Archive for July, 2009

Zanzarah: Stuckage

If it weren’t for that little fink Rafi, I’d still be making progress in this game.

Rafi is the first inhabitant of Zanzarah you meet, and if you keep visiting him (which is optional), he functions as an advisor, telling you at each turn of the plot what your current main objective is. There’s usually an equivalent piece of feedback in the form of an exclamation mark on the place you need to visit next in your in-game world map, but that doesn’t tell you why you need to go there. Rafi does.

Ever since I started playing again, Rafi has had just two pieces of advice. The more important one is that I must go to the Shadowlands to confront the White Druid’s Guard. (It seems to be common knowledge that the Guard resides in the realms of Shadow. Why didn’t anyone remember this when the Shadow Elves came? Zanzarans are a little dopey, I guess.) But also, Rafi tells me to explore everything else first, and, in particular, to try to find the Fire Card, which will allow me to explore the game’s lava caves without dying.

It seems like good advice. A fire-themed dungeon is exactly what I need to round out my roster of fairies, as I have only one Fire-type at the moment. The problem is that I have no idea where this card is. My only clue is that it was owned by the Dwarves at one point, but they lost it. Supposedly I can find it by exploring the land’s secrets, but I’ve pretty much run out of secrets to explore.

My stance here is kind of unreasonable, really. If I find I need a Fire fairy, I do in fact already have one. And it’s not like venturing into the Shadows will prevent me from coming back to the fire areas later. There’s a teleport-to-checkpoints system that’s pretty basic to the game, and it’s always worked in the few sallies below I’ve made so far. But Rafi, blast him, has ideas about what order I should do things in, and I’m really not inclined to argue with the guy. Doing things out of order in a CRPG generally just means abnormally high difficulty for a while, followed by abnormal lack of difficulty when you go back.

Zanzarah: Diligence

I have a couple of corrections to my last post. The Guard (not Guardian) is specifically the thing that keeps humans out of Zanzarah. Its malfunctioning is the reason that the elements are out of balance. The White Druid knows this, but was trying to keep it secret, because he knows that if anyone else knew, they’d try to turn it off, and he thinks that insane fairies are a small price to pay for keeping Zanzarah protected from grubby humans and their chain stores and jazz music. Well, it’s not like he has to endure the consequences personally. He lives in the clouds. (This is one of those moments where I sincerely wonder if the authors intended the symbolism or if it’s just a happy coincidence.) And the missing dwarf king, Quinlin, who was framed for the whole tribulation? Held captive by the Druid, to keep him from talking. Quinlin knows all about the Guard, because he helped build it.

Now, you’re reading that recap as a neat little chunk of text. For me, recovering the information involved revisiting a bunch of locations, some infested with wild fairies. Fortunately, I’m at a stage of the game where I wanted to revisit places anyway. I have a bunch of fairies that need to level, and a bunch of tools for opening up secret areas that I couldn’t get to the first time round. This is part of how this sort of game extends play time, and how much you enjoy it depends on how much you enjoy executing this kind of diligent thoroughness.

In fact, I’ll go a step farther than that and say that exercising diligence is probably a big part of the reason that people find CRPGs enjoyable. Or, at any rate, the reason that the sort of person who finds CRPGs enjoyable finds them enjoyable. Not everyone does. But tastes differ. I’ve seen it claimed that, by and large, the activities people enjoy are the ones that exercise the skill they’re good at. This seemed possibly backwards to me — isn’t it that people become good at the things they enjoy doing, because they’re so much more motivated to practice them than the things they don’t enjoy? Regardless, there’s a correlation between skills and pleasure. Solving puzzles is a skill, and there are entire genres of puzzle-game for the people who are good at it. Tactical decision-making, precise timing, quick reflexes 1Does it make sense to separate timing from reflexes in this list? I think it does. Reflexes are what you need in a two-player fighting game, to react to the opponent’s moves the instant they’re launched. Timing is what you need in a Mario-style platformer: everything is deterministic, and the same sequence of moves performed in the same way will work every time, provided you can execute them just right. , spotting visual patterns: all skills with games to appeal to them. Diligence is a skill. But it’s not a skill that requires a great deal of brainpower or physical coordination, and for that reason games that appeal to it are denigrated by those who enjoy exercising those skills more.

