Playing Old Vidya: Sid Meier’s Edition

It’s been a hot minute since I’ve had some time to myself!

In my scant free time I’ve been replaying Civilization and trying out Colonization for the first time!

There are a lot of glaring things in Civilization that bother me now that didn’t bother me as a kid or even really so much replaying it 10-to-15 years ago. There are a few small thing I’m noticing, like how there’s such a huge gap between Knights as your multipurpose war unit and tanks [my Dad & I almost always skipped getting knights because Chivalry was a tech-tree dead-end], but the big things that bugged me this time around are Sid Meier’s preachiness-as-game-mechanics:

  • Republics and Democracies never break treaties
  • Democracies have no corruption
  • Even moderate pollution leads to catastrophic desertification

Colonization is fun but kind of silly-preachy in its own way.

It’s weird that having rebellious colonists makes them more efficient…

>Domestic Advisor: Congratulations! Membership in the Sons of Liberty is up!
>Me: Oh, no! How do I fix this!? You there, in the town hall! Quit “making Liberty” and get back to making tools or textiles or something!

On the other hand, Colonization IS rather educational…

>go out of your way to placate the indians
>send raw materials as gifts
>give the tribes food in their time of need
>travelling pioneers massacred unprovoked by tribes you’re “at peace with”
>burn down every camp of the tribe
>it never happens again

Anyway, be sure to check out the new issue of Cirsova, out now, and back our crowdfund to get Julian Hawthorne’s The Cosmic Courtship back into print!

Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius Review

Recently an online friend who knew I enjoyed wargames and weeb shit recommended Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius to me.

It’s an interesting hybrid of Visual Novel waifu game and turn-based tactical. It’s space opera with mechs, except your mech pilots are basically a growing harem.

Funnily enough, the wargame portion of Sunrider is brutally hard. Mechanically, it’s ultra-lite compared to a game like Power Dolls, though it uses the similar combination of action points that are used to move and perform attacks. Each mech has its strengths and weaknesses and utility which will determine how you should use them in your strategy.

Since all missions are in space, with the exception of a mission where sharing a hex with an asteroid reduces your chance of being hit, there’s no effect of the map on strategies. Variances in the missions are more based on when and where enemy reinforcement come from. Early missions with fewer mechs and enemy “bosses” may be a bit more interesting and flexible than the later large fleet battles. The later fights often tend to be “pick a flank, try to crush it, sweep up or down on the other side, then deal with reinforcements as they come.”

The cutscenes of the attacks get old fast, and it would have been nice to be able to disable them more easily; turning on “skip mode” does it, but it can only be toggled in the battle if a character has a line of story dialogue come up during the fight. Still, it’s fun and scratches an itch for turn-based mech space combat.

The Visual Novel portion of the game is a mixed bag. On the face of it, I actually really like the story, but Sunrider uses post-Eva and 21st century waifu tropes for most its characters; I would definitely prefer the “tough dames” of the older real-robot mech genre or at least the mil-sf aesthetic that Power DOLLS went for. But it’s personal taste…

Unfortunately, Sunrider is an episodic game, and Mask of Arcadius only contains the first two episodes. While Liberation Day updates the actual gameplay of the battles in a pretty satisfactory way, it makes the VN aspect of Mask of Arcadius something of a shaggy dog story. [You fill out a questionnaire of your choices when you start LD; which is nice that you can do that, at least, since my End-of-Game save file wouldn’t import correctly].

I’ve found a doc with the under-the-hood effect that your choices make, but they don’t appear to have much bearing on how things actually play out story-wise in Mask of Arcadius. None of the character paths had been set yet, and one character path ends up being fixed for story purposes in Liberation Day [to the groaning of many fans].

Now, because this is a waifu game, it’s only fair that I rank the characters from dumpster to Best Girl.

Claude is a trash tier waifu, who’s “UwU command me captain” shtick is old from the moment it shows up. She’s the worst the game has to offer in this regard, unless you’re really into that sort of thing.

Her utility mech has a few nice features, such as the gravity gun, which is good if you can use it to draw an enemy mech between Asaga and Icari. The deflector shield projection is useful, of course, and the shotgun is helpful to finish off any enemies your better combat units have left near dead, but it’s not enough to make me not hate Claude.

The Shinobu. Chigara’s Asaga’s best friend and one of the first pilots you get. She’s supposed to be a brilliant mechanic, and from a gameplay standpoint, this bears out nicely, as she’s the one actually doing the upgrades to your units that you purchase. Except she’s a loli with crippling self-doubt always hoping for validation from the main character, which makes her pretty obnoxious. But miles ahead of Claude.

She’s a forced romance route for story reasons in Liberation Day, which many fans grumble about.

Her mech is a support mech. One of the first mechs you get, its repair capabilities, disable attack, and deflector shield generation make it invaluable.



Cosette is a yandere loli space pirate.

Toxic chemicals from the mining colony she’s from stunted her growth and, combined with her horrible and traumatic childhood and adolescence, made her completely crazy.

