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RPG Codex Interview: Julian Gollop on Phoenix Point, One Year Later

Codex Interview - posted by Infinitron on Sat 7 July 2018, 15:23:43

Tags: Julian Gollop; Phoenix Point; Snapshot Games

Last year, Julian Gollop's Snapshot Games successfully crowdfunded Phoenix Point as a spiritual successor to the original X-COM games. In practice, Julian has sought a treacherous middle path between X-COM and XCOM, something which has been a source of controversy on our forums, where the game has attracted significant attention. One of our most dedicated Phoenix Point watchers, PanteraNera, decided to send Julian a few questions last month, with a particular focus on the game's strategic Geoscape layer, about which few details were known at the time. It took him a while to respond, but the answers are now here, just in time for the release of the latest backer build. Here's an excerpt:

How will missions be generated on the Geoscape? We've been told that the strategic map will be composed of "points of interest", and that the beginning of the game will have an exploration element, like in a 4X. So the question is, if I've explored all the points of interest around my base, do they cease to exist? Will they be "empty space" from that point on or will new ones be generated?

The current implementation is fairly simple - Points of Interest within range of discovered havens will appear for you to investigate. They could turn out to be other havens, scavenging sites, alien structures or inactive Phoenix Bases. However, there will be additional types of locations that are revealed in different ways - usually connected to the events system. Spying missions can also reveal location much further away. New points of interest will arise based on alien construction, faction construction and special events. Mission types are unusual in that the player effectively decides what he wants out of them rather than having some kind of performance rating. Haven defence is a common mission type where havens will request assistance in defeating an intruder (alien or human). They will usually offer some kind of reward, but after arriving you may find something useful that you can just steal, such as an aircraft, and then abandon the haven to its fate. Naturally you won't get the reward and their will be diplomatic consequences - but you do manage to steal the aircraft. The player can actively deploy squads to various zones inside havens for doing whatever he likes, or he can respond to requests from havens or faction leaders.

There won't be any UFOs flying around in Phoenix Point. The closest thing to that would be the Behemoths that you have to intercept, otherwise it's bye bye haven. But will there be any other "troop movements" in the game, by the Pandoravirus creatures or by the other factions and minor havens? If so, can the player interact with these movements in some way?

The three human factions will construct vehicles and use them to transport goods and personnel between their havens. They will also launch attacks on other havens, or one of your bases. At the moment we are not planning any direct interaction with these vehicle movements, but they will be detectable by radar.

Not much is known about base building so far, other than that the bases are pre-existing locations that have to be found/reclaimed by the player. We've been told that base layouts will be displayed from an overhead perspective, just like the classics. What can the player do in these bases? Can you raze existing facilities (I'm assuming the bases arrive prebuilt)? Build new facilities? How large will the bases be, like a 6x6 grid?

One of the player's main objectives is to located and reactivate the worlds remaining Phoenix bases. They will be in various states of disrepair, but otherwise facilities can be built or razed in a similar manner to the original X-COM, although the space for building may be more or less limited, depending on the location.

We know that you can team up with the three major factions and that each one leads to a different solution for how to beat the Pandoravirus. But how will the player build these alliances? Is it just a matter of doing missions for the other factions, or do we also get to talk to them, with dialogue trees and stuff? Can we barter and trade with the other factions? And will these diplomacy mechanics be based on scripted events, or will the player be able to choose when to engage with them?

The primary way to build an alliance is to fulfil the requests of the different factions. These requests may take the form of haven defences, but could also be special requests relating to the nature of the faction and whims of its leader. For example, Synedrion may ask you to rescue refugees, New Jericho may request help with an internal revolt and Disciples of Anu may desire food supplies to feed their hungry masses. Once you have made contact with faction leaders you can approach directly and there will be a system to interact with them.

Another key aspect of the classic games is research. What do you plan to do with this in Phoenix Point? We know that players will be able to research the Pandoravirus, including its creatures, structures and agenda. But will there be anything else available for research? New technology? New equipment? Will we also get to "research" the other human factions?

There are actually five different research trees - one for Phoenix archives, one each for the three human factions and one for the alien biology. Based on these the player will be able to develop new symbiotic techs. He can also help other factions in their research efforts and gain benefits from it either by alliance, trade or theft. The Phoenix archives research depends on locating other Phoenix bases and uncovers the history of the Phoenix project and the pandoravirus.

I believe the last time you mentioned crafting was on the Phoenix Point Discord channel quite a while ago. If I recall correctly, you said it'd probably be more about maintaining existing equipment than manufacturing anything new. So how is crafting going to work? Will there will be workshops in the game? What will we be able to make?

There will be workshops to manufacture equipment, armour, weapons and vehicles. It's a slow and expensive process, and stealing or scavenging are often easier routes to getting stuff. There are three key resources in the game - materiel, tech, and food. Tech represents hi-tech substances and equipment needed to produce the more advanced items. There are also a number of other items required for production, for example AI units are used in vehicles, and advanced labs and workshops.​

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RPG Codex Review: Shroud of the Avatar

Review - posted by Infinitron on Fri 29 June 2018, 01:00:10

Tags: Portalarium; Shrouds of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues

The year was 2013 and Kickstarter hype was at its zenith. It seemed like every month some legendary creator from the olden days was coming out of retirement, and some beloved oldschool franchise was being brought back to life. By March of that year, Brian Fargo had already brought back Wasteland and was about to launch his second Kickstarter campaign for Torment, Obsidian had taken on the mantle of the Infinity Engine with Project Eternity, and Chris Roberts was raking in millions with Star Citizen. But one man seemed to have been caught flat-footed by the crowdfunding revolution. That man was Richard Garriott, aka Lord British, creator of the Ultima series, the premier computer roleplaying series of the 1980s and early 1990s. The aging Ultima fanbase could only watch in despair as one Kickstarter after the other brought back every oldschool franchise imaginable, while their liege traveled around the world proclaiming the supremacy of Facebook games. It was humiliating, and after the bottom fell out of the Zynga bubble in mid-2012, increasingly untenable.

But although Garriott was forced to retreat from the realm of casual Facebook gaming, that didn't mean he'd abandoned all of his pretensions. We first learned about Shroud of the Avatar on March 1st, 2013, and its Kickstarter campaign launched a week later. It quickly became clear that the game was first and foremost an online experience, the Ultima Online sequel that Garriott never got to make. At that point, the vast majority of us ceased to pay attention to it. But there were some who, due perhaps to an atavistic attachment to the Ultima fan community, just couldn't look away. One of those people was taxalot, a veteran of the community going all the way back to Usenet in the mid-1990s. When Shroud of the Avatar was finally released this March after five years of development, he dove right in. This month he returned to us, bringing harrowing tales of a broken and unfinished game, absurd monetization practices, and the delusional fanbase that sustains them. We don't usually post about MMOs here, but in this case I'm glad to make an exception. Here's a quick preview:

Shroud of the Avatar is not some little game. It's not just a couple of tiny towns, with a dozen dungeon levels and a main quest that you can complete in 15 hours that you might expect from a small indie team. No, Portalarium made a huge game and filled it with nothing. The game quite possibly has hundreds of towns if you include player-owned ones, but only five or so contain anything of interest. There is absolutely NO POINT to the player-owned towns if you're not into housing or crafting. Seriously, don't go into them, it's a waste of time. You will get lost. You will meet no interesting NPCs. You will find no incredible deals, because everyone is trying to sell their stuff for ludicrous prices. Meanwhile, sidequests are either uninteresting, broken or just not there, with an incredible number that refuse to flag as “completed”, which means they remain in your quest log until the end of time. And if you were hoping to find new and rare items in this game, prepare to be disappointed. They don't exist. Unless you're willing to engage in crafting (with custom design, which I admit is a nice touch) or buy them for ridiculous prices, you will never own any special equipment.

Had Portalarium gone for a smaller scope with the same budget and even the same technology, they might have been able to deliver a finished product. A competent RPG that probably wouldn't have made any Game of the Year lists, but would have been enough to satisfy Ultima fans.

But here's the thing. Portalarium's intention from the very beginning of the project was to emulate the living, breathing world of Ultima Online in its early days. The classic Ultima series was known for its focus on immersion. For some reason, their marketing department decided that the best way to immerse Ultima fans was to sell them houses.

And sold they did. The first consequence of this was that if you backed the game for the single player experience… well, you probably gave up hope the moment your bank account was debited. To someone who was looking for a great single player adventure, the monthly emails focused solely on player housing were utterly depressing, an obvious sign that Portalarium had taken your money and were doing whatever the hell they wanted with it. Month after month, the studio unveiled new kinds of houses that you could buy with real money. But why stop at a house? Why not buy a castle? Or a whole town? You could do that too, as a solo player or as a guild to have your own place to regroup. The emphasis on this aspect of the game was truly puzzling. Between that and the monthly dance parties thrown by “DJ Darkstarr” (executive producer Starr Long's alter ego), one might wonder whether the point was to have exciting adventures or just to create some sort of virtual renaissance fair for everyone to LARP in. In many ways, it felt like Portalarium were increasingly less interested in selling a game than a medieval Second Life service.

To give people their houses Portalarium had to offer land, which explains why town maps in SOTA are so huge. Typically about three quarters of each town is occupied by player-owned buildings and empty lots. I would also estimate that around 80% of the towns in the game are either player-owned towns or towns that exist solely in order to sell more land. It makes exploring the world a completely excruciating experience, because of the unnecessary loading, because of the difficulty navigating this anarchic urban development, and because these towns are phantom zones.

No one ever visits other players' houses.

The player-owned towns are always, always empty.

The player-owned shops sell items that are either ridiculously priced, useless, or most often both.​

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RPG Codex Review: BATTLETECH

Review - posted by Infinitron on Sat 16 June 2018, 15:10:43

Tags: BattleTech; Harebrained Schemes

Harebrained Schemes' 2013-2015 trilogy of Shadowrun roleplaying games weren't known for their awesome gameplay but were lauded for their writing, establishing the Seattle-based studio's reputation as a narrative powerhouse. The second game in the trilogy, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, was particularly popular on our forums - rivaling the far more mechanically robust Divinity: Original Sin for the title of our 2014 GOTY largely due to the merits of its narrative design. Commercially, however, this storytelling excellence was not enough to make the Shadowrun RPGs anything more than budget-priced minor hits.

With BattleTech, Harebrained set out to expand beyond their core competency. With its more robust tactical combat implementation and strategic mercenary company management layer, contextualized by the rich lore of the BattleTech universe, the game sought a more even balance of story and gameplay. From a commercial perspective, this approach has clearly been a resounding success for the studio, with hundreds of thousands of copies sold and a handsome $7.5M buyout by publisher Paradox Interactive. But has this shift in priorities led to a more satisfying game, or have we gone from excellent narrative and perfunctory gameplay to tedious mediocrity on both fronts?

The man to answer that question is our esteemed tactical specialist sser, who volunteered to review BattleTech shortly before it was released back in April. His verdict? In short - mediocre, but not hopeless. Here's a quick look at his take on the game's combat:

One glaring omission from this world lies outside the mechs themselves. Namely something one might call, fisting two holes at the same time combined arms. Military strategists realized the OP nature of air superiority back when that consisted of two kites stitched together and a pilot with a good throwing arm. One can only imagine the devastating nature of controlling the Z-axis when you elevate it into fucking space. I think it’s already kinda lousy how BATTLEMECH handles this enormous elephant in the room, but it got me to thinking if perhaps it could have been utilized without dampening the core of the game. Maybe put some hangars on the mothership to state that it has fighters on hand to defend it as it travels to and fro? And in-battle ‘air support’ would simply be a limited supply of strikes you could bring down, while the rest are implied to be warring for superiority as ground forces do the dirty work? That or just fly Oscar the Grouch’s mansion around a hostile galaxy where, apparently, no spies exist anywhere and you can spend days sitting on jump-ships waiting to take off like Donald Trump casually standing in line for a Cinnabon at the Mexico City International Airport. But I digress.

