Before I get back to recapping what’s been blogged before, there’s one game I’d like to get out of the way: BloodRayne. This is a true Stack item, that is, a game that I actually own on physical media. I won’t be finishing it that way, though. It’s long since been released on Steam, where I picked it up while it was on sale. It even now has Steam Trading Cards, currently priced at the maximum of 100 credits each on the Card Exchange. The cards aren’t why I bought it — they didn’t exist at the time — but they are the reason I’ve decided to play it just now. It seems like Steam card prices are generally controlled more by supply than demand: the cheapest badge by a large margin is for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, one of Valve’s most popular offerings, while the most expensive ones are for games that no one much plays. In the case of BloodRayne, I’m tempted to say that no one plays it because they’re embarrassed, but that’s probably giving the Steam “community” too much credit. All I can say is that I personally am somewhat embarrassed to own this game.

But before I get into the embarrassing content, there’s the adventure of getting it working properly. I remember having some problems with this back in the day of my first sally. In particular, back then, it somehow failed to notice when the joystick was centered, leaving the player character slowly walking forward or backward when she should have been standing still. This is the main reason I stopped playing it as early as I did. I don’t see that problem in the Steam version, although I don’t know whether the change is in the game itself or whether I’ve simply upgraded it away. Getting the gamepad appropriately configured in other respects is another matter. This game is old enough that it uses DirectInput instead of XInput. The chief effect of this is that, with any modern controller, the right joystick doesn’t work as intended: moving it up and down makes the camera pan left and right, while moving it left and right does nothing. This is because it mistakes the trigger buttons for a joystick axis. I remember there was a period when a number of games behaved like this and I didn’t understand why. Well, my current gamepad (a Logitech F710) has a DirectInput/XInput toggle switch on the back, so this is easily solved, leaving me with just trying to find out what the button assignments are supposed to be. In theory, I could bypass all this trouble by playing from mouse and keyboard, but I recall that this is one of those games that’s designed around a gamepad in a big way. For example, the player character has four alternate perception modes, or something like that. Why four? So you can select them with the D-pad.

Then there’s the sound problem. Spoken dialogue usually cuts off before the last syllable, with longer lines cutting off more. I’ve had this problem with other games in the past, and the solution is usually to turn off hardware sound acceleration in dxdiag. However, the option to do this seems to no longer exist! It’s been a while since I played a game that needed this, and in the meantime I’ve gone through a major upgrade. I have some other leads to pursue, but most of the advice online is “give up and read the subtitles”. I’ll report further in my next post, and hopefully describe the content a little.

Advent Rising

Proceeding into the alphabet proper, let’s take a look at Advent Rising, a sci-fi epic from 2005. (I’ll probably be comparing it to Mass Effect when I get around to playing Mass Effect.) This is one of those games that my hardware wasn’t capable of handling at an acceptable framerate when I first tried it, so I set it aside pending further upgrades. Those upgrades have long since happened, and now, so far, it runs perfectly smoothly and looks great. Which is important, because the look of this game is clearly something they put some effort into, and largely the reason I picked it up. It’s very slick and colorful, and possibly anime-influenced (but without the “big eye” thing). The environments I’ve seen so far are visually pleasing, with lots of inconsequential detail, including NPC conversations — co-written by Orson Scott Card, of all people — that you can listen in on for flavor. It’s a shiny future, reminiscent of Star Trek, only a bit sexier and a bit more macho — more Riker-oriented, if you will. The player character’s brother, who seems to be a major character, even has Riker’s beard.

The game opens with protagonist Gideon Wyeth, under the player’s control, flying a shuttlecraft to dock at a station near a vast and mysterious alien vessel, like Clarke’s Rama or the dungeon-substitute from Starcross. Radio chatter fills the time and informs you about the basic situation while you do this, which strikes me as a good technique for infodumping: it keeps it in the background and lessens your impatience with it by keeping you occupied while it goes on. It strikes me as a little similar to what the Half-Life games do in letting you keep piloting Gordon Freeman around while plot-relevant conversations go on around him, but with the addition of a goal. Once you reach the station, the game crashes. I vaguely remember this happening back in the day as well. Fortunately, you can resume the game from the beginning of the next scene with no further ill effects.

After that, the gameplay seems to mostly revolve around running around and shooting at things, from a third-person perspective, using a complicated multi-finger scheme that’s probably more comfortable on a gamepad than on mouse and keyboard. The PC version supports gamepads, but, oddly enough, the button assignments for it seem to be entirely empty by default. I’ll have to look up the control scheme from the Xbox version and try it out. The early content is basically all a big controls tutorial, but with plot worked in. The unarmed combat tutorial, for example, takes the form of a barroom brawl, Gideon and his war-hero brother against some disgruntled soldiers who resent his VIP status.

