Sunday, 29 November 2015

Chaos Reborn: One Guy's Review

                                                   Chaos Reborn

Chaos reborn is a complex and interesting game that utilizes a number of different gameplay mechanics while blending genres. It combines elements of a card game, strategic board game, and tactical war game, and then infuses it with a high fantasy theme.  This isn't entirely a new concept, but the execution and style are what help this game stand out in the crowd. 

The tactical battles are the heart of Chaos Reborn. You and your opponent each take on the role of a wizard, are dealt a hand of cards which serve as your spells, and try to outmaneuver, summon, and ultimately destroy you opponent through utilizing these spells. The common tactical considerations, such as height advantage, range, and resistances are in play, however Chaos Reborn adds in several others elements. 

First and foremost is the aspect of casting and summoning itself. All summoning spells have a chance to succeed or fail based on the balance between law and chaos (or good and evil, light and dark, etc.) You can shift the balance in your favour through spells, or by simply summoning creatures of that type. Weaker creatures are easier to summon, while more powerful ones will likely fail without the balance being strongly in your favour. This encourages players to pick a side and stick with it, while simultaneously making life more difficult for the opponent. As you do not build your deck of spells beforehand, it is inevitable you will get a mixture of law, chaos, and neutral cards to play with. This lack of a deck building mechanic limits the players ability to synergize their plan of attack beforehand. By foregoing the deck building meta game, Chaos Reborn forces the player to adapt on the fly and truly make the best use of their resources. There are means to influence the presence of certain spells being present in your opening hand, but no direct control in this regard. While I applaud the unique approach, it would be interesting to know the rationale for this design choice, as I feel like the game would have a much more dynamic feel with this mechanic.

Chaos Reborn adds another layer to the strategic design, by allowing you to always summon illusions of creatures without fear of failure. The concession in doing so, however, is that they can be "disbelieved" by your opponent easily. The risk/reward element here is one of the most interesting features of Chaos Reborn. This layer of adds significant depth and excitement to the battles, as knowing when to use your illusions, or disbelieve your opponent's, can cause huge swings in the battle. It also causes you to learn your opponent's tendencies. Is this a player likes to take chances with illusions, or a more conservative opponent? Summoning a powerful creature early in the game is usually a good indicator of an illusion, but it could also just be a lucky roll of the dice.

Statistical chance, in conjunction with luck, plays a huge roll in a chaos Reborn. You must play the odds or you will not win many games. Anyone who has played XCOM knows the ecstasy of making a low percentage shot, and the agony of missing that 90% shot. That will happen in Chaos Reborn as well, so you always need to be considering and maximizing the variables that contribute to these percentages. What that means is there is a lot to consider in the choices you make when summoning, deploying, and attacking, which makes the game both deep and satisfying in its payoff. It can feel like you just didn't get lucky at times, but any game that is not chess, is going to feel that way. Having said that, the player that consistently players the odds is going to have more long term success.

Chaos Reborn offers both multiplayer and single player experiences, with varying levels of intensity in both areas. The quick match is easy to jump in and play a game against a random opponent. The matchmaking is usually quick and seemless. In the games I played, the opponent skill level was usually just right. There also exists a ranked mode, which offers a monthly ladder system for the more competitive player. The two modes compliment each other well and will likely give the game a longer lifespan as the competitive scene develops. 

The single player experience is a somewhat unique proposal. You are given scenarios to play through, although it might be more accurate to describe these as modules as all are user created, and there is no "official" story to the game. These modules play out in a linear fashion with your avatar roaming the map  resolving encounters, securing resources, and doing battle with AI opponents for various reasons. The game innovates in this areas by allowing the multiplayer component to bleed into the single player experience. Other players are able to invade or assist in your quest if you allow or request such. The critical strategy element in this part of the game is time management however, as you have only a certain number of days to achieve your goal of breaching the enemy palace and defeating the AI wizard. While obtuse at the start, once the player gets a feel for this mode, it becomes almost too simplistic. It exists in a space between map based games like Heroes of Might and Magic and Age of Wonders, combining elements of both but not really developing them sufficiently to make this part of the game feel worthwhile. The writing for the encounters is well done, and salvages the experience to some extent. However, it also makes the lack of a long term campaign all the more disappointing. 

