Archive for 2009

Mirror’s Edge: Story

After reaching the end of Mirror’s Edge‘s story, I tried the various racing modes, but I didn’t care for them. If I go back into this game, it’ll probably be to find more of the hidden messenger bags. There are three of them in every level, and they’re one of the only ways that Story Mode acknowledges the game’s supposed premise. You’d think that a professional black-market courier would get assigned a courier mission every once in a while. You could come up with all sorts of dramatic situations that fit in with the government-corruption theme: “We can expose everything they’ve done if we can just get these documents to the press!” But instead, you spend the game playing amateur detective, trying to find out who murdered a good politician and framed your sister for it.

Given that you’re in the right, that truth is on your side and your sister is innocent of any crime, it seems downright counterproductive to go around killing cops. And so I didn’t. I resorted to unarmed combat on a number of occasions, bloodlessly disarming the people who shot at me and then immediately discarding the weapons I had wrested from them, but I tried to avoid doing even that: in most cases, all you really have to do is figure out where you’re going and find a way to get there that’s mostly covered from fire. And even though I chose to play this way mostly in the name of efficiency, it seemed like the way to go in story terms too: with every gun I threw away, I was saying “I’m choosing to refrain from shooting at you, even though you’re doing your best to kill me. Are you sure I’m the bad guy here?” Not that I expected this to change anyone’s behavior, but it seemed worth saying anyway. So it was bothersome to see the player character hold off a SWAT team in a cutscene by grabbing a gun and shooting at some Doom-style exploding barrels.

And, ultimately, what’s the conflict about? OK, yes, protecting family member from lying murderers. But why does she need that protection in the first place? The player finds a scrap of paper at the crime scene (and removes it, preventing any legitimate investigation from finding it) mentioning a “Project Icarus”. Several levels later, you find out what this is: it’s a project to train special police forces in Runner techniques, so they can go leaping from rooftop to rooftop like superheroes too. Which is, on the face of it, not a bad idea. The Runners’ abilities effectively put them out of the law’s reach, and in a functioning system, that would be a problem worth addressing. But even in the world we’re given, Icarus is not the public hazard I was expecting, given how hush-hush they were about it. Icarus only threatens Runners. Imagine the headlines if the word got out: “Exposed! Secret Project To Arrest People Who Break The Law”. I understand what they were going for here, Icarus as the Runners’ equal-and-opposite, the dark reflection, the thing that kicks the conflict to a higher level. But it’s a bit of an anticlimax.

The Runners have some high-minded ideals about being the only communication channel left that isn’t under the Man’s control. But we never see any benefit to this. We don’t see anyone who’s helped by the services the Runners provide, or any injustice righted by their actions. As I pointed out, we hardly see them doing their job at all. We just see them fighting for themselves. Perhaps we’re expected to just already sympathize with their ideology, much like how we don’t need to reestablish that Nazis are bad guys in every game featuring Nazis. Apparently there was a point in the early design stages where the Runners were supposed to be less like freedom fighters and more like a street gang. (There’s a bit of unlockable concept art showing this stage.) And the final story still has something of that mentality.

Pretty, though!

Mirror’s Edge: First Person Issues

Looks like I’m not finishing Story Mode today after all. The game crashed in the middle of a recent session, and has since then has refused to start up. Sometimes I just get a splash screen and nothing else, sometimes it gives me an “illegal operation” error, once and only once did it start up successfully. I don’t know why this suddenly started happening after a period of trouble-free operation. Or, well, not quite trouble-free: I had problems at the very beginning with environmental sounds — traffic noises and the like — being entirely too loud and drowning out the voices. Apparently the game was trying to do things with point sound sources that my hardware didn’t support, and the solution was to turn off hardware sound acceleration.

Anyway, I said I’d post about the interface, and I can still do that. Platforming in first person presents some difficulty, especially when the game tries to create a sense of immediacy by shaking the camera, as happens whenever you break down a door in ME. Also, one of the moves you can do to avoid damage and maintain momentum is a tuck-and-roll at the end of a fall, which is rather disorienting, because the camera actually does a quick 360-degree pitch.

