Pokemon: Heart of Gold

On the way back from PAX East I beat the mostly mediocre but still playable Galactrix on my Nintendo DS* and suddenly needed a new game. I had a choice:

1. 1 $60 Final Fantasy XIII game for Xbox360
2. 2 $30 Pokemon carts for the DS, one for me and one for KR.

Thus Pokemon made its way into my house again because playing with Katie >> Final Fantasy. With great surprise I sat down with this game and was hooked on it like I was being fed some new kind of synthetic happy drug. I swear, this game pushes all my little happy brain buttons. I can pick it up and play it for hours. It has followed me around the house. I have played it for 40 hours now — that drops the cost/rate of return on my game below a $1 an hour — and I’m still ready to go.

– Want to play an RPG? It’s an RPG!
– Bored of the RPG? Play board games! Mini games! Fish!
– Tired of games and fishing? Breed pokemon! Trade pokemon! Breed them more! OMG MORE POKEMON!  Now go grind those guys up to their evolved forms…

One I got hooked on it I had to get others hooked on it. Now others are hooked on it and the wifi on the game is pretty decent for being a little DS so pokemon whizz through the aether to become bigger and better loved pokemon.

I have collected thus far 54 unique varieties. I hang my head. Honestly, the reviews don’t lie.

Really, we’re not even going to talk about the pokewalker add-on in my pocket because it’s just embarrassing. If you’re looking for a fun new DS game, I have to recommend this one. It’s like Mario Cart. You never get bored.

Beware, though: I have part one of the two-part hint book and that, alone, is 300 pages long. The full hint books cost more than the game! Gamefaqs has a pretty good pokemon section for those who want to go the cheap route.

* A Nintendo DS is the best selling gadget in the world. It is a closed system, requires custom tools to build games, and games must go through a lengthy process before they show up on store shelves. I am just sayin’.

Notes and Sundries

1. I have no idea if LJ has fixed their interface for cross-posting yet. It was broken as of last week.

2. Eric corrected me: you can still buy a regular hard-drive click-wheel iPod. They are available on the Apple site.

3. We did more experiments with the iPad and found, with a MiFi, it makes a more than acceptable travel Internetty netbook. Combined with the Apple bluetooth keyboard or the iGo stowaway, typing is pretty straight forward on the device. Eric dragged it around and the MiFi makes it a portable web machine.

4. I fiercely love This American Life and not just because Sarah Vowell is a frequent contributer. If you listen to only one podcast on earth, this is the one I recommend. This week’s episode, “The Inside Job,” has a great 40 minute piece on how hedge funds looted the economy with CDOs and CDSs. If you ever want to hear anything, listen to episode #355: Giant Pool of Money.

5. I am fiercely addicted to Pokemon: Heart of Gold. I have already put a staggering 40 hours into that game. As a flat-out fun and enjoyable DS game, I completely recommend it. And if you have friends (or children) playing it with you and trading pokemon with you, then the game is fantastic.

6. I am pissed there’s no Borges available for the Kindle. KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!

7. Wil Wheaton on Big Bang Theory tonight! You should all watch it. Really. You SHOULD.

Echo Bazaar

A few of us are playing Echo Bazaar, a cute web-based card and social grind game. Most of the gameplay is spent grinding up stats ala Kingdom of Loathing but it has some interesting small arc-like plots and a large story-arc “Ambition” for the character to reach new levels and “do” something.

We keep coming back for the setting. The premise is that London has, at some Steampunky/Victorian period, “fallen.” It is now an infernal environment filled with horrible people, demons, mushrooms, bats and weasels as pets, and devils politely taking tea. Bits of old London, especially street signs, are censored away. The character is subject to nightmares that drive them to insanity. Secrets are exchanged for tickets in an underground Victorian circus.

Someone had a great deal of fun writing the Ambitions, the challenges, and the prose for the cards. Text is short but rich — little sentences and paragraphs that evoke the feeling of this underground London. The art is fine but it’s the writing that makes one want to sit and grind to open up new parts of the game.

It does integrate with twitter. What we’ve learned:

– It uses oauth to log you into the game through your twitter account, so you do need a twitter account to play.
– However it does not spam your friends list much at all. You can, optionally, send out 1 message of text a day to get a refresh of turns, but it is optional.
– Rarely the EchoBazaar team sends a game update through twitter.
– Players can play games or contests with each other. This is communicated through single direct messages.