There are a number of secondary features that add flavour to the game. The forge allows the player to customize and create armour, pendants, and staffs to suit your preferred strategy. In doing so, your creation becomes available to the community at large. Crafting makes some headway in personalizing the game. The forge feels like a nod to the lack of deck building and is a nice addition. There is also a store in which gold earned from gameplay can be used to buy staffs, armour, and talismans. 

From a graphical and sound design standpoint, Chaos Reborn is very well done. The visuals accentuate the ethereal theme of the game, with a vibrant colour pallet set against otherworldly backdrops. The aesthetic is quite unique as it opts for less character detail than is the norm in modern games (the exception being your wizards avatar). This reinforces the summoned nature of your creatures, and also gives the game a signature look. The music and ambient sound effects are also fantastic. The epic sweeping opening score engages the player immediately, while the in game music hits the perfect balance in terms of presence. It would be a nice soundtrack to have on in the background during many games.

The interface is smart and clean, while also providing a wealth of information with one or two clicks. The controls allow for complete control of your wizard and creatures on the battlefield. The view can be zoomed and rotated effectively, which gives the player a strong sense of tactical planning. Being able to preview moves, and the percentages of hitting from those positions is a necessary tool, but could have been easily overlooked in design. The environment never gets in the way of your battles thanks to having this full aspect control.

In the end, Chaos Reborn is a fresh and enjoyable strategy game with interesting mechanics. It falls somewhere in between the realm of competitive card game and tactical board game. It forgoes some of the elements those genres employ; the collectible nature of the former, and the strategic reliability of the latter. In doing so, the game occupies a unique genre as a true "wizard simulator". Knowing this, Chaos Reborn wisely plays to its strengths, embracing the summoning and dispelling aspect. Chaos Reborn might find a strong competitive scene, but it may also be victimized by its own innovation in this regard. The complexity of the mechanics may deter more casual strategy gamers, while the random chance may frustrate highly competitive players. There is a solid game here though. It may take time to fully develop, but Chaos Reborn is a game I commend for its willingness to try something new, and offers a new experience all gamers should try. 

Monday, 14 April 2014

A rebuttal PC Gamer's review of Elder Scrolls Online

1. "Every modern Elder Scrolls game has had a moment near the beginning where you step out into a new landscape and think I've never been somewhere like this before.I have spent thirty hours playing The Elder Scrolls Online and I'm still waiting for that moment. I'm waiting for anything like that moment. I'm waiting for the point when this MMO sits up and makes a claim to be anything but familiar." 

A. So, you want something that is familiar, and yet you don't. This game was never promoted as "Skyrim with fiends". The problem with expectations is that often we hear what we want to, rather than what is actually being said. 

B. You want a "moment" of discovery before you even step off the boat (literally). While thirty hours of play is not insignificant, I would dare say you have not explored every location in the game. No reviewer can be expected to explore all the content a game has to offer, however MMOs are a different beast. The truly great moments often lie in the social aspect of the game. Discovery is a journey, not a moment in MMOs. 

2. "...whether it can justify being one of the most expensive games on PC. Those 'stepping into the light' moments weren't just about showing off fancy new tech; they were a promise. You are going to have an adventure. This is going to be worth your time. It does not seem unjust or unrealistic to hold The Elder Scrolls Online to account along similar lines."

A. The standard edition is $60, with a $15 per month subscription (the first month is included). So, if we played en entire year that would come to $225. Yes, it is not cheap. But, compare this to other games that charge the same up front cost, and then release DLC two or three times per year at $30 - $40 each (eg. Civ 5). It is comparable. If a game is going to judged based on it's "promise" against the cost, you better put in the time to see if it delivers.

3. "The geographical area the game covers is expansive, but don't calibrate your sense of scale against the other games in the series."

A. In a socially focused game, you simply cannot have people spending hours just to get to the same place as their friends. Again, false expectations seem to have interfered with an objective perspective of the game.

4. "A limited draw distance and reliance on repetitive buildings and scenery makes the game feel substantially smaller than it looks on a map."

