Archive for 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?

Orcs Must Die

The first round of holiday sales is underway, leaving me scrambling to finish up some games to make room on the Stack for new stuff. Orcs Must Die is in fact among my new acquisitions, but looked like it would probably be quick to finish, due to its structural resemblance to Plants vs Zombies: not only is it essentially a tower defense game, it pulls the same trick of introducing one new game element per level, which means the game ends once it’s reached maximal complexity. And indeed, in a single day of obsessive play, I’m managed to complete every level but the last. So expect a second and final post tomorrow.

I say it’s essentially a tower defense, but it’s really a hybrid of tower defense and shooter. The whole idea is that in each level you’re trying to prevent hordes of orcs and related monsters (kobolds as swarmers, ogres as bosses) from reaching a dimensional rift, which is in the middle of a fortress presumably built around it for the specific purpose of keeping the orcs away. This is a fully 3D structure, and you have an avatar inside it. You can place various sorts of traps on the walls, floors, and ceiling, as well as summon “guardians” who fight with sword or bow, but you can also fight the orcs directly, with a repeating crossbow, bladestaff, and various spells that you acquire over the course of the game. And in fact you pretty much have to do both, picking off orcs manually when they survive the traps. Starting at level 11, you can buy enhancements of various sorts from “weavers”, but you have to choose between “steel weavers”, who enhance your traps and guardians (for example, making the traps reset faster or giving the archers flaming arrows), or “elemental weavers”, who enhance your personal combat abilities (increasing your health, making spells do more damage). I personally want to play this more as a tower defense game than as a shooter, so I’ve pretty much always taken the steel weaver — at least, until the knowledge weavers became available at level 19, with their tempting treats like making the rift itself produce lightning bolts, or occasionally reanimating dead orcs to fight on your side.

But even treating the game as a tower defense, it’s a peculiar tower defense, due to the fact that you’re seeing the whole thing from inside. (Shades of Intelligent Qube!) The game helps minimize this limitation by granting you a great deal of mobility: your traps don’t affect you at all, you can jump off balconies and over any barricades you’ve placed, and there are often teleport gates joining distant parts of the stronghold. (It took me a while to realize that the orcs couldn’t go through the gates. I wasted some cash in the early levels barricading them.) But it offsets this by making you vulnerable. There are types of occasional enemy that ignore the rift, choosing instead to attack you and any guardians you’ve summoned — and for that reason alone, it’s important to have a few guardians around as distractions. For that matter, ordinary orcs will sometimes decide to chase you if you’re close enough, which means that by your presence you can distract them from the rift.

In short, for all its focus on a single sort of dungeon encounter, this is a pretty rich game. The thing that really impresses me, though, is the UI design. Placing objects in three dimensions is a nontrivial task, and there’s basically no explanation, documentation, or tutorial here, other than a few on-screen prompts, such as “Press R to rotate”. And yet it all just works. You choose a trap to place in the same way as you choose a weapon, and you also aim it like a weapon at the surfaces that can support it. When you’re aiming at a valid spot, the trap appears as a transparent model, with, if relevant, another transparency indicating its area of effect, so you know if that arrow trap reaches all the way across the hallway or not. Outside of trap placement, there are a number of little touches like the targeting reticule for the crossbow that widens if you fire rapidly, clearly indicating without words that your aim is becoming less accurate. Perhaps this is stuff that you need to already be familiar with games to understand, but it works for me.

Voxatron Alpha

Block that attack!So, here I’ve been giving so much play to the Lexaloffle mini-games that were included as a bonus with the latest Humble bundle (or “debut”) that I haven’t got around to playing the one game that it was supposedly about. Just as well: for all that the bonus items are described as “mini”, the Voxatron alpha is a much shorter experience. It’s essentially a Robotron-like shooter in 3D, with jumping added. But it’s the sort of Robotron-like shooter with awkward controls that link movement direction to firing direction more than I’d like. That is, you can move in a different direction than you’re shooting, but you have to be facing a direction to start shooting that way, and that gets in the way of the classic circle-and-shoot-inward approach. Well, it’s still an alpha, I suppose. One can hope that it changes.

Which brings us to the weird fact that the alpha of this game was included — indeed, was the focus of — a Humble Bundle that people were expected to pay money for. I guess that’s the Minecraft influence. After all, it’s hard to imagine this game existing without Minecraft paving the way. Its chief appeal is in the aesthetic of blocky voxels. Even the text at the top of the screen showing your score and current weapon and so forth is made of voxels. It has an effect reminiscent of claymation, due to both the deliberate crudity and the way that the voxel grid quantizes movement. It’s strange how voxel tech seems to have passed directly from futuristic to retro without passing through the present.