I haven’t played enough to get far yet, but I know from back in the day that the inciting incident that ends the first act is an alien attack on the station, resulting in fires and debris that bogged the framerate down to unplayability on my old machine. Here’s hoping it’s better now.

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.

Demoniak: Giving Up at Getting Started

Today, another random pick from my catalog of titles I own on CD-ROM.

Demoniak is one of the few commercially-published text adventures I own but haven’t completed. Created by comics writer Alan Grant in 1991, it’s a sci-fi/superhero story mostly remembered for the novelty that it let the player switch control at any time to any character — even antagonists. I obtained it some years after its original release, when Memorex of all companies re-released it in a 2-pack CD-ROM bundle with Darkseed, a graphic adventure based on the paintings of H. R. Giger.

This was clearly a hasty bit of shovelware, because it failed to account for Demoniak’s copy protection. It uses a key word system: at some randomized point within the first dozen or so turns, it prompts the player to type in the Xth word from line Y of page Z of the manual, and refuses to proceed until you get it right. Memorex provided the entire contents of the manual as a text file, but since it’s not paginated, this is of limited use. (Plus, the game occasionally asks for a word from something other than the manual, such as the box or the diskettes.) I suspect that few people noticed this problem. The people responsible for the package presumably tried at most a command or two to make sure that it was working, and probably most of the customers quit the moment they realized that it was a text adventure, something that the packaging tried to obscure.

I already knew all this when I pulled it from my box of games abandoned for technical reasons, but I was hoping that the internet would help me. I mean, it’s 2012. Someone, somewhere, had to have either cracked this game or posted a list of the key words somewhere. Alas, the internet failed me. Even when I found Demoniak on abandonware sites, it was uncracked, and accompanied by less documentation than Memorex provided.

There was a time when my usual response to key word copy protection would be to hack it out. Generally speaking, it’s the easiest kind of copy protection to hack: somewhere in the code, there’s got to be a point where it compares your input to a target string and conditionally branches to success or failure, so once you’ve identified that point (by tracing through the execution with an assembly-language debugger), all you have to do is replace the conditional branch with an unconditional one (or a no-op, as appropriate). But a game whose chief mode of interaction is text is likely to process its key word input by the same means as all other input in the game, and messing with the parser seems risky, even if the game isn’t programmed in its own proprietary byte code format like the Infocom games were.

Today, I’ve gone as far as to install a debugger anyway, just so I can look at memory where the game has unpacked its strings and try to find something promising. But I’ve had no luck yet. If anyone reading this has access to a Demoniak manual, or any other means of bypassing the copy protection, help would be appreciated. I promise my copy is legitimate.

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.

IFComp 2011: Cursed

Spoilers follow the break.

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Three Failures

Last night, I was tired, and not in the mood for anything stressful or taxing. Going back to Super Meat Boy, or even to the lesser challenge of Heroes Chronicles, was out of the question. So I turned to my largish sub-stack of things bought in recent Steam sales that I haven’t even tried yet.

The first thing I tried was Safecracker: The Ultimate Puzzle Adventure. I suppose it says something about me that a puzzle game — yea, a self-proclaimed ultimate puzzle game — is my idea of something neither stressful nor taxing. But I had every reason to believe that this would be essentially just a gallery of soup cans, where the scope of every puzzle is well-defined and there’s no possibility of negative consequences. After all, that’s what the original Safecracker was. I could be wrong; I realize that it’s not the same game. But I didn’t at first. It was many months after S:TUPA was added to Steam that a discussion in a completely different context (roughly “This is just like that puzzle in Safecracker!” “What? I’ve played Safecracker and I don’t remember any puzzle like this.”) made me aware that it was a sequel. I think understand why the makers decided to obscure this: if it were called Safecracker II, there would be potential customers who would decide not to play it because they hadn’t played the original, or who decided to play the original first and found it so off-putting that they never bought the second. But the title they chose almost kept me from buying it, and I’m their target audience. There must be some better compromise.

At any rate, I couldn’t get S:TUPA going at all on my system. Starting it just locked my machine up with no video output. Possibly it was defaulting to a resolution that my monitor doesn’t support, but even then, you’d think I’d get some background music or something. I have seen this game running on a modern system, though, so it’s probably a solvable problem. But it wasn’t the sort of puzzle I was in the mood for, so I switched games.

Next up, I tried The Ball, a first-person puzzler, which is to say, a game that owes a great deal to Portal, even though the theme here is Aztec ruins (with hints of Ancient Astronaut) rather than sterile white corridors. The main conceit is obstacles that can only be overcome by using a large, unwieldy metal ball, a unique item doesn’t necessarily easily go where it’s needed. Your main control over it is a handheld device that’s something like a ball-specific version of the gravity gun from Half-Life 2: you can use it to attract the ball when it’s in range, and also to smack it like a pinball and send it careening forward. Maybe I was doing things suboptimally, but I found that I used the attract mode to move the ball around most of the time, which means that the ball spent a lot of time right in my face, which is always awkward in a first-person game. The designers understand the problem, and compensate for it by making the ball go transparent when it blocks your view significantly, leaving only some bands solid. I felt that even this cluttered the view uncomfortably.