A. The draw distance is easily adjusted, and quite far at maximum actually. Even if it were not, a game world is more than just how far it is from point A to point B. There are many dungeons, quest instances, and places off the beaten path that create an intricate world. 

5. "The tasks you perform fall into familiar categories—kill lists, fetch quests, and simple object finding."

A. The quests you perform all occur in context of a storyline or greater purpose. There are no "Kill 10 rats" checklist type quests as this would have you believe. Quests feel embedded and organic within the game. Completing quest lines in their entirety is extremely rewarding from both a story and physical reward perspective.

6. "One of The Elder Scrolls Online's biggest weaknesses as an MMO is that it often becomes a worse game when large numbers of players are involved in the same activity."

A. This is simply not true. The phasing system the game uses allows for great flexibility in completing quests solo vs. grouped. There is no waiting for something to respawn to allow quest completion. 

7. "Narrative isn't necessarily important to an MMO, but The Elder Scrolls Online's tepid writing and lamentable voice acting act to the severe detriment of the game's atmosphere."

A. The voice acting and writing are excellent, and actually a huge improvement over previous Elder Scrolls games. Beyond the quest dialogue, and thousands of pages of written materials which give the world depth. I am guessing these were largely left unread for review purposes, which is a huge disservice to this game.

8. "The crafting system is well thought-out and expansive, but the abundance of materials and lack of a formal trading system means that there isn't much of an economy to participate in."

A. This is massively short changing a strength of the game. The crafting system is so deep, yet highly embracing. There is a feeling of opportunity and growth as a crafter, which fuels exploration. 

B. How can a game have an economy at launch? This takes time; sometimes quite a while to develop.

9. "This is an MMORPG of moderate scope with a few good ideas and the resources invested in it seem sufficient to expect new dungeons, daily quests and armour sets to collect at a decent clip for the next couple of months." 

A. It is easy to say the game is of "moderate scope", if you have invested little time in the game. It would probably be more accurate to say the review was of moderate scope. This is not intended as a slight to the reviewer, but rather a reframing of the review.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Shadow Sun: One Guy's Review

RPGs on iOS usually come in three flavours. First, and unfortunately the most prolific, is the free to play game that goes in the RPG section of the App Store and describes itself as having "epic loot" and "massive battles". It usually has some generic fantasy artwork for its app icon, and the word "dragon" in the title. Next, is the action-RPG most of which doesn't do either action or RPG elements very well. There is usually a line in the description that proclaims it "the best game to come along since Diablo!". Then least common is the type of game Shaodw Sun accomplishes; a true RPG that excels at character development, story, and the world building. 

Right from the initial loading screen (above), Shadow Sun lets you in on what it is going for. The handpainted artwork is reminiscent of old tattered D&D book covers. In that vein, you start out with character creation that gives you plenty of choice. Shadow Sun does a good job of not shoehorning you into a certain archetype. My first play through was as a charismatic, rouge-ish archer who couldn't cast a spell to save his own life (literally). The usual suspects are here for statistics, and several skills require a minimum number of points allocated to a statistic to be used. Levelling up provides just the right balance of room to grow, while also not allowing the character to become a master of everything. Character progression through the story feels natural and by the end my character excelled in the areas I has intended and felt unique.

The storyline tells the tale of a land corrupted by a circle of mages that have unleashed a plague to distact the populationt while they undertake their nefarious scheme. Shadow Sun tasks the player with travelling in the city and surrounding areas to seek the source of the plague, and eventually deal with the mages themselves. The witting, dialogue, and  voice acting are all excellent. There is a feeling of grand scale to the story, and it enjoyed it thouroughly. While it is not the longest game ever made, it does not feel incomplete or lacking.  

Combat is a strightforward endeavour, which walks the line between being overly simplistic and sufficiently challenging. The action is moderately paced and using your skills is essential. You can have one follower tag along with you as a compliment to your character's skills. Each companion has two "modes"; an active and passive role. They offer occasional witty comments, as well as moral judgment on some of your decisions. I found the whole "approval" system somewhat undefined and did not witness any tangible impact on the game, but this may have just been due to a lack of opportunities. From a combat perspective, your companion is very useful. Playing a ranged character, I opted for the tank type follower and found I had very little difficulty dispatching enemies. and wondering if it was intended to be this risk free. The option for a harder difficulty setting was welcome and subsequent playthroughs revealed Shadow Sun can be a much more challenging game. 