So why not some ground troops? Technically, there are a few in the form of tanks. And they’re hilariously powerful little buggers when you consider the cost-benefit ratio. It’s one of the few times the universe lets slip how silly it all is. Let’s analyze for a moment. A tiny tank can get jacked up on PCP lasers, giant cannons, or so many goddam missiles the animation of them smashing your mech lasts so long all it’s missing is a microwave’s timer going off at the end. They’re incredibly threatening – and also incredibly sparse. Presumably because they get close to threatening the mech’s limelight. Fine. Fair enough. Whatever. But boy… when I look at those curvaceous BATTLEMECH maps freckled with innocent rural pastorals, the first thing I imagine is having a host of combined arms thrashing it to bits with mechs striding gloriously through that which has been ravaged.

But it does isolate an issue with BATTLETECH’s entirety: the player’s ability to only take four mechs into combat forever traps the game design into a phonebooth only big enough to challenge that starting point. I still feel like the difference between X-Com and XCOM (1994, 2012) is a perfect example of the issue. In X-Com, you have numbers on hand which not only makes your decisions on map very flexible, it also means your enemies have a lot of flexibility as the game has to contend with the players deep well of resources. In XCOM, you usually roll a squad four-deep. Your gameplay options were so piled into those squaddies that losing even one meant a giant stepback in firepower and force projection (and losing a whole squad often meant game over). Enemies are not foes frantically looking to squash you so much as they are taking directorial cues on how to behave. In turn, the maps became static ‘Overwatch creep’ affairs where players tilted toward the strategically conservative choices. It took a sequel and its expansions to get anywhere close to fixing this. BATTLETECH suffers from a similar fate in its first steps.

That’s the primary reason I harp on this lack of, admittedly ancillary, tools. Because a game can only challenge a limited toolkit so much. If it throws too much at you, then you’ll end up having to lean on luck instead of tactical options at which point it feels more unfair than challenging. The corollary is that if the game throws too little, like many of the randomized mercenary missions, it leans into simply being boring. This is partly why the game’s best missions are those designed to stretch your resources horizontally, forcing you to spread out and cover geographical ground while also choosing between killing targets and protecting points. Rewarding players for eagerness is a design resource you can tap repeatedly and when BATTLETECH does this it does it well. But the core of XCOM laid itself bare real quick and I think BATTLETECH does as well. I imagine HBS will borrow the cues from Firaxis in figuring out ways to variate the gameplay and wrench it free of its current confines. (My simple suggestion is that combined arms would be a great way to do this.)
And its story:

Where BATTLETECH noticeably falters is in the plot and characters. There is also a strange stylistic change between non-event writing and event writing. While events are written fairly straight, the main game’s writing has a lot of characters talking like this:

“I told you – A THOUSAND TIMES – to not… sigh… microwave the burrito with the foil on.”

The stilted orthography is a sort of sci-fi mirror to the campestral style of a ten-cent Western. Fair enough, but every character talks like this. If you pulled dialogue from the game and hid its speaker, you wouldn’t even know who the hell was talking. A lack of distinction and differentiation between characters is somewhat ironic since, like most sci-fi settings, the cast is a Captain Planet’s catalogue of diversity. One big red flag for this unexotic “dialogue” is that every single character is a certified ass kisser. There is only passing resistance to any of the Princess’s goals or ideas. With a large cast of characters, the matter of getting from point A to point B has about as much conflict as going from 1-1 to 1-2 in Super Mario. The unending rimjobbing she gets also stands in stark contrast to the actual plot's conceit.

And a quick recap of said plot: you are a financially insolvent killer for hire and there is a deposed princess who wants to take back the throne. This is a great premise. Story-wise, it is intriguing. The mercenary has debts to pay and the princess needs to recapture her throne. I immediately jumped to the obvious question. Why doesn’t the mercenary just fork over the princess to those who own the throne? What could the princess possibly reward him for years of struggle and uncertainty that would be better than a simple phonecall to the current royals? Not only is this a fun narrative, it could feed directly into gameplay with difficult decisions to make.

Except at no point whatsoever is there any tension between a person who murders for cash and a person who is essentially a Disney Princess. The toothless premise most noticeably sends a wrench into the issue of cashflow. In-game, the Princess is bankrolled by an outside power yet you can ostensibly still run out of treasury. It seems to me that the better concept would be for the player to play as the Princess who must hire the mercenary, and if you run out of treasury then the mercenary turns on you. Meanwhile, the mercenary smells blood in the water and keeps making bigger and bigger demands. I don’t know, just thinking out loud here. It’d be cool if the player’s story was front and center instead of every accomplishment’s limelight being afforded to a Mary Sue with a scar, but I digress. What's clear is that you are not a mercenary at all, which is kind of awkward considering the non-story contracts you undertake. Instead you fall into one of those awkward gaming tropes; that one where the shopkeeper wants you to save the world, but he still finds the time to demand you pay a couple quid for the very tool you need despite the implication that any failure on your part would also be his doom.

The debris of this blown idea peppers the rest of the game’s writing: the plot never really deviates from good vs. evil, and it’s almost patronizing how thoroughly it makes sure you know who has the halo who the horns. At one point it even lampshades itself when a villain talks like a toddler about their evil plans, but the device felt out of place in the setting and served to only further highlight how doldrum the whole thing was. Not to mention said evilness coming to fruition pretty much gets hand waved away which was about the point I gave up on expecting more.​

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RPG Codex Interview: Chris Avellone on Pillars Cut Content, Game Development Hierarchies and More

Codex Interview - posted by Infinitron on Mon 30 April 2018, 01:09:31

Tags: Chris Avellone; Pillars of Eternity; Planescape: Torment; System Shock (Nightdive Studios)

Back in 2016, Codex community member Fairfax began a correspondence with RPG writer extraordinaire Chris Avellone, for the purpose of interviewing him about some questions that many of us had at the time about his departure from Obsidian, his work on Pillars of Eternity, and related topics. For various reasons this correspondence ended up lasting months and years, and in fact it continues to the present day. The lengthy interview I present today is only the first part of a larger piece that we hope to publish in its entirety someday. Even though some of the questions now feel a tad outdated, there are still some juicy new details to be gleaned here. For example:

Eric Fenstermaker said Durance and the GM had a lot of "creative energy and research" invested in them. You seem to rely on getting approval every step of the way, which makes me wonder how that happened. Was there a miscommunication on the approval of your drafts and/or outline? And would you agree that the content had to be cut, or would you have tried to save it if you were at the helm? (Including Ulysses in FNV, not just PoE).

Companion Design - not always. Usually, it's paragraph, page, then dialogue. In Durance and Grieving Mother's case - and this I can say - the Creative Lead told me after my departure that the Project Lead had interfered but didn't specify the reasons. I don't even know what the reasons were (although I couldn't tell if I did, to be fair). In short, the Creative Lead said he should have handled the whole matter differently and didn't, regretted it, and apologized for it.

It doesn't matter - what's done is done - cuts don't bother me (they rarely do, if you're a writer in the industry and aren’t willing to make cuts, you probably won't be a game writer for long), but how it was handled overall was an example of how upper management can get tangled up and despite any problems, perceived or otherwise, you can be the last one to know, which makes the whole situation more fucked up than if you'd gotten a direct critique, fixed everything that was requested, and then it's put to bed. It's not a huge deal unless you make it one.

Fenstermaker specified the reasons in his Codex interview:

The cuts came for length. The three limiting factors were time to implement, art resources for the dream sequences, and VO budget. There was a target length we had set upfront for all companions, and we had to stick to it. Otherwise we'd be, for example, voicing maybe one out of every six lines for Durance and the Grieving Mother, and it'd be conspicuously incongruent with the other companions, who had maybe 2/3 of their lines voiced. Unfortunately in this case it meant cutting down characters that had had a lot of research and creative energy invested in them, and there were some good ideas there that it would've been interesting to explore. It was a shitty thing to have to do, but we'd never have been able to implement the original versions in time to ship.

Since you can't comment on PoE's case in particular: is having similar lengths and amount of voiced lines a priority for you in companion design? In Torment and KOTOR2 some companions didn't have nearly as many lines as others, but neither game suffered for it, if you look at how they were received.

I can confirm some of the elements - there’s still people I can ask, so if I can’t remember, it’s easy to find someone who can jog my memory (I can’t check the details on my own). I also managed to get some clarification on some of the points, which was welcome, so…

Of those three reasons, the first was the only one I ever recall communicated to me (I had to get confirmation on it and these other points, since it’s been a long time). The other two reasons weren’t, and I actually got multiple other reasons from multiple people – and some of those people admitted they were just the messenger. This confused things, since they couldn’t articulate what the critiques were since they either didn’t understand them or hadn’t read the material (both our CEO and Parker among them – ironically, after a long speech ending with his admission he hadn’t even read what he was arguing against, Parker did go back and read the companions and found nothing to object to, which cost even more time – to his credit, he did admit his error, but things like that happened a lot).

There were other people who apparently didn’t like Durance’s swearing (easy fix), and the original tie in the GM and Durance backstories were they had violated each other physically and mentally and that’s what broke both of them, which I then cut – although I don’t know if the GM one got removed completely – the intention was the Watcher could fix it mentally by repairing their souls by walking through their minds in stages. I think some of this is still mentioned in the strat guide.

In the end, I just wanted to fix whatever the problems were and move on to the next task, because there were a lot of tasks that needed doing. I had done the best work I could, and it was up to the Pillars team to decide what fit best (which is fine, it’s what vision holders do), but no one was articulating what the problems were.

To speak to the implementation part, it had been promised by multiple people on Eternity (producers and Lead Creative) that they would set aside (their own) time for implementation and make sure it got done.

When the project ran over – and this happens, I don’t blame anyone for that – it was apparent they ran out of time for their own character implementations – and some companions even required two designers to implement. As such, other developers took on what tasks they could to try and make up for lost time. Things that could definitely have helped (hire an editor, like they eventually did for Tyranny) were refused in light of putting more devs from other projects rather than trying to fix the missing personnel. I was later informed that this time was not paid back, which was the hope but not a surprise, and I don’t think Paradox was ever fully aware the Tyranny team had been gutted (in general, publishers don’t like hearing the resources they’re paying for they aren’t getting).
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RPG Codex Review: Divinity: Original Sin 2

Review - posted by Infinitron on Tue 6 March 2018, 23:54:44

Tags: Divinity: Original Sin 2; Larian Studios

Ah, Divinity: Original Sin 2. It's our RPG of the Year for 2017, and a game that really, really pissed some of us off. Above all, it's a hugely successful title, with some 1.2 million copies sold to date. Which is why it's unusual that we've heard so little from Larian since its release in September. Last month's controversial combat mechanics interview with Original Sin 2's systems designer is the most recent of their very few media appearances. After reading it, I knew we had to finally publish a review - even if our reviewer couldn't bring himself to finish the game. I do wonder whether that interview might be a hint that Larian are working on some sort of big systems overhaul. Regardless, I think it's high time we unleashed Darth Roxor on them. Gentlemen, without further ado:

However, armour is by far not the dumbest aspect of DOS2. That award goes to the initiative system. This game is perhaps the first RPG I’ve ever seen where initiative is a dump stat. That is because the initiative queue functions as a round robin, where both sides take turns on a “you go, I go” basis – the initiative score only influences the queue arrangement within a specific side. Combatants on the same side can only move in succession if there’s more of them than the opposition, and this will nevertheless occur only at the bottom of the queue. So, in other words, if you have four characters with initiative 15, and you fight two monsters with initiative 5, those monsters will still take their turns before two of your characters. Even worse, the queue reshuffles itself each turn if a combatant dies. So if one of the initiative 5 monsters were to die, the other would now act before three of your characters. This gets particularly bad for big brawls, where strong monsters with low initiatives that you leave for last, in order to first dispose of their faster but weaker buddies, will keep climbing the queue with each turn, until they finally get to act first and bust your balls.

