24 November 2012

Taste #9 - Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis (PC)

Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis

Developer: Frogwares
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Released: April 2008
Time played: 90 minutes

  • Original title is "Sherlock Holmes versus Arsène Lupin". Simpler "Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis" title was chosen for the US and 'some parts of England' release according to WP.


  • Runs nicely at high resolution in Win 7 64 bit without any problems. Textures generally sharp, world a little bare and rigid.

  • Voice acting acceptable, strange pronunciation of a few words including a reference to the Medici.

  • Directed to go get a hansom. No idea what it is, no hints given. Turns out it refers to horse drawn carriages of the time (1800s). They could of at least said hansom cab surely? Maybe this is assumed knowledge from either previous games or the source text.

  • Puzzles are solved through a mixture of pixel hunting and reasoning. Asks players to perform some basic deductions and piece together clues in order to provide key word answers which must be typed. Surprising to see a modern game take this approach but it serves the genre well and forces the player to engage rather than just going through the motions and clicking everything they find.

  • Extensive in-built hint system is also provided. Clues can be revealed slowly with more subtle hints initially. A great idea in the age of the internet where designers must assume people will  search for walk through guides rather than bang head against wall until solving puzzles. The balanced approach here is to require engagement for progression but provide unrestricted tools to remove road blocks. It is then up to the player to determine how long to spend trying to solve puzzles before seeking help.

  • Worth another look at some stage. Slow and a little dry, but an enjoyable distraction.

14 November 2012

Taste #8 - Gish (PC)


Developer: Cryptic Sea
Publisher: Chronic Logic, Stardock, Steam
Released: May 2004
Time played: 20 minutes

  • Indie title co-created by Edmund McMillen who went on to create Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac and others.


  • Bland. Some basic platform mechanics and physics combined to create a simple platform/puzzle game.

  • Controls are simple with 4 direction buttons, buttons to turn sticky/slick/heavy, and a jump button. Activating these abilities took some getting used to, maybe partly because I'm so used to playing this kind of game with a gamepad rather than keyboard.

  • The theme and art design really didn't appeal to me. Very bland palette and simply animation. Some fluidity in the movement of Gish himself, but the world is very lifeless.

  • Couldn't keep going passed the first few levels.

  • Interesting contrast with Super Meat Boy which I've played for 2 or 3 hours. I found the controls of that game much more comfortable and direct, and although it is another example of simple art design the presentation had more weight and character. I can see links between these games though, and it's interesting to see where a now well respected designer started. Good luck to him.

11 November 2012

Taste #7 - Shining Force Neo (PS2)

Shining Force Neo

Developers: Neverland and Amusement Vision
Publisher: Sega
Released: October 2005 (NA)
Time played: 90 minutes


  • Voice acting is ordinary, but not excruciating. The game is apparently known for extremely bad voice acting in this English release.

  • I've never played a Shining Force game until now, despite a strong connection with early Sega and having access to the original games via various compilations.

  • The game is best described as an action RPG with hack and slash Diablo style combat mechanics.

  • It's a well designed game given the platform constraints. Comes across as quite polished and reasonably stylish.

  • The game shows large outdoor areas and seamlessly transitions to indoor environments without interrupting play. Building roofs fade into transparency as the character enters revealing the building interior. This is impressive, and very rare for a game of this vintage, and probably still not a given some 12 years later. I'm curious about the engine used in this game and whether it was used to power any other games.

  • Story is about young hero returning home, family mystery, protection from ancient power that has re-emerged etc etc. Nothing particularly novel, but competent enough from the looks of things. Mystery and betrayal used to drive things along and retain player interest in the story.

  • Combat mechanics seem simple, but further systems are being introduced as the game progresses. Loot drops from items in the environment as well as enemies.

  • Straightforward but competent real-time action-rpg mechanics make a nice change of pace from obtuse turn based systems iterating on tired decade old ideas.

  • The cut-scenes are well done and very manga-like. There is a bit of a disconnect between the art in these cut-scenes and the art used during the many talking head conversations in game. Differences between in-game character models and pre-rendered cut-scenes is expected but for whatever reason the art used in the conversation talking heads is different again - surely this could have been created to match the cut-scenes?

