I completed the Playstation 3 game Folklore earlier today, after a couple of days of fairly intense play. I've had it since the start of the year, but other things got in the way of me getting really stuck into it, and a silly bit of impatience and poor planning made me fall out with it for a while. I'm extremely glad I came back to it because it's become my favourite game on the system, and really one of my favourite gaming experiences overall.

The game is played through the stories of two characters, brought by circumstance to the sleepy Irish village of Doolin. Ellen, a young girl searching for her mother whom she believed died when she was a child, and Keats, a hard-bitten skeptical reporter looking into a murder story with supernatural overtones. Ellen and Keats are both drawn into the Netherworld, becoming crucial players and pawns in a power stuggle between the Faeries. At the same time, Ellen uncovers the truth behind her own past, and the dark secrets of the villagers are brought to light.

Folklore plays out in two distinct sections. The Doolin parts, where Ellen and Keats talk to the villagers, prompting memories and leads surrounding the mysteries of the place, and the Netherworld parts, where they engage in combat with a wide variety of Folks - creatures of myth and legend, spread over several different realms each culminating in an epic battle with the resident Folklore - the 'boss monster' of the realm.

The hook is that in order to fight against the Folks, Ellen and Keats have to collect Folks to use as weapons. There are over 100 individual Folks in the various realms, with particular strengths and weaknesses, and it's the exploitation of these that forms the backbone of the combat system. In order to add a Folk to their arsenal, Ellen and Keats must deal enough damage to it that it becomes weakened enough for them to absord its Id. This is done in a variety of ways using the SIXAXIS motion-sensing controller. Most basically, after holding R1 to ensnare the Id, the controller is flicked upwards, pulling the Id out of the Folk and into the players' collection. Other Folks require the controller to be shaken, carefully balanced, or rocked from side to side. Sometimes timing comes into play as well, and sometimes a combination of these actions is required.

Once a Folk is captured it can be assigned to one of the four face buttons and summoned at will (limited by an energy reserve). The Folk pops out, performs its particular action, then disappears. Folks can be strengthened by repeated use, by absorbing a certain number of the same type, or by using specific items on them. Throughout each realm the player will find pages of a picture book relating to the Folks of the realm and the Folklore. Here in pictorial form are clues to which Folks should be used on which for the best results. Most are self-explanatory; seeing a Folk that is water-based usually leads to the conclusion that a fire-based Folk would be good to tackle it with. However, there are some non-elemental Folks, and some that require charming to coax out their Id, for example.

Collecting and 'levelling up' the Folks becomes quite addictive in itself, and there's certainly a satisfaction in snaring a particularly slippery one. In fact, I found the combat as a whole to be very fun and engaging. While the game is a little on the easy side it does demand quite a bit of quick thinking and it keeps you on your toes - especially when you are faced with numerous Folks of different types. Costumes come into play with regard to the magical cloaks that Ellen wears. As she progresses through she acquires a variety of different outfits, each with specific properties (usually elemental protection). Some of these are found easily enough, but a couple do take rather more effort.

Perhaps a contentious issue is the fact that the game has to be played through by both Ellen and Keats, and they tread much the same ground. The Folks they collect and their particular attacks are often unique, and sub-boss encounters are different (as well as each characters' perspective on the unfolding story), but it is potentially offputting to essentially repeat each chapter. However, I found that by playing through exclusively as Ellen until the story paths merged, then taking Keats to the same point, I was removed enough from Ellen's experience in the early parts of the game for it not to feel stale with Keats. That, and the experience gained by Ellen in terms of what to expect in the realms made Keats' journey very swift.

Visually the game is a real treat. A lot of care and attention has gone into fashioning the Faery realms, each one very distinct. The use of colour and range of texture is breathtaking, and incidental animations abound. You really have to get in close and analyze things to see the seams, but it's a triumph of imaginative design over poly count. Away from the dazzle of the Nether Realms, Doolin itself is attractively rendered in its own way, particularly at night. It's undoubtedly one of the most visually appealing games I've ever played.

The visual beauty of the game is matched by a score that runs from haunting piano pieces to weird carnival nightmare music, and appropriately dramatic pieces to accompany the Folklore encounters.

After that there's the subject matter, and Folklore is right up my street in that regard. Myths and legends, folklore, and a murder mystery. What more could I ask for? The translation and vocal performances are well above average, and while the story concerns itself with enough flashbacks and half-glimpsed memories to befuddle you a lot of the time, by the end it comes together quite neatly.

It says enough about a game these days that not only will I finish it, but I will buy all the downloadable content available (extra quests to undertake in both Doolin and the Netherworld, and alternative constumes), but I will also go out of my way to collect everything in it.

Of course, being something of a hidden gem the game failed commercially if not critically (though some were very harsh in their criticisms). Maybe it's simply a hard sell, being very much a fanciful fairy tale on a system currently dominated by more hardline action titles. I would urge anyone to at least give it a try though, because if it does click it has the power to captivate and delight, and the journey into this Netherworld is well worth taking.

More Yakuza, Please!

I've been so wrapped up in Yakuza I completely forgot to come and post any progress thoughts. I finished it last night, but firstly let me get God of War out of the way:

I got fed up with it and moved on.

Right! Now that's sorted, onto Yakuza. Every once in a while a game comes along that's not particularly brilliant in any way, and maybe even has more than a few rough edges, but it does something right enough that it sticks with you, or the sum of its parts far exceeds the individual pieces. That's Yakuza, which has become firmly one of my all-time favourite games.

A bold statement, that, but in the same way that Tomb Raider Anniversary completely took me by surprise, this is a game that I didn't care about until forces conspired to have me playing it at a time when I was really looking for something fresh. It appeals to the brawler/beat 'em up fan in me, as well as the RPG fan. It's an action game you can take entirely at your own pace. You can spend hours just messing about away from the main plot, and it helps that the world - however much a microcosm it is - is so meticulously detailed and lively. The game has that very difficult to achieve sense of place. In most games - even ones with hugely detailed and varied environments - I never feel like I'm part of the gameworld. I feel disconnected from the action. Not so much that I can't become engaged in things, but I'm not 'drawn in'.