I have no other words to describe this other than that it’s pure distilled stupidity. You will run into numerous occasions where finishing off an enemy is a bad idea, because in that way you will empower its stronger ally that is further down the initiative queue. Instead you are better off either ignoring them, or leaving them stunned as “initiative block decoys”. Before killing anything in DOS2 during harder fights, you always have to check the initiative queue and consider whether you will not be sabotaging your own planned courses of action for subsequent turns that way. This is not how it’s supposed to work, goddammit. Also, you can now scroll back to the attributes section of the previous chapter, and realise just how useless is the Wits stat – there is no reason at all to raise this, except maybe on one character that you’d want to move first among your own party, or to have a chance to open a fight instead of leaving that to an enemy.

But Wits and initiative are not the only things that suffer from the jumbled mess of oversimplifications that plague the systems in DOS2. Another is character archetype identity and skill “coolness”. I’ve sort of mentioned this already for the armour discussion, but it deserves repeating. When the mechanics are more or less reduced to “do damage”, “heal” and “debuff once armour is broken”, you significantly limit the breadth of skill functionalities, and also remove a lot of the craziness that made the combat in DOS1 so fun (which is further amplified by the big reduction of damage for all sorts of explosive barrels and other environmental hazards). It also doesn’t help that action points are very limited – base is 4 while the max you can hope for is 6, and that’s only with haste effects that are very short and hard to come by. In practice, this more or less limits you to doing 2 meaningful actions a turn at best.

To put it bluntly, the majority of abilities in DOS2 are boring, repetitive and samey. For example, take the “ranger” and the “warrior”. In DOS1, they had a number of stances, support and damage skills, and the ranger also had elemental arrows with various uses. In DOS2, the ranger is reduced to having more or less the same damage skill repeated ten times with slightly different flavours, while the special arrows are hardly more than generic magic projectiles to bust through some idiot’s magic armour. That’s it. As for the warrior – his bread and butter is a ranged multiple target nuke, a charge with multiple target damage and knockdown, a cone-shaped stomp with a knockdown, two suspiciously magical-looking teleports… and so it goes. When playing a warrior, I found myself casting more area damage spells than I would in most other games as a mage, with barely any chance to do regular attacks, which anyway were all inferior to the constant spellspam.

[...] I think everyone can agree that the story and its presentation in DOS1 was the game’s worst aspect. The story was bland, the writing was boring and the characters were kind of stupid. It also employed Larian’s trademark tongue-in-cheek style, but this time, without actual quality writing to support it, it ended up dumb instead of funny.

The studio promised to improve this by hiring a bunch of new writers and promising to make the game “less whimsical”. I’ve always been sceptical of this, because to me it looked like acting on wrong feedback. It wasn’t the whimsical style that was the problem in DOS1 – after all, the same style was fine in all the other Divinity games. The problem was that it was just not good. Unfortunately, my scepticism proved well-founded.

I don’t think it’s fair to complain or go too deep into the story itself here, because it’s near-identical to every other Larian game in existence. That is, your character, a Special Person, turns out to be an Even Specialer Person, and embarks on an Epic Quest to change the Fate of the Known World™©®. The reason why this particular iteration of the story comes out bad is in the presentation and, again, in the lacking writing quality.

The chief problem is that despite the writing team switch, the writing remains largely the same – boring, long-winded and without flair, complete with my favourite boast of “over one million words of voiced dialogue”. The only major difference is that the dumb whimsical aspect was replaced by a dumb maturegrimdark aspect, plunging it even further into generic fantasy crapola territory. Not to mention that the writers appear to have some concerning mental issues related to various deviations.

One is the alarming ubiquity of all manner of sexual content. It’s like every second character just can’t wait to pinch, lick, kiss, smell, caress or have other questionable interactions with your protagonist, or describe said interactions with other people, to the point that it makes you imagine the writer as some sort of overly excited dog trying to hump your leg all the time.

Although likening the writer to a dog might be risky given the second, much more disturbing deviation, which is the rampant animal abuse in this game. I swear there is not a single animal in DOS2 that wouldn’t be subjected to torture, torment, mutation or madness, and probably half of those either die after your conversation with them concludes, or beg to be mercy killed.

Also, when it comes to the main plot, there is one thing I can’t really understand. The game gives inexplicable importance to Braccus Rex, an early game boss monster from DOS1, whose characterisation was limited to laughing a lot and throwing fireballs around. Out of all the bad guys in the Divinity series, they really had to pick someone as featureless as this? It’s roughly the equivalent of having The Butcher as one of the main villains in Diablo 2, although even that would make more sense.​

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RPG Codex Review: Into the Breach

Review - posted by Infinitron on Tue 27 February 2018, 23:59:59

Tags: Into the Breach; Subset Games

Back in 2012, the two-man indie studio Subset Games released roguelike spaceship simulator FTL: Faster Than Light. It was a pretty cool game, the first big success of Kickstarter, and if you squinted hard enough you could even call it an RPG. A year and a half later, FTL received an Advanced Edition that featured additional writing from Chris Avellone, making it even cooler. Today, nearly four years later, Subset have finally released their next game, Into the Breach. At first glance, it seems like couldn't be more different from FTL - a turn-based, tile-based tactics game where you defend cities from aliens with giant mechs. Into the Breach also features the writing talents of Chris Avellone, but there's no mistaking it for an RPG. Nevertheless, our tactical specialist sser was intrigued by it, and when sser sets his mind to something, he delivers. Without further ado, I give you his thoughts on Into the Breach:

I’ve seen Into the Breach described in a lot of interesting ways, from a game of mechanized billiards to something more akin to aikido. While I was playing it I just kept thinking, “Whatever you do, just don’t call it a puzzle game!” But like so many writers who visit North Korea that cannot ignore the reality of 1984 come to life, I can’t really refer to Into the Breach without touching base with its puzzle-game roots.

Barring a small yet potentially significant %-chance for attacks to miss the Power Grid, the game essentially has no RNG. Enemies telegraph attacks and, with a brilliant interface that spares no details, you only need to read the information and respond accordingly. Sure, there is a bit of variety that is in the spirit of classic RNG. For example, you don’t know where enemies will go. Your pre-battle setup may end up leaving you borked before the battle even begins as enemies scatter into such nasty positions it may as well have been you playing the other side. You also don’t know what sort of monsters might appear either. I had one perfect run slightly tarnished when a ‘grabbing’ insect snagged a mech to certain doom on the very last turn. C’est al Vek.

But in the age of Jagged Alliance and X-Com and Battle Brothers, most look at RNG as a form of percentages, odds, and risk-taking. None of those reside within Into the Breach. Every single aspect of detail is covered with absolute determinism. Like any good puzzle game, things aren’t where they should be and you need to put the pieces where they rightfully fit. The schism between a good score and a smoldered run is solely the responsibility of the player. You have but the greatest weapon at your disposal: time. And, similar to the fantastic and also RNG-less Invisible Inc., there's an even more powerful tool you may be keen on using: the ability to revert time and restart at least one turn a fight.

An infinite amount of time does give me pause, though. Due to the ‘sliding puzzle’ gameplay and the ability to read information so tight and terse Sid Meier would drool, there isn’t much in the way of challenge. I very nearly beat the game on my first run, beat it on my second with a completely different squad, and absolutely breezed through it on a third campaign with another fresh team. It’s a large break from beating FTL which was like trying to rescue a cat from Evil Dead’s rape tree.

Unfortunately, if you put Into the Breach on Hard, it only increases the number of Vek in an attempt to brute force defeat into your hands. Despite following a familiar design path, Invisible Inc. felt as if it had a better grip on difficulty. It utilized a fog of war to present players with unforeseen challenges that they then responded to on the fly. Because Into the Breach is such a puzzle-game at heart, I think that it needs a timer or a ‘rope’ like Hearthstone to compel players to act quickly. I would not have cruised through the game repeatedly if I had to make snap decisions in the tougher situations. Though the game might look like a SNES title, I feel like emulating SNES-era difficulty by simply adding more enemies isn't the right or at least only route to go.

If beating the game is so straightforward, what is the catch that’ll keep one coming back like there was in FTL? There is a bit of a ‘meta’ in Into the Breach that lends it replayability: the mechs themselves. There’s a large cast of machines to choose from and it’s a blast running new teams through a campaign. Some machines are overpowered while others struggle to make a cohesive, kaiju-pinballing unit. You’ll often be surprised which mech proves to be the MVP of the squad. Once you’ve unlocked your fair share, you can start mix-and-matching the pieces. You can make runs with all bruisers and try to stomp your way to victory. Or you could run a team of full-on utility, peacefully pushing and pulling insects around like a hardcore battle of Jains and Kaijus.​

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RPG Codex GOTY 2017: Results & Cool Graphs

Community - posted by felipepepe on Sun 28 January 2018, 10:47:31

Tags: GOTY 2017

It's finally time to crunch the numbers and see what the Codex played & enjoyed in 2017.
This year we had 966 voters, who rated 84 games divided into three categories: Game of the Year, Best Expansion and Best PC Port/Remaster.

For those of you who just want the TL;DR, here are the winners:

GOTY

  1. Divinity: Original Sin 2
  2. Prey
  3. Battle Brothers
Best Expansion
  1. Grim Dawn - Ashes of Malmouth
  2. Path of Exile: The Fall of Oriath
  3. Path of Exile: War for the Atlas
Best PC Port/Remaster
  1. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel
  2. The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky The 3rd
  3. Disgaea 2
For the full results, fancy graphs and snarky analysis, just follow the link bellow.

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RPG Codex Review: ELEX!

Review - posted by Infinitron on Sat 9 December 2017, 23:55:39

Tags: ELEX; Piranha Bytes

Nearly two months ago, Piranha Bytes released ELEX and proved that the RPG Codex Hivemind can make memes real. It's a good game, not perfect, but easily their best since the original Risen. Against all odds and after years of anguish, fans of Piranha Bytes' distinctive style of open world action-RPG once again have a future to look forward to. Darth Roxor has always been our point man on these games, and ELEX is certainly no exception. It is my greatest honor (no, not my other honor) to present his extensive review. Here's an excerpt:

The slice of Magalan where ELEX takes place is divided into five distinct regions – the lush forests of Edan, the highlands of Abessa, the desert of Tavar, the volcanic wasteland of Ignadon and the snowy mountains of Xacor. It might sound like a theme park on paper, but the terrain diversity in the game actually comes with a great degree of geographical plausibility that makes it feel like a real world. And what a huge world it is too! Barring Xacor, which is mostly an endgame kill fest level, all the others are extensive territories, each with its own city, old world ruins, local Alb invasion and lots upon lots of neat little things and secrets to run into. The openness of the world and the multiple connections between the respective regions are the primary thing that sets ELEX apart from the likes of Risen 2 and 3. The game takes place on a real map with real locations, and not a network of islands with conveniently placed ledges and corridors that all lead to the same spots.

