Tommy Ingram's Eclectic Variety Show

How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down.

Category: Video Games

Review: Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II

2001’s Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance was an underappreciated little game. Built on the Dungeons and Dragons RPG system and connected tenuously to the earlier Baldur’s Gate games, it was a short, self-contained little fantasy adventure that avoided most of the pitfalls of the genre. Hubs and NPCs were few and the vast space between them was filled with some serious dungeon crawling. The gameplay was straightforward hacking and slashing with very little to complicate it. The inane fantasy dialogue was rare and mostly not spoken aloud—and the voice acting wasn’t half bad. It was short enough that you could complete it in a day, and the sense of continuity of gesture that this provided greatly enhanced the game. The plot made continual ill-fated attempts to shock you with twists, but this just added to its charm. It was like a daytime soap meets Tolkien meets Half-Life 2.

The sequel came out in 2004 and became instantly scarce. It is almost impossible to find at used game stores—and has been for nearly a decade now—and even online it has held steady at an exorbitant markup for the past few years. The upshot of this is that I, no doubt like many others in my situation, matured or at least grew significantly older during the time between playing the two games. I know now that Dark Alliance‘s story-telling is nothing to write home about, and that the game’s strengths lie in the overall experience it offers, not its literary quality. So some of the disappointment of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II could be due to the loss of youthful enthusiasm. Read the rest of this entry »

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Django, Elgar, and others

I finally got round to seeing Django Unchained. Much like Inglourious Basterds, it’s very funny, very violent, and very disturbing. Tarantino manages the tension in a scene like a virtuoso, Foxx is a badass but with depth, Waltz is an amazing actor, and the other leads distinguish themselves as well. The KKK raid scene with Jonah Hill (who’s beginning to make a name for himself as a real actor) is a particular comic high point. The depiction of the pre-Civil War South is raw and unsettling. It’s something that needs to be seen and rarely is, but it is not for the squeamish. The idea of all this being done by a white guy adds an uncomfortable racial twist to a topic that already has enough—Basterds did not have the same problem, oddly.

I finished Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II on Friday evening. I hope to put up a full review some time soon, but I can’t do it right now because I’m busy mentally preparing for an important concert. Speaking of which: tomorrow, April 8, is the final performance of the University of Manitoba Symphony Orchestra’s 2012-13 season. On the program is Mozart’s Symphony no. 33 in B-flat Major, K.319; Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations (Edvany Silva, cello), and Elgar’s Enigma Variations, op.36. This is the orchestra’s final performance under the direction of Richard Lee, who is leaving the WSO and the U of M after this season. The concert is 7:30 at Westworth United Church. Tickets are $15 or $5 for students.

I’ve had a lot of fun with the Elgar, and it’s taught me a lot about symphonic playing. People familiar with the piece will know that the principal clarinet features very prominently throughout, but especially in the thirteenth variation, where I play an extremely quiet solo above barely audible strings and a timpani played with coins for a mechanical effect. It’s the most tense, poignant moment in a piece full of tension and poignancy. It’s an honour to be able to play it, and a great learning experience besides.

As for Richard Lee, I have gained a lot from my brief period playing under his baton. He is ruthless and uncompromising but fair. He’s done wonders for the U of M orchestra, and I hope he succeeds in his future endeavours.

The really good news is that, with classes drawing to a close, I will soon have the time and energy to post more often in this space. I have lots of ideas floating around that I would love to put into words, and by the last two weeks of April, I’ll finally be able to.

In which I reconsider the wisdom of the way I spent June 2012

Previously…

The Shrine of Storms level is set on an island in the ruins of a storm-worshipping, human-sacrificing civilization. Its connection to Boletaria and the game’s core plot is unclear—it seems that the dearth of people and prevalence of monsters is unrelated to any Deep Fog, colourless or otherwise. Isolation from the rest of the game is not the least of the level’s problems, but it doesn’t help. It’s hard to build up a sense of what’s at stake or why you should care if you have no idea of where you are or what you’re doing. In this respect Demon’s Souls is especially frustrating, because when you track down the rare bits of exposition, you find that rather than explaining things, they make the game world even more senseless.

The main enemies of this level are metal skeleton creatures that curl up and somersault toward you when they see you coming. Eventually you get a feel for the rhythm of their approach, and it becomes possible to hit them before they’ve finished rolling. These skeletons come in blue- and red-eyed varieties—the convention in this game is that blue-eyed enemies are weaker and more common, while red-eyed ones are stupidly powerful and placed in a couple of choice locations throughout the level. The red-eyed knights from the Boletarian Palace eventually become bearable, but at least in my play-through the red-eyed skeletons in this level never did. To make matters worse, almost all of them are located at awkward angles or long distances from the nearest safe spot, which makes it time-consuming to pick them off with arrows.

