Archive for December, 2011

Gromada: Crash Investigation

OK, I’m having technical problems with Gromada. There’s one level that consistently crashes to the desktop. It doesn’t do it immediately, and it doesn’t do it at a consistent time, but I can’t get through the level without a crash, regardless of what I do. The level does do some peculiar things that I haven’t seen happen on other maps — specifically, it involves a bunch of pre-damaged enemy tanks, and a repair center that will eventually give one of them a key as it repairs it. I can believe that this construct somehow gets into an untenable state when multiple tanks try to access it at once, or something like that. But this speculation doesn’t help me much. I don’t have a fix or a workaround.

I do, however, have an error log. It isn’t terribly informative about the problem, though. It mainly just seems to be a bunch of diagnostic print statements that got left in the release, lots of “sprite free” and “Beginner curclock=27106024” and the like. There’s one line that gives me pause, though: “SND::Can’t control CdAudio volume”. CDAudio? Is this game supposed to be playing CD music? There’s some evidence to support this. I hadn’t been getting any kind of background music during the missions; the only music I had heard in the game was a jolly jingle on winning levels. And yet, the options menu contains a music volume slider, which doesn’t seem to affect that jingle at all.

Well. I tried playing the disc in Windows Media Player, but it didn’t recognize it as having audio tracks. Perhaps my current system just doesn’t recognize audio CDs at all? It’s been quite a while since I last used one. But no, I tried one out and it worked fine. Perhaps it’s just hybrid audio/CD-ROM discs that give it trouble? It took me a while to locate a disc in my collection that I knew to be a hybrid — I know I have several, but I’ve forgotten which ones they are. The only one I could think of was Spirit of Excalibur, a game which uses CD-audio tracks for NPC speech and rather memorably starts the speech tracks with every insult to the player character in the game. Yes, a memorable game, but not a memorable name, so it still took me a while to find it. Anyway, the system handled it just fine. So unless Gromada uses some weird audio format that later operating systems don’t recognize, it looks like there aren’t any audio tracks on the disc. Perhaps the original Russian version was different. At any rate, I’m going to assume that this isn’t actually the cause of the crash.

The crash doesn’t actually stop my progress entirely. After you’re a few levels in, Gromada makes two levels available at once, and after that, three. This doesn’t seem to be a branching structure, but rather just a choice of ordering. Still, this means I could keep on playing other levels. But I’m discouraged now, and I don’t want to bother finishing any more levels until my problems are resolved. Which may never happen: this is a game with basically no web presence, and nary a patch. I’ve found a few cheat codes, but those seem to be the only words anyone has to say about it. Bethesda customer support acknowledges its existence, but only just barely.


Somehow, this didn't look quite so brown in the actual game.As with every post these days, I’m posting this a few days late. It was when I was playing the Lexaloffle retro-styled games that I started thinking about playing something from the stack that came by that style more sincerely. I’m not sure why Gromada is the one that stuck in my head. Heck, I’m not sure why I even own it. Probably because it was cheap and in an eye-catching, colorful package. At least it still installs and runs without problems.

Gromada is an isometric sci-fi tank game from Russia. It seems to go out of its way to emphasize its nation of origin, in fact, as if to appeal to all those Red Alert fans who instinctively associate Russia with massive supertanks. (And yes, it was released at about the right time for this to be a plausible factor.) I’m not sure this is the case, though. The two chief things that suggest conscious russification are the way that the opening animation displays the logo as “Громада” at first, and the way that the mission briefings are often awkwardly translated, with not enough articles. But the former could just be a matter of Bethesda (who published the game in America) not wanting to spend the money to redo the animation from the beginning, and the latter could just be plain ordinary cheap-videogame bad translation.

Everything, including vegetation, is rendered with a plasticky Gouraud-shaded sheen, as if it’s all toys — and the canary yellow paint favored by the enemy emphasizes this more. I’ll say this: the vehicles rotate remarkably smoothly for a sprite-based game. Presumably a lot of time and effort was devoted to this, an effect that we get trivially in the age of 3D.

Your supertank can be controlled from either mouse or keyboard. The keyboard controls are avatar-relative — “tank controls”, as they’re sometimes called. This is at least appropriate to the context, but I much prefer the mouse, which is a simple click-to-go-here system, complemented by click-to-fire-here on the other mouse button. (This is the sort of tank game that lets you rotate your turret independently of your direction of movement.) This still has its problems, mind. You can hold down the fire button to keep on continuously firing at a single point (as long as your ammo holds out, anyway), but, inconsistently, you can’t hold down the go button to continuously update where you’re moving. Also, tanks need to move in a circle in order to turn, and the mouse doesn’t give you direct control over which direction you’re circling in; for small turns, it’ll choose the most direct way, but if you suddenly have to go back the way you just came, you can wind up bumping into perfectly avoidable walls. Still, the click-to-move system lets you essentially set your tank on autopilot so that it doesn’t stay still while you concentrate on shooting at things, and that’s pretty nice.