That said, it must be mentioned that Piranha Bytes once again made the same mistake they did in Gothic 3. Namely, that the world is sometimes just too huge for its own good. The most glaring example of this is Ignadon – not only is it overall much lower in quality than the rest of the game, it also gives a feeling of having been rushed or subjected to big cuts. To be frank, when you think about the quests and content available in Ignadon, you can come to the conclusion that the entire region, except for its city, could have been removed from the game with no real repercussions, as long as a few of its better assets would be relocated to other parts of the map.

Nevertheless, there is still a chockful of things to do around every corner, all over the world. Exploration in ELEX is addictive as hell, and it seems like there’s not a patch of land that wouldn’t have something interesting to it. What the game does perfectly is recreate the feeling of curiosity as you travel through it – the sudden “ooh, I wonder what’s over there” that takes you on a detour spanning hours as you move from one point of interest to another. Combine that with the fact that the world is also fully open from the very beginning, with no invisible barriers whatsoever except for map boundaries, which are represented by convenient killer radiation fields, and the “Free as a Bird” main quest that you get at the start becomes more than just an empty slogan.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean that ELEX is a “hiking simulator” where you can go anywhere you want and observe pretty landscapes without running into any trouble. Hiking in ELEX is going to get you killed. The wildlife is vicious, mutants want to murder you at every step and bandits can’t wait to give you a lead injection. However, you have one significant advantage at your disposal that lets you get away from all harm. The jetpack.

PB were hyping the jetpack a lot before release, and I feared it would either end up as a tacked-on gimmick or something that would kill exploration. Turns out I was wrong, and the developers must have planned its inclusion with great care. Floating around from place to place, scaling mountains or old radio towers and flying away in panic from powerful enemies is much more fun and seamlessly connected to the exploration than you might think, and somehow it also never gets old. As I mentioned before, you also can’t use it to exploit enemy AI, because most foes have ranged attacks to shoot you down and some even sport jetpacks of their own. Its use in combat is also limited to quick repositioning or barraging gits from up high with ranged weapons, which makes it just another tool at your disposal, and not some kind of “I-Win” button.

[...] Yet in spite of the aforementioned issues, I’d say the world is still well-crafted and fun to uncover. Another point in its favour, which is also quite the surprise, is that despite looking really dumb and corny in screens or pre-release materials, Magalan actually turns out to be a very interesting and logical setting.

First, there are many small things that all act together to make it come to life, from environmental storytelling, through such details as city guard being divided into separate patrols of day and night watch, NPCs physically moving from place to place instead of teleporting around (even between cities), to the game having its own alphabet. Second, the factions in the game all have believable agenda, distinct themes and beliefs, and clear-cut axes of conflict between each other. The Berserkers (whose name doesn’t fit at all, but whatever) are a hippie gathering of viking-ish druids, who have a strict code of law, abhor all technology and want to purge the planet of Elex. This makes them a mortal enemy of the Clerics – psychic religious fundies with droids and lasers – who only tolerate the law set by their god and need the Elex to power their machines. Meanwhile, neither of the two factions is popular among the third, the Outlaws, who are Mad Max-type desert drifters that live among scrap and really love their personal freedoms and independence.

The conflicts between the factions are also portrayed nicely in the game itself. There is no open war just yet, but it’s clear that one might happen very soon. Every region and every city is infiltrated in some way by agents of all the factions, who try to further their agenda there. Not only does this contribute to the world feeling alive, it’s also a very welcome difference from Risen 3, where none of the factions interacted with each other whatsoever and where every region existed in some kind of hermetically sealed vacuum.

[...] Starting the game, I was dead sure that it would be horrible. Meanwhile I sunk into it for 85 long hours, which was only enough to complete one “full world lawnmowing” playthrough – save game counter tells me 70 hours, but I got an 80h playtime cheevo at 65, so I must have spent 15 idling and reloading (which sure is a lot of reloading). However, I also know that it took some folks just 20-something hours to breeze through it.

If I had to give you a short overall impression of ELEX, I would probably call it the same way one thread on our forums refers to Divine Divinity – it is probably the best shit game I’ve ever played. Sure, there are parts of it that are downright abysmal, broken or user-unfriendly. But at the same time, it is so incredibly addictive and fun that I don’t remember the last time a game sucked me in so completely for so long.

Perhaps a lot of it has to do with expectations and experience. I’ve witnessed the horrors of Risen 2 and 3 first-hand, so seeing the numerous improvements over these in ELEX was already a surprise for me, because ELEX is objectively an all-around better game than the both of those combined, which I suppose is at least one proven case of a developer being held back by an idiotic publisher. There is still a lot of room for improvement left to be sure, and I do hope Piranha Bytes do not waste the opportunity. If I had to give them at least one major piece of advice as to how ELEX 2 could be made better, it would definitely be to scale things down – reduce the world size, but improve its content. Gothic 3 was already an example of them overreaching, and ELEX in many ways repeats the same mistake.

Your very own expectations are also likely to influence how you will receive ELEX. If you are deluded enough to expect another Gothic, you might as well forget it. But if you still have that open world, no-nonsense PB game itch that needs scratching (and you know you do), ELEX might just be the thing you need. It looks dumb, it might be infuriating sometimes, but all I can say is: don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.​

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RPG Codex Review: Labyrinth of Touhou 1 and 2

Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Thu 21 September 2017, 14:30:06

Tags: Labyrinth of Touhou; Labyrinth of Touhou 2

Unless you frequent the Codex's JRPG board, chances are you haven't heard about the indie Japanese RPG Labyrinth of Touhou and its sequel, Labyrinth of Touhou 2. Touhou is a setting known mostly for bullet-hell games; these two are, however, combat-focused dungeon-crawling "blobber" RPGs. Thanks to their unique spin on the standard menu-based combat system and varied and uncompromising encounter design, they have gained a niche following among people who like combat-heavy dungeon crawlers and don't mind the (overwhelming degree of) poor anime art, nonsensical dialogue, and generally extremely low-budget presentation.

In this lengthy review-meets-guide, esteemed community member Suicidal explains the two games's mechanics, including their unorthodox character switching system, and why you might want to check them out even if you've never heard of them before.

Labyrinth of Touhou and its sequel are turn-based dungeon crawlers, however they are quite a different breed of dungeon crawler compared to games like Wizardry or Might & Magic. I think it would be more accurate to say that they are a combination of a dungeon crawler and a turn-based tactical combat game. [...] [N]ever could I have imagined that some of my favorite games of recent memory would come from a tiny team of amateur game developers from Japan – a couple of turn-based dungeon crawler RPGs with hideous graphics and ghetto-tier production values, but with a level of depth and complexity in their systems and encounter design that I don’t often see. [...]

Even though the size of your party can go up to 12, only 4 characters can participate in combat at any given time, while the other 8 stay in reserve. Active characters can perform various combat actions described above, while reserve characters slowly regenerate health and mana and cannot be affected by most abilities. To bring a character from reserve into combat and vice a versa, one of the active characters must use the formation change command to make an active character switch places with someone in reserve.

Mindful use of formation switching is one of the key skills you need to succeed at combat in LoT for a few reasons. Firstly, all of your characters are actually quite weak and ensuring their survival is not easy – your armored frontline warrior WILL die to a strong magic attack, your squishy mage WILL die to an arrow to the head and your tank that specializes in mitigating damage WILL die to a defense-piercing ability. Secondly, the game has no consumables and no way to revive fallen characters in combat, something I really appreciate, because being able to hook your party members up to a nearly limitless potion life support just kills the challenge in so many games, especially Japanese RPGs. In LoT healing spells are few in number and are quite costly or have other drawbacks and require putting your healers in harm’s way. Lastly, you will be fighting a lot of powerful enemies that will assault you with all manner of nasty abilities and these battles can be very long. As a result, anticipating, preventing and negating the enemy’s actions through skillful formation changes and ability usage is extremely important in LoT, because losing the wrong character at the wrong time can lead to failure later down the road in a particular battle.

Another important thing to note is that all abilities have not only different mana costs, but also “time costs”, meaning that some abilities will delay a character’s next turn more than others. For example, using a powerful party-wide buff may delay the caster’s next turn for twice as long compared to a simple magic attack. Turn order management is another thing you will need to get good at, because knowing when it’s safe to use an ability or bring in a certain character into combat can mean the difference between victory and death. The simplest example of this would be bringing out one of your damage dealing characters to the front line, but then being unable to hide them before the enemy gets its turn and kills them.

[...] It definitely is not a game for everyone – out of the people who like RPGs it’s already limited to the niche that enjoys turn-based dungeon crawlers, and even within this niche it’s limited further to people who like their dungeon crawlers combat-focused and highly abstract and also don’t mind the anime graphics.

Will you like this game if you enjoy dungeon crawlers mostly for the exploration aspect and want to be immersed into the game’s atmosphere, to feel as if you are wandering around that haunted forest inside the screen, with death lurking around every corner? Probably not. Will you enjoy it if you play RPGs for the setting, writing and plot? Definitely not, and why are you still reading this?

However, if you enjoy killing things with a large party in a turn-based environment without the plot getting in the way; if you enjoy watching your party grow stronger with each victory, while constantly making decisions on which stats or skills to improve and which piece of equipment should go to which party member; if you enjoy fighting enemies that actually pose a challenge and WILL kill you if you go in without a plan or if you use the resources available to you unwisely – then I recommend checking these games out.​

Those are just very small excerpts from the review - which is, as mentioned, pretty detailed and goes into a lot of these games's complexities (as well as their downsides). So if you're interested, be sure to read it in full.

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RPG Codex Report: Gamescom 2017 - Divinity Original Sin 2

Editorial - posted by JarlFrank on Wed 13 September 2017, 20:20:34

Tags: Divinity: Original Sin 2; Gamescom 2017; Larian Studios; Swen Vincke

Like every year, I went to Gamescom again to report on some currently in-development RPGs. This time, I only went to see Divinity: Original Sin 2 at Larian's booth, and Starpoint Gemini: Warlords at the Croatian game developers' booth. At least the low amount of presentations and interviews means we'll actually get to see all the Gamescom 2017 articles in 2017, so hey!

At Larian's booth, Swen Vincke presented some new features of the game to me - mostly features connected to undead player characters and the Mask of the Shapeshifter (which was a Kickstarter stretchgoal). Once the presentation is over, I assault Swen with a bunch of questions and he proceeds to give me answers that are confusing even to himself.

“Let’s just say it’s complicated, eh?”

“It’s not! Not when you’re playing it.”

“I mean from a designer’s standpoint.”

“Oh, yeah. It’s super complicated. It’s insanely complicated. The discussions that we have about these things can sometimes take very long since you always find edge cases, but it’s not that because those edge cases exist we shouldn’t do it. Sometimes you might find things that don’t make a hundred percent sense, but essentially our attitude to that is, eh fuck it.” He laughs.​

Larian certainly have the right attitude when it comes to implementing features into the game, don't they?

Read the whole interview and my write-up on the presentation in the article!