1 Does it make sense to separate timing from reflexes in this list? I think it does. Reflexes are what you need in a two-player fighting game, to react to the opponent’s moves the instant they’re launched. Timing is what you need in a Mario-style platformer: everything is deterministic, and the same sequence of moves performed in the same way will work every time, provided you can execute them just right.

Zanzarah: Nearing the end?

So, let’s get back to this. I think I’m approaching the end, partly because I’m running out of new fairy elements to acquire, but mainly because Rafi, the helpful goblin NPC who you can always talk to to find out what you’re supposed to do next in order to advance the plot, basically told me that at this point I should finish up any side-quests I’d been putting off. It’s been a while since I played, so I think it’s a good idea to refresh my memory about the plot. I am by now fuzzy on many of the details, and writing down everything I remember will help me to clarify what I need to re-learn.

As you may recall, the realm of Zanzarah was menaced by some great unknown evil, which produced an invasion by Shadow Elves 1Not Dark Elves, as I had previously stated. A trivial distinction, perhaps, but there’s at least one possibly-symbolic difference of connotation: a shadow has to be cast by something, and is ultimately produced by light. , hostile wild fairies, and roadblocks of various sorts such as large rocks and thorn bushes. (In grand Zelda tradition, plot-crucial battles often yield the tool necessary to overcome one type of obstacle.) A prophecy told of a human hero that would rectify things, so Rafi went and arbitrarily brought Amy into Zanzarah, apparently figuring that one human is as good as another. After some acts of heroism in the Elf and Goblin territories, she was advised to consult with the powerful White Druid, who no one had seen in some time. The White Druid turned out to be in the Realm of Clouds, a floating land of marble ruins, home only to wild air-type fairies and some Shadow Elves that had got there somehow.

The White Druid appears to be human. (Apart from Amy, he’s the only person in Zanzarah who’s more than four feet tall.) This is strange, because there are quite explicitly no humans in the land of Zanzarah. There used to be humans, but they were supposedly all driven out ages ago for acting like dicks. Perhaps the other Zanzarans don’t know he’s human? Like I said, he’s been isolated in the Cloud Realm for some time.

The White Druid showed me an arena where there was a Shadow Elf boss fight. The pre-battle banter implied that the Shadow Elves were in league with the dwarves, and the loot included a staff known to belong to the dwarf ruler. Already this seemed suspicious to me, but the news got out quickly (I’m not sure how), and there was an immediate call among the public to punish the traitorous dwarf king and probably expel his entire race, just like they did to the humans. The dwarves, of course, pleaded with the prophecied hero to help them prove their innocence, and shortly afterward Rafi expressed the opinion that the White Druid himself framed them.

Now, here’s the bit that I’m particularly fuzzy on: There’s an entity called the Guardian. It may be the end boss, the Sauron to the White Druid’s Saruman. Apparently it was created to protect Zanzarah, but it’s gone haywire, and is the real source of all the problems. In particular, it decided that maintaining the status quo requires preventing the prophecy of the human hero from coming true, and created all those roadblocks specifically to retard Amy’s progress. So it’s one of those self-fulfilling things, because these safeguards against the Prophecy are the only reason Amy’s there in the first place. To make it even more circular, the Prophecy was apparently invented specifically to give Rafi an excuse to keep in contact with the Human world just in case something went wrong with the Guardian. Or something like that.