Graphically, Shadow Sun is beautiful for the most part. The outdoor and indoor environments are highly detailed, brightly coloured, and crisp. The city really looks like an extravagant middle eastern setting, which is complimented with the arabic soundtrack and ambient noises. These little details stand out well and impress upon you how much care was taken in crafting Shadow Sun's art and sound design. Unfortunately, this makes it's minor flaws stand out even more. The low polygon count faces and hair look funky and out of place. The helm my character wore looked ridiculous in how it sat upon his head, and ended up being something you just tolerate. This issue aside, Shadow Sun offers nice graphical variation in your armour choice. Spell and weapon effects are also impressive. 

This is a world that is well defined, but also mysterious and varied. The bustling market area of the city and the windswept dunes of the oasis breathe life into the game. The world gains depth through the use of codex entries that give some backstory to the land, characters, and events in history. Travelling across the world is somewhat limited, although there is enough variety In the landscapes to avoid feeling contained. In many ways, Shadow Sun feels similar to Dragon Age: Origins in the world design and interface style. That is a good thing as DA:O is a great game that deserves to used as a mold for world building. 

There need to more RPGs like Shadow Sun in the App Store. With a little evolution, this could be a series that becomes a landmark in iOS RPGs. From the ending, I think it is safe to say there will be a sequel at some point.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Horn - One Guy's Review

I hate Horn. I don't hate it because it is a bad game. I hate Horn because it is an amazing, groundbreaking iOS experience trapped inside mundane, cookie cutter gameplay. Horn is wasted potential.

To start with the most obvious observation, Horn is a visually stunning game. It is truly unbelievable that the this kind of graphic fidelity is possible in an iOS game. When played on an iPad air, it runs without so much as a hiccup and I never once encountered and crashing or freezing. The character models and animations for the main character (Horn) are fluid without seeming artificial. Often times, games may contain beautiful landscapes but facial models look awkward. In Horn, the facial modelling is exceptional. It would have been nice to have more humans to interact with for this quality alone. The landscapes and vistas are truly breathtaking. More than once I found myself just looking around to take in the scenery. Through the first third of the story, the colour palette of the environment appeared limited, but my the second act all fears were assuaged as the range of colours expands dramatically. The game spans three main environmental settings; dusk/fall, bright summer/sand, and sunny winter.  The cutscenes in Horn are conveyed through sketch style artwork. Interestingly, this is contrary to our expectations where transitional scenes of canned animations are graphically impressive, but the gameplay is less so. In this case, the reverse is true, but it works extremely well to get across the storybook nature of Horn.

The music in Horn is also wonderful. The opening theme is memorable and sets a whimsical tone which suits the game well. As you progress through Horn, the music never fails to incorporate a new feeling with each area. The musical style usually feels Celtic, but there is enough variation to keep it interesting.One of the signature gameplay mechanics of the game is the use of the main characters musical instrument (a horn, duh). More on the gameplay mechanic in a minute, but from an auditory perspective it is very well done. The varied tones and sequences add a musical feel to the puzzle solving aspect of Horn. 

Which brings us to Horn's Achilles heel; the gameplay. Horn is clearly a game inspired by the Zelda games, and as either an homage or due to a lack of creativity, follows that path closely. The main character follows the fairly linear environments and has to overcome obstacles such as yawning chasms, dense foliage, and unreachable heights. The tools at his disposal are his acrobatics, a grappling hook type arm weapon, and his aforementioned musical instrument. It has to be noted that this is a direct lift of the ocarina from the Zelda universe. Yet again, there is no creativity at work. Just stand in a certain spot, and the main character plays a pre-determined song. No thinking required.  One would think that the puzzles that could be constructed based on these ingredients would be highly varied and interesting. However, the entire game is spent moving through the environments solving (using the term loosely) puzzles that incorporate one mechanic at a time. There is virtually no creativity in the puzzle design, and never did I feel challenged to think strategically or come up with solutions that had not been used previously. This makes playing the game a predictable trudge through each stage. 

