Archive for June, 2012

80 Days: Wasting Time

Now, I called 80 Days “puzzle-light”. And I stand by that: this is not a game about figuring things out or coming to realizations that transform your understanding of your situation, unless it’s a realization about how to reach point B from point A. When there’s an epiphany to be had, some NPC will have it for you. Nonetheless, it is possible to get stuck and have no idea what to do next. I’ve gotten temporarily stuck twice so far. Just not in ways that the designers intended.

My first sticking-point was the one that ended my efforts with the game back in 2006. It turned out to be entirely due to the game being finnicky about mantling (pulling yourself up onto a chest-high block or wall with your arms). You do it by pressing the space bar, which is the jump button, but you have to be just the right distance from the thing you’re mantling onto, and perfectly square with it, or you just jump in place. The game is just as fussy when it comes to climbing ladders, but at least a ladder is obviously climbable, which encourages one to keep trying, whereas it’s not obvious at first that mantling is possible at all. So when I encountered the first place where it was necessary — in a ruined Egyptian tomb, which is kind of appropriate, considering what a Tomb Raider-ish move it is — I gave up trying too soon. This time around, I was more determined to get through the game.

The second was on the dirigible I took from Cairo to Bombay, which turned out to be a lengthy chapter in its own right, and in some ways more satisfying than the Cairo chapter: the smaller space to explore makes for a tighter design and a better sense of place, and the glimpses of the ground below, hazy with distance, are handled very well. At one point, a rare bird called a “zeron”, exotic but ungainly, gets stuck in the rigging, and Oliver has to climb out onto the superstructure to free it. Now, the main vessel’s gondola has long struts extending from either side, on which mini-blimps are docked like dinghies. One of these mini-blimps was in my way, and I could not for the life of me figure out how to get past it. After spending far too much time stuck there, I finally looked online for hints, only to find that no one else seemed to even regard it as a problem. Even then, I thought there must be some trick I was missing until I found a video playthrough in which the player just crouched and crawled under the thing, just like I had been trying but failing to do. Fortunately, the mere act of alt-tabbing out of the game to google for help seemed to somehow jar something loose, and I was able to continue from that point. (I’ve gone back and retried this, and it doesn’t work consistently. But it works a great deal better than not doing it.)

After getting through a part where you spent a lot of time stuck, the natural next step is to reload the last checkpoint and go through it again, but do it quickly this time. After all, the game has a time limit, and a day/night cycle and on-screen clock to constantly remind you of it. At least, it does if you choose to play it that way; you get a choice of three levels of difficulty at the beginning, and the time limit is waived in the easiest one. The manual suggests playing in this mode “if you want to peacefully explore the world”, which is normally how I like to play adventure games, but it just seems wrong here. This is a game that’s named after its time limit. There’s a whole major mechanic involving an energy meter that you can replenish by resting (which costs time) or eating food (which costs money), and easy mode bypasses that entirely. This is clearly not how this game is supposed to be played.

But then again, look at how I’m playing it instead: reverting to saves in order to do things more optimally, hoarding time the way I’d hoard ammo in a different game. This can’t be the way the game is supposed to be played either. The time limit is there to be raced against, not brute-forced away. One of the more colorful user interface features is a track that lets you compare your progress to Phileas Fogg’s, showing both your progress and his on the current day of the voyage. It’s a little weird if interpreted literally, because Fogg’s progress was different from yours. How do you compare your progress at rescuing the Zeron to Fogg’s progress doing nothing of the kind? But the real meaning of the track is clear: Fogg made it in 80 days, so as long as your token isn’t lagging behind his, you’re progressing fast enough. I should probably take that to heart.

80 Days: The Song of Scheherezade

What kind of game is 80 Days? I’ll tell you what kind of game it is. It is the kind of game that contains song-and-dance routines.

Most of the game’s Cairo chapter is spent on a quest chain to locate Uncle Mathew’s lost patent papers. I imagine the other chapters will be similar; the patent-hunt gives the game the excuse it needs to make you stick around in each city for a while rather than immediately dashing off to the next spot on the itinerary in an effort to meet the 80-day deadline. The first patent turns out to be encased, for some reason, in a bauble of smash-proof glass. The only way to break in to retrieve it is through the resonating screeches of a cantankerous local diva, stage-named Scheherezade. Once you have the document, you have no more reason to stick around Cairo, but just before you leave, Scheherezade puts on a production number, singing a summary of what’s happened so far to a pop tune used previously in the background music, with a chorus line of random NPCs doing a campy walk-like-an-Egyptian dance in CGI unison.