10 November 2012

Digital Library

The store is your digital library. Just as easy to install from store page as library page in steam. Psychology of ownership is a hangover that is unhelpful. At the end of the day, the experience of playing (probably) is all that matters. So:

Purchase games when ready to actually play

Do not purchase games unless ready to play. Do not purchase games as an expression of the intention to play at some future point

These same rules apply when it comes to all consumptive media. Why buy DVDs unless ready to watch them? (actually you should probably never buy them at this point)

  • Write script to determine cost of games actually played rather than owned.

  • Unplayed but owned is meaningless, particularly for digital items.

  • No shelf to admire (although GoG/Steam try to replicate this to an extent - GoG even provides a wooden shelf to arrange titles on)

Taste #6 - Railroad Tycoon II (PS1)

Railroad Tycoon II

Developer: PopTop Software
Publisher: Take-Two Interactive
Released: February 2000
Time played: None


  • Couldn't get it to run.

  • Sad - was looking forward to this one.

Taste #5 - Shift 2: Unleashed (PC)

Shift 2: Unleashed

Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: March 2011.
Time played: 1 hour

Preface: Thank goodness for the standardisation of the Xbox 360 controller for PC over the last few years. I couldn't even attempt a game like this without analogue control these days. I remember playing so much of the Domark F1 game on the Sega Master System back in the day. That game probably didn't need much subtlety in control though.


  • Awesome dude. You did really well. (thanks random racing man)

  • Here's some XP. You'll earn it by (blah be blah be blah)

  • Control felt detached and lagy. Tried reducing game resolution to bump up frame rate but nothing changed. Not sure if this is just a reflection of the handling model or whether there was something introducing extra lag into my setup. Using 360 controller which was natively detected and supported so that shouldn't be to blame.

  • Although controller was supported, the on screen key mapping prompts don't reflect this choice. Even though they have nicely remapped menu navigation through the controller buttons you need to figure it all out by trial and error.

  • The Shift series has advertised and emphasised the in car driver helmet perspective camera. In car views have been common in racing games for a few years now but the Shift series tried to stand out by introducing fancy effects to mimic the motion and forces on the driver's head as opposed to a fixed camera placed within a car. I stuck with the default in car view for this reason and could see some of these effects in play when hitting a wall etc, but it didn't do much for me. Responsive controls meant I was already a bit detached from the experience and so this sort of immersion wasn't adding anything.

  • Overall it came across as a competent game, maybe a little generic. I dislike the dude bro presentation and prefer a more restrained/slick approach of the Forza or Project Gotham (RIP) series.

  • Incidentally, I have the Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel that Microsoft sold for the first 3 or 4 years after the 360 was released. I've used it quite a bit with the 360 and it works quite well. I mention this because it's a USB device that can easily plug into a PC and should really be supported by Windows - BUT - Microsoft abandoned the product and never implemented drivers for the wheel although they had previously publicly stated that work on Windows support for the device was underway. Logitech seems to rule the low/mid end of the PC wheel market now (the fool in me looks at G27 prices from time to time)

Taste #4 - Shadow Hearts 3: From the New World (PS2)

Shadow Hearts 3 - From the New World

Developer: Nautilus
Publisher: XSEED Games
Released: March 2007
Time played: 2 hours


  • What an odd game.

  • Dialogue is very slow and painful

  • Main character is a strange kid/private detective.

  • Locations pretend to be 3D areas ready for exploration, but are extremely walled in with very little to see or do.

  • Went through first dungeon which was to explore an old Theatre looking for someone for a client. Story opens up once you complete this. Very bland design simply involving exploration of a bunch of corridors back and forth until events trigger.

  • Had always been curious about these games after seeing copies of them in the later days of the PS2 era. Now I know why they were hanging around as discount titles - they probably couldn't sell through the first print run...

  • (I refuse to taste any more Shadow Hearts games)

7 November 2012

Taste #3 - Radiata Stories (PS2)

Radiata Stories

Developer: tri-Ace (Well known developer famous for other titles like Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile)
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: September 2005
Time played: 90 minutes


  • Real time combat. Party based but player only has direct control over main character Jack. Basic pattern is hitting targeted enemy, dodging attacks, and managing special meter which fills over time and provides power moves.