It strikes me that it’s been a while since I played a game with printed documentation. The manual for this game, while pamphlet-sized, is surprisingly thick, given the game’s fundamental simplicity, but it turns out to be mostly occupied with an illustrated backstory. The portion devoted to the game basically just summarizes the menus and the controls, not even giving the rundown of enemies and pickups that, say, its fellow tank game Combat (2001) does. Note that Combat was released a mere two years after Gromada, and furthermore is deliberately retro, even to the point of containing limited lives, but it seems ages closer to modern design sensibilities all the same.

Runespell: Finale

Well, it turns out that I had finished a larger fraction of the game than I had thought. Just a few more hours sufficed to finish it; I probably could have polished it off in a single day if I had devoted the time to it. It turns out that the game does not, in fact, expand on the rules as I described them, and the two layers of the game, the combat-and-spellcasting system and the card game, don’t interact much.

Mind you, they do interact a little more than I thought they did in my last post. In addition to doing damage, the card game feeds your mana, or, as the game calls it, “rage points”. You start with no rage at all, but every time either player strikes a normal blow (that is, every time either side uses a poker hand, as opposed to casting a spell), both sides gain some rage points, the attacker getting significantly more than the defender. This gives you an extra incentive to hold off on using your accumulated attacks until you’re sure that the resulting rage boost won’t give the opponent an advantage.

Going in the other direction, there’s one suite of spells that directly affects how the card game plays: Fate spells give you extra action points, letting you do more card-rearrangement in a turn that you’d normally be able to. This has a significant enough effect that I relied on it heavily in the endgame battles. There’s a gimmick, repeated twice, of bosses with tons of hit points, which can only be brought down to defeatable levels by means of a special spell that costs your maximum rage to cast. The obvious approach there is to just hoard your rage until you have enough, but on the second such boss, I found this inadequate. Spending some rage on a fate spell the moment I had enough turned out to be worth it.

That’s about it as far as gameplay of interest goes. I do think there’s room for a richer game within this ruleset. What if some enemies had spells that could alter the cards, changing their suit or rank? What effect would wild cards have? What if an enemy were immune to damage from hands based on matching ranks (the easiest sort of hand to make), and could only be defeated with straights and flushes? There’s one fight in Runespell: Overture where you’re not allowed to cast spells, but other than that, it doesn’t really explore this stuff. Well, at least it doesn’t try to drag things out. It knows about how long the rules as given can maintain the player’s interest. Also, as you might have guessed from the title, this is supposedly just the first chapter of the story. If further chapters get made, maybe we’ll see more variety.

Runespell: Overture

I suppose that by now the description “like Puzzle Quest, but with X” is an entire genre. Runespell: Overture is like Puzzle Quest, but with a card game based on building poker hands. The basic mechanics are as follows: You and an opponent take turns, performing a default of three actions each turn. Most of these actions will be spent rearranging cards, either stacking face-up cards from your side of the playfield or stealing unstacked ones from your opponent’s side (both gaining them for your own use and preventing the opponent from using them). When any of your stacks contains five cards, you can use it to attack the enemy. Better poker hands do more damage: a pair does 8 hit points, while a five-of-a-kind does 20.

Mind you, the fact that it’s a fantasy-themed game using standard playing cards has me wondering if it reminds me more of Faerie Solitaire than of Puzzle Quest. It all comes down to depth. Puzzle Quest provided the possibility of pursuing various different strategies, and gave us enemies with different attributes that required different approaches. Faerie Solitaire remained pretty much the same throughout.

I haven’t got very far in Runespell yet, but so far, it looks like it’s somewhere between those two cases. As in PQ, there are spells, things that you can spend your actions on that take the tactics of combat outside of the card game, or that enemies can use to gain distinct powers. But in PQ, half the joy of the spells was the interplay between the spells and the match-3 game, each affecting the other in nontrivial ways, and I haven’t seen that in Runespell yet. I’ve seen damage spells and shield spells and spells that prevent the opponent from casting other spells, but nothing that affects the cards directly, or is affected by them. So it could very well be that the underlying card game is always basically the same, something that could be swapped out and replaced with any other hit-point-based combat mechanic that takes place over multiple rounds. But we’ll see.

Jasper’s Journeys: Finishing Up

When I was trying to google for information on how many levels Jarsper’s Journeys contains, one of the false leads I kept turning up was a review that talked about having difficulty with the final boss. The person who wrote it wanted to buy a triple-shot potion from the inn to make it easier, but found to his dismay that he was just a few coins short of being able to afford it. If I wasn’t already hoarding my coins, this sad story would have convinced me to start. However, my experience turned out completely different: by the end, I had thousands of coins and nothing to spend them on. It was as pure an example of the hoarding problem as you could hope to witness. In the earliest levels, I was reluctant to buy potions because they were expensive and I didn’t know if I’d need the cash later. I did start buying stuff toward the end, but the fact is, the game never really gets all that hard. Particularly if you’re exploring: many of the tougher fights can be skipped if you find the right secret passages.