Not my thing at all, but she makes for an interesting villain.

Giving all of the characters numbered flight suits is pretty spoilerific, so I’m assuming you can get Cosette at some point.

[update: you can get Cosette in Liberation Day, but I opted to just kill her instead.]

The genki girl. Also, the Mario. Asaga is the first pilot you get along with Chigara. She’s bubbly and funny. She’s a major driver of the story [spoilers: she is actually a runaway space princess]. Like her mech, she could be a lot worse, but she could also be better.

Liberation Day makes her a bit more complex [maybe even somewhat villainous? Dunno, I haven’t finished it.] She literally starts going insane with jealousy over Chigara as the romance-on-rails between Chi and the captain plays out.


Black Jack is an all-purpose mech. Battleship grade laser cannon, pulse beams, and assault rifle. As more Pact enemies get deflector shields mid-game (or when those damned Pact support mechs show up), Black Jack loses a lot of its punch and gets reduced to drawing fire and trying to pick off nearby targets that have had their armor weakened by stronger units

Teh Rei. Not an archetype I generally like, but somehow they make it work here.

She’s found in cryo-stasis in a ghost-fleet and supposedly was a mech pilot for an ancient space empire thousands of years ago.

She’s a royal bastard (literally), whose mother was tragically betrayed and forced into exile by a noble of the imperial court, making her very distantly related to Asaga.

Unfortunately, her mech is kind of boring. The Seraphim’s cannon takes up all [or almost all, if you’ve upgraded it] of the mech’s energy points to use. Still, it’s nice having one reliable big-damage, good accuracy, long range attack per turn.

IcarimechThe tsundere. Icari’s a mercenary you start out at odds with but who becomes your third pilot. She’s a bit of a ‘by any means necessary’ type, which puts her on your bad side on a fairly difficult early escort mission [by her logic, if a bunch of innocents get killed, it’ll accelerate one faction’s entry into the war and bring about a quicker resolution].

Icari ranks high because I like her design and her mech is actually really fun to use [provided it doesn’t get killed on the first enemy turn]. The Phoenix is a fast close-combat mech with a special ability to avoid attacks of opportunity when moving adjacent to enemy units. Its melee attack can make short work of enemy mechs, and her machine guns are good at finishing off damaged enemies, but the Phoenix has very low armor and is generally poor against ships. Phoenix is good for reducing enemy economy of action on turn one, but has a bad habit of getting shot down. The Phoenix is a big reason why I rank her over Sola.

The Sunrider’s first officer and the protagonist’s childhood friend. She’s up there for awhile as Best Girl [at least until Kryska shows up], because she’s one of the few characters who acts like she has some common sense and professionalism.

Her character could easily transplant to a more serious SF story [or maybe it’s just that the bottom ranked characters feel out of place in what actually is a more or less serious SF story].

Kryska barely takes the lead because Ava’s air of professionalism sometimes dips into the mopey as she tries to be the “one sane person” in a crew of obnoxious VN tropes. Spoilers: If I factor in Liberation Day, where she has an eye-patch and Kryska gets turned into a grabass, she may reclaim top-slot.

KryskamechI was initially disinclined to like Kryska because it’s made painfully obvious up front that she’s a spy planted by the Alliance to gather data on your ship and your crew. But she has her shit together, is a professional pilot, and her mech shows up really right when you need it. She has kind of a blue-oni/red-oni thing going on with Icari, who gives her crap for being up-tight and unfeminine. Kryska and Ava are in a class of their own, though. [Liberation Day looks like it may play her up as a lesbian stereotype, unfortunately.]

Kryska’s mech is a heavy fire support mech [the Guncannon/Guntank]. At a time where Asaga’s mech is becoming much less effective against everything, it’s nice to have an extra heavy cannon to punch through capital ships’ armor. Downside is that it’s very slow, but that big damage is everything mid-to-late-game.

Overall, Sunrider is pretty niche… I think it really requires the right combination of patient-but-desperate-for-new-content wargamer and weeb to enjoy. Wargamers might find the wargame aspect weak and the VN portion cringey, while VN fans might find the wargame aspect too difficult and frustrating.

More than anything, it made me wish that it was better, either mechanically or aesthetically, but it also made me thankful that someone out there was at least trying. Still, I liked it enough to pick up Liberation Day to see how it all pans out between the Alliance and the PACT.

Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius is free on Steam and Gog.

V4V: Velikiye Luki

All this World War II tabletop gaming I’ve been doing lately has had me brush off a rancid classic of the DOS era: V-For-Victory.

Bringing an insane degree of crunch to hex-and-chit wargaming that was only possible in the age of PC gaming, the V4V series offered several lengthy “campaign” games as well as shortened scenarios. I put “campaign” in quotes, because really these are battles, granular to the battalion level, and don’t include full theater scope. So, for example, you’re not playing the entirety of the D-Day invasion, you’re playing Utah Beach.

