South Park: The Stick of Truth (2014)

Which game am I talking about? A group of young kids explore their US American backyard hometown, meet lots of strange monsters, some aliens and fight jRPG style to win the day. Nope, I’m not talking about Earthbound, rather South Park: The Stick of Truth. When Earthbound came out it developed a cult following and over the years there have been a couple of games that tried to evoke its unique mix of elements, though most of them failed to some degree or other.

SP:TSoT on the other hand is both completely different and yet, after playing it, feels the closest like how it was playing Earthbound for the first time. The typical South Park humor is juvenile, often borderline or way past gross-out territory and quite often contains biting satire. Earthbound’s humor was much less in your face, more a certain amusing sensibility to the world and monster design than mere punch line jokes.

But what both of those games have is that they transform a mundane small town into a place of fantastic discovery and epic conflict, where treasure and monsters and excitement is around every corner. In Earthbound you leave the town after some time and explore the wider world, with the transformation from mundane to fantastic inherently real, while in South Park its for the most time make-believe and the adults are blissfully unaware.

But the overall effect is similar. It’s about kids having a grand adventure.

It’s not perfect, mind you. There are tutorial lessons for fart magic (roll with it), that give you utterly confusing instructions for how to perform the magic tricks (and later on the controls are completely changed for normal fights). These tutorials are rage-inducing, pointless and probably made quite a few people give up on playing further.

I’m wondering whether they were intended as sick jokes to enrage the players, or whether they just weren’t play-tested well. My advice: just read up on the net how to perform during the tutorials and then forget them.

There is some other minor stuff here and there, but the rest of the game is pretty solid. Actually, better than solid, its genuinely fun and enjoyable as a gaming experience. The jRPG-styled fights are quite clever with lots of abilities to try out and since you can exchange your secondary character at will (each of them with their own unique set of abilities), this makes for lots of different tactics to win in combat.

South Park itself is well designed as well. It feels like a real small town (despite the fact that its size, typically for video games, is decreased to a manageable size) and after some time you don’t really need a map to navigate, as you know where every major and minor place is, where every street leads to. Each of the many locations feels unique, each of them offers something neat to discover. Over the course of the game you have to traverse the same places often, so it helps that they never get boring (there are random enemies to fight or new secrets to unlock) and occasionally there’s new minor stuff happening to keep them interesting.

The plot is okay. Not mind-blowing, but fitting. You start out in Cartman’s camp of humans fighting against the elves, have later the choice to either stick with him or side with the elves (stick with Cartman, it’s funnier), only to reunite all to fight against the real enemy in the end. It’s quite amusing, South Park-style. Also crazy all the way through and it never leaves you bored. There’s always something more to do and you wish it would go on forever like that.

Broforce (2015)

Broforce does a lot of things well, but the one thing that stands out for me is that it distills the fun in blowing shit up into one perfect brew. Its a 2d-gun and runner where you have to free hostages that unlock new characters to play (bros, even female ones), and every time you free a hostage you get to play (are forced to play) a new character. Which is both good and bad.

Bad, because often you don’t get the char you need to pass a certain level segment. Good, because it forces you to experiment with different bros and try out new things. It’s pretty unusual to have such dynamic gameplay in a 2d-game, its something that feels more at home in 3d games, and yet its an almost perfect fit.

Another complication thrown into the mix, again with good and bad consequences, is that (almost) all environments are destructible. Sometimes it means the very platform you need to get ahead is blown up and all you can do is suicide your bro. At other times it means different routes to get around certain obstacles or blow the ground away below enemies.

The insufferable bro-term rears its head again and again, superficially masking all the 80ties action movie heroes (and some later ones) cribbed quite generously here and there. It’s a testament to the game designers, that almost all of them feel unique, their main attack mode and their limited special mode. While some of them are less useful than others, very often experimenting with each of them is the way to proceed and especially under hard you really need to dig into the various special abilities to survive.

As the game tries to keep and eat its cake at the same time, taking both a piss on 80ties US-movie supremacy and yet tries to be a love letter to the same era, its a bit of an acquired taste. I don’t think its offensive, but then I’m not from the US, so who knows, but the humor is so superficial that it hardly has any bite. Still, some people might be offended. I found some of the best humor in the game can be found in the mission description, which are both vague and yet aggressively offensive in a way that made me chuckle every time.