I can’t say I got every treasure in the game, because there are places where this is just plain impossible. Sometimes you have a choice of path from A to B, and you can’t go back to get the treasures on both paths. This doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Also, there’s a significant amount of cash emitted by slain monsters, little golden coins and stars that bounce away in random directions and then vanish, like rings in Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s rare that I manage to get all the coins from even a middling enemy. When you kill a boss, it explodes into a cascade of coins, and there’s no way you can get them all before they disappear. All you can do is try to be in the thickest part of the storm.

Not every level has a boss, by the way. Maybe half do, and a couple of them are among those tough-but-skippable fights I mentioned. The first couple of bosses, the anthropomorphic Armored Pig and the Fire-Breathing Ogre, show up as non-bosses in later levels, which is a little strange, because usually when that happens in games, it’s a sign of your escalating power, and there’s no escalation of power here. There’s just escalation of difficulty.

You do get increased firepower from a couple of potions, but it only lasts to the end of the level. Of course, you get the opportunity for maximal firepower when facing the end boss, which means not just the aforementioned triple-shot, but the butterfly as well. The butterfly is like the drones or multiples in various spaceship-themed shooters: it floats above your head (sometimes lagging behind you a little) and shoots along with you. Not only does this increase the area covered by your shots, there are places where it lets you shoot from positions of complete safety, hitting a monster on the floor above you.

Arroint thee, witch!The end boss is of course the witch who stole your cat, who flies around on a broomstick, forcing you to keep jumping to shoot at her. She’s very much in the classical vein for a shooter boss, with multiple attack routines that saturate the screen with projectiles of various sorts: expanding rings of magic missiles, curving clusters of fireballs, bubbles that release frogs or bats. All of these missiles can be destroyed with your own shots, and you pretty much have to take advantage of this just to carve out a safe place to stand. More firepower will be expended on neutralizing danger than will actually hit the witch, particularly since the witch tends to vanish briefly whenever a shot connects. Anyway, it was nice getting a fight with some variety in it, because all of the prior bosses were relatively simple in their behavior, with only one attack routine each.

Overall, the game is faux SNES-era in both its graphics and its moment-to-moment gameplay, but it gives me an impression that it’s probably better than most of the games it imitates — that it’s designed to capture the way we like to remember platformers of that vintage, rather than the way they actually were.

Orcs Must Die!: Story and Character

Just as the UI in Orcs Must Die! manages to get along without a lot of explanation, so too does the story. You start off in the middle of an emergency that doesn’t require world-building to be intelligible, and most of what you learn about your situation later on comes from offhand comments rather than cutscenes and similar infodumps. The story’s major turn, the revelation that the orcs are being organized by some external force, is foreshadowed by some of the orcs’ random shouts: in addition to expected cries of “Kill the humans!” and such, they occasionally say things like “Yes, mistress!” and “Get out of my head!”. Just as well — when the game does finally does start to provide exposition in the form of psychic dialogue between the PC and the sorceress who’s driving the horde, it’s often drowned out by the background music and the clamor of battle.

Now, the game’s formal properties impose certain things on the story. You’re playing a character who physically exists in the gameworld, who has a location and and has to run around tending to emergencies wherever they crop up. At the same time, you’re basically acting alone. There are guardians and weavers, sure, but you’re the only war mage, and that means you have to both set up and execute the defense of every route to the rift in each and every fortress, even the ones that are clearly set up to be optimally guarded by teams of two or four people. Why it is like this? Because, we learn, all the other war mages who would normally be helping out are already dead at the hands of the orcs. There are a few different ways you could take this story. The creators of this game decided to make it a comedy.

The main way it does this is by making the PC into the war mage least suited for this challenge: young, brash, wisecracking, disrespectful about his recently-dead mentor, and above all, conceited. The sort of person who says “Booyah!” after a kill. It’s the sort of character Nolan North is known for, with a little more fratboy mixed in. In short, he’s a jerk, and the story is the story of a jerk justifying his jerkitude by triumphing where no one else expected he could. Given this, I suppose it’s fitting that the true antagonist is a controlling, manipulative woman. It’s all part of the PC’s world view. We never encounter the sorceress directly — in the end, you defeat her simply by closing the rifts and trapping her in the orcs’ homeworld — but we see her in cutscenes, and she’s exactly the sort of hooker-booted hottie that the PC would go for were she not so haughty and domineering. The orcs who do her bidding are of course exclusively male, the mind control magic being a metaphor for feminine wiles. The PC is of course immune to this magic, being too full of himself to let anyone else in. No woman can tame him. He isn’t just the jerk triumphant, he’s triumphant because he’s a jerk.

I feel like this is a sort of hero that’s been becoming more popular in games lately, which makes me a little worried about the zeitgeist. Games are really good at provoking identification with the protagonist. Is this really the sort of person we want to identify with?

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