Yakuza joins games like Phantasy Star Online, Tomb Raider Anniversary, Mass Effect, Dungeon Master, Final Fantasy VII, and Metal Gear Solid in totally pulling me in. Everything about the environments, the characters, the sound design gives me the feeling that I've spent time in that world. I felt like a hidden documentary camera accompanying Kazuma Kiryu throughout his story.

And it's a pretty good story, too. Nothing groundbreaking, but just a good solid crime thriller with a colourful cast, a few twists, and an immensely cool main character. As I mentioned before it's got a few clunky moments (particularly camera issues during the indoor fights), but this can all be overlooked because it's such a blast to play. I would have liked an original language option, as the lip-synching issues can be a bit iffy at times, but overall the voice work is good if a little spirited.

It also does what GTA continually fails to do, which is to provide me with a meaty action game in a contemporary setting with plenty of depth and extra stuff, and marry it to a cast of characters I can actually care about and like. You even get saddled with a kid for most of the plot and amazingly she's not annoying at all. That in itself is a miracle.

The prospect of the PS3 being put to work on this world is incredibly enticing, and I know the wait after finishing the second one will be agonizing.

Late to the party - Yakuza and God of War

First a quick note on Too Human... I've put about 28 hours into it over the past couple of weeks, and while it was very enjoyable for that time, it's very apparent to me that I won't be spending the kind of time with it that I did with PSO. It's flawed and frustrating in a number of ways, but not enough to prevent it being a worthwhile and fun experience. However, the compulsion to grind for loot that I expected to be there after the buzz of clearing the campaign a couple of times has failed to materialize, and I can't see myself returning to it much in future. I will certainly still be keen on playing the sequels should they ever appear, but for now it remains a decent 30-hour dollop of entertainment.

The curious thing it did though, was to launch me into a craving for third-person action / adventure games. Specifically ones where you thrash your way through tons of enemies. After a fun enough time spent with Viking and Conan I found myself with God of War, a game that has managed to pass me by completely. Oh, I knew of it, knew it's solid critical reputation and commercial success, yet despite my strong fascination with mythology and history I never even bothered to try it until now.

Suffice to say I'm a bit angry at myself for that. I really need to give more things a chance rather than slavishly sticking to a handful of known quantities. If I'd never tried Tomb Raider Anniversary out of boredom I wouldn't be excitedly anticipating Underworld as one of my potential games of the year right now.

Back to GoW though. It's magnificent visually and aurally, and the controls are just the right side of loose, forgiving enough with an auto-lock without being sloppy. Combat can be immense fun, and there's plenty of variety and scale in the environments to keep things fresh. My only criticism of it is that sometimes the combat can become frustrating, especially when fighting multiple enemies that repeatedly knock you over, or that won't allow you to finish off combos as they simply go through their attack animations regardless. It's relentlessly entertaining in every other way, with a few rudimentary puzzles here and there to break up the action. I've already got my hands on the sequel - and now I have a genuine must-buy for the PS3 when the third one surfaces.

Speaking of things finally surfacing... Yakuza 2 just came out in the US, and I think it's out in the UK this week. I had tried the first one not long ago, and while I was enjoying it I didn't get far because the PS3 backwards compatibility wasn't up to scratch on it. The colours were very washed-out for one thing. I gave up on it and forgot about it for a while.

The release of the sequel and the announcement of a third instalment on its way for PS3 compelled me to order a US copy of the first to play on my PS2 (I don't own a PAL PS2). I'm only a couple of hours in but I'm completely in love with it. It does go out of its way to earn the Mature rating, with copious and amusing amounts of swearing, but the story is already gripping and the recreation of the location is very immersive (though of course to me it could be anywhere, I just mean that it feels alive). The main character controls a bit clunkily, and the combat system takes a bit of adjusting to. You really have to keep in minds its shortcomings when fighting. Despite that, it is a lot of fun and I never get tired of being interrupted in the street by some punk cruising for a bruising. At one point I was using a sofa as a weapon, swinging it around with aplomb. By all accounts the game gets sillier as it goes on. I can't wait, and I've already ordered the sequel.

Getting Emotional

I'm making my way through the documentary series 'Rise of the Videogame', and having just come off the second episode I'm a little wound up about a topic that often grates with me; the notion that the ultimate goal of videogames is to become like movies. That and the hoary old chestnut of whether a videogame can make you cry.

Gaming in general has a chip on its shoulder about squaring up to its rivals in entertainment. Films, music and literature are all comfortably considered art forms, and have proven themselves perfectly capable of eliciting a wide range of emotions in their audiences. For some reason a large chunk of the videogame industry, its commentators and consumers believe that gaming is a lesser entity for so far lacking the kind of narrative and characterization that we take for granted in a well-made film. I think this is a gross misjudgement of the true strengths of videogaming. For me its strengths lie in the fact that videogames can be something completely different in presentation and experience and goals. Beating highscores, solving puzzles, strategic planning, reflex and hand-to-eye co-ordination challenges... these are the things that videogames can provide in a completely unique fashion. These are the reasons I play videogames.

More than anything I need the challenge and satisfaction of playing. I don't see a game without a story as a negative thing at all, because a good one will stand on its own merits as offering a particular interactive experience. The background narrative and drip-fed storyline of Braid is completely disposable to me, but the thrill and sense of achievement on solving each puzzle is something that no other medium can bring me. Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2 has no story or characters, unless you count the base levels of 'shape must destroy other shapes', yet it's the best game I've played all year and is a huge critical success. People still want games like that if they're good.

This is not to say that there's no place at all for stories in videogames. I like a good story as much as anyone, and in an adventure game I like to have characters I can empathise with and care about. I can enjoy an action adventure like Mass Effect a great deal, and I can be drawn into the world and characters of Final Fantasy XII. These things are fine in their own ways, I just don't think they make the games any more worthwhile than, say, Pac-Man, and I don't think they should be held up as the one true evolution of the medium. I hate the notion of equating an abstract arcade game as somehow a relic of a best-forgotten past. I think if we do that we move further and further away from the greatest strengths and possibilities of videogames.

That really would make me cry.

Space Firebird

Last night I stumbled upon something in MAME that gave me a true warm and fuzzy feeling and a powerful blast of nostalgia.

Whenever anyone would ask what the first videogame I played was, I'd cast my mind back to hazy memories of an arcade cabinet in the chip shop at the end of my street. Looking back all I ever remembered was that it was a colourful Galaxians-style effort, and put it down to being either Galaxians itself, or one of the multitude of clones and similar efforts in that style.