When I started the game, I noticed that Steam listed some “Last played” data, which struck me as strange, because I had never actually played it before. But then I remembered that I had attempted to play it back when I first bought it, only to have it crash immediately. This time, I fared better: it lasted about a half an hour before crashing, long enough for me to get not quite all the way through the first level. Since this level is pretty tutorial-like, I still don’t think I really have a good idea of what the gameplay is like or how hard the puzzles are.

With that, I gave up on puzzle games and tried out Lego Batman, something that had struck me as a good idea back in 1997 when I played Lego Star Wars. After an overlong intro sequence involving some rather forced slapstick — perhaps my tastes have changed in the last four years? — I made Lego Batman run around and hit people for a few minutes, just long enough to decide that this is a game best controlled with a gamepad rather than mouse and keboard. But my system wouldn’t recognize my trusty DualShock + USB Adapter until I rebooted, and after that, it wouldn’t start the game again. It kept throwing up Windows “illegal operation” dialogs.

It’s likely that all these problems, and probably other recent problems as well (like my difficulties with Arthur’s Knights), have a common root in my hardware, probably that the fan on the video card is clogged with dust again or something similarly foolish. But I didn’t feel like doing anything as stressful and taxing as troubleshooting hardware, so I spent the rest of the evening watching a movie instead. At least I can scratch two of the three games off the list of things I’ve purchased but not actually played.

Random Pick

As promised, a random pick today. The first roll of the dice got me Arthur’s Knights: Tales of Chivalry, a Cryo adventure from 2000, but I wasn’t able to get it working. I remember initially shelving it because of the GeForce bug that made the background render partially on top of sprites, but now it doesn’t even get far enough for that to manifest. Putting it into Windows 95 compatibility mode gets me as far as the main menu, where I can tweak the options to my heart’s content, but actually starting a game from there makes it crash to the desktop. The only concrete advice I’ve found online was a suggestion to turn off DirectX sound acceleration, which is already on my list of things to try when Windows games prove recalcitrant; apparently it worked for someone here, but not for me. If anyone reading this has better suggestions, I’d like to hear them, but for the moment, this is going back on the shelf once more.

So, having given up on that, my next random pick was the final episode of Heroes Chronicles, the episodic series of Heroes of Might and Magic III scenarios. My usual practice for random picks is to treat anything from a series as representing the series as a whole, so what I’ve actually picked is episode 3, Masters of the Elements. Yes, this practice means that my random picks are more likely to hit things with many sequels on the Stack. I consider this a good thing. Those are the games that really need playing.

Moreover, the Heroes Chronicles series as a whole became a wider target quite recently. You may recall that, in addition to the episodes that were published on CD-ROM, there were a couple of extra episodes available only online — one that you needed two registered episodes to download, and another that you needed three. Two more episodes besides those were added later in a collection package, making the extra episodes equal in number to the original retail ones. And that collection package was recently made available (and temporarily put on sale for five bucks) at GOG. So now the series occupies six remaining slots in the Stack instead of just two.

Even though I have Masters of the Elements on CD-ROM, I chose to install the GOG download, just to eliminate the inconvenience of physical media. Oddly enough, given my retrogaming habit, this is my first real experience with GOG. I’ve had an account with them for a while now — I registered when I was having difficulty getting Tex Murphy: Overseer working and I noticed that they had a version rejiggered to work with modern machines, but I changed my mind about buying it from them when I saw that it wasn’t the DVD-quality version. I do like their curatorial approach, though, and even though I don’t recall having incompatibility issues the last time I played a Heroes Chronicles episode, I appreciate knowing that the likelihood of running into them has been minimized, especially after my troubles with Arthur’s Knights. (I wish they’d pick up the Cryo games. I always seem to have problems with them.) And now that I’ve used their custom downloader and front end — something that’s completely optional, by the way — I have to say the experience is positive, nicely practical and minimal and unobtrusive.

Next post, I’ll try to talk a little about the Master of the Elements content.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands

According to Steam, I have spent 11 hours playing Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. In fact, I’ve spent something more like half an hour at it, little enough that I haven’t even made it out of the intro/tutorial level (which is strikingly similar to the tutorial level in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time). Remember Arkham Asylum? That had a problem with Steam’s timekeeping too. It had a launcher that spawned the game in a separate process and then terminated. Since Steam only counts the time spent in the program it actually launches, its time count was way too low. But at least that didn’t lead to further troubles. PoP:TFS has the opposite problem, which is far worse: for some reason Steam can’t tell when I’ve exited the game, so it keeps on counting me as playing when I’m not. And also, because it thinks I’m still playing, it won’t let me launch any other games, or exit Steam. The only way I’ve found to exit this state is by killing the Steam process via the Windows task manager.