The thing I most anticipated having problems with was judging exactly when to jump when running toward the edge of a roof. In part, the game solves this by doing something rare for a first-person game: if you look downward, you can actually see yourself. Most first-person games — which are mostly shooters — display, at most, an arm holding a gun. I can think of only two other first-person games I’ve played that gave the player a visible body: Trespasser (the Jurassic Park game) and Montezuma’s Return (a 3D sequel to the classic 2D platformer Montezuma’s Revenge). Montezuma’s Return did it because, like Mirror’s Edge, it’s a first-person platformer; Trespasser did it out of a misguided sense of realism, which pretty much describes every design decision in Trespasser. At any rate, if you’re really worried about jumping at the right moment in ME, you can watch your feet while you run. But honestly, I haven’t found this necessary. If I find myself missing a ledge by inches, I find it’s more productive to just get a better run-up. Running in this game means accelerating, and a few extra feet of acceleration can mean a lot.

To me, the bigger way that the first-person view affects things is when you’re climbing ladders and pipes and the like. For a game with such gorgeous scenery, you spend a lot of time facing into walls. When you reach the end of a climb, you often need to twist the view around to locate the next pipe you need to jump to, and then your vantage can make it difficult to judge if it’s close enough and whether or not you’re actually pointed in exactly the right direction to grab it. The game has a clever way around this: when something can be grabbed, the player character will reach towards it with a visible hand. It took me a while to figure this out. It’s invaluable feedback once you recognize it, but I think it’s telling that tricks like this were necessary.

It’s been pointed out before that a more traditional over-the-shoulder view allows the sight of the player character’s body to substitute for a sense that’s otherwise lost in games: proprioception, the sense of one’s own body’s position. ME gives you occasional body glimpses, but proprioception isn’t constant. The people who say that ME is immersive partly because of its first-person view really have it backward: if it’s immersive, it’s in spite of the first-person perspective, because it’s found ways to overcome the limitations of its viewpoint and its lack of normal sensory information. And sometimes it fails at that. That roll move is disorienting in part because it temporarily takes away the intuitive sense of which way is up, something provided by by the way the camera movement normally works in the game, and by the sense of balance in real life.

Mirror’s Edge

Ah, Mirror’s Edge, you beautiful little victim of the hype machine. Highly promoted, widely derided, deeply discounted. Having played through half the levels already, I’m not yet convinced that the basic gameplay here deserves the complaints that have been directed at it. Apparently some people have tried to treat the game like a shooter, and were disappointed, and even more people tried to treat it like a GTA-style open-world game, and were even more disappointed: you can vary your path through the levels, but not that much. But taken on its own terms, it’s not bad. (A bit unvarying, perhaps, but I expect to finish Story Mode before I get tired of it.) Basically what we have here is a 3D platformer in the mold of Prince of Persia and Tomb Raider, but in first-person perspective, and with people shooting at you to encourage you to keep moving. You can shoot back if you like, but why would you? That would just slow you down, and that’s clearly not what the game wants. Whenever I look at the mission objectives tab, I see a note in the corner stating that I have not yet fired a single shot, and this feels a lot like the “conduct” challenges in Nethack.

I should say some words about the visual style right away, because it’s the game’s shiniest feature. While the rendering is photorealistic and the world is reasonably detailed, the use of color is stylized. Everything looks like it has a fresh coat of paint: it’s all gleaming white or highly-saturated solid colors over large areas. It’s like being inside the world’s largest modernist sculpture, and it’s definitely the cleanest-looking urban dystopia I’ve ever seen.

The really interesting thing, though, is the way the colors figure into gameplay. For example, losing health causes the colors to desaturate, as if the bright look of the world is simply a function of the observer’s outlook. (Perhaps to the average man on the street it looks more like a normal city.) Also, color is often simply used to make significant items pop, particularly through what is called “Runner Vision”. Runner Vision means that special opportunities for movement, such as pipes you can climb or planks you can use as springboards, are colored red. While some things seem to be permanently red, Runner Vision is basically dynamic: white things fade to red as you approach them. If I had been told to implement something like this, I’d probably have done it through colored lighting — changing the light on specific objects, as seen in, e.g., the Thief games (where it’s done to highlight the object currently in focus), is pretty easy to do in most graphics engines. But it doesn’t seem to have been done that way here. The red things look like they’re lit the same as always, just painted red now.