There are also “storm beasts”, which are like flying manta rays that can launch spikes at you. They cause no end of annoyance even after you have a practically unlimited supply of arrows. The level’s central area is a walled courtyard strewn with piles of rubble and rotting wood. When you get here (which takes some doing, early in the game), you are also faced with the demon Vanguard—the axe-wielding tiny-winged giant who kills you in the tutorial. He blocks off the courtyard at a chokepoint, closing off the easiest path to the rest of the level.

Getting anywhere near Vanguard is a dicey proposition. His swing takes a long time to wind up, but it’s all over if he hits you even once. His reach is so wide that this is likely to happen even if you time your incursion perfectly. A frontal attack is, in short, not an option. Vanguard infallibly knows where you are whenever you’re in striking range, which precludes any kind of sneak attack. It’s not clear how the game makers intended you to kill him. I eventually did it with the aid of several hundred arrows and about an hour of my life I will never have back. Read the rest of this entry »

Non-Euclidean Physics

Previously…

In the level’s first half, ominous silhouettes could be seen in the night sky, darker patches that hinted at something horrible. The second section of the Tower of Latria is actually in the night sky, on and around the tower itself, and we finally get to see what they’re silhouettes of. Around the main tower there is a network of smaller ones, connected by narrow walkways. It goes without saying that there is no guardrail or parapet protecting you from the drop. This is a minor frustration—you will inevitably fall off at least a couple of times, no matter how careful you are.

This level’s chief enemies are gargoyles like the ones that carried me up to this point. Some of them have stabbing weapons with a much longer reach than mine, and while they’re not tough, they can deal a lot of damage. It is important not to let them hit you, but later in the game it’s often easier to ignore them and run past. The gargoyles are one of the best illustrations of the most severe technical flaw in Demon’s Souls: the shaky implementation of the Havok physics engine.

The Half-Life 2 physics puzzles were an amusing novelty. They were contrived, but it never really detracted from the gameplay. This is partly because the Havok physics engine was smoothly integrated into the rest of the game’s technology. It never broke down and did something flatly impossible. Since that time, using a physics engine has become fashionable, which means that most games are going to misunderstand why it was attractive in the first place and implement it in a way that ruins the realism it was supposed to enhance. Demon’s Souls is one of these games. Read the rest of this entry »

Class Warfare

Previously…

The Tower of Latria is the next level in my clockwise run through the game. The first section is the “Prison of Hope”, a clammy dungeon full of wailing undead prisoners. In the outdoor areas, you can see shadowy outlines against the night sky, hinting at something unspeakable above. Inside, there is not much floor space. Each cell block has narrow walkways against three walls and a bottomless pit in the middle. Anyone attempting to escape will have trouble eluding the Cthulhuvian sorcerer-guards.

These creatures are nasty, especially early in the game. Their magical attacks, which they can deploy quickly, will drain most of your health in one hit (except for the one that paralyzes you, opening you up to the other attacks), and at this stage in the game they take quite a few whacks with a sword before succumbing and descending into some slippery nautiloid hell. Getting off the first attack is crucial, and not letting the monster get a word in edgewise even more so. Not being seen is therefore paramount. The Tower of Latria demands stealth. This fact is a little problematic. Read the rest of this entry »

The soul of soulless conditions

Previously…

Beating Phalanx opens up the rest of the game. The only hard and fast restriction is that you cannot progress past the second boss of the Boletarian Palace until you have completely cleared at least one other world. I could go through the remainder of the game in any order, and to an extent that’s what I did. This series is really a condensed and simplified account of what was a messy playthrough.

Though all the levels are open to Steve, it seemed logical to choose the one immediately next to the Boletarian Palace—the Stonefang Tunnel. This choice was also motivated by the fact that the level contains Blacksmith Ed, who is more effective than Boldwin at high-level weapon upgrades. Stonefang Tunnel is the mine level, a required box to tick in a certain type of fantasy game. I start outside the mine, high up on a mountainside. A merchant aptly named the “Filthy Man” sells supplies and ores near a campfire.

The entrance to the mine is not far from here. Inside it’s almost too dark to see, which remains an annoyance throughout the level. The enemies here are mainly “burrowers”, Morlock-like underground people who keep working mindlessly even though the mine is no longer in use. Most of them will not initiate an attack, and in any case they’re pretty useless as enemies, their chief feature being that they take very little damage from attacks not based on stabbing. For some reason they have bits of scaly metal embedded in their skin. Blacksmiths Ed and Boldwin also have this feature, which is, again, never explained. It makes more sense if you don’t think about it. Read the rest of this entry »

So that’s one demon, many souls?