On the topic of predictable, the combat in Horn is a weak attempt to emulate other gesture based fighting games. Where games like Infinity Blade made this popular (and did it well), Horn's combat offers none of the dynamic strategy in the use of different weapon attacks, blocking, or magical attacks. What every battle boils down to is executing a dodge, slashing a few times, dodging, slashing a few times, and so on. The enemies never really pose much threat; some just take a minute or two longer to whittle away at. In most adventure games, the monsters you fight provide context to where you are in the story and offer interesting rewards upon defeat. Not so here, as the creatures encountered in the first stages of the game are nearly identical to ones encountered later on. There are no rewards for defeating an enemy, other than a meaningless "star" rating system. In the end, combat feels like an afterthought in overall game design.

The story told in Horn is likeable, and probably the only thing that kept me playing to the end. The "pygon curse" is moderately interesting, although this tale has been told in numerous other games (see any Zelda game). Carrying around a decapitated pygon head that offers insults, demotivational comments, and tries to promote the pygon lifestyle while you are working to end the curse is fairly humorous.  While the story ushers you along in the game, areas are repeated with slightly different paths. This ends up adding to the already repetitive nature of the game. 

Horn is a shame. It's a shame the gameplay designers didn't aim as high as the artists. If they had, this would have been an instant classic. As it stands, Horn offers a beautiful and charming experience that you will finish in spite of the derivative gameplay and lacklustre challenge.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

XCOM: Enemy Unknown -One Guy's Review

XCOM: Enemy Unknown - Review


110 hours and counting. That is where XCOM: Enemy Unknown has taken me. Previously, that kind of time commitment was reserved for massive RPGs like Skyrim, or MMOs like Everquest back in the day (110 hours in Everquest would have probably been about 10% of the hours played...but that's another story). XCOM: EU is a game that keeps you coming back for more.

Interestingly, my first hour of game play did not impress. The opening cinematic sequence doesn't provide much in the way of context. You are thrown into the first mission without a lot of knowledge of the situation. The first mission (not the tutorial) feels like your hand is being held, and you don't feel in control of the situation. The tactical experience is satisfying right off the hop, despite limited options. Post battle, the HQ choices are very limited and the game is linear. I was nervous that this was going to be another paint by numbers game that didn't encourage planning, strategy, and design.

I was wrong. XCOM: EU is playing the long game. It makes its mark in the long term development of your soldiers and your HQ. In fact, the planning necessary (in particular on Classic and Impossible difficulty settings) is substantial to survive. It is easy make choices that result in long term problems. A careful balance of research, engineering, and satellite deployment are essential.

The tactical battles become a much more engrossing experienceonce your soldiers have acquired a few abilities. There's ample opportunity to use your various skills. It never feels like a skill is awarded just for the sake of an award. Almost all have varying degrees of usefulness in the combat field. The use of cover, teamwork, and knowing alien tendencies are constantly a consideration to successfully complete a mission. I did feel the payoff at the end of missions was lacking at timesAfter aparticularly intense mission, it felt at times like the game could have instilled a better sense of accomplishment.

Like other reviews have consistently noted, if there is one thing that keeps you connected to XCOM: EU, it is your characters. Being able to name your soldiers is such a simple thing, yet the effect is remarkable. Name them after friends, family, co-workers, sports figures, or anything you can dream up. Ironically, the character customization options beyond naming your characters are very limited (even with the Soldier Elite DLC which gives you armour colour and type options). You cannot determine you soldiers country of origin, gender, or class. In terms of appearance, you can modify faces, skin tone, and hair but for some reason they still end up looking pretty much the same except for small cosmetic differences. Despite this, you develop a strong connection to your soldiers. You watch them advance in their class and abilities with pride. When one is inevitably killed, you feel a sense of loss. XCOM: EU wisely plays to this with a memorial wall.

The production values in XCOM: EU are very high. The narrative and exposition are delivered in a very well designed way. The story brings you along at a good pace, and felt like a logical timeline. I loved the philosophical and ethical questions that the narrative engendered. The winning ending was highly satisfying (although the losing cinematic is also a must see).