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RPG Codex Review: Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar

Review - posted by Infinitron on Mon 21 August 2017, 00:34:28

Tags: Golden Era Games; Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar

Cleve Blakemore's magnum opus Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar seems to be causing just as much drama since its release as it did during its 23 year-long development. During its first week, it received a flurry of updates which broke saved games several times, and bugfixes have continued to be issued on a regular basis. Despite these difficulties, we resolved to review the game in a timely manner. The perfect man for the job was felipepepe, who is both an accomplished reviewer and an RPG historian familiar with Grimoire's inspirations. 16 days and 80 hours of gameplay later, I'm pleased to present his findings. (As opposed to Cleve, who summarily banned felipe from his game's Steam forum when presented with them.) Here's an excerpt, including both the bad and the good:

Of course, every RPG has a few cheesy tactics or overpowered items, spells, skills and builds. With a good guide you can usually become nearly-invincible. But I played Grimoire blindly, without even knowing what most stats do. And there were so many overpowered things - items, skills, spells and even recruitable NPCs - that you basically need a guide on how NOT to cheese: don't use Deep Freeze, Bards, Hold Monster, Lethal Blow, Vorpal Sword, Paralysis, Psychopompic Orb, Time Stop, Crown of Gorgon, etc. But even if you stop cheesing, enemies certainly won't.

More than just the numbers that pop up during combat, the enemies make little sense. Each area has an encounter table from which it draws enemies, and those can vary A LOT - in the same area you might get a large squad of fairies that will kill half your party before you can even act; OR you can get a dumb monk that will die in the first hit. Over 60 hours in I would still get to fight weak enemies from the first areas of the game! It got to the point that sometimes I had to save-scum encounters until they gave me a reasonable enemy.

Yet even beating the most powerful foes the game threw at me felt unfulfilling. Enemies never drop anything except a few keys for chests, and XP rewards are also completely unbalanced. In the same area you might fight weak enemies that give you 4,000xp, while the deadly ones will give like 100xp. By the end-game my characters needed around 200,000xp to reach the next level, but enemies there gave only like 500xp - and the game's final quest gave me only 9,000xp! As a result, I never reached level 10 with any character, and never could try the whole class change feature that supposedly allows you to unlock classes like Pirate, Assassin and Jester.

To make things weirder, Grimoire employs some controversial death mechanics: each time you resurrect a character, his constitution goes down. And some races can only be resurrected by rare spells. In games like Wizardry VII this was already a challenge but, in an unbalanced mess where character death is basically inevitable, this meant ALL my original party members eventually reached the lowest constitution possible. Since they had stopped leveling up due to poor XP, I was effectively growing weaker the more I played.

For a final showcase of how unbalanced this game is, take the Hall of Gorrors in Wizardry VII. That was the game's ultimate challenge, an optional area with super-hard boss battles, some of which would take over 20 minutes to beat with a high level party. Grimoire, of course, has its own "Hall of Gorrors" near the end, with seven optional bosses.

I killed all of them in the first turn.

So, with the combat & game balance in this sorry state, why the hell did I keep playing Grimoire?

Well, first I had a prestigious review to write. Second, because the game truly excels at one thing that modern RPGs just don't deliver: the constant call to adventure.

After you finish the first major quest and find the first of the Stone Tablets, the game opens into a massive world (this was where the Super Demo ended). Now you can explore in any direction, searching for the remaining seven Stone Tablets. It's hard to convey just how large this world is. It's easily more than twice the size of Wizardry VII, possibly thrice. While at this point the maps lose that conciseness of the initial areas, they're still reasonably sized, meaning you go through them at a quick pace, constantly experiencing new things. And some of these are quite well presented - not with fancy graphics, but with charming descriptive text, that nails that old-school AD&D-ish vibe.

You enter a new area, a giant pyramid looms in the horizon... as you get close, you cross a field of charred bones and see a humanoid rat desperately running towards you, his eyes begging for help. Before you can do anything, a light flashes atop the pyramid and burns the rat to a crisp. As the smoke dissipates, you see the giant doors of the pyramid, inviting you in. At that point, I'm sold - into the pyramid we go!

Like a RPG version of Civilization's "one more turn" cycle, there's always something just waiting to be discovered. Got into the a flooded city raided by Naga? Now there's a pirate compound for you to infiltrate by disguising yourself! Got past the pirates? Here's a magical sea chariot! And there's a sunken ship! And next to it is the Kraken that sank it! Got past it? Here's a giant ancient tower! And so on.

So yeah, the first 15-20 hours of Grimoire were an excellent RPG - the remaining 60 hours were basically a fun adventure game with broken combat.​

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RPG Codex Interview: Daniel Bill on DEMIURGOS: Path of the Leviathan

Codex Interview - posted by JarlFrank on Tue 1 August 2017, 20:24:47

Tags: DEMIURGOS: Path of the Leviathan

Demiurgos: Path of the Leviathan is an interesting indie RPG currently on Kickstarter, and because the main man behind that Project, Daniel Bill, works at the same university I do, I decided to interview him. And boy, was that interview fruitful - one and a half hours of questions about his game, as well as some general discussion about RPGs and game design, which ended up providing almost 14k words of text to be made into a Codex article.

I interviewed him in German and tanslated everything to English, so if anything seems unclear to you, feel free to blame me. I'll make sure to ignore your complaints as best as I can.

The game's combat encounters sound very varied and promising, and most of the resident posters are likely to agree with his opinion on a certain Bioware title:

And every encounter is hand-placed then, right?

Yes. We’re working on one encounter right now, we didn’t manage to include it in the preview video yet, there are some boss encounters too. Like tanks from the WW1 era driving through a street, and you have to flee from the tank while you’re also shooting at enemies. When the tank gets too close, it destroys your cover. We do want that every combat – there’s one in the preview video, with the hostage situation – has something the player has to pay attention to, and maybe sometimes it’s a better approach to solve the encounter without firing your weapon, like in the hostage situation where you could endanger the hostages. And just as the hostages are released, you shoot your enemies anyway… the player can do that if he wants. We want to make every combat encounter a little special. Hand-made.

So you’re also placing some unorthodox elements into your encounters, like those tanks that can destroy your cover, in order to make encounters more varied and exciting.

And also more cinematic and action-packed. It looks pretty cool, too, when you zoom out your camera and wonder – will that tank arrive at my position in the next turn? We also have a cool fight – it’s not completely finished yet – where there’s a submarine that submerges and rises up again occasionally, and you have to fire at the submarine from afar. And you can shoot at the periscope the crew uses to look at the battlefield, and when it’s destroyed the submarine has to come to the surface which makes it easier to attack. We also have an encounter on a train! Maybe we’ll manage to finish that one before the end of the campaign and show it off. You’re on a train and have to go forward while fighting some enemies, and when you’re all the way at the front you enter the driver’s cabin.

So systemically, your combat system is going to be simple and easy to understand, but what makes the combat interesting is the variation of encounters. That means you’ll probably have few encounters, and encounters with special elements to them, so you’re probably not going to include any filler combat either, are you?

What’s filler combat?

Filler combat is… did you play Dragon Age?

Yes.

That was chock full with filler combat.

Dragon Age… [starts rambling] I don’t get what people… I played only Inquisition, and it’s… I don’t understand how one can even compare that to other games, that’s not even an RPG for me.​

To read more about the gameplay systems and philosophical themes of Demiurgos, and of course more of Daniel Bill's opinions on RPGs both old and new, go read the full article!

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RPG Codex Retrospective Review: Pillars of Eternity Revisited

Review - posted by Infinitron on Tue 4 July 2017, 20:09:19

Tags: Obsidian Entertainment; Pillars of Eternity; Pillars of Eternity: The White March

Over two years ago, Obsidian released Pillars of Eternity, their crowdfunded spiritual successor to the beloved Infinity Engine games. It was a release that would ignite a months-long flamewar on the Codex and result in an unprecedented four dueling front page reviews. Yet as traumatic as those events were, today things on the forums feel very different. It would be an exaggeration to say that Pillars is a universally popular game here now, but the rage has definitely died down, the fierce critics of 2015 no longer so sure of themselves. It's hard to argue with success, after all. In a world of Torments and Tyrannys, with 900,000 copies sold and a successfully crowdfunded sequel on the way, Josh Sawyer suddenly looks like one of the more competent people in the room. But that's not the entire story. One of the reasons critical opinion of Pillars of Eternity has improved is that the game itself has improved, with a year of continuous patching and the release of a two part expansion pack - Pillars of Eternity: The White March.

We never got around to reviewing the White March when it was new. The wars that followed Pillars of Eternity's initial release had taken their toll, and both the fans and the haters just wanted to move on. It would take a while for the expansion's impact on the game to fully sink in. One of the first people who made me realize that things had changed was Grunker, abortive co-author of one of our negative reviews of Pillars, who informed me one day that with the expansion and its accompanying improvements, he now considered it one of his favorite RPGs. As that shift in mood continued, it became clear to me that we had to review The White March, and the perfect person to do it was Grunker. It's taken him a long time to come through, but the wait has been worth it. What we have for you this July 4th is not just a review of the expansion, but also an Infinity Engine retrospective and a redo of the base game review that Grunker never got to finish back in 2015. As we await the coming of Deadfire, let this be our truly final word on Pillars of Eternity. Here's an excerpt:

'The White March', Pillars of Eternity's expansion, is a testimony to what iteration and continued passion for a project can do for quality. Its narrative removes the tiresome focus from the player's role as the writer-imparted chosen one, except when it uses that gimmick for the explicit purpose of clarifying details about the story and resolving the conundrums of its main plot step by step. The story is simpler this time, less ambitious and more connected to Pillars' roleplaying roots. In many ways, Stalwart and its surroundings take the lessons learned from Gilded Vale and blows them up to fit an entire expansion. We meet believable characters with clear motives here and more importantly: we keep pushing to reveal the secrets of the ominous Durgan's Battery, secrets that are exposed to us in satisfying bits, each bit both feeding us information and deepening the wider mystery. Rather than every step bringing us another nonsensical flashback, we instead meet characters with something on the line; people, monsters and artifacts that each give us a piece to the puzzle.

[...] While the story is an improvement in its restrained simplicity, booting up The White March on patch 3.0 after playing Pillars in its original state is like playing a different game altogether. Iteration is often neglected and rushed in an industry where gamers demand to play even before games are released and publishers push for short deadlines. Even so, Josh Sawyer and his team managed to not only iterate on the systems and gameplay of Pillars of Eternity – they went at the task of updating the game with an almost autistic fervor. News of the latest patch surfaced this month.

In terms of gameplay, the constant updates, tuning and tweaking have paid dividends.

In a display of intellectual honesty that few designers can boast of, Josh Sawyer recognized his mistake and reintroduced counters as a larger part of the gameplay to incentivize tactics-switching. Obsidian's team refined the character system and made many talents more build-defining, while simultaneously diversifying abilities and nerfing strategies that were too efficient. The White March also features encounters that feel like Obsidian had a whole team of people who did nothing but plan out, test and re-test battles, filling areas with monsters placed in innovative and annoying combinations – especially on Path of the Damned difficulty – to encourage even further planning on the part of the player. Spamming the same abilities fight after fight is no longer an option, not only due to enemy resistances, but because of the placement, attack type and abilities of your opponents. Even a few, basic trash fights in difficult areas such as Longwatch Falls demand diverse tactics.