The battle I’m revisiting is Velikiye Luki. I’ll admit, when this game was the new hotness, I didn’t have the patience to play more than the shortest of scenarios, but this time I’m going full-blown, hundreds of turns, the supposedly “90 hour” “full battle”.

Worth noting, each day has 7 turns, and the full Veliki Luki scenario covers the ENTIRE battle from November 19 1942 – January 16, 1943. Thankfully, you can automate some of the functions, which takes a little bit off your hands, and you’re not going to be moving ALL of your units each turn (fatigue and disruption of units that move every turn builds up quick and severely cripple your divisions), but if you’re a micromanager, it can take a bit.

Partly because of the fact that I wouldn’t have nearly as many pieces I’d have to regularly move and implement commands for, and partly because I didn’t have a strong grasp of the system’s nuances going in, I picked the Germans, in an attempt to keep the Soviet tides from overwhelming the fortress city.

I’ve managed to make it up to mid-December, and in some regards, I’ve done better than historically, and in other ways, I’ve done much worse. The score tracking says it’s still a near-run thing, and despite some of impressive tactical successes, the gap is narrowing.

Velikiye Luki itself is doing fine at this point, but my deep rear is in trouble. In the opening days of the battle, my front line was almost completely overrun. Amazingly enough, one engineer and one mountain infantry battalion were dug in snug enough that they were never dislodged, and a few artillery batteries from the south managed to pull back to the city, but the rest were wiped out. The Red Army bypassed Velikiye Luki to the North, took the small stops along the rail line between Nasva and Novosokolniki. The van then turned south and has been just pounding the garrison of Novosokolniki ever since.

I managed to keep Velikiye Luki from being encircled, however. When I saw what would happen if the Soviets could reach the rail to Nevel, I pulled some infantry out the city to create an entrenched flank to mask the rail bridge. This provided the necessary cover for the 1st SS Motorized Infantry, which acted as a siege-breaker, preventing the Soviets who were coming around the north of the city from fully encircling. I was thinking these guys would get MVP, but the 6th Luftwaffe Field Division have proved to be the heroes of the Op.

Even if I’d kept the rail bridge open, it wouldn’t matter if the southern contingent of Soviets overran the rail on the west side of the Lovat. The 6th managed to stop those infantry who’d crossed the Lovat, and with some assists from the 1st SS Mot, kept broke the southern portion of the assault. The 1st SS made a failed attempt to relieve Novosokolniki, but quickly had to return to Velikiye Luki, because supplies were spread too, thin, and the northern encircling forces were still much too strong and still needed to be dealt with. But, with the southern forces being pushed back, the entrenched line could break and join in the push, and the 20th Mot, 6th FJ, and 291st Inf. were able to lift the siege. There are still too many Reds north of the city to take head on, but they’ve pulled back and are no longer putting pressure on the garrison. The 6th FJ has pushed too far east in an attempt to break as many Soviet divisions as possible, capturing headquarters and desperately needed supplies, and finally came to a soviet armored division that wasn’t on ¼ beet-soup rations. At this point, they’re slowly withdrawing back toward the city, in hopes that they can draw the soviets into the range of the garrison’s batteries.

Now that the pressure is gone from the south and largely off from the north and the east, and the final big group of reinforcements have arrived from Nevel, I’m turning my attention back towards Novosokolniki. I’ve GOT to do something to relieve the forces who are trapped there. I’m hoping that the soviet groups who’ve taken the junction are also on garbage rations—there’s next to no way they can trace supplies, because I’ve got all the roads covered, the rail north recovered, and the Lovat (now nearly frozen solid) fairly secure. The Soviets are getting points off me every turn they have guys in Novosokolniki, and over 2k points on casualties. If I can get it back and collect those points for the rest of the game, I should be in the clear. It’ll be up to the very slowly advancing 1st SS Mot, the remnants of Group Chevallerie, and maybe even the 6th FJ, if they can make it around or through the city in their retreat, to relieve the beleaguered security forces at the critical rail junction.

Review: Frayed Knights, Skull of S’makh-Daon

This review is long overdue. Of course part of it is just that life and business got in the way, but originally one of the biggest stumbling blocks was I was at a loss for what to say about something I enjoyed so much but had so many complex thoughts on. And for the time it’s taken me to get around to actually writing this, I apologize, since the time it’s taken has not actually made it proportionally better.

A few months back, Cirsova contributor Jay Barnson sent me a copy of his FPRGP Frayed Knights: Skull of S’makh-Daon. While I was playing it, I was absolutely addicted and could not stop until I finished it.

On the surface, Frayed Knights is an exploration-focused first person RPG with a fair share of hack-and-slash, but there’s a great deal of nuance to it that really scratches a lot of itches that someone who has played a lot of CRPGs and maybe burned out on them because of that “seen it all before” feeling will end up still getting a kick out of it and find it highly engaging.