Usually when I fire up MAME I rattle through a well-worn roster of favourites, but recently I've been randomly delving into all kinds of things. With Galaga Legions turning up on Live Arcade I was in the mood for some very old-school shooting. From the moment I loaded up Space Firebird I was overcome with a wave of recognition. It was the sound effects that did it. This is the game I messed about with so many times back when I was 5 or 6 years old. It's a standard of the day; ship at the bottom of the screen, enemy formations flying around and divebombing. You have a shield - activated once per life - that lets you fly up the screen invulnerable, wrapping round to the bottom, and the base line curves upwards towards the edges.

I spent quite some time with it, and I'm happy to report that it still plays a very decent game.

Phases of interest

Hmm. A lot came out of E3 that I didn't write about yet, and a couple of games came out that I've been spending a lot of time with.

Tomb Raider Underworld was nicely revealed in some gameplay footage and a prerendered trailer. My appetite for it continues healthily, I'm just hoping it will hit the more solitary exploration aspect of the series rather than the more action-focused stuff. I enjoyed Legend a great deal, but a large factor was specifically the parts where Lara was on her own in the depths of some ancient cave or ruin. Popping back into civilization kind of breaks the atmosphere for me.

Dark Void came out of nowhere and looks wonderful. A real Rocketeer vibe, lovely designs and palette. It's highly doubtful I'll be able to play it, being a very Gears of War inspired action game. As always though, I will give it a shot.

Dragon Age satisfied on all counts. Not the least of which was the revelation that the camera is entirely controllable, and the whole game can be played top-down, and can be paused at any time. Just how RPGs should be!

Enough future stuff though. Right now I'm playing a whole load of Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2. It's everything the first game was but more, and better in every way. Really a perfect sequel. I mean, I'm a built-in audience for this kind of thing anyway. Twin-stick shooter with glowing vector graphics? Right there you have a textbook description of what I think a videogame should be. My favourite modes are easily Pacifism and King, while Waves is an exercise in addictive frustration. You know a game is doing all kinds of things right when upon losing you curse only yourself, and instead of reaching for the power button you dive straight back in.

GWRE2 kickstarted me back into arcade game mode, and I got back into Super Stardust HD, Everyday Shooter, my old MAME favourites, and I bought Soul Calibur 4. Time spent in SC4 customizing characters is significantly larger than time spent actually playing. I've realised I don't like the game that much, I'm just fuelled by great memories of its dreamcast ancestor.

Braid came out on XBLA today, and while I've been following its development since the early whispers by the time it got here I wasn't even sure I was interested - in the sense that I didn't feel I was in arty platformer mode. A few minutes with the trial version put that to rest and I wasted no time in buying the full game. I'll refrain from weighing in with tiresome Games Are Art commentary and just say that it's an absolutely wonderful piece of work, one that takes a core idea and runs further and more imaginitively with it than anything else has. It has the purest sense of satisfaction from videogame puzzle solving. Not stumbling upon the answer by trial and error, but reading the screen layout, thinking about the relationships and behaviours of everything, and having that moment of realisation.

All that brings me to my main topic; my ever-shifting focus of videogaming interests. I go through chunks of time that can span from a week or so to many months where I'm only interested in playing particular types of games. A few years back I spent a couple of years playing pretty much nothing but scrolling shoot 'em ups. The first half of this year I spent deeply entrenched in computer RPGs.

The thing is, I never seem to be able to mix it up. I completely lose interest in one genre when I'm playing another. As I said above, GW put me back into the mindset of wanting to play fast, short, highscore-centric games. Not neccessarily just shoot 'em ups, but platformers, beat 'em ups, racers... anything that can be done in a quick session, or played over and over again in a session. After a solid week of GW2 and Soul Calibur 4 I tried to go back and make further progress in Neverwinter Nights 2, and found myself immediately bored and disinterested. This is a game I was overwhelmingly enthusiastic about not two weeks ago. I'm looking at the collection of vintage RPGs I've been collecting and thinking I'm wasted a great deal of money.

Luckily, I know from experience that I'll cycle back round to them eventually, and they'll be there waiting when I do. I just find it odd how my mindset so completely changes on these things. Part of it is me feeling generally listless at the moment. I don't feel too motivated or interested in anything (I still have not seen The Dark Knight for example). I want videogames to be something I pick up and play for a few minutes occasionally, not something I have to dedicate vast amounts of time to. I'm very much drawn back to XBLA and PSN stuff, and the indie scene. I think it might have been Mass Effect that pulled me out of that last year, so I guess the thing to do it this time will be Dragon Age. Too Human - although a cinematic action RPG experience - is much more on the side of arcade action than an epic undertaking. in my current frame of mind about gaming it sounds just about perfect.

The Thin End of E3

Well, I don't normally just comment on videogame news, but this year there are actually a bunch of things showing at E3 that I care about. Also, I've just come off a session with the Too Human demo, and I'm beaming about that.

First up, Too Human. I've been clinging onto a belief that this game - despite the general negativity and naysayers surrounding it - would scratch a particular itch I have. The PSO itch. While it's not quite that, it's certainly scratching an itch I never knew I had. It's kind of a cross between a Diablo-style hack and slash and a twin-stick shooter, weird as that sounds. It works, though. The demo is a little rough around the edges but it is a demo after all. Graphical polish is the last pass a game gets before it ships out. The core gameplay is solid, and I can imagine it getting very intense as things progress. In the demo you are limited to a single character type and a small number of upgrades and abilities. There's even a story in there, and given the soft spot I have for mythology I'll probably lap it up (you'll find a female character named Freya in pretty much any RPG party I've made).

Day one purchase on that one, then.

Dragon Age has finally begun a steady leak of information. After four years of lurking on the Bioware message boards there's finally something to speak about, though the reveal was less a grand unveiling and more a stumbling drunkenly into view - an announcement of the official site opening that yielded nothing but another announcement that a trailer was coming. The trailer showed a pretty uninspiring battle cutscene. Luckily it's been followed up now by some ingame shots, and the first thought that popped into my head was that it looks like The Temple of Elemental Evil. This is a Very Good Thing. Apparently combat can take place in a tactical overhead view, while the majority of exploration is from a more traditional over-the-shoulder third-person perspective. Mass Effect worked for me in that regard so I'm fine with that.