At this point, I suspect that each chapter — there seem to be four — will end in a similar musical number. And I’m warming to the notion as I write this, but it was honestly a little painful to sit through the first time. I’m reminded a little of the banal doggerel scattered through The Bard’s Tale (2004) and a little of the bizarre little French music video that turns up without warning at the end of MDK. The former is cheese, the latter is camp, and 80 Days lies somewhere between them.

80 Days

80 Days (Frogwares, 2005) is of course based on the novel Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. As with the Verne adaptations Return to Mysterious Island and The Mystery of the Nautilus, it’s a sequel rather than a retelling, with a new protagonist, which gives the designers the freedom to make whatever additions they like. In the case of 80 Days, that mostly means silliness. The player character, Oliver Lavisheart, isn’t just retracing Phileas Fogg’s famous voyage, he’s hunting for documents lost by his uncle, an eccentric inventor, which provides the designers an excuse to fill the game with wacky steampunk contraptions. For example, you can go about your daily business riding in a monowheel if you like, although I can’t honestly recommend it.

In form, the game is more or less a puzzle-light adventure game in a GTA-ish free-roaming third-person 3D engine, complete with quest arrows on the minimap. What I’ve seen of the gameplay isn’t very open-world, though. Rather, it’s a linear series of missions that remind me a lot of the non-combat quests in World of Warcraft. “Find four men wearing kilts”, you’re told, or “Sneak to your hotel, avoiding customs officials”. In other words, it’s the kind of stuff that gets put into games to keep the shooting or platforming or whatever from becoming too monotonous and one-dimensional, except that here, it’s all there is.

And that’s probably a big part of why the overall feel of the game is so clunky. The translation job also contributes to this, especially when it’s trying to be funny. (Yes, of course the game was originally in French. Who else but the French makes games of Verne?) And this clunkiness is ultimately why I stopped playing back in 2006 without having even got through Cairo, the first chapter. I’ve gotten a little bit past that point already, and will go into more detail in my next post.

For now, I have just a couple of quick installation notes. I was alarmed to find on first launching the game that the opening logo movies got stuck on single frames of animation, and no amount of tweaking of settings seemed to fix this. This is not the sort of problem I expect from a game released in the mid-2000’s! Fortunately, it turns out to only affect the opening logos; all cutscenes within the game are handled in-engine, not as FMV. Other than that, I had some slight problems with lines of dialog getting truncated (at the beginning, oddly enough), but the standard solution of turning off hardware acceleration in dxdiag fixed that.

Doing the Alphabet

It’s been over two full months since my last post. I could describe the immediate causes for the delay, but to be honest, I’ve been through worse before and still posted. So I have to admit that the real reason is simply my abandonment of the Oath. I can’t write without a pretense of obligation. (And it really does have to be a pretense. Nothing kills motivation faster than real obligation.) But I am still unwilling to simply resume the Oath in its current form.

You know when I was posting the most frequently? 2010. The year of the Chronological Rundown, when I added an additional stricture on top of the Oath. I’d like to try something like that again, but without the Oath underneath it. I’ve made mutterings about doing the alphabet — one game starting with each letter — under something similar to 2010’s rules: at an allotted two weeks per letter, it would take a full year to get through all 26. I had been thinking of this as something I’d start with a new year, but why wait? It’s going to wind up irregular anyway, especially if I take October off for the IF Comp. Plus, on reflection, there needs to be a slot for 0-9, and possible punctuation, depending on how one wishes to handle the .hack series. So what the heck, this begins now, almost but not quite halfway through the year.

The new rules: I’ll start playing and posting about a game every two weeks, give or take. I may play other games without posting them, even if they’re on the Stack. In choosing the game to post about for each letter, I intend to give preference to ones on physical media. Bundles have exploded the Stack of late, but if I narrow my sights and only consider things I own on disc or cartridge to matter, the Stack can be seen to be shrinking after all. Exhausting my supply of such games is something I could actually accomplish, given a few more years, and when I do, I can pretend that it means something.

Tomorrow is 80 Days.