Moving through this environment with a cocky swagger are the Runners, outlaw couriers who oppose the system and promote freedom of information with the power of parkour. Runners are basically superheroes, albeit ones whose main power is running away. Seriously, the way you leap from rooftop to rooftop here is something that used to be the exclusive domain of people who were explicitly superhuman, rather than just free-spirited and driven to great lengths by oppression. The first thing I was reminded of by the largely rooftop-based environment here, and the way you interact with it, was the Treyarch Spider-Man games. (Particularly the first one, which has a chase scene with the supervillain Venom that’s very similar in feel to the chase scene with another Runner in level 3.) The villains are similarly comic-bookish, clichés of corruption covering up some kind of secret project. The cutscenes between the levels emphasize this by switching to a more cartoony flat-shaded look, which is distinctly weird in context. Traditionally, pre-rendered cutscenes are more realistic than interactive content.

Anyway, it’ll probably take me only one more day to wrap up Story Mode. I’ll have some things to say about the mechanics of the first-person interface tomorrow.

Gish: The Benefits of Crashing

I’m into the third world of Gish now, “The 7 Planes of Hehenna”. (And yes, that seems to mean that this world has seven levels.) It’s a lava world, and as usual, touching lava will kill you, which is highly unrealistic: in the real world, you’d be roasted alive long before you got within touching distance of lava, if the fumes didn’t get you first. (There’s a name for lava that doesn’t heat the air around it to hundreds of degrees. It’s called stone.) But I suppose things might be different for living tar. The real world doesn’t offer us many data points for that. At the very least, Gish wouldn’t be affected by the fumes: the water sequences prove that he doesn’t need to breathe.

This is around the point where I stopped playing during my first run, back when the game was new. That’s because it’s the point where it becomes really easy to die. The game gives you five lives to start with, and you can occasionally find more, but if you run out, you have to start over at the beginning of the world. Not, thankfully, the beginning of the whole game — it’s not that imitative of NES-era platformers. But there’s no way to save other than the autosave, which kicks in every time you quit. So if you can’t beat an entire world in five lives straight, you can’t progress.

At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But, as I said before, this game keeps crashing on me. And when it crashes, it doesn’t autosave. I’ve taken to working around this by quitting whenever I complete a level in order to force an autosave, thereby not losing my progress. But this also means that I’m immune to being kicked back to the beginning of the world. I can lose all my lives, restart the world, crash, and then jump back in at the point of my last autosave.

It’s tantamount to cheating, really. I wasn’t doing it deliberately at first, but now that I know, it’s cheating. In fact, it reminds me a lot of playing old CRPGs and pulling out the floppy disk the moment a character died so that the game couldn’t record it. Which means, I suppose, that cheating like this is in the spirit of the old-school experience that Gish aims to provide.

The Path

I finally got this running correctly, mainly by reinstalling it from scratch (the same approach that worked for Audiosurf). The framerate still suffers when there are three characters on the screen, and the opening menu has six, giving a very poor first impression, but that doesn’t happen very often: it’s mostly solitary, and even when it isn’t, it mostly involves meeting with only one other character at a time. There are only two people in the woods other than yourself: a benevolent young lady in white, and some manifestation of the eternal principle we call the Big Bad Wolf.

But I get ahead of myself. The Path is basically the tale of Little Red Riding Hood retold as a horror story. And an arty horror story at that: the graphical style has a rough quality, with crudely-drawn text and UI elements, and elements of artificial damage reminiscent of the Silent Hill games, especially as things get more nervous: the camera goes out of focus, dust and splotches appear as on badly-preserved film, etc. The path itself starts in sunshine and flowers and childish laughter, and ends in shadow and decay.

As the game begins, you’re given a choice of six sisters, ranging in age from wide-eyed moppet to sullen adolescent to overconfident not-quite-adult, to guide to Grandmother’s menacing-looking house in the darkest part of the woods. The inappropriateness of sending any of these children into the woods alone is immediately apparent, and you’re given strict instructions to stay on the path, but the woods are clearly meant for exploring, or why would the designers put them there? And anyway, if you actually do obey the instructions, you’re told afterward that you failed. You climb into bed with Grandma (who is pale and still enough that I thought she was a corpse until she opened her eyes), and you’re given a rating of “D” and an opportunity to try again. To be regarded as successful, you have to find the Wolf.