  • The game looks nice and supports progressive scan 480p. This game like many PS2 titles only supports the progressive scan mode via a button hold at boot. I have no idea why Sony decided support progressive scan only via a (mostly) undocumented button press at boot rather than an in-game menu.

  • There is a sense of humor in the game, nothing overt but enough to convince you that  the game doesn't take itself too seriously.

  • The game includes loads of NPCs. It is possible to recruit any one of something like 180 of these into the party.

  • A noted feature of this game is that you can kick anything. World items wobble when kicked sometimes dropping items. People generally react but accept a certain amount of kicking, after which they'll challenge you to a duel if you persist.

  • The field/exploration portion of the game is presented in full 3D but constrains player movement to a restricted area providing a 2.5D path ala double dragon. There are established roads with branching paths allowing players to explore the map. During this exploration enemies will appear along the road providing random battles that can be avoided by avoiding direct contact. Wonder when this was done first? I recall reading that this approach was also used in Final Fantasy XII - not sure when it was established first.

Taste #2 – Okage: Shadow King (PS2)

Okage: Shadow King

Developer: Zener Works
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Inc
Released: October 2001
Time played: 2 hours

Excerpt: Chapter 1- Boy Meets King

"I am a super mom
I am a super wife
A stupendous chef
A doting mother"

[voice over - which sounds an awful lot like James Spader]

This story starts with an ordinary conversation by an ordinary family...

We need bread...

(brief observation here - there is a loaf of bread rendered on the table next to her)


  • Turn based combat with a small party.

  • End game objective: wipe out 7 rival evil kings.

  • Within minutes the game shows some character through a strong sense of humour. The dialogue is comical and very self aware. The evil lord is called "Stanley Hihat Trinidad XIV". A shop in the first town is called "Other One" in the town

  • The game uses a close level of zoom with characters appearing large on screen. The models look polygonal by todays standards but were undoubtedly advanced for the time period. I suspect the zoom level was chosen to emphasis this - not afraid of polygons - proud of how many!

  • The game engine is capable of showing huge outdoor areas but (as is typical with this era) can only display single rooms indoors and requires a short load from disc when walking between them.

  • The game seems to actively make fun of the fact that it presents you with choices that are meaningless and have no impact. In response to a question by a the father character I answered "no I won't" and he responded "aw, thanks son" as though I'd agreed. (this may have been a mismatch in the scripting but I doubt it)

  • Early in the game there was an opportunity to buy some ground beef. This is at a point before there is any context for food or the value of money and so no context had been established for making sense of the decision. I went ahead and as expected it paid off and was recognised by the game with offer to buy the ground beef back from me. I'm not sure how I feel about this sort of interaction as it is entirely out of context with the game world and character motivations. The effect of this design choice is to reward players who are willing to test every interaction and explore every room regardless of the appropriateness within the context of the game. This may appeal to younger players (and probably appealed to me in the past) but it represents pointless busy work that takes the player out of the experience. It could be argued that these issues don't matter in a comical game of this style but even then I'd argue that the game is simply wasting players' time.


  • Unusual.

  • Worth a chew.

1 October 2012

Taste #1 - Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror (PS2)

Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror
Developer: SCE Bend Studio
Publisher: SCE
Released: September 2007 (NA)
Time played: 45 minutes


  • 5th game in the Syphon Filter Series.

  • Released in 2006 on PSP, later ported to PS2 in 2007.

  • Apparently the fourth game introduced a more open ended experience with custom player creation and a more open structure involving RPG style missions with optional components.

  • This game is described as a return to the series roots.


  • The game did remind me of the original Syphon Filter game on the PS1. I believe I played this to completion when it was released. I'm curious to know how it would hold up and whether I'd remember any of it (a party/ball sequence comes to mind). I expect it would be a very dated and tedious experience by today's standards.

  • The game is old and sluggish by today's standards. Controls are reasonably laid out but fiddly and sluggish. It gives the impression of having been a decent PS2 third person shooter, but is by no means decent for a 2007 era (post Gears of War!) title. Not sure how it compares to benchmark PS2 shooters like Black, Killzone, or Timesplitters (though these are all first person - notable PS2 third person shooters don't come to mind though I'm sure thee exist).

  • Reasonably strong production values.

