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The RPG Codex's Top 101 PC RPGs (With User Reviews!)

Community - posted by felipepepe on Sun 4 August 2019, 23:54:41


Greetings traveler. I hope your mouse wheel / PgDown key are in good shape, because is this one MASSIVE piece of content!

About 5 years ago we made a voting to determine the Top RPGs of all time. We had 234 codexers voting on 223 RPGs. After we got the ranking, we asked people to write why short reviews for each title. That was the RPG Codex Top 70 PC RPGs, one of my favorite things of the Codex and what later led to the CRPG Book.

But new games are released every day now, and we decided to make an updated version, with the same rules. This time 361 codexers voted on 278 RPGs. And instead of a Top 70, we made a Top 101! With reviews!

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As with the previous one, the rankings after the Top 20-30 are not as important, this should really seen as a list of interesting games to try out. Few people will enjoy niche titles like Elminage Gothic or Tales of Maj'Eyal, but those that do will absolutely love them.

You can check the full results of the voting HERE (plus a comparison with the previous poll), or just scroll down to start reading! OBS: Some entries share the same number, that's because they were tied in the voting.

Thanks to everyone who voted and wrote reviews, have a good reading!
:love:

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RPG Codex Interview: Underrail Expedition

Codex Interview - posted by Infinitron on Mon 15 July 2019, 00:21:29

Tags: Stygian Software; Underrail; Underrail: Expedition

With the Underrail: Expedition expansion coming out next week, it's a fine time to publish Diggfinger's interview with Underrail creator Dejan Radisic AKA Styg. The original plan was for Diggfinger to actually visit the Stygian Software office in Belgrade, but that didn't work out. That may have been for the best however, because it gave him time to gather additional questions from the community. It's a brief piece and Styg isn't ready to talk about his plans for after the expansion yet, but there are a few welcome bits of information in here. Here's an excerpt:

Underrail: Expedition is releasing on July 22nd. Which of the expansion's features are you most excited about?

Not any feature in particular, but I'm very excited to see how people experience the new content as a whole. New mechanics and goodies aside, we put a lot of work in improving the quality of the content itself - the overall world design, dungeon design, dialogs, etc, so I hope that it bears fruit and that the players recognize it. Also, due to how the campaign is structured, players will have a lot of freedom on how and in what order they approach it. Will they side with this or that faction or no faction, will they rush into dungeons, wage war on the natives or maybe just explore the waters on their jet ski? It will be a lot of fun to watch people play the game on the internet.

The original development schedule for Expedition was around six months long, with the expansion slated for a 2017 release. What made you decide to extend development? Was it an ongoing process of adding new elements, or did you underestimate the time it would take to realize your original ideas?

A bit of everything. The project was overly ambitious to begin with and as we started fleshing out all the things we wanted to implement it turned out it'd take a lot more time to implement them properly. At this time we began raising the standards of the content that was being produced so zones started coming with more custom visual pieces, mechanics, lore, etc so it took a lot more time to make them than we originally anticipated.

Also we did a lot of work on the base game, some of which we considered prerequisite to the expansion itself - such as the water areas that connect Underrail and Black Sea. And now that we had those areas, we had to fill them with some content and quests and have this or that faction have its presence there and add narrative elements to support/recognize this… and so forth. We also added new creatures to the base game, fleshed out the difficulty levels, added the global map, which in turn required us to make the game (more) geographically consistent, which required adding more areas… you get the picture by now.

And also, sometimes we just get a cool idea how we can spice up some part of the game and we can't help but work it in, even though we are fully aware that we're being subject to feature creep. In the end I think that, despite waiting, you guys will be the end beneficiaries of our questionable project management.

Are there any major changes in terms of quest design in Expedition? Can we expect more choice and consequence than the base game, or is it more combat-focused?

Those are not mutually exclusive. The game will be as combat-focused as ever and this is never going to change. However, we did improve on C&C aspect of the content as well and also gave the player a lot of freedom on how they will approach the content. They can take an active part in the workings of one of the factions of the Black Sea (expedition or pirates, but not natives) and their conflicts, resolve certain events in favour of one or the other or just keep to themselves and let the factions go at it themselves.

Why did you choose to develop a mid-game instead of post-game expansion? Was it hard to balance it with the content of the base game (ie, ensuring players don't end up with overpowered characters in the endgame)?

It was probably a mistake. If we just made Expedition as a separate stand-alone campaign, I think we could have made it even bigger and saved up a year of development or so. We'd also be free from a lot of lacklustre design and mechanical constraints that are a result of having to keep the entire game world consistent. Aside from improving the difficulty spectrum during the development of the expansion itself, we didn't really do any balancing in that regard, so it wasn't hard at all. We might, at some point, go back to DC and up the challenge there for the playthroughs that went through the DLC. It will be development time well spent, since it's everyone's favourite part of the game.​

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RPG Codex Review: Druidstone

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Sat 29 June 2019, 20:17:16

Tags: Ctrl Alt Ninja; Druidstone: The Secret of the Menhir Forest

Has it really been just a month and a half since Druidstone was released? It sure feels longer. These days small games are quick to sink into the depths of Steam without leaving a trace, even when they're made by the developers of the acclaimed Legend of Grimrock series. However, the Codex has not forgotten. After all, you could hardly expect Darth Roxor not to be interested in a scenario-based tactics game along the lines of Blackguards, despite his well-known disapproval of deterministic combat mechanics which Druidstone utilizes. Indeed, in the end it's not the determinism itself that Roxor finds fault with, but rather what may have been the developers' attempts to work around it. I quote:

Naturally, this deterministic approach has a huge influence on mission design. As everything is hand-placed and nothing in terms of the mechanics is random, Druidstone has to rely on a number of key measures to make sure that the player isn’t able to plan a successful route to victory from the very first turn. Some of them work, some are questionable, and many are quite annoying.