First of all, the writing is great; which should come as no surprise, as Barnson’s a great writer. But the party’s dialogue is consistently witty and entertaining, giving the characters all a unique feel and personality and giving life to a world which is less a spoof than a humorous homage to old-school dungeons and dragons. While not so self-aware as KoDT, fans of that franchise would certainly enjoy the tropes played with. Plus, there are plenty of Easter Eggs that a fan of old D&D would enjoy, not the least of which being that it is set in an expy of the Caves of Chaos.

Something you can’t say about very many CRPGs is that combat was always a dynamic and engaging challenge. Except in areas you may have backtracked to for whatever reason, there was almost never any time where you could just hold down the attack button and expect combat to go your way. While you might settle into a few strategies that are more consistently effective than others, the combination of the pseudo-realtime initiative, exhaustion system, and variable equipment abilities, it was often a unique puzzle to figure out just what the best strategies against certain groups of foes might be – battles could often swing back and forth, and a lucky break or skin-of-the-teeth play could bring you from the edge of defeat back toward victory. One kinda funny part that may be unique to Frayed Knights is that in any fight, even a gimme fight, it is more effective for a magic user to cast a low-level spell than swing with their weapon—your level 1 damage spell is likelier to hit than the weapon against many foes and will also probably accrue less exhaustion.

While there were a couple of particularly tough fights, though, there was never much need for grinding – the biggest problem I had was, due to recognizing the homage to the Caves of Chaos and applying certain assumptions to Frayed Knights, was doing certain dungeons out of order and suffering the consequence. For instance, the Ogre caves present far less of a challenge as a smaller mini-dungeon than the Goblin Caves which, as a major plot dungeon, are filled with a much wider range of tough nasties (like those Shamans who will dish out damage and keep you from downing front-line gobos).

There are some obvious negatives; you might be put off by the low-res textures and simple models or, in some cases, the incongruous assets (generally non-animated NPC models). Graphically, it’s somewhere in the middle-ground between Daggerfall and Thief: the Dark Project. I love both of those games, but the look won’t be for everyone. Really, for me, though, the biggest problem I had was with the game’s scope. And it’s a weird complaint, but Frayed Knights is just big enough that once I was truly impressed by how large it was, I ended up being disappointed by how small it felt. It has a very Episode 1 feel to it; it set me up with expectations of a truly huge world with multiple hub towns, with even more areas to visit and explore, because what IS there is off the one hub town we’re given IS impressively vast.  A part of me wishes that instead of a new game with a new system, Frayed Knights would continue with new cities and new content added (nodes and hubs appear listed as you visit them, and newly visited areas can be quick-travelled to). Frayed Knights ends on something of a cliff-hanger, and it made me wish I could actually go and visit some of those other towns and locations mentioned beyond the original hub. But still, there’s an impressive amount of real estate to explore; maybe not to the extent of an Elder Scrolls game, but enough that you might come to expect it, forgetting that the game, as huge as it is, was developed by a small indie team.

The upside of Frayed Knights 2 being on a new system is that obviously it will allow the dev team to make improvements to the engine and graphics, and hopefully optimize things a bit (you get some vast and seamless 3D environments in each location, but at the cost of some really long loading times). I also hope that you’ll be able to port characters, but that may not necessarily be in the cards.

Still, I absolutely think that if you dig D&D and/or CRPGs, you should check out Frayed Knights!

In Case You Missed it…

Jay Barnson, who has stories with us in issues 4 and 5, was interviewed at Castalia House by Scott Cole on Monday. You can read it here.

The interview largely focuses on Barnson’s work as a game developer, so if you dig vidya, you should definitely check it out!

At some point, I’ll be posting a review of Frayed Knights, an indie FPRPG that Jay made with his Rampant Games collaborators, so be looking forward to that, too.

Power Dolls

I think the wargamer in me has been subconsciously prepping for WWIII for the last couple of months. Not only did I start playing Fallout 3, I was, until last week, embroiled with a double header of NATO: the Next War in Europe, and over the weekend, I devoted several hours to one of my favorite childhood video games, Red Storm Rising. I’ll tell you what: RSR is the best Tom Clancy based game there is, was or ever will be.

But today, I want to spotlight Power Dolls, a game that I’ve been playing the past couple days and did some live tweeting of last night.

There are two things I love that I am always in the look-out for in combination – hexbased wargames and the real-robot genre. There are a handful of examples out there, but many have a very steep language barrier, such as the Gihren’s Greed series or the line of Mobile Suit Gundam hex & chit board games, and for whatever reason, many Japanese tactical wargames go for squares, rather than hexes, which are nigh intolerable (especially in cases where there’s no unit stacking).

First thing I’d note about Power Dolls, it has a lot more stuff going for it than you would expect of a game whose primary hook is “everything is piloted by women”.

There’s something about a war between earth(maybe) and colonists on this planet, and you’re playing as the colonists’ defense force in a bid for maintaining independence. Or something. I should really probably go back and go over the settings stuff again. But for whatever reason, the entirety of the defense force is composed of women who pilot mechs and air-planes or drive self-propelled rocket artillery.


Pew, Pew!

There are apparently only 10 missions, but given how long one of them takes to play through, that’s probably plenty.