Only the youngest sister gets a Wolf that’s visibly wolf-like; the rest get metaphorical wolves, wolves in human form. Even the woodcutter from the fairy tale is presented here as a wolf in man’s clothing. There are other things to find in the woods — landmarks, collectible flowers (You have found x of 144!), oddly abandoned objects like a piano, a syringe, a television that somehow manages to remain switched on in the middle of a forest — the details vary depending on which girl you picked, and what you find can affect what happens in Grandma’s house. Pursuing such things is a fine way to delay the inevitable, but if you want to make progress, you have to seek out and interact with the Wolf. I should mention a peculiar thing about interaction in this game: it’s passive. When you’re close enough to an object to interact with it, this fact is signaled visually with a ghost-like overlay, at which point all you do is stop walking and the rest happens automatically. This means that if a character walks close enough to you while you’re already standing still, you can wind up interacting with them inadvertently. This makes for a good bit of nervousness: around the Wolf, if you feel you’re not ready, you don’t dare to stand still.

But when you feel you’re ready, you interact with the Wolf, and there’s a cutscene in which something bad happens that you don’t quite get to see, after which you find yourself lying on the path in the rain just in front of Grandma’s house. The girl’s entire demeanor and body language is changed here: she’s broken and ashamed, and moves with painful slowness. (Even the controls for rotating the camera become sluggish.) And after the Wolf, the inside of the house is transformed into a surreal living nightmare reminiscent of an old FMV title. (Some will probably interpret this as meaning that she’s already dead and in Hell when she wakes up.) I experimented with ways to avoid going inside, but there’s no other place to go at this point. Attempting to walk into the woods makes you stumble, and laboriously walking backward along the path just led to an infinite paved road, without the payphone that you could use to chicken out in the pre-Wolf section. (At one point during this attempt, I looked at what I was doing, holding a button down to make a young girl walk slowly home in the rain after being traumatized, and realized that if someone had described this moment to me, I would have though it was parody.)

After going through the house to your doom, you return to the main menu, now one girl short, and are asked to pick another. And you continue until they’re all gone. What kind of sadist repeatedly sends girls off to get killed? Well, the player, obviously. You want to “succeed”, don’t you? There’s a whole mess of audience complicity issues here. (The scenes inside the house demand that you keep repeatedly pressing the forward button rather than just holding it down, as if to make you repeatedly reaffirm that you want to keep going.) But also, we can’t take the deaths entirely at face value, because this is a game that demands to be read at a symbolic level. The whole thing is dream-like, and not in an I-can’t-be-bothered-to-make-sense way, but in a Freudian way.

Bruno Bettelheim famously interpreted Little Red Riding Hood as a parable about puberty and the dangers that follow, a thread taken up by Sondheim and Lapine in the musical Into the Woods, where the wolf brings new meaning to the term “sexual predator” with the song “Hello Little Girl”. But while several of the wolf encounters in The Path are blatantly suggestive of seduction or rape (or the sometimes-blurry line between the two), it seems to me that the point here is larger. The youngest sister, Robin, discovers her wolf in a graveyard, where her comments show difficulty understanding the reality of death. While there, she can find a baby bird lying dead on the ground near the remains of a blue eggshell — that is, a dead robin. “Not me!” she insists. For her, the wolf represents awareness of mortality, one of the earlier horrible truths about the world that a child has to learn in the process of becoming an adult. And that’s what The Path is really about: the journey to adulthood. Sex is only part of it, albeit a large one.

For what is the path but life itself? It begins in verdant fertility, ends in decay and death. Even without the Wolf’s intrusion, Grandma’s house at the end of the path is the home of a woman at the end of her life. That’s where every little girl winds up eventually. But none of the sisters can traverse the path successfully: each is locked at one particular stage of life, and lacks experience to mature. The Wolf brings this experience through unwelcome lessons, and the result is the death of innocence, symbolized by the death of innocents. You can view the sisters as aspects of one person, at different stages, which have to be superseded.

path-whiteGiven this analysis, the end result of passing through all the stages should be a complete person. And when we’re returned to the main menu after disposing of them all, instead of an empty room, we get one more role to play: the mysterious Lady in White, who’s been seen in the woods throughout the game. I’m not entirely sure I buy my own analysis at this point: the Lady in White appears no older than the sisters. But she definitely knows her way around the woods better than anyone else. In any of the previous chapters, it’s impossible to find the path once it’s out of sight behind you, even if you double back the way you came. But if you take the Lady in White by the hand, she will lead you back to the path. Even just following her around as she runs through the woods seems to be a good way to find the important places for your current character.