Previously…

Steve wakes up as a half-dead spirit at the centre of a large, circular chamber. A message flashes onscreen, informing me that Steve is trapped in the Nexus and cannot escape. A floating, eyeless Maiden in Black chants over him. High above is a giant sword-bearing statue. There are others here—a couple of people huddling in one corner, and a blue glowing warrior sitting alone and forlorn on the stairs. Among the people off in the corner are Boldwin the blacksmith and a character named, I swear to God, Stockpile Thomas. These two serve purposes that could be filled equally well by a self-effacing nobody and a large wooden box respectively, but the game designers decided to give them personalities: Boldwin is dripping with contempt, and Thomas is sycophantically concerned for your well-being. The idea, I suppose, is to liven things up for you, but I think they actually achieved the opposite.

While, at first, the shopkeeper’s personality might be interesting (though it’s a long shot), after the 175th time you’ve spoken to them, you’d rather they behaved like a vending machine. It’s the Wal-Mart greeter effect: attempting to form a personal relationship makes commercial transactions more, not less, difficult and uncomfortable. Only two games I can think of have gotten around this, by two very different methods: the Sam & Max adventure games have Bosco, the colourful conspiracy theorist who runs the local Inconvenience store (and who you rarely have to deal with more than once or twice in a game), and Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance has three different shopkeepers who respond to events in the game and change their dialogue after every dungeon (which is more or less every time you see them), so at least it doesn’t get monotonous. For most games, you can do much worse than barely human vendors.

The blue glowing guy is sitting in front of an archstone, a magical teleportation device that sends you to one of the game’s levels. All the archstones are inoperative except this one, the archstone of the Small King. I take it and find myself transported to the ruined castle of Boletaria. A dragon flies by, carrying the dead body of a horse. Slave soldiers wait for me behind wooden barricades. It’s not at all clear what the status of these soldiers (and the other enemies in the game) is exactly. They certainly look like they’re some flavour of undead, but the other soldiers later in the level do not, and I thought, based on the opening video, that the Boletarians were supposed to be friendly but embattled. There is probably an explanation for this somewhere, but the info dumps are few, far between, and horribly written. Whatever doesn’t get simply filtered out is forgotten, because the things you’re told in cutscenes have almost no bearing on the rest of the game. I feel like the developers put a lot of work into world building, but the game actually plays more smoothly if you don’t try to make sense of its scenario.

Now we’ve arrived at the beginning of the first level. Here begins the infamous part. Read the rest of this entry »

Demons in their summer souls…

When you pop the curiously titled 2009 game Demon’s Souls into the PS3, the first thing you see is an impressive introductory video of armoured ciphers putting sharp things through their enemies’ guts. These enemies (and their guts) get progressively bigger, culminating in a roaring Clash of the Titans-style monstrosity that promises to provide an impressive spectacle. This is one of the few times I’ve been impressed by the superpowered graphics of the current generation. If the entire game revolved around fighting these giants, it would easily be one of the best games of the past few years. Unfortunately, as we shall see, this is not the case.

(The video also includes music, and I should take a moment to note, in my official capacity as a classically trained musician, that the music in this game is incredibly bad. Luckily for us, there’s not much of it, and the whole experience is vastly improved if you play some Tchaikovsky over it.)

What I expected going into Demon’s Souls was something like a low-rent Shadow of the Colossus without the moral angle: simple, guilt-free murdering of large demons in a rich high-fantasy landscape. It might seem unfair to judge a game harshly for being fundamentally different from what I was expecting, but this is not the case. There is not that great a distance between the actual, hit-and-miss concept and the potentially awesome concept, and someone should have noticed this while the designers were still spitballing. Slight changes in focus here and there might have improved the final product dramatically. As it is, depending on how well you do, it could be days before your first, inevitably disappointing, battle with a giant demon, and that’s just not fair. Read the rest of this entry »

The Lebowski Gambit, part 4: The Video Guy II: Electric Boogaloo

Previously…

The video guy redeems himself very slightly by making an interesting point at the beginning of this video.[0:51] He argues that, in a speech about banning certain video games, Hillary Clinton implicitly denies their inherent value by pointing to superficial instrumental values: they can be educational, improve hand-eye coordination, &c. He then argues that Anita Sarkeesian does the same thing.[1:05]

The substance of his point deserves more discussion than I will give it here. I will tentatively allow that this might be what Clinton is up to, but it is unlikely that Sarkeesian—a pop culture critic, whose job it is to believe that pop culture has some inherent importance—is trying to diminish the importance of video games in this way. Indeed, Clinton is trying to ban certain games. Sarkeesian is trying to explore them critically. That difference in context counts for a lot. Read the rest of this entry »

The Lebowski Gambit, part 3: The Video Guy

Previously…

The video guy’s hatchet job of Sarkeesian is in two parts, here and here. Part 1 begins with a childish rhetorical move, and such moves characterize much of its runtime. I will not respond directly to these, as they are beneath contempt.

I had intended to link to specific parts of the video, but my usual method for that (adding ?t=XmXs to the URL) is not working for these videos. This means I have to paraphrase inline, resulting in a lot more “he said she said” than I’d like. I will cite statements from the videos by putting the time at which the statement begins in square brackets like so: [2:30]. Read the rest of this entry »