That’s not the only thing about the experience that reminds me of my experiences with Arkham Asylum, for just as AA introduced me to the joys of Games for Windows Live, so too is PoP:TFS my first experience with Ubisoft’s “Uplay” service and their infamous need-a-constant-network-connection-to-play DRM. It’s not clear to me how closely linked these two things are; all I can say is that I encountered them both for the first time together, and so my dissatisfaction spreads to both. The chief effect of Uplay is that I needed to exit the game to change the default resolution (800×600) to something that looks reasonably good, because most of the configuration is outside of the game, in the Uplay launcher app. The chief effect of the DRM is that, once I exited the game, I couldn’t get back in. The game gets stuck at a screen telling me that it’s “attempting to restore the network connection”, which is absurd, because I have a network connection — I can alt-tab out and surf the web, send email, etc. without problems. Goodness knows what the real problem is.

Uplay seems like a very unnecessary thing to me. It’s trying to be like Steam or GfWL, but those services at least have games from more than one publisher, and Uplay doesn’t. Still, when I first launched the game and was told I needed to register for an Uplay account first, I was actually inclined to say “Well, at least it isn’t GfWL”. I mean, when it downloaded a patch for itself, it did it fairly quickly, needed only one iteration, and didn’t ask me to restart the app. This is still worse performance than your typical single-programmer indie work on Steam, mind you, because it’s using Uplay’s built-in patcher, which doesn’t run until you try to launch the game.

But such objections pale in comparison to the DRM, which is a piece of software whose sole purpose is to prevent the game from working. In theory it’s only supposed to prevent it from working for pirates, but apparently someone at Ubisoft decided that keeping the wrong folks out was more important than letting the right folks in. It’s like one of those overzealous IP lawyers who hurt their employers’ business by harassing fan sites and alienating customers. The message it puts on the screen when it refuses to let me play even seems to acknowledge that I’ve successfully run the game before, which you’d think would be a good indication that there’s no good reason to stop me from doing so again.

I suppose I could download a crack. I mean, it’s not like DRM actually works for its intended purpose. But why bother? There are plenty of other games waiting.


Although it was just a random fluke at first, once a pattern is established, why not carry it out to its conclusion? Ia! Ia!

And she was all like "Cool shades man" and I was like "I know"Cyberia (not to be confused with Benoit Sokal’s atmospheric graphic adventure Syberia) is a thick slice of 90s FMV cheese. I obtained it as part of one of Interplay’s cheap old game anthologies, and it wasn’t one of the games that I bought the anthology for. As a result, I had basically forgotten about it until I saw its name in my list, and had some difficulty locating the disc: I have most of my physical media nicely alphabetized by title, but a CD-ROM with multiple unrelated games on it breaks such a scheme, especially if you don’t remember that the title you’re looking for is on such a thing. Installing the game under DOSBox (and convincing it to use an image of the CD-ROM instead of the real thing) went without problems, except that the color map goes all strange when I try to run it in full-screen mode. Irony, that: here we are playing a game from 1994, when full-screen FMV without special hardware was finally feasible, but I’m playing it in a tiny portion of my screen anyway.

The video content here is all pre-rendered CGI, and shares with most other pre-rendered CGI video of its era the sad attribute that it doesn’t look as good as what’s done in realtime by stuff that you can play for free on the web nowadays. It’s ever the fate of games that emphasize style over substance to age badly. Ah, but what about the substance? So far, I’ve seen three sorts of interactivity: bits where you wander around and try not to get killed, bits where you solve self-contained puzzles, and bits where you shoot at aircraft (or possibly spacecraft; this is a sci-fi game, but I’m not sure just how sci-fi).

The wandering around is weak and Dragon’s Lair-ish, with a rapid die-and-retry cycle and no other way to anticipate the results of your actions. (Like Dragon’s Lair, it even bases its interface on the equivalent of an Atari joystick, four directions and a fire button.) The shooting is more reminiscent of Rebel Assault: you swoop around on a pre-rendered video track and sundry targets present themselves in sync with the scenery (but with a rectangular targeting thingy around them to make it clear that they’re not actually part of it). It’s easy to fail this stuff, and the unvarying background video makes it feel extra-repetitive when you do. As for the puzzles, I’ve really only seen one so far, and it was pretty cool. It involves just as much dying and starting over as everything else, of course, but it was in the service of figuring out an ambiguous mechanism with a minimum of instruction. There were details in its graphical representation that I didn’t notice until I had gleaned some notion of what I was looking for, and that felt very nice. If only more of the game were like that.

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