The game as a whole can be finished in a single sitting, especially if you don’t care about optional objectives. If you do, well, finding all 144 flowers will take quite some time; just stopping to pick up the ones you see will net you most of them, but I imagine the last few would take a systematic search. Even if you ignore them, though, it’s a bit of a relief that they’re there to provide an unambiguous game element. The previous “game” by Tale of Tales, The Graveyard, consisted entirely of walking an old woman down a path in a cemetery, sitting on a bench, watching a noninteractive video for a cheerful little song about death (or, alternately, interrupting it), and then walking back the way you came. (They later released a “full” version, available for a registration fee, in which the only change was that the woman would sometimes, at random, die while sitting on the bench. I was tempted to register it out of admiration for their audacity.) Now, in The Graveyard, there was only one path. There were things that looked like other paths leading off, and players like me certainly tried to take them. That’s what players do: they try to stretch the limits of the system. Perhaps The Path was, to some extent, designed in response to this, to take advantage of the player’s urge to disregard the author’s intention. Ironic, then, that my first reaction was to follow the path — not because I wanted to obey the instructions, but because I wanted to disregard the author’s obvious intention that I disobey them.

Gish: Look

Sometimes, the environment in Gish looks downright photorealistic. Which is strange, because it’s not. At all. It’s a tile-based world with lots of regularly-repeated textures, and while it contains moving physics objects (such as blocks suspended from flexible ropes), those objects are largely made from the same size of square tile as everything else in the environment. But sometimes, just sometimes, it gives an impression of looking close to real. I think I can identify a few factors contributing to this.

First, there’s the darkness. This is a dimly-lit game, and this helps to hide the imperfections. Second, there’s the light. Gish features dynamic lighting. Now, “dynamic lighting” usually means “moving shadows”, which may or may not make things look realer. (In Diablo II, for example, I felt the shadows just made things look odd.) But in a dimly-lit game like this, it more often means moving brightly-lit areas, sometimes shadow-striped. Add a moving shadow-casting physics item in the middle of this and you get a convergence of visually convincing stuff, forming an island of concentrated realism.

And that “island” effect is a big contributing factor. When things suddenly look real, it’s partly due to the contrast with the way they normally look. The monsters are grotesque cartoons, visibly hand-drawn. Gish himself looks like an animation cel, with big yellow eyes and a toothy mouth that’s only rendered when it’s open. But sometimes, when the light hits him just right, he gets spots of dynamic reflection that suggest a curved and shiny surface. It’s particularly striking when the light is colored. This is one of the best visual effects in the game.

Audiosurf

At a casual glance, Audiosurf looks a lot like an early Harmonix game, like Frequency and Amplitude: the player drives a little spaceship down a twisting multi-lane highway in an abstract environment, trying to hit colored spots in time with the music. But the similarities end there. Harmonix, even in the days before Guitar Hero, has always been about capturing the feeling of performing music. The player’s goal in their games is to add something to the soundtrack, to build up a piece of music note by note, by hitting the right buttons at the right moments. In Audiosurf, the music is there regardless of what you do, and buttons are strictly for voluntary use of special powers not directly related to the music. You don’t even necessarily want to activate all of the colored spots, like you would for a perfect performance. That’s because you’re not in any sense performing the music. You’re reacting to it.

Or, to be precise, you’re reacting to the level design, which is generated automatically from the music. Procedural generation of game content from music has been done before — Vib Ribbon, released in 1999, may be the earliest released example, but it came too soon to take advantage of ubiquitous networked digital distribution of music the way that Audiosurf does, providing built-in iTunes and Last.fm integration, as well as a small weekly roster of songs to download from the Audiosurf servers. (As I write this, it’s Jonathan Coulton week.) Not that you’re limited to this content; any song you have in a DRM-free format is useable, provided it meets certain requirements such as a minimum length.