If the Guardian is in fact the end boss, it’s not clear to me whether it has fairies under its control or whether I’d be fighting it directly. The latter would be kind of strange, because the game has no combat mechanics for anything other than fairy duels, and the few pictures I’ve seen of the Guardian so far make it look more like some kind of weird clockwork apparatus. But then, the fairies themselves have been getting stranger and more monstrous at this point. The abandoned dwarven workshops have artificial robotic fairies, which can be captured like any wild fairy, and then upgraded; after two upgrades, you have a robotic fairy torso on the body of a metal scorpion. In the more advanced forest areas, there’s a new Nature-type that’s half-whelk, half-jabberwock. It gave me quite a start when I first saw it.

1 Not Dark Elves, as I had previously stated. A trivial distinction, perhaps, but there’s at least one possibly-symbolic difference of connotation: a shadow has to be cast by something, and is ultimately produced by light.

Zanzarah: Spell Mechanics

So, in my last post about Zanzarah, I described a situation where I had to fight a team of Dark and Chaos fairies simultaneously. I had fairies that are strong against Dark and fairies that are strong against Chaos, but nothing that’s strong against both at once. In theory, I could use a Water fairy to take out the few Dark ones 1Or one. There seems to be some randomization in the battle; the last time I tried it, only one was Dark. This didn’t help. and then swap in a Nature or Air fairy to take care of the rest, but since Chaos is strong against Water, this generally just meant my fairy would die before it could make an impact. Ideally I needed a Light fairy, but there weren’t any available. (And yes, I spent some time revisiting old haunts just in case there was something I had neglected.) So I finally did the next-best thing: I equipped a Water fairy with an offensive Light spell 2Not only are you allowed to purchase spells that you can’t use yet, it’s generally a good idea to do so. That way, when you suddenly get your first fairy in a new element, you can immediately hook it up with better stuff., capable of killing any of these foes with one or two blasts. The Chaos fairies could still damage it, but they could no longer do so faster than it could damage them.

Now, for most fairies, this would be impossible. Most fairies can only use spells of their own element. It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, though. Every spell description has up to three colored spots on it, with the color indicating an element, and the number of spots indicating what we can think of as the spell’s level. The UI for assigning spells likewise puts a number of colored spots under each spell slot, indicating what that slot can take. (That number can be zero, indicating that the slot is not yet usable.) At least one of these spots will always be the fairy’s element, but sometimes the second and/or third slot will be a different color, or even rainbow-colored, indicating that it will accomodate any element. (It took me a while to figure this out, because the rainbow really looks mostly green.) So, for example, the water fairy I used in this battle had a slot with one blue (Water) slot and two rainbow slots, so I could equip it with a level-3 Water spell or a level-2 spell of any sort whatsoever. Some spells even require this sort of thing, as they contain spots of two different colors.

Spells and spell slots come in two sorts: attack spells (indicated by circular spots), which are activated in combat with the left mouse button, and passive spells (square spots), which are either always active, or trigger automatically under some condition (usually getting hit). At any moment, a fairy can have at most one attack spell and one passive spell in use, but it can have a secondary bank prepared (also containing an attack spell and a passive spell) and switch to that bank during combat. (This is something I haven’t really taken advantage of, but I suspect I’ll need to as the battles grow longer.) Thus, each fairy has four spell slots. Typically, a fairy will start with a capacity of just one level-one attack spell, and gain extra spots as its level increases. But the progression is different from species to species: a particular sort might grow its passive slots faster than its attack slots, or get to level 3 in bank 1 while bank 2 is still unavailable, or get rainbow spots in compensation for gaining them slower.

The interesting thing about this is what happens when a fairy changes type. In Pokémon, evolving your creatures was pretty much entirely positive, except that the evolved form would usually level more slowly, a penalty that Zanzarah seems to have preserved. But in Zanzarah, the spell slot progression can change completely when a fairy evolves. For example, the trick that I used with the water fairy? I can’t do it any more. It gained enough experience from that one battle to evolve into a new form, one that doesn’t have any rainbow slots. Suddenly, the “cancel evolution” option seems like it could be worthwhile sometimes.

Fortunately, as anticipated, I acquired a Light fairy in the immediate aftermath of that battle, and thus had another outlet for Light spells.