Each mission starts with a large operational view of a theater, showing the situation, the mission, and the disposition of both your troops and the enemy’s. You have the option of selecting different pre-defined plans for the operations, which determine things like when forces get dropped, when air support is available, etc.

You have up to three drop-teams of mechs (depending on the operation; the first missions so far have only used two), a drop-team of off-board rocket artillery and a couple squadrons of air support.

Before each mission, you assign mechs, planes and artillery to your pilots, hopefully giving them some sort of configuration of gear and weaponry that compliments their skills. You then have to assign pilots to each landing group; the number of mechs in each group will determine how much air-lift it takes to bring them in; I’m sure that will matter more in later missions, since there are both heavy carriers and light carriers with some air-to-air capability. Any pilots not tied up in air-lift can be assigned fighter-bombers to offer ground support in one of the fighter wings.

So, what goes down, and gets depicted in the operational map, is your long-range artillery gets airlifted into position, then your first drop-team flies in and gets deployed on the tactical map, and as the mission progresses in 5 minute 1-turn increments, your troops are flown in according to the selected plan for the operation.

While the gameplay isn’t as crunchy as Battletech (there aren’t individual components that are tracked), it has a pretty robust selection of actions you can take during a turn. Each mech has three different rates of movement to choose from, which vary in per-hex movement cost, passive spotting radius, and defense against opportunity fire. Attacks are based on the equipment a mech has, but include everything from sub-machine guns and rifles to grenades and smoke screens. Units can drop weapons that are out of ammo to increase the number of realized action points. They can also call in air-strikes and indirect fire anywhere on the map.

I screwed up in a lot of places in the assignment of gear and deployment of forces in the second mission, partly because I didn’t pay enough attention to the mission briefing. I’d landed my troops around the bridge-head I thought I needed to defend, when really I should’ve air-dropped a handful of recon mechs to act as spotters and call in air strikes and off-board indirect artillery strikes while the enemy armored column moved south along the road. Instead, I had a massive tank division more or less punch through my scattered lines. By the time I’d started calling in indirect fire, most of my units who could spot were dead, cut-off or just trying to run away.

I may have to restart this mission so that I can go back at it with both better equipped units (fat lot of good my air-to-air missiles have done in this mission with no enemy aircraft) and better unit placement.

So, the good:

-Fairly nuanced tactical game; you have a lot of customization available to you in terms of how you can outfit your pilots. There are also a lot of different things each pilot can spend their action points on during your turn.

-The operational overview map is really cool. Even though you don’t do much on it, and so far only one mission has allowed for employing different “plans”, it’s a cool part that gives the game a wider feeling of scope than otherwise; for instance, you can SEE where your off-board artillery are located in relation to your front-line troops.

-The character art is pretty good; it finds a decent spot between ‘cute girls in mechs’ and the rougher look of more serious mil-sf animes. There is a character, though, who’s clearly an homage to Emma Sheen from Zeta Gundam.

-Hexes. They use hexes, man, HEXES!

The bad:

-The music is incredibly repetitive. For how long you’ll be playing this, you’re not going to be thrilled hearing the same bad midi-theme playing constantly.

-Speed of play. Not only are the turns incredibly long, this is exacerbated by the fact that the AI turn processes fairly slowly. Enemy turns take too long by most wargame standards. One mission of Power Dolls could easily eat up an entire evening, which is a double whammy when you realize you’re in a losing position after having sunk several hours in. I am probably going to have to go back to a save from nearly 4 hours of gameplay back to take another stab at the second mission (and hopefully this time silver haired yellow cat-eyes, cocky green-eyed brunette, and blue-bandana blonde won’t get blown up).

-The Fog of War doesn’t make sense when you’ve got air superiority and one or more fighter wings overhead. I get why spotting works the way it does, but it would be nice if there was a multi-step fog of war so that planes could spot units out in the open if they’ve bombed a target – even if they’re actually “gone”, you’d have an idea of the troop disposition from the previous turn as your pilots saw it on the way to and from their attack run.

There are also some complaints about the game’s AI; I can’t really judge yet, because if it’s bad, my strategy is probably worse than it is, at least until I figure out what I’m doing. We’ll have to see.

They’ve apparently made several sequels, but I’m not sure if any of them were ever translated into English. There’s also, apparently, a mediocre OVA based on it.

I’ll say that, for now, despite its flaws, I’m really digging Power Dolls. It’s definitely niche-within-a-niche, and the only other game that springs to mind along the lines of this is Cyberstorm (and that game was a very special kind of ugly). I’d love to find something that is mid-way between this and SSI’s Panzer General game, or even in a completely different direction, mid-way between this and Atomic Games/Avalon Hill’s V for Victory series. But as it is, if you’re desperately thirsty for hex-wars and giant robots, Power Dolls will definitely tide you over for a bit. You can find it at most abandonware sites.


“Prepare to Face my Final Form! RAY OF FROST!”

