Tag Archives: rpg

Games of 2013: Desktop Dungeons

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2013 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I have been doing in recent history, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting about one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2013 posts.

Desktop Dungeons

In 2010, a little three man team in South Africa released an experimental roguelike RPG called Desktop Dungeons. It was meant to be consumed in short bursts: the games didn’t last longer than 5-10 minutes and there wasn’t any deep character progression.

A brief stab at how the rules work: you are a level 1 hero. Walking into an area of the map that’s unrevealed reveals the tiles, which can heal you. Monsters will be shown with a level, and the game clearly telegraphs what will happen if you attack (WIN/SAFE/DEATH being the three most common states). Beating up monsters gets you experience, which can help you level; beating monsters above your level is riskier but yields more experience. Your goal: kill the level 10 monster somewhere on the floor. There’s more to it than this, but that’s the crux.

Now, in 2013, the “final” version has finally been unleashed on the world. The core gameplay is still the same, but much like when Triple Town jumped from a straightforward iOS puzzle into a desktop version with some meta-game elements, so too has Desktop Dungeons. There’s a deep series of unlocks that bring you more classes, better start states, and differing environments.

I was going to say I love Desktop Dungeons because at its core it’s a beautifully stripped down RPG experience. Then I realized it may be unfair to call it an RPG – it’s a puzzle game that looks like an RPG. And while most game modes don’t run on into infinity, there is a familiar impending doom that you might get yourself stuck, with no good options but to crash your run and start over.

And having just compared it to Triple Town, I can’t help but realize that this is essentially my Triple Town of 2013. It’s that same addictive bite sized game that requires a level of strategy and critical thinking. Despite it being short, you can lose hours to it.

I just fear an inevitable iOS version.

Desktop Dungeons is available on Mac and PC. I played both versions evenly.

Games of 2013: Battrix Floating Continent

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2013 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I have been doing in recent history, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting about one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2013 posts.

Battrix Floating Continent

The genre of the RPG is in an odd state these days. As someone who grew up with 60+ hour slogs through SNES era Final Fantasy games, I know these games are becoming less and less frequent. With mobile platforms on the ascendancy, casual RPGs are becoming more frequent, but many get bogged down with freemium mechanics. So that balance – an RPG with some length and depth, that fits into current platforms without indulging in the more anti-consumer practices – is a tough one to strike.

The closest I’ve found (and it’s by no means perfect) is Battrix Floating Continent. Done by Opus Studio, who brought the world another great RPG twist with Half Minute Hero, Battrix starts with you having just a single square on an expansive world map. To claim a new tile of the map, you fight off monsters in a tap-focused battle system. Towns get discovered, mechanics get mixed up, weapons level up and get upgraded, and eventually the map starts to pull itself together. It’s like any other RPG, just…mobile, I suppose.

It became my perfect subway commute game for a good chunk of the year, and anything I can sink an hour into every morning for a solid month is worth mentioning in this series. RPG fans might want to poke at this one a bit.

Battrix Floating Continent is available for iOS for free.

Games of 2012: The World Ends With You Solo Remix

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

The World Ends With You: Solo Remix

I remember getting my hands on The World Ends With You for the first time. It felt like an eternity since the last time I was had my world flipped by a Square RPG. A weird blend of modern Japanese culture and supernatural plots to destroy the world, TWEWY tied together a unique combat system, well-polished art and music, and memorable moody teenagers (this was a Square game, after all). It felt revolutionary, and possibly the start of a great new RPG franchise.

But that was 2008 – and following its release on the DS, nothing more came out of the franchise – until this year. Out of nowhere in August, Square Enix quickly announced and released The World Ends With You: Solo Remix. It didn’t launch on Nintendo’s floundering 3DS, nor was it a near-launch title for Sony’s Playstation Vita. No, it came out solely for iOS, at price points rarely seen on the platform: $18 for the iPhone/iPod Touch version, and $20 for the iPad version. People flipped out.

There are plenty of takeaways from the release – you could spend months trying to break down Square’s pricing strategy, or the effectiveness of reducing a dual screen game to a single screen, or lambasting Square for blocking the iPhone version from running on the iPad and/or not releasing a universal version. But I’d rather focus on the biggest takeaway: it marks the clearest turning point that the mobile gaming landscape has turned away from Nintendo and Sony to instead concentrate on smartphones.