But I suppose that’s only true of consipcuous voxels. Inconspicuous voxels are out there, in games with destructible environments. So too is it here: the environment is fully destructible. Every shot that doesn’t hit a monster is liable to knock a chunk out of a wall or something. There’s one boss that fires a sort of sweeping laser beam (which looks extremely strange made of solid blocks) that can only be effectively avoided by hiding behind cover, but it also eats away at your cover. Some of the monsters can even be tricked into smashing things that you want smashed, such as a pillar with goodies on top. I’d like to see more of that sort of thing in the final version, although I’m not really sure what more can be done.

Jasper’s Journeys: A couple of things

I’m up to the middle of level 10 out of what turns out to be 15. I had thought for a while that there were only 10 levels, because I was having trouble finding any definite information online, and the closest thing I had seen to a walkthrough was some hints that only went up to level 9. But 15 is the truth, according to the game’s official website. Feeling like I was close to the end motivated me to keep going; suddenly finding out that I’m farther than I thought motivates me to play something else for a little while.

It’s actually a bit of a relief to be able to devote multiple posts to a game right after the IF Comp, where I felt like I had to summarize everything interesting about each game in a single post. So let me just note a couple more points of interest about Jasper’s Journeys. Like the music. It’s very synthetic sounding, in a faux-Soundblaster way, but the interesting thing is in how sparingly it’s used. This actually seems to be a constant throughout the Lexaloffle games: there’s no music most of the time. So when it does come up, you know something special is happening. The opening menu has a sort of wonder-and-mystery theme behind it, which is sometimes triggered in the game when you venture into a hidden passage. Some particular types of monsters have their own leitmotifs. For example, wizards, which are the first abnormally-difficult enemy you encounter, taking four hits to kill and throwing magic missiles that home in on you, have an echoey wizard tune — at least, until you reach the point where wizards no longer seem special, at which point the leitmotif is dropped.

Another, unrelated point of interest: missile trajectory. You can fire projectiles left and right, and there are a few enemies that can do the same. Surprisingly, such missiles fall. There’s a trick I’ve seen used a couple of times wherein a frangible block is placed on the floor. Since you can’t shoot straight downward, the only way to break it and open up whatever passageway it blocks is to stand at a sufficient distance (about five tiles) that your shots will hit the ground at that spot. Another constant throughout the levels is “sproing flowers” (as the in-game docs name them): blue flowers that propel you upward at speed when you jump on them. They also have the same effect on downward-moving projectiles. I have yet to see a puzzle that relies on this, but it seems like the sort of thing this game would do.

Jasper’s Journeys: Inns

Like a gas station in the middle of the desert, he can charge whatever he wants. It's not like he's going to lose regular customers.If there’s one game element that defines the Jasper’s Journeys experience more than any other, it’s got to be the inns. Every level has at least one, although it might be difficult to find or reach. At the inns, you can exchange all the treasure you’ve been accumulating for practical stuff, like fruit (increases your ammo supply) or shields (effectively, hit points; you can carry up to three, which means you’ll be able to withstand damage three times without dying), or even, occasionally, potions. Potions are powerups of various sorts that last for the rest of the level, and are sometimes absolutely necessary for looting the level completely. They’re reasonably rare.

Most importantly, inns are where you can save your progress. Yes, it’s a save point, that console-standard mechanism despised by PC gamers everywhere. Worse, even: like everything else you can do at an inn, it costs money. Not a lot of money, mind you. A save is the cheapest thing you can buy, and if you’re exploring every level thoroughly, you’re rolling in cash pretty quickly. (If you’re not, you’re pretty much missing the point of the game.) Nonetheless, the fact that it costs money at all makes me reluctant to use it more than necessary. It’s irrational, perhaps, but it’s a real and honest reaction.

Now, when I say that you can save your progress, understand that, despite its retro styling, this game is not so old-school as to respawn its monsters. If you kill something, it stays dead, and you can venture through the area it used to guard in relative safety. Given this, I think the inns actually have an overall positive effect on the experience. If you could save at will, you could make things easier by saving after each and every kill. If you could save any time you went back to the inn, but didn’t have to pay, you could do the same thing, just stretched out over a longer period and made boring because of it. But the way it is, the game essentially spurs me to complete some more significant activity before saving. Make a complete loop of a particular cave, for example, or go as far upward as I can through the clouds (which are solid enough to stand on). The inn becomes your home base, the safe place that you always return to for the sake of securing your gains, which is important, because the tasks I perform before returning are risky. Risky enough that I frequently fail and have to start over — for some definition of “fail”. Sometimes I start over just because I lost more health than I wanted to. At any rate, this cycle is essentially the same as the way you’d play the game if the inns didn’t exist: every time you die, you’d wind up at the start of the level and have to start again. The difference is that, for the most part, you get to choose just how granular it is, how much you want to not have to redo.

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »