Jun 27, 2011

Book Review: The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures

A 772 pages long book on adventure games might not be enough to cover everything the genre has to offer, but would definitely be the most expansive attempt to put the history of the graphic adventure game to paper. Especially if said book also managed to brilliantly review over 300 of the most important and interesting games, while simultaneously providing with some excellent interviews with creative legends such as Bob Bates, Al Lowe, Josh Mandel and Corey Cole. Happily, The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures by Hardcore Gaming 101 is such a book; actually it's the only book that manages to impressively pull such a trick, without making any quality concessions.

Under the guidance of Kurt Kalata and using the wealth of the HG101 site to build upon, the writers that helped make this book a reality have accomplished a most impressive feat. They cover each and every game Sierra, Lucasarts, Dynamix, ICOM, Access and Legend ever produced (that would be roughly half the book and would include more than a few truly obscure games I had never heard of) and then move on to cover the multitude of smaller, less remembered and even contemporary developers and games, meaning that, yes, seasoned adventurers will discover more than a few gems they missed.

The Guide to Classic Adventures thus proudly includes recent indie gems such as Time Gentlemen, Please!, The Blackwell Legacy and 5 Days a Stranger, along classics of the caliber of Snatcher, The Last Express, The Neverhood, Sanitarium, Blood Net and Simon the Sorcerer, while also happily enlightening me (and hopefully you) on such vaguely remembered offerings as Plan 9 from Outer Space, Fascination, Nippon Safes, Noctropolis and the Fish Files, just to drop a few names.  

What's more, each review, for the book provides pieces that do feel quite a bit like extended reviews, is in most cases an extensive piece detailing the game's history, describing its plot and characters, critiquing its interface and puzzles, estimating its influence on the genre, providing with emulation and translation options, suggesting fan remakes and generally giving an excellent idea of what the game is all about. Granted, some of the minor entries aren't that extensive, but what really matters is that everything is very well written indeed, highly enlightening and mostly (well, within reason) spoiler free. Even more impressively the book avoids getting overtly nostalgic and isn't afraid to point out glaring faults of well-known designers like, uhm, Roberta Williams. It feels so unbiased it actually convinced me, after years of stubborn refusal, to give Riven a try.   

You can find out more about The Guide to Classic Adventures and of course grab a copy right here. Mind you, this review was based on the Kindle version of the book.

Verdict: An absolutely excellent book every adventure gamer and -obviously- adventure game designer simply has to own. It's the closest we've got to a properly printed graphic adventure encyclopedia. Buy it. Now.

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Jun 22, 2011

Gnome's Lair Wants YOU To Join Project Zomboid

I had always had a healthy fondness for all things zombie. I loved the books, the spoofs, the movies, the graphics novels, the board games and, unexpectedly, the computer (and video) games, meaning that, yes, I should be enjoying our zombie-infested days way too much. Thing is, I can't help but notice that zombies are a bit too prevalent in today's mainstream and definitely over-represented in gaming. Even in indie gaming, where the apparent lack of imaginative settings has spawned more zombie games than an overactive Romero with assembly language skills and a ZX Spectrum would have dreamed of. What's more, the vast majority of said games is incredibly dull (despite some impressive exceptions) and the undead threat is so generic it's less interesting than your average SS soldier. Happily, that's not the case with Project Zomboid.

Project Zomboid, despite featuring more than a few zombies, seems rather excellent actually. It also is an unwinnable game, not unlike Dwarf Fortress and definitely a far cry from Left for Dead. You are, after all, cast as a survivor of the zombie holocaust and all you have to do is, err, survive for as long possible. This is more or less how the game begins (right after eloquently informing you, that, yes, you are about to die):

Not particularly light-hearted, is it? Your in-game wife is injured, you don't have any food, the house you are currently occupying is unfortified and surrounded by zombies, there is a distinct lack of weapons lying around and your in-game avatar proudly sports his bald-patch; it's more than obvious that he's no action hero at all. He's just a desperate, frightened man in a hostile world, who'll have to scavenge for food, medicine and any sort of homebrew weapons, while trying to keep his wife safe and the zombies at bay. He also happens to be a man that will die and get drunk a lot.

My very first playthrough of Project Zomboid had me more or less following the subtle tutorial of the game; the suggested missions rather. I bandaged the missus' leg using a shredded sheet, gave her a painkiller, searched for some planks and nails (oh, yes, and a hammer too) to barricade the doors and windows, felt the annoying tingle of hunger, noticed it was dark already and went to sleep. Early in the morning I woke up, unbarricaded the door, left the house, barricaded the door, equipped my hammer as a sole weapon and went exploring the neighboring houses. Happily, I found some canned soup in the first one and only had to kill a single zombie, before I went on to explore the next house down the road. And it was a treasure trove! I grabbed tons of foodstuffs, some whiskey, a shotgun and even sat down for a snack only to suddenly notice the in-game clock was telling me just how late it was. My poor wife would be starving; a shame really, as a zombie horde got me just outside our too-well-barricaded door.

Then again, I could have left her to die. She wasn't getting any better after all. She might even turn into a zombie and, maybe, just maybe, my in-game character never really loved her. See? That's the kind of game Project Zomboid is; filled with a ton of emergent questions (both ethical and tactical) and proper interactive storytelling in a desolate world, that only uses zombies to enhance the feeling of desperation it so successfully evokes. To be perfectly honest I've been trying to come up with an idea for a game just like this one for quite some time now, and the developers have done an outstanding job in creating my dream zombie game. 

What's more, the thing sports an amazing soundtrack, lovably retro-esque isometric visuals reminiscent of the better days of the Commodore Amiga and intuitive controls that make this complex survival-sim a joy to play. Even the rich crafting opportunities (from soups to molotov bombs) are surprisingly simple to explore. Oh, and there seems to be a huge world already in place, or so I believe, as in reality I'm quite the sentimental gnome; I'm too afraid to leave my poor wife alone. Not after those zombies invaded an unbarricaded door and ate her in her bed. And that's just a very early demo. I frankly can't wait to play the full game, though you should definitely grab the demo immediately. Here it is. Better yet, buy yourself a lifetime license reader, as it will entitle you to the game, its early builds and all of its future updates.

Then again, really, gaming aside, what is it with zombies, reader? Why are people so morbidly fascinated with them? Is the financial crisis to blame? Is it some sort of vaguely disguised mass misanthropism? Is it the atrocious Duke Nukem's fault? These could be the end times indeed, for as Zizek noticed we might just be Living in Them.

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Jun 20, 2011

A Wyv and Keep Preview

Wyv and Keep: The Temple of the Lost Idol by brilliantly named and rather brilliant indie dev team a jolly corpse has gotten itself a very public demo, that you, oh cuddliest of readers, can download by following this lovely link. As I have already been enjoying the preview build of this demo for the last few days, you can rest assured it will be worth both your precious time and them brutalized brain cells.

Wyv and Keep, you see, is essentially a wonderful re-imagining of ur-puzzler Sokoban; a game I had passionately loved and hated in equal measures, and used to play on a black-and-white Atari ST. A game that had me soul-crushingly pushing crates and solving spatial puzzles while my youth was wasting away. A game that had me sit at bars and mentally rearrange people in order to solve some sort of imagined puzzle. A perfectly designed and ridiculously addictive game.

Dare I say, a game that is about to actually get better. Wyv and Keep retains the central mechanic of pushing crates, but bravely adds a variety of arcade/platform elements achieving a new balance and an excellent pace. What's more the bird's eye perspective of Sokoban has been traded for a lush side-on view that comes complete with excellent pixel art graphics and is supported by quality audio and great production values. Then again, what actually makes Wyv and Keep so much more than a glorious and most inspired remake is the addition of two player co-op.

Using the arrow and WASD keys two friends (two lovers, two inmates, two game designers, two nuns even) can each guide a character through the game's devious levels and cooperate in order to solve puzzles, in what proves to be an immensely enjoyable way to approach truly difficult brainteasers. Lacking friends one can of course miserably switch between characters and play through the thing all alone. It will -judging by the preview edition- still be fun, but definitely not as fun as accusing others for each and every in-game death.

The complete version of Wyv and Keep will soon be available for PC and possibly for some sort of gaming-enabled phone (!) or console. You can even pre-order the PC version today and hope it turns out as good as the eight levels I tried suggest. And now for my tip towards the devs: please, do slightly readjust the difficulty curve of the demo; it's rather brutal.

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Jun 18, 2011

Adventure Lantern is back - again!

Well, I didn't find the time to contribute to the latest issue of Adventure Lantern, but, let's face it, what actually matters is the simply glorious fact that a new issue of Adventure Lantern has been made available. Oh, yes. The finest adventure gaming focused magazine is back with an issue covering Darkstar, Post Mortem, Destination: Treasure Island and a few more, uhm, casual offerings. You can download it for free here. It will keep you quality company till the next issue hits them virtual selves, most probably within this very summer! Rumour has it I too will be contributing a review... 

Jun 17, 2011

Splik and Blitz are Baked in Blood

The 18th of June 2011 (that's tomorrow apparently) will hopefully see the release of the truly promising arcade-action-platformer-adventure that its creators, Deadly Pixel Games, have chosen to call Splik and Blitz: Baked in Blood. It’s apparently a lovably indie game that, besides already covering a multitude of genres and sub-genres, can also be characterized as an online, 3D, side-scrolling, co-op brawl-fest. Impressive eh? Well, it definitely sounds so, and I haven't even mentioned the fact it features co-op puzzles. And it really looks and sounds rather nice too.

Like the screenshot posted above? Noticed the cooking weapons? Well, you'll probably love the gameplay trailer that follows this very paragraph then. Oh, and before you click yourself over to the game's official site know this dear reader: over 16 people have toiled hard for Splik and Blitz. Let's just hope it turns out as good as they hoped.

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Jun 16, 2011

Fragile Shells

You don't know how long you've been hammering against the station's wall, but you stop as soon as you realize what you've been doing. You let your gloved hands fall by your sides and pause, confused.

Happily, you don't suffer from amnesia; only a concussion. Less happily you are alone, in space and quite obviously about to die. A severely damaged space station isn't the safest place to be, and you are apparently an astronaut (of the researching sort) trapped in exactly such a station. Your mission is pretty simple: survive by, well, escaping the room. Fragile Shells by Stephen Granade is, after all, a glorious escape-the-room text adventure (piece of interactive fiction if you prefer), that impressively goes far beyond what we've come to expect from the genre.

Fragile Shells, you see, despite taking place in a severely constrained space, manages, to not only tell a tale, but also to describe an impressively fleshed out world; even more impressively it lets you discover both tale and world without resorting to bland, non-interactive exposition in what can only be described as a fine example of interactive storytelling. This is a very puzzle-y game too. It's not overtly difficult, but it does require paying attention, following subtle hints, exploring everything and even a bit of lateral thinking. Mind you, the game is never unfair; it's refreshingly challenging instead.

You can grab Fragile Shells via the Interactive Fiction Database where the game's source code is also available. The game is -traditionally- freeware and to enjoy it you will need an i-f player. I'd suggest you give the excellent Gargoyle a try. Alternatively, you can always enjoy Fragile Shells online.    

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Jun 10, 2011

Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale - Review

When I originally previewed Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale I was pretty excited about it, what with it being the first DnD 4th edition CRPG to hit PCs and consoles; an interesting choice supported by its advertised modular system and episodic, thus manageable, lenght. Then the first reviews came -hitting sites a few days before the review copy hit my door- and they were less than stellar. Everyone complained about something and I decided to stop reading before actually playing the game, though the damage was done. 

I installed the PC version of Daggerdale with the lowest of expectations, only to have them sink further when I was asked to either join or log into gamespy. Now, I'm not a multiplayer fanatic, but I have come to expect to enjoy such overtly social modes of gaming without having to sign up with any service. Always thought that Steam was more than capable and more than enough for this sort of things, and seeing Daggerdale run via Steam yet still requiring me to remember one more password, well, I simply couldn't be bothered. Then again, in CRPGs it's the solo experience that counts, isn't it? Of course it is dear.

On to the single-player campaign it was then and I went on to choose among the four available characters (a Halfling wizard, a Dwarven cleric, an Elven rogue and a Human fighter), customize him/her and go on and travel to the Dalelands of the Forgotten Realms. There I would get to explore the catacombs of Tethyamar under the Desrtmouth Mountains (I'm not making those names up you know; and, yes, I haven't played any proper DnD for years now), where a dwarven community is having troubles with goblins, undead things, an assortment of nasties and the malicious deity Bane. So far, so generic, I know, but playing through this story felt oddly refreshing and reminiscent of the things a seasoned DM would come up with.

The game itself is a pure hack-and-slash affair sporting some great combat mechanics, deeper character customization than one would expect and -impressively- some lovely and pretty varied graphics. What's more, the thing is properly entertaining and really addictive, meaning that, yes, Daggerdale did manage to endear itself. At heart it's a great action-RPG with some good ideas and an apparently powerful engine behind it. Even the lack of a proper save function doesn't completely destroy the experience, despite it being incredibly frustrating.

The varied bugs, visual glitches, lack of overall polish and shoddy camera, on the other hand, do border on infuriating and keep Daggerdale from becoming the game it could be, which is frankly a shame, especially considering it gets so many things right. Then again, there's always hope that the first patch will fix things up considerably... Oh, and the game's length is longer than I expected, without it ever becoming boring. 

Verdict: A traditional hack-and-slash CRPG that's too buggy for its own good. Definitely worth a try if you are into this sort of thing and don't mind the generic plot.

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Jun 7, 2011

Delightful Desktop Dungeons Demo

You do remember my addiction to Desktop Dungeons, don't you dear reader? Of course you do. You're caring like that. Well, I'm afraid, I've slipped again. Not only have I already pre-ordered the forthcoming commercial version of Desktop Dungeons, but I have also spent the better part of the past four hours playing through the brand new, brilliant and truly hefty Desktop Dungeons Demo. At least I haven't started destroying my sanity with the already excellent free version of DD yet; that's something I suppose. As for the demo itself, it excellently showcases many of them new DD features and is of course itself brilliant, but will only be available to play for the next three days. Oh, and this being a web demo, it does require you have the Unity Web Player installed.

Jun 3, 2011

Dead Meets Lead Review

One of the reasons I don't usually review games I haven't particularly enjoyed is that I often can't be bothered to properly play them, let alone take the time to actually write the review. Apparently then, Dead Meets Lead is quite an exception. I never particularly enjoyed it, didn't play it exhaustively, yet here I am writing about it. Why? Because it does have some redeeming features, you see.

Dead Meets Lead is -at heart- an indie and definitely innovative arena shooter, that might not feature much shooting, but does try to make up for it by sporting both pirates and zombies. Sadly though, innovation isn't a priori a good thing; some things haven't been attempted for the simple reason that they just don't work. Melee arena combat is apparently one of those ideas. Then again, things could have been better if the controls, the camera and the hits each enemy can take were balanced in a better way, but this is not the case. Enemies can take ages to defeat, more often than not the action takes place hidden behind a building or something, and the WASD-mouse combination isn't ideal for sword-based arena shooters. Oh, and don't get me started on the zombies that restrict your movement by ensnaring you in the most frustrating of ways...
To the game's defense though one could add that by featuring a shotgun it does turn itself into a rather lovely yet more traditional arena-shooter. One would of course be only partly correct, as the ammunition for the shotgun (and the rest of the firearms that are eventually unlocked) is far too sparse and in certain levels simply absent, which is a crying shame. Shooting the zombie hordes as a cursed pirate on a bleak exotic island is immensely enjoyable and goes on to show how great Dead Meets Lead could have been; especially if it had bothered to include a few save-points in its brutally hard levels.

Sadly, as it is, all it manages is to more or less waste the potential its setting, plot, graphics, music, interesting upgrade mechanics and overall polish had created. Still, I'm pretty sure that you dear reader might just enjoy Dead Meets Lead more than I did. Guess you should have a look then; click here. The demo should help you decide whether this is for you or not.

Verdict: A quality indie production with some interesting touches, that has sadly been let down by its core gameplay mechanic.

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