Fighting the big evil lich midboss in Chapter 2 of Neverwinter Nights got me thinking about some of the differences in magic/super/whatever-powered heroes and villain in eastern and western media.

In many eastern fiction and game properties, a villainous big bad is going to start with his cheap tricks and low energy attacks to deal with whatever threat is facing him. I’m reminded of one of the minor good-guys from Fist of the North Star’s shocked exclamation after facing Raoh for the first time: “He’s killed me with a single punch!” It’s only when those initial one-hit kills don’t do the job that the bad-guy will bring out the heavier guns. Whether it’s calling forth the powers of darkness, going bankai, releasing control art restrictions, or undergoing some other lengthy transformation, these guys incrementally step their game up to whatever level it needs to be to meet the immediate threat.

In D&D derived games, however, most fights are going to start with the biggest guns blazing first – you typically can’t afford the slow build-up of testing this or that weakness and saying “ho-ho, you’ve resisted my cantrips? Well, see how you like this incrementally more powerful attack!” Once the buffs have gone up, you typically start at the top of the spell list, knowing the other guy is gonna do the same, in hopes that you kill him with your big damage effects, working your from your high-level instant kills, to your beefed up AOEs, to spamming mid-level direct damage. If someone is able to survive that? Well, there’s always Magic Missile, but what next?

The fight with Brother Toras, even at level 15, was incredibly tough, but, unlike what one might expect from a boss fight in a JRPG, it got progressively easier as it went along. I didn’t have to beat him quickly, I just had to outlast him. It took a few teleports out, and I lost my henchman a couple of times, but I beat him without having to respawn. Though he did waste a bit of time on debuffs, Tomas went all out from the very start with some really nasty stuff, a lot of it big-damage and AOE (and I’ll admit, I did have to reload a few times once I figured out it was Evards Black Tentacles that kept one-hit killing me), but after the initial big explosions and masses of writhing tentacles coming up from the floor of the tombs, he just started spamming fireballs. When these hit, they hit freaking hard, but I spent a lot of time running in circles around the tomb and with my stupid high dex bonus, was able to soak most of the hit. Then something funny happened: the lich started using things like Flame and Acid Arrow, most of which just sort of bounced off me. His last true hurrahs were a couple of magic missiles which, as a level 19 wizard, did come dangerously close to putting me in real peril.

By the time Tomas was down to casting Negative Energy Ray and Ray of Frost, I was actually feeling kind of bad for him. At that point, I was able to more or less stand my ground, shooting him with acid arrows, slowly burning my way through his hundreds of points of damage reduction. Eventually he was reduced to trying to poke me with a stick to very little effect (29 Dex, yo).

This is something I’ve seen happen in tabletop to a degree, as well. It was probably worst in Exalted, in which everyone is constantly operating at 11 and it’s a contest to see who runs out of need stuff first (hint: it’s always the person who’s not a Solar). In my own most recent game, the boss-fight involving a magic user was beyond a disappointment, since his one spell got interrupted and he was promptly hacked to pieces. The boss fights that were tough and the players seemed to enjoy the most were ones in the royal tombs and the Rug-Bear(Polymar)-the wight had potential long-term negative effects (level drain), the Banshee was a puzzle that did damage, and the Rug-Bear was a huge damage-dealing machine firing on all cylinders until the very end.

Probably my best-paced boss-fight involving a magic user was awhile back with the 4th level elf; then again, he didn’t use any attack spells – he just mage-armored then mirror imaged before proceding to go to work with his long-sword.

I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to run a game again, but with the players expressing a desire for some mid-to-upper-level play, I might get the opportunity to experiment with some set-piece battles with magic users in an attempt to avert the diminishing battle intensity typical to wizards.

Pokemon Go!: A Death Sentence for Black Men or a Bad Idea in General?

Over at Medium, Omari Akil expresses his fears upon the realization that wandering around looking for Pokemon through a cell phone is conspicuous as hell and probably really weird looking to anyone who doesn’t know what that person is doing.

His conclusion is that, with the current climate, black men will face disproportionate threat of being shot while playing Pokemon Go because white folks and cops will be weirded the hell out by black men wandering through residential neighborhoods and loitering about as they look for Pikachu.

So, what is Pokemon Go?  It is apparently the new hotness that combines geocaching with Pokemon.  What does this mean?  It means that weirdos will be wandering around your town with their cell phones out trying to find wild pokemon that have appeared on their google map or something.

There has been a lot of speculation on how and where these pokemon show up and why, but depending on where they’re showing up, the threat it poses is manifold and goes beyond race.

Regardless of your skin color, folks are gonna be creeped the hell out by folks who show up looking for Pokemon at playgrounds and parks (Why the hell is that guy pointing his phone at kids!?) and wandering around residential areas looking like you’re casing housing.

Pokemon are gonna show up in well-to-do white neighborhoods to the terror of black nerds; Pokemon are gonna show up in poor and dangerous black neighborhoods to the terror of white nerds; Pokemon are gonna show up on playgrounds to the terror of parents that are going to assume that they are mysteriously being swarmed by pedo-hipsters.