One thing I'm not so fine with is Bethesda FPS-ing Fallout into oblivion *chuckle* Even if it turns out to be a worthy successor to the originals, it's doubtful I'll be able to play it. Unfortunately the presentation didn't show much in the way or movement in the third-person mode, so I'll have to wait and see. Also, the VATS combat animation cutaway seems incredibly wonky and jarring.

Tomb Raider Underworld media will be hitting the end of the week. A teaser trailer is on the cards, though that could mean anything. Worst case is 20 seconds of logos followed by 20 seconds of Lara Croft looking determined and mysterious, followed by 20 seconds of fade out and release date. I really want to see some gameplay footage though.

Oops, I almost forgot about Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2. Today is a happy day.

Neverwinter Nights, how I love thee...

Linu Lo'neral: I am Linu Lo'neral, an elven priestess of Sehaine Moonbow. I was hoping to meet you, but I figured I missed you while I was changing my clothes.

Me: Changing your clothes?

Linu: Oh, when I came in here a waitress spilled some drinks.

Me: She soaked your clothes?

Linu: Well... no. I bumped into her and when the drinks crashed down I leapt backwards into a dwarf, knocking over his ale and stew.

Me: So that messed you up?

Linu: Um, no, the food and drinks landed on the floor, but the dwarf crashed into a halforc, causing the knife he was eating with to slice open his cheek. That's when the brawl started.

Me: And you wrecked your outfit in the brawl?

Linu: I managed to stay out of the brawl, hiding under a table and feeling awfully guilty. When the fight was over I felt I should help clean up the mess.

Me: So you got dirty cleaning up?

Linu: No, I wore an apron and managed to stay pretty clean. Then I stepped outside for a breath of fresh air and slipped in a mud puddle. So I had to go change.

Me: Why didn't you just tell me you slipped in a puddle from the start?

Linu: I... I didn't want you to think I was clumsy.

Metal Gear Solid 4

I finished MGS4 a short while ago. I haven't mentioned anything about it yet because I wanted to get an overall feel for the experience, especially since my opinion on the game has changed so drastically over the course of the past couple of weeks. Coming off my first session I was convinced I wouldn't be able to play it due to the amount of movement in the camera (neccessary movement in order to check and negotiate your environment constantly). That was somewhat disappointing to say the least. Luckily the constant positive feedback I was getting about it from various people encouraged me to try it again, and lo and behold - either I got used to it or something about it changed, but I didn't have a problem since.

As I've mentioned previously, I'm a huge fan of the original MGS (its high placement in my top 100 is testament to that), but the subsequent instalments on the home systems never quite gripped me the same way. However, finishing MGS2 was a hollow experience - not, as you might expect, because of Raiden. I didn't mind the character at all. It was more my feeling cheated by what I saw as a lazy retread story and a largely bland location. Looking back on it I did have plenty of fun in small doses, but I can't shake the overall disappointment.

MGS3 I've just never been able to get into. I've tried both the original and the Subsistence versions, and never gotten more than a few hours into it. I think I just lost the patience for stealth gameplay, and losing patience in MGS3 almost invariably leads to a frustrating death.

In MGS4 you're given enough backup in terms of equipment to take the game on in your own style. Sneaking or guns blazing are both viable options. Early on I found myself trying to take the stealth route, but in the end I found it much more satisfying to play as an action game... mostly (there are a few occasions where that isn't an option).

The game is heavily weighted towards cutscenes, which is a given for an MGS title. I don't have a problem with this, as I'm heavily invested in these returning characters and their story. What it did was bring about a curious state of mind while playing, though. I found the opening sections of the game fairly unengaging. Something about the location maybe, but it came off as another military shooter. Something I have absolutely no interest in. I found myself wanting to skip the gameplay sections to get to the cutscenes, and every time I was given control of Snake it became almost a chore. There are a few clever moments, but on the whole I felt that the opening act was quite lacking.

Luckily it picks up quite splendidly in act two, and continues to build from there. Act four in particular is magnificent. At some points I found myself gobsmacked by what I was seeing onscreen - it's a real technical tour de force, possibly the most visually impressive game I've ever played in fact. It's not all in the big moments though, there's something particularly impressive about the facial rendering on the characters; it's managed to leapfrog the uncanny valley and present a cast of totally believable digital actors. Not quite perfectly real, but rendered with such flair and attention to detail that they become genuine personalities.

The big moments are out in force too, though, and it's here that my main gripes about the game are to be found. There are few things as deflating in a videogame as being treated to a tremendously exciting cutscene full of action, then being given control in order to perform a rudimentary task. There are occasions where, between scripted events, you are given control of Snake and simply have to run down some stairs, or turn a corner. On the flip side you do get to perform some pretty thrilling sections, but they are few in a game of (for me) around 15 hours. I have to admit that what kept me interested in playing through was the story, and that did live up to my expectations as a sometime fan of the saga.

Having said that, I think there is more 'game' to be found in there, and subsequent plays will turn up more interesting and fun ways to interact. Playing it stealthily for example, or going for a no-kills game. Also, I barely scratched the surface of the equipment side of things, or seeing what I could do with Metal Gear Mk.II - a small robot companion that can stealth, knock out enemies and interface with equipment. I was only ever reminded of its existence when it turned up in cutscenes. I replayed the Playstation game many times, refining my game until I could tackle it on the hardest difficulty with a good rating. I'm not so sure this one will tempt me to do the same but it will certainly get another play or two.

Spoilery bit:

Surprisingly, the game actually does tie up the whole story and give satisfying conclusions for all the major characters. I suspect a hefty chunk of it is down to retconning, but it works. The biggest impact on me was the return to Shadow Moses. It serves a function in the plot, but it also covers the bases of fan service and being a commentary of one of the themes of the game. The effects of age on the location and on Snake himself, the push forward of technology - which is presented to you in no uncertain terms at a couple of points. Curious how the undoubted highlight of the game should be a chapter harkening back to an older title. Nostalgia obviously plays a part, but there's also a heavy melancholy about it, like revisiting the house you grew up in and finding it derelict.