Unfortunately, I had to immediately trade it away to progress in the story. So it goes.

1 Or one. There seems to be some randomization in the battle; the last time I tried it, only one was Dark. This didn’t help.
2 Not only are you allowed to purchase spells that you can’t use yet, it’s generally a good idea to do so. That way, when you suddenly get your first fairy in a new element, you can immediately hook it up with better stuff.

Team Fortress 2

I’ve been busy these last few weeks, and look to remain busy for a few weeks yet, but I should probably write up a little something about my inaugural experience with TF2. It’s been a long time since I played an online FPS, mainly because there came a point when it was impossible to be good enough to compete without spending more hours per day practicing than I cared to, or could afford to. There was a time when I was office Quake champion, but only because I was the first to figure out the benefits of permanently turning on mouselook (wich modern FPS games don’t even let you turn off). But that was a very short time. It did, however, lead to my first taste of the original Team Fortress, back when it was a Quake mod. I understand that there have been a number of other versions of the game between this beginning and TF2, but I know little about them.

I remember thinking at the time that the whole idea of assigning gameplay-mandated roles had some potential, but that this potential was largely wasted due to the players’ general lack of interest in actually playing as a team and acting in concert. It would be surprising if this had changed for the better over the years that Generation 4chan got online, but I was pleasantly surprised that the dev team had come up with ways to compensate for it, with gameplay modes that really encourage specialization.

For example, on a Payload map (a mode that is, as far as I know, unique to TF2), one team has to push a cart full of explosives along a track to the enemy base before time runs out. The attacking team needs people to stay by the cart and push it and also needs people to scout ahead and clear out resistance. Which you can do most effectively depends on your chosen class — for example, the fast but fragile Scout will find that sticking by the slow-moving cart negates their one advantage. The defending team obviously needs to get people away from the cart, and the rocker-launcher-wielding Soldier class seems ideal for this, as the blast from their weapons can clear people out of cart-pushing range even if it doesn’t kill them. Meanwhile, their Engineers will be taking advantage of the cart’s fixed route by placing automated gun turrets well in advance of it, while their Snipers will be pressing as close to the enemy base as they dare in order to keep people from reaching the cart in the first place. Or at least that’s how it went when I played.

The game’s style is one of exaggerated, cartoony slapstick. Humor in games seems to be one of my recurring themes this year, and I’ve mentioned before how TF2 has been credited with creating a resurgence of humor in the industry. And it does it without a lot of explicit jokes — mainly it just gives the players the tools for inflicting absurd harm on each other and standing back. Much has been written about this already, but the really interesting thing about the slapstick here is that it’s even identifiable as such. I mean, the action really isn’t all that far separated from that of any other FPS. The whole genre has always been proudly over-the-top, from Wolfenstein 3D onward. So why does this game come off as more of a comedy than most? The caricatured character art and animations are of course a large part of it, but this is not sufficient in itself to leave a humorous impression. I think the pacing helps. Let’s say an enemy Heavy ambushes you, and you return fire, but you die first. This takes about the same amount of time to happen as it takes to read that sentence aloud. Which is to say, it lasts just long enough for the player to fully register that it’s happening, and doesn’t drag on beyond that moment. Obviously not everything is like this, though — in particular, two of the classes, the Sniper and the Spy, specialize in killing the enemy before the enemy knows they’re there. And apparently there’s a tradition of rivalry between these two classes.

One thing I’ve been uncertain about is how this game fits into the Oath. TF2 isn’t winnable, and it keeps adding more content — even now, nearly two years after its release, it keeps getting special bonus items as updates. This puts it into the same category as MMORPGs. Also like MMORPGs, it requires other players online, and thus won’t necessarily be easily turned back to after a delay of years. In short, it doesn’t fit within the model of the Stack. Nonetheless, I’m willing to call this game Complete once I’ve spent a nontrivial amount of time trying out each of the character classes. So far, I’ve tried the Scout, Heavy, and Soldier. Six more to go.