And that’s a snag for such as me. This game is really meant for playing with your own music collection, and I don’t own a lot of music. I never went through a music-collector phase like most people; my collector instincts attached themselves to games instead. I have a handful of CDs left over from my college days, back when people still bought CDs: several They Might Be Giants albums, some Satie and Prokofiev and Philip Glass. I have a few recordings of bands that friends of mine were in. And I have the DROD soundtrack CD. This is little enough that I don’t even really consider it representative of my own musical tastes. Still, there are a bunch of songs there that I haven’t listened to in a long time, and this is as good an excuse as any to drag them out.

So, how well did it handle the music I had available? It varies. It’s probably at its best with dance music, or things resembling dance music. Playing Satie’s piano works, mainly quiet and slow things, the burbling electronic sound effects of the game itself felt very weird; I suppose I could turn them off, but then I’d lose a valuable channel of feedback. Moreover, the whole way it detects the tempo and intensity of the piece seems tuned more for the way pop music works than for classical-ish stuff. For example, in one of the Glass pieces, a very steadily-paced work throughout, the path tilted straight downward simply because a bassoon joined in. This is supposed to be what happens in more intense sections; sedate stuff has the path tilting upward. (Why not upward for rising tension? Because the slope determines how well you can see what’s ahead of you. Downward slope means limited visibility.)

Still, some of the less modern stuff works well. The “Montagues and Capulets” theme from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet — you’d probably recognize it if you heard it — made the road satisfyingly bumpty in just the right places. And sometimes even TMBG was awkward, as in the opening of Ana Ng: the speed at which you go down the road varies with the music volume, and the unnaturally sharp and echoless cut-offs here made the vehicle jerk and judder like it was having engine trouble.

audiosurf-floeI think the most satisfying ride I’ve had yet was in Floe, by Philip Glass. It’s almost like he wrote it with Audiosurf in mind. I mean, just look at that intensity graph in the upper left of the screenshot. (You’ll have to click on it to see it; it’s invisible in the thumbnail.) Most songs have spiky and irregular graphs, but here, it looks like it’s made of circular arcs. The effect on gameplay is a smooth progression from easy to difficult.

According to the leaderboards, only four other people have tried that song. Most of my songs, no one else has ever tried. But that might be misleading: there may be other people playing Prokofiev, but they wouldn’t show up as competing with me if they’re playing a different recording. (And quite right, too: different performances could vary the level design in nontrivial ways.) This is another way in which my music collection isn’t ideal for the game. But I suppose it could be worse. With the company I kept in college, I could have easily wound up a fan of Karlheinz Stockhausen. In fact, I’m kind of tempted to download some of his stuff to see how well the game copes with it.

Gish

Gish is a goth/cartoony 2D platformer starring a sentient ball of tar, a hero that stretches and splats and sticks to things. In some respects it’s very traditional, based around Mario-old conventions like the kidnapped-girlfriend plot 1No, Gish’s girlfriend isn’t a ball of tar. She’s a cartoon goth girl. Don’t ask me for details. , the linear sequence of levels grouped into “worlds”, enemies you kill by jumping on their heads, etc. I think the designers chose to adhere to old and even outmoded conventions as much as they did, not out of lack of imagination, but to give the player something familiar to cling to as they pulled the rug from under you on the mechanics and controls. This is a platformer where jumping is difficult to execute.

Oh, sure, there’s a “jump” button, but it doesn’t do much of a jump by itself. To make Gish do a jump worth jumping, you have to hit the button while he’s compressed — the more compressed, the better. And he’s at his most compressed when he’s in the middle of colliding with a hard surface, such as a floor. So standing jumps are a no-go, but sequences of long bounds are doable, once you’ve attained sufficient facility with the controls to carom about with confidence. Momentum is your friend, and hesitation is your biggest enemy.

It takes a while to become that confident, because, aside from the jump, Gish’s core abilities are not standard platformer fare. The core controls allow you to make Gish stickier than normal (useful for climbing walls), slicker and less viscous (useful for sliding down narrow chutes), or heavier and more resistant to deformation (useful for breaking things or sinking in water). These can be combined arbitrarily: sometimes, for example, the easiest way to shift a pile of loose blocks is to trickle into their midst through slickness and then tense up to resume ball-shape and force the blocks apart. It’s all very physics.