This writing has been on the wall for a while, but it feels inescapable this year. If we’re going off of Metacritic scores to judge quality, there was a single game above 90 on both the 3DS (the eShop re-release of Cave Story) and the Vita (Persona 4 Golden). But somehow, there are 18 games in 2012 that met this threshold on iOS. Many of these are from indie developers; the major studios are represented (EA, Namco, Popcap, Warner Brothers); and the iPad version of TWEWY tops out the list at 95, technically the best reviewed title of the year.

Such a marketplace shift is anathema to long-time mobile gamers, as it seems inconceivable that a platform not dedicated to gaming could provide experiences on par with the big handhelds. But here it is: one of the most lauded, most beloved games in the DS generation, available for the half a billion iOS devices out in the wild.

Some may try to argue the release means little. Isn’t TWEWY:SR just a remake to rake in quick cash? If you’re willing to believe that, then you also have to discount the highest rated game on the Vita (Persona 4 was a Playstation 2 game), and you have to doubly discount the Cave Story release for the 3DS, a veritable remake of a remake! (Cave Story was released for the 3DS as a cartridge in 2011.)

I can’t understate how much of a disruption this is to a handheld market that was rock solid for the last 10 years. It’s almost reminiscent of the gaming market crash of 1983 – although a bit slower, and there’s already a new business model in place to save us waiting a few years for a new savior. If we don’t have dedicated handhelds after this cycle ends, I won’t bother to feign surprise.

(As for TWEWY:SR itself? It’s pricey, but you get what you pay for – a high quality RPG in a unique setting. It doesn’t feel any different compared to the DS version, save the combat – and I actually liked the single screen version better. If you didn’t play through it in 2008, I highly recommend you save up and splurge on it.)

The World Ends With You: Solo Remix is available for iPhone and for iPad, but not in the same app, because Square Enix doesn’t believe in such things.

Games of 2012: New Star Soccer

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

There’s something strangely attractive about sport RPG games. Pushing through a career of a pro athlete from minor league rookie to a world champion naturally lines up with RPG gameplay. It doesn’t need an elaborate story with revenge plots and the end of the world – there is enough drama that naturally comes from the competition. While the archetype soccer RPG experience is FIFA career mode (which [I struggled with last year](http://vjarmy.com/archives/2011/12/games-of-2011-fifa-12.php)), I have to point out how much silly fun New Star Soccer provides for a fraction of the cost.

It’s best to think of NSS as two parts: the matches themselves, and everything else. To that end: the matches are reminiscent of MLB: The Show‘s career mode, in that you’ll only be in control of the action when your player is actually involved in the play. You’ll patiently watch the clock tick by until a message about you getting the ball pops up, and then you’ll usually get a simplified overhead view of the field. Dragging on the screen sets the direction of your kick, and sends you into the reaction test. A soccer ball will fly through your view, or bounce off the ground, or otherwise move around you. Tap the ball and based on a variety of factors (where you tap, how high off the ball it is, how far you dragged when you set your direction), off the ball goes. What happens then really isn’t up to you – passes can get intercepted, shots can ricochet off the bar. You’ll generally only get about 5-8 touches of the ball per game, so make those chances count.

Games can fly by pretty quickly. The rest of your time will be spent in the menus dealing with the rest of your life. You have five relationships to manage – your boss, your team, the fans, your girlfriend (if you’ve managed to get one), and your sponsors. You also have five stats (pace, power, technique, vision, and free kicks) that directly effect the matches. Now you can play a minigame to keep your relationships happy or increase your stats – but they cost energy, which can be replenished with energy drinks. Drain all your energy and you’ll be left on the bench.

The meta-game in NSS is the fight to balance this cycle. Upgrade your stats so you play better and people are happy; play better to earn more money; use the money to buy items that replenish your energy better; use your energy to squeeze in more upgrades. It’s a precarious cycle – have a bad game, and you might not have the money you need to refill your energy to keep your fans happy, who won’t hesitate to boo you if they feel poorly about you. It can be crushing to miss one shot on goal and have that lead to you not seeing the field for weeks, but that’s not too far from how the world actually works.

