this a pleasant surprise) as it’s always been. I do have to point out though that these encounters are so dull they’d make a good cure for insomnia as with the exception of the final battle anything that can’t be cleared by killing everything on the map can be won by sending the whole team to immediately pile on the enemy flagship, wearing it down before everyone’s swarmed by (entirely optional) enemy fighters – oh and all the enemy ships look the same again, and they have identical attacks again. These fights may have only ever been the cherry on top of the cake even back when the series’ was firing on all cylinders, but to see them so phoned in when the rest of the game is already on its knees feels like adding insult to injury.

 


The real issue though is sadly with the script; something of a problem in an adventure game, no? Which isn’t to imply that any previous Galaxy Angel could ever have been held aloft as a fine example of high literature (or even merely as an example of particularly great game writing), but there was a time when someone playing this series could expect to come away from the experience entertained if not enlightened.
Not any more.
Galaxy Angel II-2 goes out of its way to undermine not only everything that has gone before, but the very core of the series itself. Early on lead scrap of nothingness Kazuya admonishes tomboy Anise for… acting like a tomboy. The personality niche she was designed specifically to fill is now an canonical in-game problem. There’s also virtually no romance or even plain old kindness on Lily’s route (you cannot pay me enough to play this through again to check the others), with one of her main touching moments being a misguided attempt at lovingly making a natto cake – playing a scene like “Man forced to eat disgusting dessert” for laughs is all fine and dandy in theory, but not when your lead has already acted like an utter jerk and quite frankly has never done anything in particular to earn the love and devotion of anyone in the story. In GAII-1 there was a unshakable feeling that romance was a tacked-on afterthought, stuck on because it had to be. Here the impression is more that romance is not only something to be sidelined (dialogue options, romantic or otherwise, are few and far between with only minor impact on events) but actively reviled – as if the writers took the original trilogy’s “What happens after that first kiss?” question and turned it into “What happens if you wish you hadn’t taken this job writing about first kisses?”.
Now this isn’t necessarily a problem: there are many many many stories in this world (heck, even in this hobby) that are incredible without ever having the lead guy be so irrepressibly sweet that his chosen love can’t help but make puppy eyes at him. But the genre, tone, and the previous four games create a certain expectation for this particular title, in much the same way that you could reasonably complain about a Gran Turismo game, however good, that didn’t contain any cars, or a Gears of War that didn’t star a band of sassy wardudes measuring 7ft across at the shoulders.
The new characters only serve to enhance this gutting of the series’ heart, with the two new characters being Perfect Sorta-Rival Guy Roselle and Spoiled Princess Natsume, the latter of which is introduced as evil (a complete waste of a “twist” seeing as she’s on the front of the damned box) and isn’t available as part of the team until chapter seven (of nine – no, not that one) anyway, and the former introduced as a non-Angel Angel with a special prototype ship that implies every member of our rag-tag band of well-meaning misfits – characters we’re now five games invested in to – are potentially a mere test cycle and rubber-stamp away from being completely replaced with generic military soldiers. That’s not something that should happen in a game where The Power of True Love is a tangible boss-defeating force. That’s not Galaxy Angel.
On the non-Angel side of things there’s Tapio Ca (sigh), a crew member who starts off as a high-powered Tut-mo-Tron and ends up as bridge wallpaper.


But wait, we’re not done yet (oh how I wish we were)! We need to take some time to discuss Coco, who previously spent the rest of the series as unflappable bridge support for Takt. In this game she finally gets the respect she deserves and is promoted to captain of the Luxiole, and we’re suddenly in an interesting position as we are suddenly playing a game where we technically have a woman in charge of a group that’s mostly women – hurrah! Unfortunately the instant this happens she falls to pieces, even though the series has repeatedly shown her to be so reliable she could execute orders flawlessly even if her eyebrows were on fire. To make matters worse we then have to sit through scenes where Roselle – to be blunt – outright bitches about her behind her back and you aren’t even graced with the opportunity to deliver an emphatic rebuttal thanks to the game’s dialogue choices only occurring once in a blue moon. In a serious space opera complaining about the captain being un-captain-y would be a fair point and a genuine concern, but in a game with a sing-along theme tune it’s just out of place and comes across as plain spiteful.

Then we get to the real kick in the teeth. When Takt announced her promotion he also gave Coco a small box, telling her to not open it until the time was right. When that time finally came, when she’s at rock-bottom in this “suddenly terrible at a job even one-time-and-done players like me could see she was perfectly capable of doing” arc, she opens the box. Inside is a mini hologram of an AI Takt who’s pep talk involves encouraging her to discard her glasses and let her hair down, and that “magical” moment is when she finally shakes off her doubts and becomes the captain she was always meant to be. This wasn’t a crucial moment of growth for Coco, it was a chance for Takt to be right even when he’s not there.
Now I do not seriously expect a game of this type to be a feminist trailblazer, at all, not ever (It’d be nice though, wouldn’t it?). But I would say that it would make – if nothing else – good business sense for something like Galaxy Angel to treat its most merchandisable characters with some basic respect rather than as rejects from an 80’s straight-to-video movie about a librarian letting her hair down and learning how to love.
This weirdly unpleasant “The guys are the best at space” sensation carries on all the way through to the climax, which sees every female Angel knocked unconscious at the drop of a hat with only Roselle left to save the day in an “ultimate sacrifice” kind of way. I hate to say it but I’d emotionally checked out of GA II-2 long before this moment, and bizarrely even the concluding epilogue didn’t make any great deal out of his death: I found myself suddenly longing for the scene-stealing but at least tonally correct Moon/Rune Angel big bash that ended the previous entry.


What we have here is a romance-based-space-battle game that fails so completely to understand why it was ever popular that it almost feels like deliberate sabotage. The first Galaxy Angel II came off looking worse for wear when compared to the original trilogy; it wasn’t bad, but you know it could have been much better. Galaxy Angel II-2 has the dubious honour of being a bad game in its own right, willfully avoiding, if not outright destroying, everything the series ever had that was liked.
But hope springs eternal and there’s one game to go, which means there’s still time to get it right! Even with all the issues above there’s nothing about this general framework that couldn’t turn into a great game – it worked well enough for the original Galaxy Angel trilogy after all – they just need a decent script that remembers why the series was so well-loved.