I may not be playing it much, though, because it’s still crashing for me. Not as badly as it was before, but I’m typically getting in about 10-15 minutes of gameplay before it exits to the desktop without so much as an error message. This is, however, long enough to make permanent progress, so I really could just keep playing, as long as I exit the game every once in a while to force it to save. (There is no manual save option.)

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1. No, Gish’s girlfriend isn’t a ball of tar. She’s a cartoon goth girl. Don’t ask me for details.

Majesty 2: Demon Down

I think my mistake in previous attempts at the final level was underestimating the efficacy of grouping your heroes into parties. Oh, I had tinkered with parties before, but the rules don’t let you do so until you’ve upgraded your palace to level 2. I suppose this should have been a signal to me that the designers considered it to be too powerful a technique for the early stages of a scenario, but in practice, it just meant that I seldom tried it until my heroes were pretty well advanced individually. At any rate, hiring a couple of cheap elite Lords and tethering them to healers seems to be a winning strategy. As in previous levels, there came that turning point when I realized that I had managed to clear most of the map of monster lairs, and that my base was therefore no longer under serious attack. Even then, my trepidation about actually sending my heroes into the final assault against the final enemy caused me to delay more than was really necessary, building up cash for on-the-fly resurrections and spellcasting, creating more parties, etc. But the deed is done, and the Barlog is dead.

That’s not a typo. As in Ultima (Balrons) and D&D (Balors), what we have here is a game that isn’t under license to the Tolkien estate and therefore has to make do with a Brand-X Balrog knock-off. Unlike the others, though, they make a joke of it: “Barlog”, we’re told, is short for “Baron of Logic”, Hell’s embodiment of merciless rationality, who taunts you with the logical inevitability of his ultimate victory. I suppose this means that the means of defeating him — building Temples to enlist the aid of the Gods — is a matter of superstition triumphing over reason. It doesn’t really feel that way, though, because the Barlog’s real weakness is that he’s easily distracted: on this level only, you can periodically summon a colossal “Spirit of Kings”, causing the Barlog to drop whatever he’s doing and rush off to fight it, even if it’s in the far corner of the map. It’s hardly rational behavior, so in addition to being a demon from the pit, he’s also a hypocrite.

This entire business is jokey in a way that, to me, doesn’t fit entirely comfortably with the game. It’s strange that this is so, because there are bits of humor throughout the game — the royal advisor’s introduction to each map typically includes comical digressions, and a lot of the things the heroes say during gameplay are hammed up enormously. (I particularly like the elves, who look post-Tolkien but talk like excessively enthusiastic children.) But the advisor typically only says anything at the beginning and end of the scenario (and, due to a bug, sometimes the end speech doesn’t play), and the hero quips, which fundamentally serve to signal status changes like “I just gained a level” or “I’ve decided to flee this encounter”, are repeated often enough that after a while you basically stop noticing the words and just process their relevant content. Fundamentally, the player’s attention is going to be on the gameplay most of the time, and the gameplay itself isn’t funny. So when the Barlog talks, interrupting me in the middle of gameplay mode, my reaction is “Huh? What? Oh, right. Comedy.”

Still, for all my complaints, I think overall I’m glad I got this game, especially given the pittance I paid for it. In addition to the campaign mode, there are several standalone missions. I’ve already dipped a toe into them, and will probably wind up playing through them all eventually.

Majesty 2: Still Going

And another night passes without defeating the demon and reclaiming the high throne. I’ve made a little progress, though. The level contains sub-quests to build one of each of the six types of temple that I mentioned earlier, or rather, to build two groups of three, as the gods of Ardania split naturally into two trinities. I finally managed to complete one triad, and was told that the demon was greatly weakened, and would remain so as long as the temples stayed up. Then, of course, the elementals managed to knock two of them down. So I’m starting to formulate anti-elemental strategies. It seems like what I really need is to pull a high-level Ranger and a high-level Blademaster out of my Lord pool. Rangers respond eagerly to Explore bounties, which should enable me to find the elemental lairs, and Blademasters respond eagerly to Attack bounties, which should enable me to destroy them once found. (The high levels on both are simply to let them survive their missions.) The one big problem with this plan is that it leaves me with scant funds to build the temples, but we’ll see how it works.

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