[...] There are dragon fights that feature attacks patterns so diverse you will struggle between learning them and focusing on your own actions during combat. There are avalanches of dwarven tank fighters that whittle down your party's health and ability uses. You will face high level kobold (sorry, 'Xaurip') ambushes that engage you on three levels of the same area while you struggle to control the important enemies. One encounter features a massive, 20+ enemy skirmish with human mercenaries being mind-controlled by the Mind Flayer-like Vithracks. This encounter in particular will test your crowd-control capabilities and understanding of the Engangement system as enemy berserkers launch into the air and drop on your casters. It will also test your ability to focus on the correct enemies, which, by the way, may not be what they seem at first. Groups of ghosts will strain your reliance on your characters' abilities complementing each other as they take turns being paralyzed and thus taken out of the combat equation. Monks will play racket ball with your guys, spreading them over the entirety of the battlefield while you struggle to rally your troops and push back the onslaught. Impressively coded mages will sling a multitude of spells that change dynamically depending on your own combat actions and, if you are good enough, you will face off against two dragons AND an archmage (I had to give up on that one and solve it through dialogue – making it the only fight in Pillars I have not beat).

The strength of these encounters is thanks in no small part to a continually updated AI. At launch, enemies in Pillars of Eternity would beeline towards the first character that provoked them into action, using repetitive attack patterns and a small array of skills while you wailed on them with whatever rote strategy first worked for you. Multiple patches corrected enemy behaviour, added abilities and defenses to boring enemies and padded out encounter diversity. Here, too, the obvious Sword Coast Stratagems-inspiration becomes apparant, as difficulty in White March arises from clever enemy targeting and ability selection just as much as from raw power.

[...] Itemization is another area of the game that has moved from simple sufficiency to elegant beauty. The amount of variety on display both in terms of basic gear types but also in unique equipment and item abilities has not been rivaled since Shadows of Amn. Everything from basic abilities like giving your characters another chance when they are reduced to 0 hit points to granting unique spells that can only be cast through that specific item to granting conditional immunities or buffing your character while prone. Choosing between these items is rarely a simple problem of just picking the one with the highest stats, but rather demands you factor in which enemies you are fighting, what your character build is and how your gear can become an extension of your character's abilities. Agonizing over which of all these items you are actually going to equip nevermind on which character is pure, clean RPG fun, and once you have played through the game once or twice, you will definitely have found items which inspire you to craft entire characters around them. To add to this diversity, new and very rare crafting ingredients dropped by bosses or given as quest rewards allow you to add unique enchantments on top of your favourite items.

It bears repeating that with patch 3.0 and The White March, combat and character customization in Pillars of Eternity has been iterated from a great idea with mediocre execution to something resembling flawless implementation. Excepting further games in the series, it is undoubtedly the closest you will ever come to playing Baldur's Gate II with the full Sword Coast Stratagems package – and, in many ways, it is superior. Some will find the sluggish control less appealing – it is for me – but there is no denying that the strategic variety is greater in all encounters save the most well-designed mage- and boss-battles in the Infinity Engine games. That The White March also features the most indulgent trip down D&D memory lane you are likely to play on a computer in a long time in the form of dungeon delving, lich battling and loot hunting makes the experience all the sweeter.

The lesson is that iteration is as important as having a good idea to begin with. In this regard, The White March mirrors the extensive patching and modding cycle of Baldur's Gate. Today, no die hard fan would play the Infinity Engine games without Sword Coast Stratagems, which represents one of the most detailed, iterative processes in RPG history.

Likewise, Pillars of Eternity without the latest patch, The White March and Path of the Damned difficulty is a shadow of itself, unworthy of your attention. But the full game, polished and perfected as it is, is simply a joy to play - glorious in all its complexity, sprawling wealth of content and diverse challenges. The final product after two years of patching bodes well for Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, should the lessons be carried over. In terms of gameplay, Baldur's Gate II was a clear improvement on the original and if the same is the case with the sequal to Obsidian's first, Kickstarted game, some of the IE games might finally be knocked off their perch as my favourite games.
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Jarl interviews Swen Vincke; Questions about Original Sin 2 and other things are answered.

Codex Interview - posted by JarlFrank on Wed 21 June 2017, 19:27:55

Tags: Divinity: Original Sin 2; Larian Studios; Swen Vincke

A few weeks ago I went to Ghent Dublin in Belgium Ireland to play some Divinity OS 2 with Swen and two other Larian bros. We played the game's gamemaster mode for about an hour and it was a lot of fun. Of course, I also used the opportunity to pepper Swen with some questions provided by our wonderful community.

Here's a snippet:

From Projas and Jinn I should ask if the itemization has been changed, or if you’re still using the Diabloesque item drops. Personally, I’d also like to know your reasons behind this system – in Original Sin 1 most things were hand-placed. The locations were hand-made, the encounters were hand-placed, only the items are randomized. Why do you do that and why would you say this is a good design decision?

(laughs uncomfortably) I read the Codex, so I know very well what you guys think about it, but there’s a practical point to it. We change our balancing a lot, and all of our balancing is relative, so all those stats change automatically when we change something in the base systems. That’s the first part of it. The second part is that people do replay our games, and when you replay them, you will find different things. Third point is, we do place quite a few items that are hand-placed actually, and they’re set in stone, but often we give our items only one or two fixed abilities and have the rest of the stats be flexible. So you could have a dark sword that is always there and always gives you a certain ability, but its other stats will be randomized. It’s a mix of things. When I play it, I kind of like it that way. I don’t think I’d want to have it so that I get the same item every time, because that way I could always min-max one hundred percent, knowing which items are where, and I don’t think that’s a lot of fun actually.

But, theoretically, if you use the editor and make a fan campaign, you could make everything hand-placed if you wanted?

You can fix all our mistakes, yes.​

This is the first of a three-part series of articles on my visit to Larian's Dublin studio, so if you're interested in Original Sin 2 you can keep looking forward to the other two parts. With any luck, they'll actually be released before Original Sin 2 itself!

Enjoy the interview. And make sure to give me more awkward questions next time, didn't have enough of those to ask.

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RPG Codex Review: The Long Journey Home

Review - posted by Infinitron on Thu 8 June 2017, 23:33:45

Tags: Daedalic Entertainment; The Long Journey Home

Daedalic Entertainment's The Long Journey Home was released just nine days ago, but with E3 coming up it already feels like a thing of the past. During its five or so days of fame, the game continued to be divisive, with a parade of harsh reviews criticizing it for overly difficult and repetitive gameplay. But it also found an audience of players who appreciated what it was trying to do. Among these was the Codex's own oasis789, whose enthusiasm for the game in the weeks leading up to its release made him an obvious choice to write our review. Here's his take on The Long Journey Home's mainstream reception - and how Daedalic chose to handle it:

At this point it seems appropriate to mention complaints that the game is too hard and too much of a repetitive grind, so that the moments of fun are too few and far between. I will suggest here that 1) it is very easy to confuse playing a game badly with playing a bad game, and 2) it is precisely the degree and variety of challenges that make the game fun.

Most of this criticism about difficulty and repetitiveness is directed at the space combat and lander minigames. In combat, you control the Daedalus from the top-down on a two-dimensional field, boosting away from enemy missiles, turning if your shields are down on one side, charging up the laser battery, and lining the ship up for a broadside shot. On planets, you control the lander on a side-scrolling landscape, firing top and bottom thrusters to land safely on points of interest, where you may drill for resources, scavenge shipwrecks, or capture wildlife. It is true that the combat in TLJH is not as elegant as more action-oriented titles like Starsector, and its focus on broadside maneuvering is awkward and takes a great deal of finesse to succeed in. But the Daedalus is not a warship, and TLJH is not about combat, which is almost always a bad idea and best to be avoided. Even if the shooting starts, a wise player beats a hasty retreat and does not stick around to shoot back unless absolutely necessary. It is also true that the lander is hard to control, especially when one has to struggle with gravity and strong winds, or under the pressure of limited fuel, scorching temperatures, bad weather or violent turbulence. But there are various ways of making the lander easier to handle and more resilient to hazardous conditions, and the wise player does not attempt to land on every planet either. So I can only interpret much of this criticism as being more revealing about the critic than that which is being critiqued.

To give a concrete example, consider that players may, against the express advice given in the tutorial that refining is generally not as efficient as trade, opt to be a subsistence miner, landing on every planet and drilling and siphoning as much as possible, and refining the resources for repairs and fuel. Upon discovering that such an approach will cost more in damage to the lander and injuries to the pilot, the sane response is not to keep doing the same thing and expect different results, but to think carefully about which planets are safe to land on, and what resources are worth risking damage for. Then plan a course to systems where you are most likely to find such planets and resources. Then experiment to discover which aliens prefer which resources, that some types of resources are more valuable than others, and that the best trades do not involve anything that requires drilling or siphoning. Then adapt to change those plans when one only finds planets poor in riches or dangerous to approach or land on, or poor trading partners who do not take well to price negotiation. The game does not explicitly tell you how to do any of these things, but it does not seem unreasonable for players with common sense to figure it out for themselves.

Consider combat. Players are very likely to be attacked by all sorts of enemies for all kinds of reasons, but fighting them all will only end up damaging the ship if not destroying it completely, and one generally does not gain much from victory either. Various approaches to this problem include staying far away and hoping they do not notice your presence in the system, and if they set a course to intercept you, you can boost away. If they do intercept you, you can do as they ask, maybe pay them off, and go about your business. Or you could run off without saying a word. Though the game is certainly much easier if you are good at combat, players who aren't or don't enjoy it have many options to avoid combat altogether.

Since receiving this barrage of criticism, DSW has hastily patched in a new 'Story Mode' difficulty setting. This brings to mind the old saying 'be careful what you wish for, it might come true.' Veterans of Star Control II will recall that the combat and lander minigames there were certainly annoying, but both got trivialized once one got all the upgrades, making a large chunk of its gameplay just going through the motions. Analogously, 'Story Mode' may allow players to experience more of the Cobbett-written content more quickly than they would have otherwise, but it will also likely diminish much of their own player-driven emergent stories. Consider some of the toughest lander scenarios: Scans might have found rare gases on a gas giant, and you have to search through its layers for the gas pockets while fighting strong winds, using gravity to get through harsh turbulence swiftly, but not letting the lander fall too far and get crushed by pressure. Or you might have identified ruins on a fiery inferno, and rush to reach the temple entrance before the pilot is cooked in his own space suit. Or you might risk landing on an infested world, carefully avoiding getting too close to the ground while hovering over a volcanic vent. All of the above examples are generally Bad Ideas and Last Resorts, which is what makes them the highlights of a comeback story. If `Story Mode' prevents players from ever encountering such challenges, or removes the need to ever take them on, their long journey home will likely be a very short and uneventful one. DSW will probably then discover that complaints about difficulty swiftly transform into complaints about boredom.​

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RPG Codex Review: Expeditions: Viking

Review - posted by Infinitron on Fri 19 May 2017, 21:34:00

Tags: Expeditions: Viking; Logic Artists

Over the course of its 2+ year long development, I couldn't help but feel that the Codex community was turning its nose up at Expeditions: Viking. In the post-Skyrim era, its choice of setting was viewed by many as cliched and unambitious compared to its predecessor, Expeditions: Conquistador, even as they conceded that it looked like a solid product. That choice of setting does seem to have helped it sell decently enough for an indie title, despite a notoriously buggy launch. Such is the way of the world. Be that as it may, Viking is one of the few significant traditional RPG releases of early 2017 and it deserves a thorough review. For that, we enlisted the esteemed Tigranes, who proved himself with his Tyranny review back in January. In his review, he finds Viking to be a solid historical roleplaying experience, unfortunately let down by severe balance and difficulty curve issues. With the rate that the game is receiving patches, it's possible that much of this critique won't be very relevant in a month, but we had to draw the line somewhere! Here's an excerpt:

The loss of this old formula is not an accident, but a price deliberately paid. For better or for worse, Viking has introduced a new formula to replace the old – and wants to be judged on those merits. As I said, Viking is much closer to a quest/story-driven WRPG, taking place in fully rendered towns – including genre staples like urban robberies, missing villagers and even a few FedEx quests. Given that this is the second game from a small studio, the level of quality and quantity achieved is generally impressive. There are plenty of quests, many of which exhibit a credible degree of choice & consequences by being weaved into the faction-based storyline. The premise is simple: you journey to Britain and suck up to the Picts and/or the Northumbrians – with the typical result that you side with one of them, or fight them both. There is a reasonably robust depiction of the interests and needs of the factions, and then the ways in which a marauding band of Vikings might enter that picture. Your landfall near a quiet English village is greeted by fear, anxiety, and language issues; should miscommunication (or your violent intent) result in a massacre, you’ll have to explain yourself to the Northumbrians soon after. The bishop will constantly preach on about how you are all doomed as heathens to the fires of hell, but admit willingly that even barbarians might be of use in weeding out another heretic cult. Throughout, the looting and pillaging work done by other Vikings – and sometimes, by you – will rouse resentment and suspicion that you’ll have to assuage one way or another. For the most part, Viking ensures that the sensible consequences to the course of events are charted out, though they never approach, say, the complexity of Fallout: New Vegas.