There’s a bit of chance that creeps into the game as well with random events between games. A newspaper might say you look dumb, sapping your morale. Your girlfriend might ask to borrow your car – maybe she crashes it and ruins most of your relationships, or maybe she doesn’t. You can get told you’re being traded to a lower division team, which is terribly insulting when you’re leading the league in scoring.

Eventually, you can find a way out of the upgrade/relationship cycle. The sponsors start to come knocking, and the bonus cash rolls in. You get a bit better at the minigames, and the stat raises come easier. The relationships stop being in competition with each other and you just start rolling. You can start to buy up all the property and accessories. You’ll start hoarding the energy drinks, and then eventually you won’t even need them. You’ll win domestic titles, continental titles, maybe even a world one with your national team.

NSS probably needs an addiction warning on startup; it can be a short enough experience that you can pick it up and knock off a match in a minute or two, but you can also keep winding through seasons that hours can melt away in a play session. Even after you’ve seemingly mastered the game, you’ll still feel the urge to keep taking the field.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go. My team needs me.

New Star Soccer is available for iOS and Android. On iOS, the game is free but career mode is an in-app purchase of $1. There’s also a more complicated PC/Mac version, but I haven’t spent any real time with it – yet.

Games of 2012: Borderlands 2

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

Has it really been three years since the original release of Borderlands? When I dug back to find [whatever I had written about it](http://vjarmy.com/archives/2009/12/steam_holiday_sale_2009_recommen.php) (“the best role playing/first person hybrid since Deus Ex, perhaps”), I was a bit surprised to see a 2009 on those posts.

That reaction is probably my expectations of the gaming industry. We’re in an era where any title that shows reasonable sales success is almost immediately announced for a sequel. Popular franchises are boiled down into a fine slurry that’s slopped out the door as quickly as possible year after year. How did Borderlands, which was both a critical and commercial success, manage to get a multi-year development cycle for its first sequel? It just seems beyond belief.

However it happened, it was worth it. I think out of all of the big budget “AAA” titles I’ve played this year (which admittedly wasn’t a ton), it was the one that felt the most realized, complete, and fun. The game world is huge, the combat feels satisfying, the writing remains sharp. The little annoyances and quibbles from the first game (like the decision to use Gamespy for online functions) are largely eradicated. And the pacing feels just about right – you can get lost in side quests if that’s your thing, or you can just grind away at the main storyline. It just feels so well balanced that I’m really glad it wasn’t rushed out the door under a tighter deadline.

One thing that Gearbox absolutely nailed was a feature they dubbed “Badass Rank”. Dedicated Borderlands players will likely end up with a stable of characters, one for each class in the game. The Badass Rank system provides general milestone objectives, which gradually convert into tokens. The tokens are redeemable for perks that boost stats for all of your characters, not just the one you’ve earned the points with. It’s a really smart method to reward the player for dedicated play. I hope other games won’t be afraid to steal it – it may be my favorite innovation I’ve seen in a game this year.

Actually, let me take that a step farther: I’m surprised that no one has tried to rip off Borderlands wholesale yet. And why *are* there so few quality first-person RPG franchises? Deus Ex, Elder Scrolls, Fallout (although New Vegas was a letdown), Borderlands…what else is there? You could argue to include Dead Island in there, even though the first game was rough around the edges. It just strikes me odd that for an industry that’s generally quick to flood the market with clones, there aren’t more first-person RPGs.

Maybe it’s a budget and time constraint – making a sufficiently deep game takes energy most companies don’t have. If that means that titles like Borderlands 2 are that much more unique, perhaps I shouldn’t be complaining too loudly.

Borderlands 2 is available for the Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Windows and OS X. My experiences were with the PC version.

Games of 2011: Bastion

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether or not you’re going to love a game. Ain’t so hard with this one. I knew within five minutes.

Supergiant Games’ debut title, Bastion, is extraordinary by every measure.

The art style: lush and meticulously drawn watercolors gives the many worlds of Caelondia a unique feel and personality. It’s not just the art, but also the animation, as many of the worlds within Bastion are either forming or disintegrating before your eyes.

The gameplay: Bastion is a well refined twin-stick action RPG. Multiple weapons, skills, and abilities allow you to adapt to your play style. The combat is not quite twitch combat, but certainly not slow by any stretch – it feels real and substantive.