  • Very basic mechanics propped up using a variety of weapons and gadgets like goggles.

  • The enemies stand still and fire with no accuracy at all - probably in mainly to give the player time to rotate and aim using the sluggish controls.

  • Story seems to be the usual elite squad secret mission stuff - within the first mission they were blabbing on about "something Washington isn't telling us about this situation...".

  • Side note: apparently it only snows in the middle of the screen. This may be a widescreen mode problem though the game was ported from PSP so it is odd.


Stiff and old. A bit pointless.

29 September 2012

Game Taste

To explore from within. The rules:
  1. Selections drawn at random from the pool of available games

  2. Pool of games includes the platforms: PS1, PS2, PS3, PSP, GameCube, Wii, DS, 3DS, Xbox, Xbox 360, PC

  3. The selection must be accepted, except in cases where:

    1. the game is part of franchise/series and an earlier entry available on the same platform represents a more coherent and informative starting point

    2. the game was a prior selection, or is an unmodified port of a prior selection on another platform.
  4. Games must be played for a minimum of 30 minutes

  5. Games can be played for a maximum of 5 hours

  6. Each selection is the subject of a concluding write-up, to be published before the next selection is made.
Let it begin.

22 August 2012

Eketorp - The Viking Stronghold

Eketorp is a modern designer board game published by Queen Games. The game is themed around viking strongholds with players trying to gather resources and build up their stronghold while defending attacks and attacking other players. Each turn players simultaneously make a choice about how to allocate their vikings by selecting various actions on an individual player panel hidden from others behind a screen. Actions are then played out with resources won, strongholds attacked and defended through to resolution.

The game is reasonably straightforward and incorporates a nice amount of variety through card play and hidden simultaneous selection. There is just one problem. The english manual is horrible and includes a very disruptive error that totally confuses the rules and changes the nature of the game if played as written.

Board game hobbyists will probably suspect something is wrong and seek out clarification from boardgamegeek where the error is discussed and a correction is provided by players. However the publisher Queen Games has never corrected this error in the english language manual and it remains in error even in electronic form on their website.

This is very poor from Queen Games. They did not sufficiently proof the english translation of the manual, failed to notice the mistake after going to press and include a separate correction, and still fail to recognise the error on their website. Did the game sell so poorly that the work required to recognise this and alert players (say 10 minutes) is too great? Queen Games have. Needing to clarify rules through a third party enthusiast website rather than directly with Queen indicates that they have failed their customers in the case.

Errors in videogames are easily fixed with online connectivity and would be patched automatically before players start a game. This means that the system driven rules enforcement of a game can be altered even after manufacturing. Boardgames are entirely player driven and so all rules enforcement is done manually based on the supplied printed materials. Surely this means that publishers have an obligation to communicate necessary updates and fixes through an easy to find mechanism - such as the product page or support section of their website.

Eketorp is fun when played with the correct rules and I would recommended it to others. I suspect supporting 6 languages in a single package is asking for trouble Queen - get your act together.

16 August 2012

Detective Sandbox - emergent LA Noire

Alternate design for LA Noire:

  • Do not indicate directly whether the correct person was charged. Allow the player to make mistakes but live with it.

  • Cases are constructed with a fixed baseline series of events but variants with different perpetrators exist. You don't know whether you've made the right call by comparing with friends because their game may have played out differently.

  • Provide feedback to success via an end game report, or perhaps mid game career review (in fiction). Encourages repeat play through to close more cases correctly.

This approach contrasts with the design of a game like Heavy Rain which a branching story with multiple paths and endings. In Heavy Rain the motivation for going back after completion is simply to see what else could have happened if different choices were made. It is possible (in most instances) to make the alternate choice and see a new path through the story.

In this proposed redesign of LA Noire it would not be possible to go back on a second play through and see alternate endings/consequences simply by making different choices - the game is wiped clean each time you play and the exact scenario combination would (by design) not be recoverable or repeatable. There are no fail-state endings to the story, it simply continues based on the outcomes of the events as they play out, good or bad.

I see a play through of a game using this design philosophy as a performance by the player, rather than a reading of the story by the player. An author has not written multiple endings which can be viewed one after the other. The player writes the ending as they play, with authorial intent of the designer coming through only in the construction of the sandbox and rules for play.