In Broforce death comes fast, but it’s easy to keep going, as almost every level has a mid-point save and you have infinite respawns. The levels themselves aren’t very long, except for the final one that seems to go on forever. And while you die a lot when played on hard, the endless ways of how to finish a level make every respawn feel fresh.

One nice touch is that when you start out, you’re hunting down your generic 80ties movie terrorists, then aliens (yes, these aliens) turn up and chow up the terrorists (and its fun getting them to kill each other) and finally you go to hell. It’s pretty insane, in a good kind of way.

Gateway to the Savage Frontier (1991)

The Savage Frontier series is the most overlooked sub-series of the Goldbox games, and yet the first part of the series is probably the best intro game for any beginner trying to get into them. It has the epic scope of a longer campaign, while at the same time keeping difficulty pretty low. As far as the game goes, this is probably my biggest issue. It’s too easy at times.

In terms of difficulty, the best part is the start of the game, when your characters are under-leveled and you scrounge together every gold piece just to get some new weapons, a place to sleep or level up one of your chars. At 1000 gold pieces, this is by far the biggest investment, but once your characters reach level three or four, it pays off big time. At that point you can easily travel to other cities, hunt bigger prey and soon you’ll be swimming in gold and better weaponry.

Plot-wise its mostly a hunt-the-token structure, four magic statues in all cardinal directions and a few other McGuffins. The plot is pretty linear and if you don’t follow it precisely, some events won’t fire. But as the game is at the same time pretty open, this doesn’t matter as much. You might miss some plot piece here or there, but like in most of the Goldbox games, you can explore the world at your own leisure and all the big plot stuff will happen anyway.

Despite that a lot of the game is seen from a pseudo-3d perspective, the old blobber, step-by-step movement in a blocky world, it’s not a Wizardry-type game. The world consists of a world-map with some locations, but almost no dungeons. The few that are in there are quite small and pretty limited for aficionados of dungeon crawlers. This is a game almost entirely about tactical battles, city exploration (and you can see all city maps with one press of the button, so more about trying out all houses and streets) and following the main plot.

It’s great at what it does, but if you expect something more like a dungeon crawler, this isn’t it. Though most people going into it probably know what to expect from a Goldbox game.

Sadly, these days the Savage Frontier games are mostly forgotten. People who tackle the Goldbox games these days start most of the time with the Forgotten Realms tetralogy, once they’ve finished them they either stop or want a different setting, like the Krynn or the Buck Roger games. And if they manage to finish these, they usually have grown tired of the engine.

Which is a pity. While not developed in-house, Gateway to the Savage Frontier is a highly competent game. It’s a grand tour of the Savage Frontier that throws lots of cool stuff at you, countless locations, lots of different monsters, neat items and other treasure, and while the plot itself is pretty basic, you won’t mind this as it doesn’t get in the way of the gameplay.

It’s easy to get lost in it, to play one more city, do one more battle and realize you’ve played for hours on end. It’s by no means a great game (for whatever value of great), but it’s very good at many things and at its most basic, it’s plain fun to play.

Night in the Woods (2017)

When it comes to a lot of kickstarter games (those I backed, not in generally kickstarted games), I’ve developed the modus operandi of backing them, waiting excitedly for them to come out, and then years later when they come out marking them on a list as successfully delivered and go on not playing them.

Night in the Woods probably would have ended up similarly, but then a hard drive crash took all my data from the last three years, including all my save games (for reasons unfathomable I was paranoid enough to switch off cloud-saves on Steam years ago), and I needed something new to play and started it.

It’s not what I usually play, I either prefer twitch games (platformers mostly) or classical RPGs, and even for an adventure it has less interactivity than the usual examples. You could even go so far and accuse them game of being a visual novel, but for that it’s still too interactive. Basically it’s platformer without the action bred with an adventure game with almost no puzzles. You go around, talk to people, and initiate various major events so that the next day rolls around.

This may not sound very interesting, but to be honest, Night in the Woods was probably the best gaming experience I had last year. It’s not a game I can see myself replaying, most of the impact comes from the straightforward narrative, and while there are two major branches, once you played them you’ve seen almost everything the game has to offer.

But it’s awesome for that first time round. You’re a college dropout coming home to a dead-end small town, trying to figure out herself, and what to do now, full of questions and no answers in sight. It stays mundane for most of its time, being all about reconnecting to people and old friends, and only throws a curve ball near the end where it goes off the supernatural deep end, though even that works more or less.

I found it easy to empathize with the main char, despite that the game doesn’t offer you a lot of choices to mold the story according to your fashion (almost none, it’s more that it offers you either to interact or not interact with others). Still, at the end it still felt like I had a major impact on where the story was going. Of the two major branches, one is about trying to reconnect with an old friend (who is less friendly now) who had to forgo her ambitions to save her family. The other branch is about reconnecting with another old friend who is in a relationship now and actually tried to change who he is, but you bring the worst of his old self back.

Of the two branches, I liked the Bea plot better, it felt more natural and there are no other games I know that dig into female friendship like Night in the Woods did, and Bea was an awesome character on her own.

The Gregg branch I did afterwards and it didn’t work as well. I realize what they were going for, but most of the things Angus is angry about later on are initiated by Gregg. It feels just plain wrong when Angus/Gregg accuse you of stopping Gregg from growing up, when the game clearly shows Gregg as the initiator. Its clear they wanted to show that Mae being back brings out the worst in Gregg, but in-game it feels less well done than the Bea plot. Angus for example goes too suddenly from nice guy to angry and then back to nice guy and makes that plot-line seems less well written.

One of the things I liked most about the game is how it shows you that there’s more than just Mae, Bea and Gregg. Sure, the main plot is either about your relationship to either Bea or Gregg, but the town is full of other people, who tell you about themselves if you willing to talk to them and hear them out.

At its most basic, friendship is often about proximity, but that isn’t the whole story. Without engagement, without willing to talk to others, none of them would start. And Night in the Woods shows beautiful that just spending a few minutes every day engaging with some of the townsfolk, who all have their own cross to bear but also to share joy and everyday experiences, is just as important. Friendships are two-way streets, but they are not hard, they just require willingness to grow them, to talk and listen.

When the game ends, Mae personal situation regarding what to do with her life hasn’t changed much and there are no Hollywood happy endings waiting for her, but the way you played can be (doesn’t have to be) eye-opening anyway. Process is more important than the final tally in Night in the Woods.

I didn’t expect to like the game as much as I did. It’s a bit better than a walking simulator, but not by much, and yet the few things you can do feel so much more meaningful than the myriad possibilities you have in other games. This added together with the beautiful art direction, made an experience hard to forget, one that lingers long after you finished the game.

Fracas (1980)

If you played Fracas when it came out in 1980 there’s no question if it would have been genuinely fun. If you do the same thing in 2017, that’s more questionable, aside from doing it for historical purposes. The game uses color-coded squares for characters, monsters, walls and basically everything else. Its sounds are all harsh beeps. Calling the game spartanic doesn’t quite capture it.

And yet, once I started playing, I enjoyed the game much more than I expected to. It boasts a local multiplayer element that allows you to roll 8 different characters that supposedly you and 7 friends can control, or like I did you make a large party to go through the town of Faroph and its dungeons, hunting monsters and gold.

What the game lacks in visuals it makes up in evocative location and monster names. While the game itself isn’t very big and the initial town of Faroph easily explored, two additional areas, one skull shaped one and one that seems like another monster head, provide tougher enemies and terrain with fewer options to escape.

Especially the second area, which is only reachable from the crypt in Faroph, is a densely packed dungeon full of teleporters that require full mapping to make heads or tails of the area. Some rooms effectively gate you off from the rest of the dungeon and send you back to either Faroph or the skull dungeon and you have to take the long way to get back to it.

Exploring these dungeons, mapping each room and fighting the monsters hidden there is what keeps you going until you’ve seen everything. It’s the same addictive gameplay loop found in almost all dungeon crawlers and it works just as splendid here. One more room to explore, one more monster to slay.

While the combat isn’t very deep, there’s no magic or ranged weaponry, to me it feels like one of the earliest tactical battle implementations that made later RPGs like the Goldbox games famous. The main difference is that you actually never leave the battle phase and traverse all of the game in turns.

What makes it somewhat tactical is that the layout of the game is made up of lots of smaller rooms with the doors often acting as natural choke points. Doors also can get stuck for a round for individual characters, stranding some of your fastest scouts surrounded by monsters with no easy escape routes and support from comrades far behind.

That said, as hit chances are low for both player and non-player characters, most of the time fighting means flailing around wildly hoping for one hit that takes out an enemy. This often works best when you’ve surrounded solitary monsters, since then party members with low health can easily retreat and take a rest.

Another tactic is to let monsters fight it out among themselves. For such an old game, monsters show an unusual level of agency, with differently aligned monster groups that fight among themselves, rest to heal and even level up in either skill or strength just as player characters do. Fight them too long without killing them, and they might just evolve from low-level grunt to genuine threat. They even follow you into other rooms, which gives you an option to goad them into specific spots (ideally into another group of monsters).

Fracas was the first game by Stuart Smith, who published a line of various computer RPGs with similar elements, to which Fracas laid the groundwork. The next in the line, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves presented a more streamlined approach compared to Fracas, with improved graphics but no character creation and simplified combat (no diagonal attacks anymore).

It’s better remembered, but I prefer Fracas due to its heavier emphasis on combat combined with exploration.

Wizardry 7: Crusaders of the Dark Savant (1992)

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Wizardry 6 is one of the most tightly designed RPGs, with no excess fat. Every place is just as big as it needs to be and the main hub of the game is successfully reused throughout the games lifetime. Every major area feels unique and different, there’s no repetition, and there’s no major city full of NPCs that break your routine of dungeon crawling and killing monsters, instead its all tightly interwoven.

Wizardry 7 is everything but this. It’s a massive, sprawling world full of cities, minor and major dungeons and lots and lots of wilderness that would feel empty, were it not for the almost insane amount of combat around every corner. Before I managed to beat the game I had a few failed attempts, owning both to the size of the game and the obtrusiveness of some of the puzzles.

It’s not just the world that got mega-sized, the number of spells increased, the NPC interaction got reworked and there are now autonomous NPC parties that hunt for major puzzles pieces just as you do, often even stealing them right before your nose. What follows is usually a hunt for the NPCs themselves, either to buy their pieces for ridiculous amounts of money or just to murder them over the goods.

Everything in Wizardry 7 is bigger, upgraded and a clear attempt to break with the past. Wizardry 6 was most of the time still conventional fantasy, the sequel has a heavy strain of science fiction woven into its structure. Even the monsters show that approach, though in many cases it feels more like a new name and maybe skin-color was slapped on conventional races.

You have orc, dwarf, elf lookalikes, instead of human skeletons you have minotaur skeletons (even when there’s no living minotaur in the entire world), you have alien races running around that are basically anthropomorphized humans (rhinos and spiders). You still use swords and arrow, but shock lances, muskets and even a phaser can be found.

Sometimes Wizardry 7 is way too much quantity over quality and when you add in puzzles that are designed to be as obscure and opaque as possible, it seems like a recipe for frustration. Which it is, but not always.

Despite these flaws, its strengths far surpass any of them. The moment-to-moment gameplay, moving one square to another, exploring and mapping the world, fighting countless battles against fauna and flora, getting new items and gear, is just damn fun.

It’s a gameplay loop you find in almost all of the best RPGs, but it’s so damn refined in Wizardry that few games come as close. And the size of the game is something that works both against and for it. You rarely run out of new things to do, and even when a puzzle stops you going further in one place, you can and are actually supposed to go somewhere else and try something different.

Unlike Wizardry 6, which had a highly linear structure, you can tackle a large part of the game from the get-go in any order you want to, only constrained by the monsters you’ll face. The stories of people who played the game are ridiculously different in the early game stage. Some went the north-west route first, bypassing Orkogre Castle, allying themselves with the T’Rang in Nyctalinth and trying and often failing at conquering the Tower of Dane. Other went to Munkhamara first, going with the Umpani and trying to solve the Witch mountain’s puzzles. Depending on the order you visit various places, the dungeons feel either way too easy, just right or too damn hard.

That said, the early part of the game in the North feels the strongest to me. It has the strengths of most of RPGs early stage gameplay, where you have to slowly build up your characters and gear and try to get a grip on the world. Once you get the boat and can travel the Sea of Sorrow, few places of interest remain. There are large parts of wilderness cut-off to the side of the sea that feel like there should be something there, but it’s just more empty wilderness. The dragon mountain caves are nice, but the City in the Sky feels small, empty and devoid of points of interest (and it has aggravating invisible walls).

The game does end on a high note, with the Chambers of Gorrors as a better final testing ground than even the boss fight with the Dark Savant and the dungeon below the chamber, which is among my favorite dungeons in any blobber with its complex teleport routes that defeat simple mapping.

Wizardry 7 is a game with lots of moving pieces, and while not everything works and some stuff I personally hated (most of the puzzles, the funhouse dungeon, the cliffhanger ending), some stuff I wished worked better (NPC parties are a great idea, but the implementation feels lacking), there’s just so much about it to love (it even manages to use purple prose almost everywhere and make it feel deeply profound) and come back to, that it’s sad that there haven’t been any games that followed its mold (except Grimoire, but that’s a different story) and expand on it.