The voicework: Logan Cunningham’s voice work as Rucks, the narrator, is unforgettable. Not just his voice, or the style in which he tells the story as you play through it, but the multiple versions of each line recorded, ensuring that even the slightest change in attack plans is accompanied by an appropriate monologue.

The music: Darren Korb’s beautiful, haunting soundtrack rounds out the performance, and is easily the most memorable soundtrack I’ve come across in years. I’ve embedded two tracks below to show the range of what Darren called “acoustic frontier trip-hop”:

This is a game that oozes love from every pore, and yet they chose to release it at a $15 price point via digital channels. If youve been reluctant to download games – if you’re the sort of person who only shops at Gamestop – Bastion is the game that will change your mind.

Do not miss this game, under any circumstances.

Bastion is available on Xbox Live Arcade, Windows, and somehow also through Chrome.

Games of 2011: Skyrim

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.

A lot of the games I’ve feature in this series this year have been small titles, ambitious in their vision towards a single idea or aesthetic. It’s no secret I have great love for tight, well-crafted experiences over sloppy games that try to be everything to everyone.

The general lack of the big-budget games from this list should not be taken as me rejecting epic, sweeping games out of hand. I play many of them all the same – the problem is that many of them fail to live up to their aspirations. I had big hopes for some epic games this year – titles like Uncharted 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and RAGE all had my interest piqued. But they each failed to hook me or came out the door in such a broken fashion that they were practically unplayable.

One epic scale game did manage to pull it off for me this year, and that is Bethesda’s wonderfully rich Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. [1. Kean-eyed gamers may notice that two of the games on my disappointing list – Fallout: New Vegas and RAGE – are also Bethesda titles. Their reputation was so shot with me late in the year that I nearly passed on picking up Skyrim. I am glad I came around.]

If you’re unfamiliar with the Elder Scrolls series, it’s best described as a giant medieval fantasy world with more backstory than one person could ever appreciate. This is a game with so many in-game books that you can read, people have converted them to eBooks so they can be read outside the game. It can be overwhelming, to say the least. In any case, the game plays as a first person RPG – you can explore the world, plunder dungeons and caves, get quests from people in towns and cities, and generally get in a lot of fights. Combat is real-time and characters tend to either use melee, ranged, or magical attacks.

Skyrim has one main plot line, but as is traditional with the series, you should leave it till later, as there’s no real reason to finish it early. The best course of action is largely to meander and explore, getting wrapped up in some of the meaty side quest strings, and using them to help launch you into even more adventures. Most players will pick out one of the main four guilds (fighters tend towards the Companions; magicians find brotherhood in the Mage’s School; the sneaky will fall in with the Thieves Guild; the cold-blooded killers join the Dark Brotherhood) and run through their quests. I say, why choose one? Do them all – they don’t conflict with each other, and the storylines are enjoyable. At the time I’m writing this, I’ve completed all but the Mage’s School, and found worthwhile twists and turns in all (but especially the Dark Brotherhood).

One of the things Skyrim gets very, very right is the balance of exploratng a huge world versus the pain of navigating it. The world is dotted with points of interest, but many you’ll have to trek to the vicinity of to get them to appear on your map. Once a point is found, you can “fast travel” to it, rather than having to slog it out on foot. But because a quest could take you potentially anywhere on the map, there’s a subliminal benefit to indulging in some wanderlust.

The world is also packed full of quests, even beyond the above mentioned storylines. The game reportedly has a random quest generator, which gives you a seemingly endless set of missions helping out townspeople. But there’s plenty of well defined, structured quests as well, which can sometimes sneak up on you. In one town, I stepped into a tavern and was soon approached by a guy looking to challenge me to a drinking contest, with a nice looking staff the reward. After accepting (and promptly blacking out), I awoke to find myself in the Skyrim equivelent of The Hangover, as set out across the land to piece together the events evening and right the wrongs I had made.

The game isn’t perfect by any stretch. There are plenty of bugs and glitches, most of which manifest themselves in hilarious ways. The inventory system, very console-like in nature, leaves a lot to be desired ( looks like a compelling option for PC players). And the PS3 port continues Bethesda’s long history of not being able to properly program on Sony’s platform. But the game transcends the niggling concerns and makes a strong statement that when a big budget game goes right, it truly can be epic.

Skyrim is available for Windows, the Xbox 360, and the Playstation 3.