The quests and faction politics are backed up by a setting that puts the historical backdrop to good use – but also has the good sense to refrain from ham-fisted clichés. There are no freedum-lovin’ rough-and-tumble Picts versus the civilised Northumbrians here (which would, in any case, not be particularly historical) – only two powerful fiefdoms that are both wary of foreign interlopers, and yet willing to do business with them where profitable. Priests will describe your faith as barbaric as a matter of course, but you will also find locals that are still wed to pre-Roman paganism, or a regional cult that exhibits a weird syncretism of Roman founding myths and Christian rituals. To be sure, if you’re looking for full fidelity to history, you won’t find it; but I think it was a wise move for the game to avoid, say, roping in well-known people and events from the history books, which would inevitably annoy anyone who knows the period well. The setting remains a backdrop, mostly avoiding egregious historical inaccuracies while leveraging the material for a sensible gameworld.

All this is achieved through writing that, for the most part, knows when to do its job and when to butt out. Just as with Conquistador, this is not a game you primarily play for the intricate writing – and Viking, to its credit, has realised it. That sounds like damning by faint praise, but it is in fact high praise: there is nothing more obnoxious than a bad writer who won’t shut up (digging myself a giant hole here, etc). Dialogue rarely overstays its welcome. Companions are decent, if unspectacular, saying just enough lines to establish their character then getting out of your way. Sure, there is Ketill, the childhood friend whose quest involves finding his parents, and Nefja, who had to leave behind a sick sister to join the expedition; but the melodrama is largely confined to an optional quest or two, without devolving into Biowarian milksoppery. The writing also differentiates reasonably well between the views and beliefs of different characters, rather than each one mouthing the writer’s thoughts: Nefja, the same one so concerned with her family, will happily advise that the kid who helped you was ‘a coward and a thief’, and we might as well stab, behead, and desecrate his corpse to further your goals. The plot as a whole also stays refreshingly grounded, as well. You begin by newly inheriting a clan, whose sovereignty is challenged by a powerful neighbouring Thegn, and you end by proving at the Althing that you have gained enough military clout to protect your claim. There is no preposterously grandious war, Ancient Evil, or mysterious arcane phenomena that has spoiled so many other CRPG narratives.

[...] And now we come to the combat – the most important aspect of both Conquistador and Viking, given that you spend the bulk of your playing time fighting. Conquistador had a very good turn-based combat system, which mixed in a robust spread of character abilities with an attractive lineup of consumables to offer a properly tactical experience. Shields must be batted away or broken down to damage the wielder; archers can be confounded by use of cover or distractions; trip-rope and caltrops foil the fast-moving flankers. Here, the underlying formula remains the same; players of Conquistador will recognise and enjoy Viking’s combat immediately. And yet. Once again, the changes to the combination of features in and beyond the combat system effects the experience in mixed ways.

Let’s start with the positives. Viking provides a reasonably balanced and diverse set of abilities to customise your band. Dual-wielders, shield users, bow specialists, or healers versed in ‘totally-not-magic-we-swear’ witchcraft all play very differently. (Hell, Christian characters, allied and enemy, have their own pseudomagic tree in 'Benediction' - a nice touch.) There are sensible synergies built in as well: axemen are good for knocking away shields, opening the way for others to strike. A shield-user might knock an enemy down, at which point the knife-wielder can jump in for a deathblow. Spears can distract enemies, disabling their attack of opportunity as your archer flees the melee. Add in consumables, and Viking has enough toys in the basket to support the dozens of battles it has you fight. This comment also extends to the enemies, most of whom are human and share a similar range of equipment and abilities. The one exception, wolves, also feature several distinct characteristics. Viking’s switch to a more scripted RPG model ensures that there are few trash mobs, and the encounter design as a whole adds significant value to the game.

The problem comes when you plug this combat into the game as a whole. By far the biggest, and most inexcusable, failure is the complete lack of any difficulty. The most difficult, ‘Insane’, might as well be called Story Time. Consider that you will often take six men with you into battle, and normally face between five and ten enemies. Most battles give you the initiative, and any halfway competent player can take out between one and three enemies in that first turn. You do the maths. After the half-way point in my playthrough, I realised it was a waste of time to bother with consumables, or indeed half of the abilities and tactics available to me, since I could roflstomp my way through almost every battle. (Ironically, if not for this problem, Viking’s difficulty settings would be worthy of high praise; it provides customisable sliders for everything that it influences.) This nonexistence of challenge sucks a huge amount of fun out of this kind of game. I realised I didn’t even need to camp after days of marching, because even a hungry and sleep-deprived band could easily emerge victorious. This is a huge departure from Conquistador, and by far the worst thing about Viking.

[...] Is Expeditions: Viking a good game? Yes, yes it is. My criticisms are many, but they address the relatively lofty heights to which the game clearly aspires: a turn-based tactical RPG that somehow merges elements of an exploratory, resource-management strategic layer with a quest/story-driven model. The results are ambiguous, and in many ways, I prefer the tightly woven mechanics of Conquistador. But if you were to ask me whether it is worth the money, I would answer, absolutely: it is a game that provides robust turn-based tactical combat, a competently written historical setting, and plenty of entertaining quests. I dearly hope that the Expeditions series continues – and continues to tinker its formula.​

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RPG Codex Review: Battle Brothers

Review - posted by Infinitron on Fri 12 May 2017, 23:44:15

Tags: Battle Brothers; Overhype Studios

As I said a number of times before its release, Battle Brothers was one of the Codex's most anticipated and hyped up games, and its final release appears to have been fairly well-received. A game like that deserves the most prestigious of reviewers. Darth Roxor, however, isn't much into hype. In a review that was as arduous for him to write as the game was to play, he finds Battle Brothers to be a skeleton of a game, containing the basics of a solid combat system but cripplingly repetitive and lacking in content. Have a snippet:

But those are just details compared to the biggest combat flaw in Battle Brothers that, to me, nearly invalidates the entire game’s purpose – the non-existent level design.

The combat maps in BB are generic tiled surfaces. They are flat as a pancake, with only some “elevated” hexes that just give you stat bonuses from height advantage or make running around slightly more inconvenient. They almost always start with the same “your dudes on the left, their dudes on the right” setup. There is nothing to actually do on them, because any sort of extended manoeuvring is pointless, except on mountain maps where you run to the nearest hill and bunker up, swamps where you have to run out of penalty-inducing water tiles should you start in them, or forests, which arguably is the only tile set with any room for some movement due to all the trees and shrubs that form natural chokepoints (and bring you even more “fun” moments with line of fire).

Worse yet, this lack of level design directly diminishes the value of BB’s otherwise robust bestiary. While the enemy types are fairly numerous, they get predictable very fast, to the point that you need just one or two fights against a “new” enemy to know everything he has to offer – this is particularly sad because many of the foes actually have various tricks up their sleeve and really clever AI scripts that will take you completely by surprise during your first encounter, like a necromancer who will always keep a “bodyguard” zombie next to him to obstruct the firing lines of your archers. But after that, it becomes routine, because the setup is always the same, and you can never expect something new to happen. Compare it, for example, to X-COM. Four sectoids with plasma rifles don’t appear like much. But depending on whether they landed or crash landed, in a medium or large scout, on a farmstead, in shopping mall or a jungle, your hunt against them will vary greatly. There is hardly anything of the sort to find in BB.

I can’t stress it enough how fatal are the two aspects above when it comes to any “staying power” Battle Brothers could have. A large, a huge part of all games like this is working with and against the environment. Setting up ambushes, moving carefully around corners, navigating through rooftops, tearing down walls that stand in your way, all of that is incredibly important to add a layer of emergent gameplay and replayability that is vital for everything. Without this emergent gameplay and the sense of unpredictability rising from enemies hiding somewhere in the fog of war, Battle Brothers gets old very soon. Same maps, same fights, same enemies, all the time until the bitter end is the name of the game here. As the game goes on and breaches a certain point where the strongest enemies start appearing, it’s over. The only new thing you’re ever going to see are increased numbers, with enemy mobs going from 6 to 12 to 20 and finally to 40. It’s nothing but tiresome.

[...] Much like its character sprites, Battle Brothers just doesn’t have a leg to stand on. It feels more like a tech demo of a combat engine, with some trappings of a full game haphazardly glued on to it. Sure, the basic battle system might be nice, but there’s only so much you can do with it when there is no variety to speak of. BB is in desperate need of either modding support or a very, very big expansion that would give it some damned content.

Furthermore, it’s a confused game that tries to pose itself as “fast and furious”, with lots of difficulty, lethality and roster shuffling, but it forgets to pair the extra high risk with a sufficiently high reward. I have no idea how anyone, barring the greatest of masochists, could play this on iron man mode without going crazy.

With as little substance and as much tiresome repetition as there is to it, Battle Brothers just gets very old very fast. It feels good to great for the first 20 or so hours, when you’re still starry eyed, thinking of what the future of your warband might hold, sometimes getting surprised by new enemies and not feeling like you’ve been decapitated each time a character dies. But as you keep going on, you start noticing that you’re doing the same things over and over again, and the only thing that changes is the power with which you’re getting kicked in the balls. It turns less and less fulfilling, until it devolves into nothing more than a time sink, but one which is less exciting than Freecell.

Out of diligence, I decided to finish at least one full playthrough before writing this review, where “playthrough” I defined as stopping the late game crisis. After the aforementioned first 20 hours, I just kept asking myself “why am I playing this instead of Xenonauts/JA2/X-COM mods/etc” all the time. You can assume I’d asked myself that question many times, because it wasn’t until 45 hours in that the game finally decided to grace me with an ending to my woes. Afterwards, I was legitimately happy that I’d never have to play it again, which stands in direct contrast with other representatives of the genre that can be picked up and played almost anytime you want.