It’s one of those aspects of augmented reality that someone probably should’ve spent more time thinking about.  While I think Akil is being hyperbolic, and I can totally see now the crying mother saying “he was just tryin’ to find his pokemans!” after some kid gets shot having broken into somebody’s house, far more likely scenarios are kids and young women getting attacked and/or abducted after having headed down to skid row in search of rare candy.

Frankly, I don’t care what your skin color is, and I don’t  care what Professor Oak thinks may be on my lawn – kindly stay the hell off it.  I’m not going to shoot you, but if I see you with your phone out walking around my house at any time of the day, I’m calling the cops.

If you’re one of the millions of people who downloaded this app, think before you go off looking for Pokemon in places where normal folks don’t expect you to be poking around with cell phones and will think you’re up to something if you are.  Parents, if you’re letting your kids play this game, don’t be dumb and don’t let them do dumb things like look for Pokemon alone, look for them in strange neighborhoods, or look for them in places where they might get hurt (“There’s geodude down in old gravel pit!”).

Update: Holy crap!  This game literally has pokemon bait you can use to harass entire neighborhoods of people or, as in some cases that have already been reported on in the Daily Mail, lure distracted hipsters to a location where you can mug them!

Mixed Feelings About Bioshock Infinite

“It’s all right, I’m not like the rest – I’m a progressive!”


I got a lot of enjoyment out of the original Bioshock. It was a very flawed game in many ways and felt more like a visual novel that used an FPS engine, but the shooter part was fun and had a lot of physics toys to play with and was a more than competently done survival horror with some really good set pieces and a the delightful twist that we’d see later in games like Arkham Asylum where you realize that YOU are the monster that everyone else is trying to survive.  I skipped Bioshock 2 because when I heard the whole “Play as a Big Daddy!” pitch, I was all “really?  That was the WORST part of the first game! No thanks!”, but I’d heard great things about Bioshock Infinite, it was on clearance, so I decided to give it a go.

I spent much of the first two hours absolutely hating Bioshock Infinite. Being dumped in the sky city with little introduction was a poor repeat of the original Bioshock not because we’d done this before, but because without Atlas to be your guide and without the immediate threat of the crazy splicer holocaust you’ve been dumped into, you find yourself alone in a very picturesque but dead and static world digging through trashcans on your way to the story.  Despite the dozens of citizens of Columbia hanging around, none of them pay you the least bit of mind or seem to notice your presence.  And if you’re like me and like to thoroughly explore your surroundings in games like this, it becomes even more pronounced that you’re in this very wide linear path for nearly an hour looking for a depth that just isn’t there.

Ian Miles Cheong recently shared this meme:

FPS Level Design

Even moreso than its predecessor, Bioshock Infinite is the middle there, in spades.

Once the actual action finally got underway (and I died several times, losing all of the loot I’d spent the previous hour scrounging garbage cans for; but hey, I was playing it on hard), I was even more aggravated because it wasn’t doing the FPS part well either!  Unlike the original Bioshock, where enemies could be seen fairly clearly because they were, y’know, in the room with you, enemies in Bioshock Infinite are difficult to see to the point of being downright hard to find except for when you’ve been shot at by one.  It’s gone the freaking Call of Duty route to crouching and running from unseen shooters and taking shots at enemies either from a great distance or trying to close the gap and getting mowed down by suppressive fire.  Oh, yeah, and you can only carry two guns!  LAAAAAAME!

Also, I don’t think its look at Patriotism and Apotheosis of the founders is as interesting or nuanced as the first game’s look at Objectivism vs. Collectivism. The Randian may have been a self-important asshole and his paradise failed, but the labor thugs absolutely had a hand in Rapture’s failures, and the union boss is the game’s big-bad.  The weird Lost Cause prophet guy and his klansmen aren’t nearly as interesting as villains as Andrew Ryan and his mad scientists and libertine artists.

So far, Elizabeth has been the only redeeming aspect of Bioshock Infinite.  She does a good job at evoking the whole “video game caring potential” trope.  She has a likable personality, she’s actually got some decent mechanical uses (“here is money I stole”, “here is a first aid kit I found”, “take this gun I took”, “let me pick this lock for you”), you don’t have baby-sit her, and a lot of her AI interactions with the environment are charming and fascinating.  The last point, I think, is where Elizabeth really shines – here movement is both responsive to the player’s and predictive – rather than following on some typical AI path-finding trail behind your character, if you’re moving in the direction of some goal in a safe area, she’ll be moving ahead of you; if you’re just wandering around, she’ll wander as well at a safe distance, sometimes looking at things or out windows or getting a snack; if you’re really derping around, she’ll lean up against a wall or sit on a bench and wait for you to get your shit together.  It’s cute, it’s interesting to watch, and it really breathes life into the NPC character.  Elizabeth is a companion character done right.  She’s also the kind of dame who’s usually paired up with the hero in the pulps, but that’s a whole nother can of worms.