In dealing with the characters the game stumbles a little on the emotional side, tending towards the overwrought and melodramatic. I tend to find this with Japanese media, so generally I put it down to cultural differences. Everyone has their moment to shine, the game going out of its way in particular in order to win audience favour for Raiden (who, it has to be said, shows up to save the day a little too often).

End of spoilery bit..

Overall MGS4 is an undeniably thrilling experience. One that I can recommend without hesitation to anyone interested in the series. It won't convert you if you don't care for the others, and it certainly won't hold nearly as much appeal for someone for whom this is the first taste of Metal Gear (it won't be completely impenetrable, but so much of it is anchored to knowledge of the past games much would be missed). It houses some definitively 'next gen' moments, and is put together with an unparalleled level of professionalism and passion. An arthouse blockbuster of a videogame.

Quad Cor!

I've lurched forwards in technology once again, probably for the briefest of periods. My new PC just arrived, it's something of a monster. Basically I'm setting myself up for Spore, Fallout 3, and Dragon Age, but I'm also keen to play the things that I've wanted to for a while but my old PC just couldn't do justice to. Neverwinter Nights 2 and Company of Heroes chiefly.

I bought Mass Effect for it and by golly it's lovely. I mean, the 360 version ties for my game of last year with Virtua Fighter 5, but the tweaks to the PC version really make it shine that little bit more brightly. I'm perpetually cynical about PCs, and even though I bunged the best stuff I could possibly afford into it I still expected some performance issues with such a demanding game. Well, I'm ecstatic to report that it is smooth as butter. Never drops a frame no matter what's going on.

Saturn emulation is perfect as well. I'm currently in the process of installing all the games I care about, to see how they fare with Vista. Touch wood - from what I've read and my experience so far I may just get away with everything working. I don't play a vast amount of Windows games (most of my PC gaming is through DOSbox), but it's looking pretty promising.

Anyway, I'm no PC bore so I won't drone on about it. Just had to blog a bit of my happiness.

You wait all year for a game...

...And four come along at once.

It just struck me that I have four games to buy this week. For someone who generally shies away from new games and has a very short list of potential purchases, I find it painfully amusing that I should be shelling out for a big chunk of them in the space of a week. Mass Effect PC, Civilization Revolution, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Sins of a Solar Empire have all turned up at the same time. A couple of weeks ago I bought Rock Band (which is awesome), and on top of that I just finally ordered a new PC. The current one has served me very well indeed, giving me five years of service this summer, but it really can't hope to handle the stuff I want to be getting into in the coming months.

I've been tinkering about with the demos of Sins and Civilization, and they are both superb. CivRev in particular is a joy; it takes the essential gameplay of Civilization and streamlines out the flab, leaving a very nicely paced strategy game with a genuine sense of fun. Now, I love the main series Civs too, and wouldn't swop them out for this, but as a single-session game when I'm looking for a bit of strategy it's pretty much perfect.

The only unknown quantity is MGS4. I absolutely adore the Playstation original, but other than that I could take or leave the series. 4 is the make-or-break for my PS3, which is currently surviving as a Blu-Ray player. The new PC has a Blu-Ray drive, so if MGS4 doesn't hit a very sweet spot indeed it's bye-bye.

Well, at least after these I don't have to buy anything new until Fallout 3 or Spore. Whichever hits first.

Adventures In Text

No, this isn't about Roguelikes, it's about actual text adventures - a genre I've traditionally not gotten along with. However, I've just completed a text adventure for the first time and I did rather enjoy the experience, despite a few periods of frustration.

I think everyone around my age who had a home computer in the 80s must have tinkered around with The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings (Book One). It seemed mandatory, even if you really weren't interested in the subjects. My experience of them pretty much summed up my experience of every text adventure I tried since; I would wander about aimlessly for a bit, battle against the parser, come up against the first puzzle and give up in bewilderment and frustration (I never got out of the first room in CRL's Frankenstein).

One I remember sticking with for an inordinate amount of time was Rigel's Revenge on the Spectrum. I seem to recall I made a fair amount of progress, but I never finished it. Later as an ST/Amiga owner it became obligatory to try out The Pawn and a few of the subsequent Magnetic Scrolls titles. Always with the same results.

I think my main problem was that I could never quite wrap my head around the concept of an adventure game allowing you to pass a point of no return. Very early on I was introduced to Lucasarts' (then Lucasfilm Games) graphic adventures, and a major feature of them was the fact that you couldn't become irretrievably stuck. You could always go back and get something you missed, and in most of them you could actually never die. Maniac Mansion I think was an exception, though I've personally never played much of it. As far as I remember you had to go really out of your way in Zak McKracken to get to an unwinnable position.

The anomaly here is that around the same time I happily played and completed King's Quest III - a notoriously unforgiving game filled with instant death. With that one I was just thrilled with the setting and the notion of sneaking around to get things done, with the danger of being found out at any moment (the first part of the game has you, as a put-upon wizard's 'apprentice' - though more slave - secretly learning magic and gathering ingredients for spells every time your master leaves the house). It's getting on for 20 years since I played it, but I can only assume there were a lot of failed attempts involved, and a lot of reloading.

So, since then I've really avoided text adventures. Of course the genre died out commercially at the end of the 80s as graphic adventures took the crown for a while, and several years exclusively playing console games didn't exactly keep me up to speed with either the history of the genre or its continued development in the homebrew space. It's always been something that's nagged at me though. I've had a folder on my PC for a couple of years called The Best of Interactive Fiction 1994-2004, which is a huge collection of freeware text adventures and the interpreters to run them. I've never delved into it seriously, but it's there as another one of those things that I fully intend to get round to... at some point.

Indeed, how I initially became enamoured of Infocom and Wishbringer is more to do with my fetish for vintage games and their physical presentation than a desire to actually play them.

Infocom games always came very lavishly packaged. Aside from the game itself there was an abundance of material in the box. Functioning as flavour, background, clues, or just simply cool stuff, each one was made uniquely special by these extras. Booklets, letters, maps, badges, even a scratch-and-sniff card for Leather Goddesses of Phobos... this is the stuff of dreams for a vintage game fan and collector. It's the embodiment of the difference in game packaging between the old and the new. These days it's a disc in a plastic case and - if you're lucky - a little more than a rudimentary pamphlet.