Choices are meaningless without consequence - this is why we must offer true consequence and avoid the idea of 'repeat until you succeed' game design. This is not the hero's journey - it is your journey and you must be willing to accept the responsibility for its outcome.

No More Fail States

Consider two categories of outcomes within a game:

  1. Outcomes based on a player's choices

  2. Outcomes based on a player's in game performance
We've seen lots of games offer different outcomes based on well signposted choices. Save people or kill them, side with this person or that. Are there games providing interesting (non fail-state) outcomes based on player performance?

As an example the Mass Effect series focuses on choice only. Failure to win a battle always results in a game fail state and restart, much like playing a Mario game. The performance of the player outside of dialogue choices is essentially meaningless, there is only an option to progress or keep trying until you progress. As far as the story is concerned you are an amazing hero who always succeeds at combat  - regardless of whether you actually died and restarted 30 times to progress through the sequence. This disconnect is an example of ludonarrative dissonance as the actual experience of the player restarting over and over until complete is completely at odds with the progression presented in the game once they succeed. The game pretends nothing unusual happened and ignores the reality of a players experience altogether. This lack of acknowledgement completely undermines the in game narrative and distances the emotional impact of the story being presented. From the moment this inconsistency occurs the players are no longer engaged with the idea that the story is about their experience and it transforms into someone else's story which they're now being told to recreate.

A major hurdle in overcoming this problem in a Mass Effect combat scenario is that having a single main player character removes the possibility of combat based fail states resulting in death. Could this be achieved through combat failure resulting in auto withdrawal and retreat rather than death - no battle is "fight to the death"? Perhaps the same would need to hold true for opponents though? It might be odd if the player's side always retreats when their opponents always fight to their death. This suggests an alternate version of a Mass Effect game where you play as multiple characters of different races and your death is permanent. A death and reduction in the overall army/roster reduces chance of end game success.

The traditional design approach has been used in games for decades now, but it needn't be. There are other far more interesting choices that can be made if the designer is willing to trust the player and the game systems they've created. In many cases the game systems are not sufficiently interesting or complex to stand up without adding a completely pre-scripted narrative story to try and keep the player engaged. Contrast this with systems that can interact with players to generate engaging narratives purely based on the interactions of the rulesets with player behaviour - sounds fun huh?

15 August 2012

Monster Hunter

I became interested in the Monster Hunter franchise after hearing a discussion on the Hatchetjob podcast. Monster Hunter has become one of the most popular game series ever in Japan and apparently appeals across many demographics.

The game presents the player with hunting scenarios of increasing scope and grandeur which involve the capture or killing of monters. As the game progresses the complexity of this task increases and players need to carefully plan and prepare for hunts by researching the monster types in order to understand weaknesses and equip accordingly.

I have a copy of Monster Hunter Freedom Unite on the PSP. This is the second most recently Monster Hunter game released in the west, with the most recent being Monster Hunter Tri (3) on the Wii. I don't have a Wii so the PSP seemed like a good option. The game is very time consuming and probably suits a platform like the PSP well for someone who might play 20 minutes here and there over an extended period. I also have a copy of the original Monster Hunter release for the PS2 however I'll stick with this more recent and portable version.


The concept of going on a hunt in a game is not common and I don't recall every playing a game with this conceit. It does however remind me of another PC game I've heard about which is simply callled The Hunter. This game (which I've heard discussed on the Gamers With Jobs Conference Call podcast) is a real world hunting simulator which involves very slow and careful exploration of the wilderness in order to find and kill various types of wildlife. They refer to sneaking around the woods for hours on end looking to catch a deer without scaring it away. This is too much commitment for me but I imagine a successful hunt can be quite rewarding.

Control Responsiveness

Fluid animation adds delay and reduces responsiveness of control. Platform games of the past had less character animation and were highly responsive to control inputs. Characters more or less responded immediately to control inputs, spinning on the spot with little in the way of simulated momentum or animation sequences to slow down the transitions.

The size of the art character sprites also influences this. Simple animation is more obvious the larger the on screen characters are. Recent examples of games considered to control well such as Super Meat Boy retain relatively small player characters on screen. Does this allow the freedom of reduced frames of animation and contribute to the feeling of tight controls? I suspect so.