Unlike a Facebook game, Echo Bazaar doesn’t penalize for missing a day of play. It gives a generous number of turns/day (70) that it doles out 10 at a time. Things do constantly open up as levels get higher and the game is rapidly adding more missions and improvements.

Echo Bazaar is an adorable web-based game with a very nice setting. I recommend it.

PAX East

Attention K-Mart Shoppers!  We will officially be attending PAX East in Boston!  We are leaving on the evening of the 25th and arriving on the 26th at the hotel adjoining the convention center and then leaving on the morning of the 29th.

I have already spoken to a few of you about our possible arrival but now it is certain. If you are also going to be at PAX East please let me know so I can arrange the phone number swap for meetups. If you don’t know me in person and are not part of Team Burlodge North but still want to meet up to see that I really am as short and loud as rumored, let me know as well.

Also, the schedule is totally up now.

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Dostoevsky as MUSH Log

I am a lifelong fan of Russian literature, especially the fine works of Fyodor Dostoevsky. I love Notes from the Underground and Crime and Punishment. I decided to try out Daily List by reading a free translation of The Brothers Karamazov. I had started reading it once a long time ago and I figured I would finish it. The translation is very spotty in places but the copy is readable — I would recommend springing for the Penguin Books version.

The Brothers Karamazov is about three brothers, Dmitri, Ivan and Alexey, who were abandoned by their father after their mothers died. Dmitri has a different mother than Ivan and Alexey. Old Fyodor is a drunk who hates everyone. The cook, Smerdyakov, also hates everyone and he might or might not be Old Fyodor’s illegitimate. And girls are involved: the beautiful Katerina Ivanova, the trollop Grushenka, the crippled Lise. And here’s a bit of plot:

Dmitri is engaged to Katerina Ivanova but for some reason his father Fyodor wants to marry her so Fyodor has gotten Grushenka involved and Dmitri is obsessed with Grushenka but now Ivan is moving in on Katerina Ivanova who is having fainting fits and Alexey (Alyosha) simply wants to marry poor crippled Lise and make his family whole but Ivan is an atheist and Dmitri is crazy and Smerdyakov is plotting to get them to all kill each other…

Eventually the plot devolves to stabbing and deep introspection of the soul because:

– It’s a Russian Novel
– It always devolves to stabbing
– The soul needs some serious introspection

And reading along… I get this strange feeling I have read all this before. I feel deja-vu.

A good, solid, Russian gothic novel is everything a MUSH devolves into given five minutes and half a playerbase: lots and lots of people sitting around discussing how they are quite upset, then going on a huge monologue about God for a few pages, some tension, perhaps a good war or two if reading Tolstoy, and then someone gets a good, solid stabbing. Then after something finally happens everyone — yes — sits around in cafes and discusses everything again! Wash, rinse, repeat. (This ties back well into Rob’s post about romance novels.)

This sort of thought leads me down the path to all sorts of MUSH-like genre games where the novel reads an awful lot like a MUSH log with some better language, punctuation and spelling:

– Romance games, where everyone sits around and talks.
– Jeeves and Wooster games, where everyone sits around, talks, drinks, and fails to shoot pool.
– Russian novel games, where everyone sits around, talks, drinks, stabs, and angsts.

I, personally, will be the first person to app on the Jeeves and Wooster MUSH.

Dragon Age: Origins

Warning: Contains mild spoilers!

In the end, he was the King of Ferelden and I was a city elf from the Denerim slums and it couldn’t work out. Wynne spent half the war yelling at the two of us that it could never work, and even pulled me aside at one point to spell this out in painful detail. It was the great Romance of the War and it died when he became King.

I have played nearly every major console or computer RPG since Bard’s Tale so I feel like a bit of an authority on these sort of things. Dragon Age: Origins reminds me strongly of, strangely enough, Ultima VII: the Black Gate. It was the not the first game with strong moral ambiguity — that crown goes to Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. It was a game more about the strong characters and a decentralized plot than a linear plotline and pretty scenes. U7 was about murder and the evil in the people you thought good and choices and fewer rails. Other games have tried to emulate the style; DA:O nailed it.

I have to admit: I loved DA:O and not because it had a special storyline. It had wonderful worldbuiding but blah blah, giant evil, blah blah, must save the world, blah blah, a bunch of quests. Seen it, done it, it took two tries to kill the Foozle in the end. The strength and brilliance of Dragon Age: Origins is two pronged: the characters and the illusion of control.

(I contend the award for strongest story on a pure console game goes to FFX but that is a debatable point.)