So, I'd been gathering up the old RPGs and regularly browsing places like The Computer Game Museum, and I found my way into the Infocom section. A treasure trove of trinkets indeed. One of my regular ebay sellers had a complete copy of Wishbringer in his store, so I went for it. A few things drew me to Wishbringer over plenty of other choices; it's classed as an introductory level adventure, it was written by Brian Moriarty (who wrote Loom at Lucasarts), and most importantly of all... it came with a glow in the dark stone. Yes, I am quite easily pleased.

Wishbringer concerns the quest of a regular postman (yourself) being tasked with the mission of finding a particular cat for an old lady. Of course that's not entirely the case and nothing is as it seems. You're soon plunged into a twisted otherworld version of your sleepy little village, complete with eldritch vapours in the graveyard, talking platypuses, duelling mailboxes and a militia force consisting of giant boots.

Going with my regime of properly playing the games I own allowed me to get into the mindset required, and possibly the most important thing - making a notated map. This is the absolute key to getting to grips with these games, and it seems such a simple, obvious measure that I'm embarrassed that I never bothered to do it back in the day with my fumblings around The Hobbit and The Pawn. Maybe I would have even cracked Rigel's Revenge if I had bothered to record everything properly. The map and notes are absolutely essential because as I mentioned above - these games are designed to be trial and error. It is very much a part of their nature to allow you to miss vital objects and not be able to return for them, to lose or destroy something you need, to die at the hands of an enemy, to work your way into an inescapable prison.

I restarted a lot. But - having a map and notes meant that I could always return to the same point of progress within minutes. Of course I could save and restore the game at any time, but mostly I'd only be saving a failed attempt anyway. Wishbringer didn't present me with any particularly head-scratching puzzles. It's almost entirely inventory-based. If you have the right item for the thing that needs doing, you'll immediately know what to do. There are a couple of moments of more lateral thinking but on the whole it's very clear. I had to consult online help twice in the game. Firstly because I'd neglected to find a coin before a point of no return (it was in a fountain I'd simply not looked in), and secondly due to a bit of parser wrestling. I'd come to the conclusion that I should try getting a creature out of a pit using a tree branch, but the game wouldn't let me either scoop it up, dig the pit wider, pull the creature with it, or anything else I tried. The solution was to drop the branch in to the pit, at which point the creature would grab into it, then pick up the branch. So really just a semantic conflict.

In the time I've been dabbling about with Wishbringer I've acquired a few more adventures: Stationfall - another Infocom one that comes with a slew of funky stuff - and the Magnetic Scrolls titles The Pawn, The Guild of Thieves, and Jinxter. I'm feeling very confident and inspired to get stuck into them, having learned a thing or two about the quirks and approaches needed for these games from Wishbringer.

Finally, a mention must go to the quality of the writing on show in the game. It ought to go without saying that the quality of a text adventure game would hinge heavily on its text, but it really was a well-crafted and fun experience both ingame and in the supplementary extras. Regardless of this it's clear to see why this genre didn't survive commercially. The satisfaction of a puzzle solved and a story well told just wasn't enough in the face of rapidly advancing graphical games. However, there's something to be said for leaving things to the imagination... I have a vision of a place and its inhabitants in my mind that would no doubt be very different to anyone else's, and that personal touch makes my experience of Wishbringer all the richer.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Total satisfaction. I've just returned from the morning showing of the new Indiana Jones film, and I'm completely thrilled with it. It delivered everything I wanted and didn't disappoint me in any way.

To me a new Indiana Jones film is like a new Star Wars film. That's the level of anticipation I had for it going in. I absolutely adore the first three films, the adventure games, and even the novels that were put out in the mid-90s. Indiana Jones instilled in me a curiosity and passion for ancient civilizations and cultures (despite giving a fantasy spin on such things) which I still have to this day. The notion of ancient ruins and mythology, uncharted areas and lost treasures. It's a large part of the reason I took to the newer Tomb Raider games so well - indeed, watching parts of Crystal Skull I was tingling with anticipation for the Tomb Raider Underworld game, which shares a similar setting and style.

Something I'd consciously done with this film was to avoid absolutely anything to do with the story. I'd seen a couple of trailers - the early teaser one and one before Iron Man a couple of weeks ago, but apart form that I've read and discussed nothing. I wanted to go into a long-awaited film completely fresh, and it really made a difference I think. I knew the majority of the cast and a few of their roles, and... that's it.

It really is a love letter to Indy fans and a big indulgence on the team making the film. There are numerous references to previous films visually, in the script and in the score. George Lucas got a nod to his beloved hot rod racing. Ford is charismatic and fun again, everyone else shines - LeBeouf once again showing me he's got a great presence, and Blanchett is, as ever, a bona-fide goddess. Everyone's clearly having a ton of fun, the way it was with Raiders.

The two hours zip by, yet the story is satisfactorily wrapped up. As always with Indy films there's really no flab. Everything propels the plot to the next piece of action, and the slower moments are filled with atmosphere and necessary details. If I have one single criticism it's that a chase scene goes on a little long, but that's pure nitpicking and moments after it ended I was sitting in rapt attention again.

Now I'm in two minds about Indy. Having seen this there's part of me that wishes we'd had one every five years, or even another one between Last Crusade and Crystal Skull. Clearly there's so much that could have been done with this character in a manner reflecting the serial nature of his inspiration. On the other hand, it feels like the time was right to tell a new story - one very suited to its period - and the wait was worth it.

DS Homebrew

I've just acquired an R4 card for the Nintendo DS. The notorious device (now one of many) that lets you run unlicensed software on the machine - including pirated software, naturally. Funnily enough the piracy side of it holds no interest for me; the reason I got it was for POWDER, Nethack DS, and Lone Wolf DS.

It's fair to say I'm over the moon with it. I've taken to Nethack much more than I ever managed to on the PC (something about the interface on PC always felt clunky and opaque to me), POWDER is just plain lovely. It's as harsh as any Roguelike but is presented in a wonderfully cheery way, with bold, colourful graphics. Lone Wolf is a real treat, and I very much hope the developer continues and translates more of the saga in this form.

There are quite a few homebrew projects bubbling away at various levels of completion. Some very interesting indeed - most especially the Dungeon Master port which is currently in very early alpha build. To be honest though, I feel I've more than justified my investment by having a couple of great Roguelikes on there - games that will hold my attention far longer than any official DS title could ever hope to.