A modern example of compromise between the need to create smooth beautiful animation and retain tight responsive controls might be something like Rayman Origins. I have a copy of this on the Xbox 360 and will take note when I get around to playing it.

28 June 2012

27 June 2012

Garrus Got My Back

He and Liara had my back. But I didn't throw the shooting contest on the Citadel - he's a big boy.

(via Destructoid)

Demon's Souls

Demon's Souls is a game that developed a cult following before release in Australia which meant that I read a lot about the game before coming to experience it. I got hold of a second hand copy (of the rather nice Australian Black Phantom Edition) back in 2010 and somehow it took me nearly 2 years to fire it up. Despite this I still felt excitement as it loaded for the first time, knowing I'd finally see what all the fuss was about. I'd assumed that the servers would now be offline but discovered they are still online and the ongoing interest in the game means there are no plans to take them offline for some time yet. This was great to hear as the game provides unique mechanisms to interact with other players throughout despite being an ostensibly single player experience.

My first play session was more fun than I've had with a game in some time. I felt the weight of consequence for death straight away. It was immediately tense but also engaging. I'd imagined how the game might feel many times over in my mind but was pleased to find it aligned with the more optimistic of these musings. The game relies on a balance between challenging risk/reward mechanics and concessions to convenience sufficient to motivate replay after failure. The primary currency within the game are 'souls'. Any of these carried upon death are lost, permanently if the player cannot return to their place of death within the level without a further death. The player therefore must view death as a setback with the potential to render all in game experience from their passage of play (which may have been anywhere from 30 seconds to a couple of hours) permanently lost. This confronting design decision should not however be judged in isolation as other aspects of the Demon's Souls overall design philosophy provide a context for this particular design choice. Notably,

  1. Items carried at the time of death are retained and remain with you upon re-spawn.

  2. Any physical interaction with the level itself is also retained as part of the game state. This means that any time a door is unlocked or path is opened this will remain so from there in. This is important, and feeds directly into the level design which effectively provides mini-level path branches that can be tacked individually and provide much quicker access to previous areas and hence opportunities to return to your bloodstain and regain lost souls.

  3. Losing souls is a setback in experience but otherwise doesn't matter. The true focus of the game is gaining experience in the traditional sense of the word. The experience lost in souls is offset by the 'real' experience gained by the player through the practice of defeating enemies and learning the level layout. In other words - the game dares to demand that you practice at playing it in order to achieve a certain level of skill required to progress.
The third of these was not apparent before playing the game but stands out as a significant design decision. It appears that the game's designers made a conscious shift in the drivers of player progression through this aspect of the game design. Two important drivers of player progression in many modern games are:

  1. Player skill. In the high score, practice makes perfect sense.

  2. Experience systems. In the 'play for long enough and you can grind up enough levels to get your way through anything' sense.
It's worth noting that the second of these drivers (generally) doesn't exist in the real world. Take a driving test. You can't simply repeat a driving test until you've clocked up enough hours to receive an automatic pass. A pass is only awarded if you actually execute the test with sufficient skill to satisfy the examiner's minimum standard. Contrast this with most RPG battle encounters. Enemies are ranked in experience just as the player is, and though an enemy of higher levels can be beaten through skillful execution of the mechanics victory can also be achieved by simply gaining an experience ranking (level) that is sufficiently higher than the enemy that victory is assured regardless of how skillfully the player executes the battle.

Demon's Souls is somewhere in between. Player skill is emphasized but there is still an underlying RPG experience/leveling mechanic. Your ability to rely on this mechanism and progress through simulated skill alone (grind) is however significantly penalised. A shortfall in execution skill brings about swift player death and with it the loss of any accumulated experience points. The designers have tuned this progression balance so that it becomes essentially impractical to progress without demonstrating a minimum level of execution skill. Having managed to complete levels 1-1, 2-1 (and some of 4-1) I've barely scratched the surface of this game and am unsure of what lies ahead. I suspect this translates to a learner's permit and I'm in for a shock when I hit the open road.

19 June 2012

Resident Evil 6

Eurogamer really captures the spirit of long time Resident Evil protagonist Chris Redfield with this caption.