JRPGs bother me because the cut scenes have gotten longer, the choices fewer, and the save points — save points! In 2010! Save points are a criminal offense! — have become scarce. It stopped being a game and turned into a carnival ride. I nearly threw Star Ocean IV across the room when the cutscenes made it to 20 minutes long. It’s called “Cut Scene Hell” for a reason. When SOIV froze I sent it back to Gamefly. I was done 10 hours in. These games feel like 50 hour long interactive movies where the character makes no more choice in the story. They are boring.

Dragon Age: Origins forces the player to make actual choices. Even if the choices are ultimately illusory and the Foozle still must be fought, most (but not all) of the major decisions are through dialogue trees and the result of player choice. The player can choose not to get Sten’s sword. The player can put this dwarf or that dwarf on the Throne. It doesn’t make much difference in the end but it sure seems that way. Returning control to the player is key: the player feels they have a stake in the outcome of the game. Emotional investment keeps players returning over and over. “But I could play evil! I can make this awful choice to see what happens! Awesome!” Returning control back to the player is the core of a great game — like Fallout 3, like Mass Effect (also BioWare). All hail the return of the player actually playing a game!

The true strength is on the characters. The party members have beautifully drawn personalities. They interact with one another. They talk. They argue. They squabble in your party — Wynne explaining where babies come from to Alistair had to be the best exchange in the entire game. The game supports interesting choices and party dynamics between the player and the characters and between the multiple characters. The choices in party composition and party dynamics almost feels real, not just a bunch of scripted events by trigger points. Of course, they are scripted events by trigger points, but the tricky part is to smooth that over and make the characters feel spontaneous and real. JRPG characters feel like caricatures in pretty clothes — Dragon Age: Origins characters felt like people. You find yourself doing the wacky sidequest not because the sidequest is interesting but because you can take Zevran and Oghren in your party and who knows what wackiness might come from the two of them together.

I readily admit: I cannot remember the names of the main characters in most of the JRPGs I have played. They just fade. They were called what again? But I will certainly remember Alistair and Morrigan for a long time.

To sum up: incredibly detailed world, awesome characters, short on the cutscenes, lots of serious meat, and raising the bar for gameplay. It was awesome. Also, in the end game, you get to do what you always wanted to do in every CRPG ever: you get to kick the Bad Guy in the junk. How great is that?

Friday Question!

Maybe someone on my friend’s list can answer this:

I have a four year old with a super active imagination, lots of dolls and stuffies. She is starting to get the hang of consistent rules and rulesets. What games — board games and rpg games — do you recommend for a little poo?

Last Remnant

I rented Square Enix’s Last Remnant from Gamefly, a service I very highly recommend, to try it out because I currently am not playing some long JRPG at the moment on the Xbox360. I feel a little dirty because of all the systems I own, I love the Xbox360 the most, but there it is and I rented Last Remnant for it.

I don’t know what Square Enix is thinking any more. This is not the first game I sent back in disgust after 10 hours in. It’s worse than a bad game — it is a wasted game. The game starts great: interesting characters, an actual interesting plot (!!!), half decent voice acting, helpful subtitles, an interesting squad-based combat system, the potential for an interesting component system for upgrading weapons. When dealing with one squad with four guys, the game plays great. No real issues. I got up to 3 squads with 9 guys total and the game manifested draw-in problems, slow downs, stutters, long load times and an annoying camera that doesn’t allow you to see the field very well. And the component system turned out to be both confusing and just a reason to make the game longer by forcing grinding. Worse, there are boring sideplots that you have to play otherwise your guys are just too weak to continue with the main plot, and you must do these side quests constantly.

It went in my book from a 9/10 to about a 4/10, and I sent it back.

This is just fingernails on a chalkboard. Square’s game quality lately has really been slipping and now they are shipping stuff that isn’t even finished. There’s no reason that combat 10 hours in the game should manifest stutters and load-time issues. That’s trivially easy to catch during play testing. This is why we rent — if I would have bought the game I would have taken it back to the store.

Anyway, I started a Fallout 3 game instead. And got wasted by Raiders last night. Sigh.

S7S Review — By Katie Rose!

Yesterday, Katie stole my brand new copy of Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies and flipped through it three times!  She was very interested in the pictures.

She was very happy to see the game has:

– Princesses

– Knights

– Skeletons

– Pirates! Especially pirates.

She was very concerned the game did not have:

– Goblins

She was quite adamant that the game would only work with goblins.  Other than that, she declared it “interesting” and then headed off to play with other things.