Grand Theft Auto IV

A few first impressions, and also my viewpoint on the series as a non-fan.

The GTA games are of a type that generally appeals to me in concept as far as gameplay goes, but I've always found something of a turn-off when it came to characters and controls. The 3D ones so far I felt were particularly clunky, and I could never get past that. As for the characters, well, this may sound a bit wet but I do have a genuine problem playing criminally-inclined bad guys in games. I did the Light Side in KotOR, the Paragon path in Mass Effect. Unprovoked viciousness doesn't appeal to me, so a lot of the guilty pleasure in GTA is lost.

This one seems to have fixed a lot of the things I had problems with before. The setting appeals to me (it's essentially New York) and the player character is more of a guy in a tough situation trying to get by. He has a weariness about him, and he certainly doesn't seem to take much pleasure in the dirty business he has to get up to. Not so far, anyway. I'd love for Rockstar to have pulled off a game where the player is confronted harshly with the kind of actions they've traditionally pursued with glee. I have a feeling it won't go that far, but it does certainly appear to be more grounded in reality than previous efforts.

The city is magnificent, and frequently breathtaking in its vistas. The weather plays a large part in that. Golden sunsets are aplenty, and frosty mornings almost chill the screen. The density of detail is amazing. Look closely enough and you'll see plenty of repetition in environments and NPC behaviour, but you do have to be searching for it to notice.

As usual with these kind of 'sandbox' games, I'm more inclined to just exist in the world than get on with progressing the storyline. There's plenty of time-wasting to do, from hanging out with friends to going on dates (and the various activities you can choose to do there), to simply sitting in and soaking up the staggering array of parody TV shows and internet sites. It's very funny as well. Sometimes completely crass and sometimes very subtle and clever. Just aimlessly driving around to listen to the radio is a pleasure that can soak up entire sessions.

Early days in and Nico is just a small fry, with limited access to the city. Considering how impressed I've been with the area I've been given run of so far, the prospect of what opens up later on is very tantalising indeed. It's not perfect by any means, and thematically it doesn't appeal nearly as strongly as other types of adventures, but I am having a lot of fun with it.

Law returned to the Lands of Lore

I just finished Lands of Lore. Really, really enjoyable game, if a little combat-heavy for the most part. Going into these things is always coloured by my experience with Dungeon Master, and the vast majority don't hold up well. This one deserves a high spot for sure though. Visually it's superb throughout with nicely animated creatures and a broad range of environments. The interface is simple and fast (though I often found myself struggling with the spellcasting in the heat of battle, wasting valuable magic points on the wrong thing because I forgot to switch).

Like I said though, it is very much centered around combat and a couple of the areas were something of a pain. The respawn rate is incredible, and when you've got enemies that can kill or stun your characters in one or two hits you're facing an uphill struggle. And my word - there are few things more annoying than dropping your weapons and shields every time a monster hits you hard. Also, your champions don't seem all that handy with their weapons of choice, and you can happily hack away a couple of dozen times without landing a single hit.

Criticism also falls on the structure of the game. This may have been just me but there were a few occasions where I simply didn't know what I was supposed to be doing. Some very obscure puzzles dogged me for a long time and I'd regularly find myself backtracking through nearly the entire game looking for solutions or things I'd missed. Mostly they were right in front of my nose, which suggests it's just me being a doofus. This is never entirely out of the question.

A repeated playthrough is most definitely on the cards, especially since I picked up the CD 'talkie' version while in progress on this standard one. I think next time it will be a more specialized character rather than the all-rounder as well.

I wonder if I should give the sequel a proper go. It is full 3D so motion sickness rears its ugly head, but perhaps running it windowed in DOSbox will help. For now though I'm pondering my next quest, which will either be the first SSI 'Gold Box' game Pool of Radiance, Ultima 1, Wizardry 1 or Might and Magic 1.

Do you see a pattern there?

Stone Soup Tiles

Well whaddaya know... Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup has got itself a tiles version which completely flew under my radar. I've been playing the old, very outdated tiles version of Crawl all this time and here's this spangly new one with all the up to date features intact:


It's a well-known problem with emulation that you have a strong 'embarrassment of riches' factor, and this prevents you from really playing anything properly. You tend to scan the list of games, play something half-heartedly for five minutes, then move onto the next. For me it's partly down to the transitory feeling of emulated games. They don't feel like they're there. Which is odd, because they're just as much there as a genuine copy - when all is said and done it's just data in a system. Still, the psychological effect contributes to that feeling of not really wanting to devote large amounts of time to anything. Also, it has to be said that many times I've played several hours of a big game on an emulator, only to return at a later date and have the save state and file simply not work any more.

I'm a bit of an archivist when it comes to computer games, keeping complete romsets from a variety of systems. 99% of which I'll never even load, but I feel that as many people as possible ought to be keeping this stuff safe, what with the lamentable attitude of the industry towards its own heritage. I can fully imagine a situation akin to the one the film world is in now, with so many early works lost forever due to bad storage or neglect. Mainly I'm talking about early computer games here rather than console efforts. Consoles always have enjoyed a more widespread appeal and distribution in terms of games, and of course the media tends to be a lot more durable. I'm more about preserving the old Spectrum games, the PC games with the booklets, maps and various trinkets, the lavish and attractive packaging and so on.

This all ties into the playing aspect. I realise that I dabble too much and I don't get much genuine satisfaction from many games. Finishing Mass Effect and the two Tomb Raider games recently brought back memories of getting a new game and completely devoting myself to finishing it, before the days of easy access to everything. Revelling in the gameworld, making maps and keeping notes. My recent foray into DOS gaming brought this into full perspective in that so much abandonware is available it's hard to know where to start. So I made a decision... I would only play the games I own a physical, legitimate copy of.

Immediately the desired effect took place. I found myself sitting down with a game purchased from ebay (in this case Lands of Lore), and playing it properly. Another important factor is having the manuals and references to hand. I know you can download this stuff in text format or even a PDF, but nothing beats having the original documentation to flick through. It adds a surprising amount to the experience. That, and many times I've loaded up some RPG with only the basic grasp of the controls and what's required of me, walked around a bit and talked to some NPCs, then gone off and gotten killed. No matter, I just moved onto the next game that took my fancy rather than learning what I had to do.