XCOM: EU is a game that begs to be played a few times through. The enhanced "Second Wave" options on second play though are an excellent incentive. The daunting challenge of Ironman mode is equally tempting, however ultimately a difficult sell when the games primary strength is your bond with your characters. More than once I got into the second month on Ironman mode only to have a total wipe on a mission and be too distraught to continue. Did I quit and walk away? Nope, I decided I just needed to name my characters differently (because that will make a difference, right?), build my HQ in a new way, and make better tactical choices next time. And that, is how you get to 110 hours played.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Gone Home: One Guy's Review

Gone Home


Immersion; a word that gets used a lot in the realm of gaming these days. It would seem that game designers have been voraciously seeking the key to ultimate game-play immersion for a long time. After all, isn't that what games are about? A way to feel removed from your current surroundings, and injected into a new reality? Gone Home takes aim at immersion through a lesser used pathway. It seeks to weave you into the fabric of a story through the use of character development, nuanced nostalgia, and environmental design.


The "gameplay" is non-traditional insofar as your are not tasked with a fight for survival, completing quests, or solving puzzles (except a few lock combinations which are readily apparent ). Instead, Gone Home is a game that asks you, the player, to take the time to notice the details around you and rewards that strategy with a persistent desire to know more about a character, event, or circumstance. The subtlety with which this is done is especially well conceived. For example, there are allusions one of the characters interest in her friend's grunge band early on in the story. As the game progresses, cassette tapes are found which can be played to hear the band play. It is learned later that the character eventually joins the band, and she can be heard singing on some tapes.  


Yes, this game takes place in the mid-nineties. Gone Home was clearly made by people who appreciated the cultural and social icons of that decade. The landscape is littered with loving references to grunge music, fashion, and other pop culturestaples. This is an interesting strategy, and calculated no doubt, by the developer. By doing this, the current thirty-something crowd becomes transported back to a familiar and (hopefully) memorable time of their life. The game's reality instantly gains credibility in the mind of the player. The caveat, of course, of taking this approach is that there is a younger demographic of gamers that this immersion device will not affect to the same extent.  


The term "interactive fiction" has been used to describe Gone Home, but that moniker is limiting by not recognizing the visual, auditory, and perceptual triggers the game uses to bring you into the tale. The graphics serve a very specific purpose in this game. One of the primary methods of this is through the use of lighting. Most rooms are oppressively dark upon entering, which in a game about details, is a fairly significant barrier. While finding the light source(s) for the room is usually easy, the impact of lighting up a corner of the room and seeing something laying on the floor that was previously not visible, is considerable.

The attention to detail, visually, is exceptional. In a day and age when ultra-high resolutions have become the defining factor in a game's graphical fidelity, Gone Home uses style over substance to deliver its graphical message. The plethora of notes found throughout the game used to deliver the storyline are often scrawled in various handwriting styles with the penmanship of the author often revealing more about their personality than the words.  The documents, pictures, and books the player comes across have a realistic quality that speaks to the creativity of the developers.


Auditory cues are just as well placed as the other elements in the game. While the raucous thunder of the "dark and stormy night "outside is cliché without a doubt, it does add the perception of depth to the environment of a game that takes place entirely inside one house. The tones of the game are established through the expected noises one would find in an older mansion style home. However, most importantly, the voice acting of the characters is superb. When the player interacts with a critical object, it triggers a journal entry read by one of the characters. In her reading, the player can hear the emotional state of the character and gets a sense of her identity right from the start. By the end of the story (which is somewhat predictable, but no less satisfying), the player is left with an empathy not often evoked in games.


What Gone Home does, it does very well. Yet, there is also a sense of limited scope within the narrative. The argument could be made that constraining the story to a single character's exploits keeps the experience focused and linear. There do exist side plots involving other characters although none of those get the exposition through journal entries that the "main" character's do. This feels like a missed opportunity, and keeps those characters fairly one dimensional. The strategy of information seeking though detail as it related to these characters becomes inherently less rewarding and detracts from the game's depth.


This is a  game that deserves to have the lights turned low, a warm drink in hand, and perhaps even a gaming/life partner sitting beside you while played. Gone Home is an experience that drops the player into a story, and every click of the mouse is akin to turning the page of a book. It achieves a level of immersion that many games strive for, but few accomplish.