Even if everything else about Bioshock Infinite is terrible and tedious and unfun (and it looks like that’s the direction it may be going), Elizabeth is amazing and nothing short of a breakthrough.  I’d like to see her as a model for future AI companions in other games, perhaps those that will be more fun (at least to me) than Bioshock Infinite.

Thief 2x: Shadows of the Metal Age

Over the weekend, I had a chance to dig into Thief 2x: Shadows of the Metal Age.

For any gripes I may have about Thief 2x, they are small in comparison to the fact that this is an entirely new freaking game in the Thief universe. It took me a bit to get used to, because of some minor technical and graphic issues. For whatever reason going to map, objective or menu with briefly drop to the desktop before opening the correct page (like at most 1 second with half a second lag time, during which the screen is black and the game still running; you CAN be seen, attacked and killed during this lag between exiting menus). Also, the textures and lighting seemed really wonky on the first mission, so despite some really neat atmospheric tricks and well done visual story-telling, it just didn’t look or feel right.

Another part of the disconnected feeling comes from using new health icons, a new shadow crystal and a few other cosmetic and semi-cosmetic changes. For instance, water arrows look different and cost more, but this is no big deal, because unless you’re fighting steam beasts or fire elementals, you always end up with way more water arrows than you needed generally. I liked the idea early on of combining the lock picks into a single item (hair pin), but this meant that it couldn’t be hotkeyed, so the return of the classic lock picks a few missions in was a welcome event. Zaya’s new sword is cool, but the knock-out hammer seems like a silly replacement for the blackjack, though it does kinda lampshade the whole dead vs. unconscious distinction which is even less meaningful in this game.

The first REAL mission (the Prologue has no weapons or sneak-mechanics, though there were some obnoxious instant-kill traps), while impressively built felt kind of off. A few of the subsequent early missions felt the same way, but gave me enough of a Thief fix to keep going. Thief 2x really hits its stride after you reach Sunnyport. The train-ride mission was a cool bit of world-building and atmosphere, but felt rather unrewarding as a mission; the following mission where you have to sneak into the smuggler’s hide-out, raid the place and get out without even knocking anyone out, however, was pure Thief bliss. The Hammer temple was great, but the Masoleum!

Down Among Dead Men is probably one of the best Thief levels I’ve ever played and is by far one of my favorites; it’s creepier and more colorful than Down in the Bonehoard or either of the Haunted Cathedral levels, and has supplanted Trail of Blood as my favorite mission. It has some of the coolest set pieces, wild puzzles and traps, and creepiest undead filling a webbed catacomb of crypts which includes the final resting place of an evil necromancer whose ghost has caused the dead to rise at his beck and call. I can’t think of a level from either Thief or Thief 2 that comes close to how awesome this is in terms of storytelling, play or level design with the possible exception of The Sword (and this was more fun and had less accidental fall deaths). This would absolutely be the sort of level where, if you could get a decent floorplan of it, would be an AMAZING dungeon crawl for low-to-mid-level characters. Plus, it introduces new zombie mechanics which I’ll probably write up for tomorrow.


Meet Zaya, the alluring sociopathic murder-hobo protagonist of Thief 2x: Shadows of the Metal Age.  As a woman of color with a crippling lack of empathy, she hits at least three diversity checkboxes!  Just kidding; I’ve never heard ANYONE bring her up when talking about diversity in video games.

As far as the character Zaya goes, I’m still warming up to her.  I haven’t found her particularly likable or interesting, and she’s got a bit of a one-track mind.  Her arc of losing her cousin to murderous thieves so that she herself becomes a murderous thief (because revenge) is a bit silly.  There are a lot of ways that they could’ve addressed this within the game’s mechanics to make it less ridiculous.  One of my biggest gripes – and one which feeds into this – is that the difficulty does not affect the objectives in any meaningful way.  If one plays Thief and assumes Expert is the ‘canonical’ way in which the missions are done, Garrett is a consummate professional and wholly above murder, even against the despicable child-killing Mechanists; indeed, one of the biggest challenges is making it through a mission without getting into lethal altercations.  Zaya has no such compunctions against killing and is free to do so wantonly on the highest difficulties, so one may assume that she doesn’t have Garrett’s moral code and is pretty much a murder hobo.  Which explains why she knocks people out with a hammer rather than a leather truncheon.  In large part, this is why the missions in the smugglers’ hideout and the Hammer temple felt so Thief-like – you weren’t allowed to just kill people (or even knock them out in the case of the former).

I’m entirely expecting that the guy who took Zaya in and taught her thieving ways is going to end up being a bad guy. I just hope that I’m invested enough in Zaya by that point to have some sort of emotional response. For all of the amazing effort that went into fleshing out this new world and integrating it into the existing Thief lore, I wish that Zaya herself were better done. Even if the rest of the game ends up being garbage and there is nothing else good about it, it will have totally been worth it for missions 5-7, where I really felt like I was playing a brand new Looking Glass Studios Thief game.