This isn't an argument against emulation - indeed, the vast majority of these games I will be playing through emulation, on DOSBox, or WinUAE, or Spectaculator, etc. Just for the hardware convenience. It is however a solution I've settled on to get me playing older games properly again. Now instead of scanning through thousands of files on the PC I just scan through my shelves for something to play.

Lands of Lore

I forgot to mention in my previous entry the game I'm actually playing now, of those old classics. It's Lands of Lore, by Westwood. A first-person step movement RPG. Obviously it appeals to me because I love Dungeon Master so much, but it's a great game in its own right. It's a lot more story focused than DM, and simpler in its gameplay (particularly the magic system). It is quite a glorious example of nice VGA graphics. Monsters scale nicely (the environment too can be set to scale smoothly as you walk, but I find this offputting and prefer the immediacy of clear steps, so I disabled the option). It's quite hectic, too, and throws a lot of enemies at you. I've had a fair few hairy moments in the dungeons so far, really takes me back to some of the moments in DM. Low on health and mana and being pursued by a gang of enemies.

Back to the roots

Yes, my dalliance with the seductive harlots of the new consoles is pretty much at an end and I've come crawling back to the bosom of retrogaming. I always do. Not that I haven't pickep up a few new favourites along the way... Virtua Fighter 5 has a very definite place in my affections and I'll continue to play the series for a long, long time. I'm still looking forward to Mass Effect 2 and Too Human, and I've been dabbling in Bladestorm recently, which is fun. I came to that via a chance encounter with Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders on the original Xbox. It's like a collision between Dynasty Warriors and a Total War game, with a bit of character building inbetween. Very compulsive.

I'm also quite enjoying Yakuza on the PS2, which surprises me. I let this one slip by me, thinking it another cash-in on the GTA formula, but some praise on the 1Up Yours podcast inspired me to check it out and I'm glad I did. It's essentially an action RPG set in modern Tokyo, with you working your way through a mystery plot full of twists and betrayals, and engaging in a heck of a lot of fisticuffs along the way. It's hysterically foul-mouthed, which seems to be the concession the developers have made to it being an 'adult' gangster game.

But anyway, the main topic of this post - the oldies!

The thing that compelled me back was a brief experience with Lost Odyssey on the 360. A very traditional eastern-style RPG that I played solidly for a few days and kind of fooled myself into believing I was enjoying. To explain that, I can only say that I got engrossed in the character tweaking and the prospect of the visuals over any compelling gameplay qualities the game offered. After about 20 hours I came to a boss battle that I lost mainly due to my own lack of tactical thought, and instantly I wasn't interested in the game anymore. I had a weird kind of flash forward and I saw that I really wasn't enjoying things, that I was essentially grinding my way through a story that didn't particularly grab me, and I simply couldn't be bothered to devote any more of my time towards it.

This had me hankering after a more 'hands-on' RPG experience. Something with more depth of tinkering, and something much more open, where I didn't have to slavishly follow a single plot thread from start to finish (several times in Lost Odyssey I found myself in the midst of epic cutscenes, going for up to an hour between opportunities to save). I started pootling about with Haxima again, and that gave me the Ultima bug. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was knee-deep in DOS RPGs. Now, I never had a PC until about 2001, so almost everything prior to that is new to me aside from the things that got ported to the ST and Amiga, or things that were so famous I couldn't help but hear about them. RPGs though, being a particular acquired taste, tend not to be known outside their fan circles. There are so many treasures to be found there, though, and I've spent the last week or so emulating a great many of them, picking through to find the ones I want to stick with and seek out genuine copies of.

It's also reignited my love of old computer stuff over console stuff, too. My heart really lies with the nostalgic memories and great variety of games you got on computers (the format breakdown of my top100 speaks volumes to that). I broke out the Amiga and had a fun time with that, playing an Ultima V I managed to grab off ebay (complete with all the bits, no less). On the PC side though I've really been bitten by the D&D bug. Proper turn-based epic stuff like the SSI 'Gold Box' games - Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, and so forth. The Magic Candle is another that I'd previously not heard of, but it's something of a warmly regarded classic. I've reinstalled Baldur's Gate 1 and 2, Arcanum, Fallout and The Temple of Elemental Evil too. All games I've dabbled in but never really set aside the time to play properly.

I'm not saying all these old RPGs are still wonderful stuff though! There are limits of clunkiness that even I can't go beyond. I've found the Phantasie games to be an example, among others. What I do find though is something I've known all along but tend to push to the back of my mind: that I want to like JRPGs more than I actually do - mainly because of the attractive visuals and stylings - but my real fix comes from western style games that allow the player to just do whatever they want whenever, and dip into the main quest at will, even if they are represented by the most basic visual forms. I guess that's the essence of a compelling game though - one that holds your attention regardless of graphical flourishes.

Final Fantasy XII - Finished!

I put the early part of my holiday to good use and finally completed Final Fantasy XII, almost exactly 15 months after I got it. I took a long break from it because I got rid of my big old CRT television and went for a while without one at all before taking delivery of a new HD model. Anyway, I was thoroughly satisfied with the game, the ending was superb. I'm also happy with the fact that I never had to level grind to beat it. I took a little peek at the end boss and got beat, but a bit of tweaking here and there and equipping myself with some spells I hadn't bothered to get yet sorted things out. In the end I think I hit about 81 hours. Not bad at all.

On another RPG note though, I was trying out Blue Dragon and Eternal Sonata on the 360. I say was, because after a few hours of each I've decided not to continue. Not that they're bad games as such, but with RPGs I really need something to hook me in the story and/or characters as well as the gameplay, and while they are charming enough I don't get much out of the overly cute Anime stylings. I'm much more inclined towards the FFXII, Vagrant Story or Valkyrie Profile style - a kind of medieval fantasy design at least slightly rooted in a physical reality.

That leaves my RPG plate with Folklore on it, which I can now put my full attention towards. I'm still enjoying that a great deal.

Revelatory moment

I've just suddenly realised, after over a decade of playing Final Fantasy games, that Phoenix Down refers to the down feathers of a Phoenix bird and is therefore the actual name of the item, rather than a descriptive name regarding act of resurrecting a downed comrade, Phoenix-like.