Still, at least for the first 15-20 hours it’s good enough, so you may try giving it a spin and find out if your tolerance for repetitiveness is higher than mine – you might just even become enamored enough by the combat itself that you won’t notice all the surrounding issues. Only remember to abandon ship once you start feeling burnt out because, I assure you, it won’t be getting any better past that point.​

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RPG Codex Interview: Julian Gollop on Phoenix Point

Codex Interview - posted by Infinitron on Fri 5 May 2017, 20:59:05

Tags: Julian Gollop; Phoenix Point; Snapshot Games

Of all the members of the oldschool game developer pantheon, original X-COM creator Julian Gollop is among the most admirable. With a career spanning over three decades, he's remained humble and unlike many others has never lost his passion for nitty-gritty game design. These days, Julian and his studio are working on Phoenix Point, an X-COM spiritual successor with some interesting twists, and they're currently seeking funding for it on Fig. Prestigious community member sser, who is a connoisseur of all things tactical and a big Gollop fan, decided to send him some questions. It's a more cursory style of interview than our usual, but I'm happy to have an excuse to promote this game. Here's an excerpt:

So the big question: Time Units or 2-AP or a mix? Lot of folks chomping at the bit to know this one, ha.

It seems to be a really contentious issue. At the moment we have a nominal 2 action system which is extended by two things. Firstly, if an enemy becomes spotted during movement, then movement is halted, allowing the player to react by either moving or firing. Secondly a range of special actions can extend the number of things a character can do in a turn. These cost 'will points'. Overall its more flexible than modern XCOMs, but still keeps the pace of the game relatively high. My concern with a pure Time Unit system is that it can result in the most optimally effective play being very slow, and ultimately a bit boring. There may be other ways to solve this, and we will experiment some more without a doubt.

New-XCOM uses ‘abilities’ for its units, and in Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars you implemented something very similar, with the squad being a toolkit and each squaddie a unique ‘tool’ with abilities directed toward very specific solutions. Will Phoenix Point use a system similar to this or return to the hands-off approach of the original X-Com?

Phoenix Point uses willpower as a key stat. A character's willpower rating determines initial and maximum will points for a battle. Will points are spent on most special actions and abilities. Will points can be lost through injury, morale effects (such as comrades dying or facing a horrifying monster) and special enemy attacks. Forcing will points below zero may cause panic and loss of sanity. Will points can be recovered by resting or through special abilities, such as a leader rallying action.

What sort of squad compositions can we expect in Phoenix Point? And how can we expect the squads to develop on the strategy screen over time?

Squad sizes will range from 4 to 16 roughly, but the larger battles will be base defence missions (which don't happen too often). The player will be encouraged to keep squad sizes smaller due to experience point bonuses for smaller squads. The main limitations for squad size will be the availability of healthy soldiers and transport capacity. There won't be other arbitrary restrictions.

Enemy mutations seem to be a key-point in the game’s design. “Evolution” of objects in games has been a design that surfaces now and again in games, sometimes quite overtly (Spore, Impossible Creatures). With the creature designs, it almost seems like if you lost a squaddie you might see them and their lost equipment repurposed against you in a future monstrosity. What level of ‘evolution’ can we expect out of our enemies, or out of the world in general?

Alien mutations are based on archetypes which have a particular 'chassis', such as 'humanoid', mixed with body parts based on animal groups, such as 'cephalopod'. Each body part may mutate, providing different functions and capability. It's possible to have a human with relatively minor mutations, such as a tentacled arm, or to have something much more alien looking. The evolution aspect is based on a response to poor performance in battle. If a particular mutant type does badly, it will be mutated in a random fashion. If the new mutation does well, then more of them will be deployed. Each body part type has three levels of improvement, and when a random mutation occurs to a part that has been used previously, the next level of that part is used. Different alien archetypes will arise from different parts of the world, based on the animals that are native to that part of the world.

You mentioned on Reddit that the ‘pod popping’ XCOM system will not be in Phoenix Point. Excellent! But it begs the question, if the baddies are roaming about independently of the player, can we expect them to be pursuing their own objectives? And will they scare players by opening and slamming doors in the fog of war?

The enemies will indeed be pursuing objectives, depending on the mission. If they enemy is attacking a haven, or one of your bases, they will actively seek to destroy the vital functional elements of the base or haven. Aliens will also attempt to kill, eat or abduct civilians. If you are attacking then you may be able to infiltrate without alerting the enemy, but once alerted they will search and attack. Sound will be an important factor, especially since the aliens deploy a thick mist in many battles. This will be indicated visually as well.

Wayward shots leading to disaster or unplanned triumph is one of the charms of procedural combat. So let’s talk bullet physics! A shot in X-Com had the chance to fly by and hit something in the distance. In XCOM, this is (for the most part) not the case, as shots ‘glue’ themselves to their targets and either hit or miss. Chaotic misses were relegated almost entirely to rockets. How is this going to be handled in Phoenix Point?

We will use a proper trajectory system for rockets, bullets, grenades and so on. Missed shots will definitely hit something, and potentially damage or destroy it. We haven't figured out a way to represent to the player the potential outcome of such attacks yet.​

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RPG Codex Report: A Codexian Visit to inXile Entertainment

Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Thu 13 April 2017, 00:18:30

Tags: Brian Fargo; Colin McComb; David Rogers; George Ziets; InXile Entertainment; The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep; Torment: Tides of Numenera; Wasteland 3

It's been a month and a half since the release of Torment: Tides of Numenera, and it's quite clear by now that the game has not been a success. It may not be a coincidence that shortly after its release, we received an entreaty from inXile PR representative Jim Redner. In what seemed like a direct response to my rueful Torment release newspost, Jim told us he was seeking to make peace with the Codex, and that he was willing to hear our demands. Our initial proposal was a humble one - a reveal-all AMA with George Ziets, probably the only person at inXile who still has our community's trust. To that Jim responded with a counter-proposal - an in-person visit to inXile, to be followed by an AMA with several of Torment's developers. That was an opportunity we couldn't pass up, and so a couple of weeks ago we dispatched our secret agent in Southern California to inXile's headquarters in Newport Beach. Today, I'm happy to present the report of his visit to Brian Fargo's court. Here are a few tidbits from his hard-hitting interview:

Kevin Saunders left before the end of production. Can you talk about why he left and how his departure affected production?

Brian: I can’t talk about an employee’s specific performance, but what I can do is to provide you with a factual history of things. Kevin left the project in late 2015, right? At that point, we were roughly two years into production. At that point, we’ve gotten the first pass of combat. The story was not yet at first pass. No abilities or weapons were in outside of the alpha systems. And so, at that time, if we had gone along that route, the game would not be done until the year 2018. I could not afford to stay on that path. I had to change what we were doing.

And, to talk about scope, the product was wildly over scoped. Even today, after we made the “cuts,” the original specification for the game was 600,000 words. You know how many we are at now? It’s 1.6 million words, probably a world record for a single player game. I think the only games that have more word count is MMOs done over a long period of time.

George: When recording, the guys who were doing the recording were saying, this is like one of those big MMOs, and they were shocked that it was a single player game.

Brian: After cuts, it ends up being several times what we wanted it to be. Planescape: Torment, the number that was thrown around a lot was 750,000 words. But when you talk to Avellone, he would say we actually double counted some sentences, so it might not even be that high. I think the Bible is like 700,000 words so that seems plenty of words to do a narrative piece, something that is as big as the Bible.

So basically, after two years in, I had to change plans. So those are the facts. I’m not trying to disparage Kevin, I don’t want to talk negatively about him in any way, but I can at least speak to the facts behind what was going on at that point.

We should talk about the writing, since this is a big focus for the game. Why was the game so wordy to begin with? This seems to have become a trend with Kickstarter CRPGs. Is it really necessary to force the player to read a novel? For example, why were the Meres designed as choose your own adventure stories, as opposed to isometric scenarios?

Colin: As I recall, I was sitting in a meeting with Adam and a couple of other people, and we thought, wouldn't it be cool to quickly throw out a choose your own adventure story as one particular Mere? I mentioned that to Kevin, and Kevin said "what if we did that for all of them?" That would free up our artists for other stuff as well, so we thought it was a cool idea.

Brian: I wouldn't say we decided to be so wordy but that it became so wordy because they were trying to express all the subtlety and so on.

George: Part of it was due to the excitement of reproducing the Planescape: Torment experience, where there is a lot of wordiness. I remember early on, even on the Codex, I remember there being a lot of excitement: "walls of text! walls of text! we want walls of text!"

Turns out the Codex didn't want walls of text.


Brian: There appears to be a lesson here.

George: We felt there was excitement about that, and we did want to pay off on a strong, dialogue writing and text based experience, and making really imaginative characters, and having characters with a lot of different things to say that you could explore. But also making sure that all this was optional, and for the most part it is.

We should talk about sales. Everyone can look them up for Steam. It's currently sitting around 120,000. Can you tell us how many copies were sold from other distribution sources?

Brian:
Negligible.

Were these sales expected?

Brian:
No, I'm disappointed.​

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RPG Codex Review: Torment: Tides of Numenera

Review - posted by felipepepe on Sun 12 March 2017, 08:50:47

Tags: InXile Entertainment; Torment: Tides of Numenera

What does one life matter? What can change the nature of man? And did Torment: Tides of Numenera, InXile's spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment, deliver on its promises?

For the past two weeks these have been the questions puzzling RPG fans - or at least those who aren't playing Horizon: Zero Dawn, Nier: Automata or just waiting for Mass Effect: Andromeda, that is. The press loved InXile's latest game, but the audience seems less convinced. Sales have been poor next to previous big Kickstarter RPGs, anger erupted from cut content and the reception has been mixed both on our forums and on Steam (two places that rarely agree). Making a successor to the Codex's #1 RPG of all time is obviously no simple task, so esteemed contributor Prime Junta took the job of measuring InXile's success. Here's an excerpt from the full piece:

The fatal flaw of Torment: Tides of Numenera is timidity. It is terrified of stepping out of the shadow of its ancestor, to proudly do its own thing. Instead, it imagines Torment can be captured in a formula. It apes its forms without understanding its substance. If Planescape: Torment is a monk struggling with a kôan, "What can change the nature of a man?" a red-hot iron ball in his throat which he can neither swallow nor spit out, Tides is a philosophy freshman crying into his red wine, in love with the profundity of his navel. Planescape: Torment's characters embody that central question: the succubus who took a vow of chastity, the enslaved warrior-monk from a people defined by their escape from slavery, the fragment of a collective consciousness who developed a sense of self. Tides' characters... talk about it. They're painted sticks parroting lines written for them, not flesh-and-blood characters living, breathing that question.

For example, consider companion vision quests. I achieved the best outcomes for all of the companions I had with me without even paying much attention to them, as the game goes out of its way to make absolutely sure you don't miss anything. If you've forgotten to talk to your companion, they'll remind you. If you've missed a quest trigger, the character in the next step of that vision quest will react anyway, even helpfully asking you to bring that character to him if he isn't with you at the time. Keep clicking on things, and eventually you'll get a menu to click on, giving your companion ending A, B, or C. The conversations themselves are shallow, and it doesn't matter much what you say in them as you end up in the same place anyway. You don't have any reason to care, beyond shallow feel-good humanitarianism. This is only similar in form with Planescape: Torment, where companion dilemmas are also resolved primarily through conversation. There, however, you won't even meet one of your potential companions if you don't, out of pure curiosity, buy a trinket from a merchant and then fiddle with it, attempting to figure out what it does, and exploring the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon with Dak'kon reveals as many searingly painful truths about you as it does about him.​

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