Ninja Ryukenden (1991)

I was a big fan of Ninja Gaiden games on the NES, especially the third part which I played through on a Russian pirate NES console in the 90’ies. So when I heard that there was an anime OVA for the series, I was quiet exited. Less so after actually watching it. Ryu the main character is quiet bland, which given the prominence of the CIA agent Robert makes you feel like the anime director felt similar. Irene was fundamentally changed from a damsel-in-distress CIA agent to a generic and definitely less compelling damsel-in-distress.

For games that were all about action, the adaptation has not enough and most of it is limited to the second half, with a few kills early on that are over far too soon. Even then, while the animation itself is quiet good, its visually boring and most of the action scenes are more quantity than quality. Not talking about what is drawn, but how everything is staged. For a series of games that are superior in enemy/encounter design and their visuals, the OVA doesn’t even capture an inch of what made these games great.

The rest is unengaging as well. The villain (or villains, there’s a twist later on) like to do their villain monologues, Ryu goes for emotional hero rages, and the whole cliched rest. Anyway, nobody is watching something like this for a great plot, but at least likeable or compelling character would be good to make it watchable. Sadly, with both the action and almost everything else lacking, it’s no wonder this is mostly forgotten.

Wizardry (1991)

Japan’s interest in the Wizardry franchise has over the years proven to always go that one step further than necessary, with countless merchandise that would never had a chance in the west, including this ’91 OVA that covers the very first game. The plot is about a group of adventurers that go down a ten-level dungeon to retrieve an amulet from its main villain Werdna.

The game’s focus was never on plot, and while the OVA faithfully covers all the games aspects in detail (monsters, player races, player classes, spells, even items with muramasa sword), it has a harder time making us care about each of the characters or their motivation. Even with such a short running time, two of the fighters in the initial party seem oddly interchangeable, the addition of an annoying, whiny hobbit and his master and an elven sorceress later don’t help and overall, while it’s interesting to watch for those who like the game, it doesn’t hold up particularly well.

The quality of drawings is quite good, typically for that era of anime, especially in OVAs, but the animation itself feels a bit stiff. Most of the action scenes feel like somebody couldn’t decide whether he actually wanted to remind viewers that Wizardry’s battles are turn-based (or phase-based for the initiated) or just wasn’t very good at making good action scenes. It feels like: player action, enemy action, player action, … Good for a game, but hardly exiting to watch in an anime.

Black Magic M-66 (1987)

OVA based on a manga by Masamune Shirow. A vaguely near future hunt-the-killer-android plot with the malfunctioning military android hunting for the niece of the inventor of the androids due to working on test data. Has a plucky journalist going up first against the military (who want to keep everything under wraps) and later against the android herself to save the inventor’s niece.

It’s all over the place in terms of mood and theme (one moment funny, the next gore everywhere), and the characterization is so bare-bones that I didn’t give a damn about anybody. That said the androids are relentlessly and chilling, making every scene where they turn up great. Also the animation exemplifies perfectly old-school anime, fully hand-drawn, very fluid movements and incredible attention to detail. Worth watching just for that alone.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

The vulture always seemed a bit of a one-note or gimmicky villain in the Spider-Man comics, following the typical animal-themed gallery of villains with not much to make him interesting. But actor Michael Keaton, together with a backstory that builds nicely on the events from Avengers one, make him one of the most compelling villains in the MCU so far. And when I say compelling, I mean halfway into the movie I wanted him – not to win – but to at least get away with his ill-gotten spoils.

Yes, he pretty much kills a guy in cold blood and is an arms dealer, but on the other hand he projects such a strong “I’m only a normal guy working his job to keep my family fed and my employees working” that it’s easy to root for him. Not saying its right; and thankfully Spidey has the moral backbone to take him down, but there’s a degree of truth in the things Keaton as Adrian Toomes says and how he deals with his people and later with Pete aka Spidey that makes him highly relatable and even likeable.

Homecoming suffers a bit from the typical teenage awkwardness that is found in all Spider-Man movies, and I’m aware it’s more of a feature and not a bug to most, but I never found that element appealing or interesting. On the other hand, at least this Spider-Man doesn’t go through another iteration of an origin story and the whole set-up with Tony Stark as a mentor feels fresh in terms of story-telling and yet quite fitting.