What works well are some of the abilities available to monsters, which can make the course of battle somewhat unpredictable, and which also make you consider your progress through a mission. These include wraiths that can resurrect dead enemies as skeletons an infinite number of times, mage-killing spiders that can steal your spells for a while, or an assortment of foes with healing spells. Obviously there’s more, and they are too many to list, since the majority of enemies have some unique quirk that gives them a specific and characteristic role on the battlefield.

Another aspect which I’d consider well done is the general way maps are structured. I’ve seen “full deterministic” tactics games before that were more or less glorified puzzlers, with only one obvious/optimal way of getting through each encounter. And while some levels in Druidstone also fall for this trap, most of them are broad or open enough to invite multiple ways of approach.

[...] As for the annoying bits, there’s a lot to talk about here. Let’s start with enemy reinforcements. I don’t think there’s any level in the entire game that doesn't have them, and they are always used in a very cheap and irritating manner.

Reinforcements are typically announced one turn in advance by dropping “teleporter beacons” on certain squares. These are pre-placed, they can spawn at any moment and in any square (including right on top of your party), and you have absolutely no way of telling when, where and what they will spawn. A reasonable approach would be to adapt the spawning points to the map design somehow – like make skeletons rise out of graves or have wolves run out of dens. But Druidstone disagrees, and it keeps deep striking seemingly random enemies into seemingly random places at seemingly random intervals, while you are left scratching your head, thinking who the hell thought this was a good idea. I dare say this feature is bad from the very start and never becomes less bad. At some point you kind of learn to live with them – because they become a simple fact of life, like mosquitoes, cars freezing in the winter and AIDS – but much like the doomsday timers, eventually they grow really old, and the only reaction they get from you is “not this crap again”.

However, Druidstone likes its monster deep strikes so much that you need to watch out not only for the telegraphed ones. Monster death squads can also spawn out of nowhere on top of your party unannounced, though fortunately this doesn’t happen as often.

The unannounced monster spawns are a part of Druidstone’s number one most annoying aspect. The “gotcha!” moments. This game really, really loves to pull absolute nonsense out of its posterior, rub it all over your face and strut around, yelling “I totally fooled you!” In my experience, triggering a gotcha usually results in immediate turn rewind or even a restart of a level, because more often than not, it puts you up against a battlefield reshuffle that makes most of what you’ve done until that point moot. Typically, the gotchas are of a “bait-and-switch” variety, where accomplishing an intermediate objective suddenly unleashes all hell, in a way that you could have never predicted.

My absolutely favourite example of the above is a big bossfight against the avatar of a god of fire. The avatar is basically a time bomb – after X turns, it will explode and collapse the dungeon. Your primary objective is to escape by unlocking the exit and leading all your characters to it. But there’s also an optional objective to kill the big boss. Since he has a lot of health and quite the numerous entourage of goons, with more that keep spawning, a reasonable person would assume that killing the boss is a challenging way of winning early. Imagine my surprise when vanquishing the wicked foe made one of my characters yell (literally), “oh no, the dungeon is going to collapse anyway!” and set the countdown even lower than it was before. Needless to say, my heroes were too far away from the exit at that point. Truly, this was the gotcha of the freaking century.

This is just one example, and while it might be the biggest one barring the final boss (and I’m not gonna discuss that one), smaller ones are no less annoying. Even further, they are so plentiful that they might even form the core of Druidstone’s difficulty, and that, dear reader, is not very good at all.

That’s because not all levels stoop to this kind of ludicrous and downright unfair design. Sometimes the game does have you face a properly outlined challenge that keeps chipping away at you through attrition and clever enemy composition and placement. In times like these, Druidstone can be loads of fun, and it gets your noggin joggin’ when you analyse your every option multiple moves into the future to escape from a perilous situation. One of my favourite levels that reflects this perfectly is a mission where you have to break through an army of the undead guarding the entrance to an ancient temple, all the while protecting another weak character from harm. The map is big, it gives you a number of paths to consider, it mixes strong dark knights with a horde of cannon fodder skeletons, and also drops a few of the necromantic wraiths along the way. No gotchas, no nonsense, pure planning and attrition.

Unfortunately, just when you think you’re starting to have fun, Druidstone goes out of its way to kick you in the balls with something stupid again. And while in the final tally I’d say that the fun-to-bullshit ratio is roughly 50/50, bullshit is much more aggravating by its very nature.​

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RPG Codex Preview: Copper Dreams Alpha

Codex Preview - posted by Infinitron on Sun 14 April 2019, 01:56:35

Tags: Copper Dreams; Whalenought Studios

The Copper Dreams backer alpha has been out since last year, but not too many people appear to have played it. That's a shame, because the game has changed so much since it was Kickstarted back in 2016 that I suspect most of us have long since lost grasp of what it's about. Only Joe & Hannah from Whalenought know where this train is headed, but what we can do is take a look at the currently available alpha build, which is what esteemed user Diggfinger volunteered to do. Here's an excerpt from his preview:

Speaking of guns, let’s get into combat. One of the novelties of Copper Dreams is its ‘strategic turn-based combat with time-based resolution’ system (Whalenought’s marketing department is working on a snappier term). It’s reminiscent of the combat in Grandia, in that turns take time to execute. You can issue actions in order of initiative, at which point time stops. But having issued your command enemies can act and adapt their action, e.g. seek cover from grenades or dodge. Actions take ‘ticks’ to execute, i.e. pulling an aimed attack might cost 6 ticks. This can create interesting dynamics, where enemies might stun you with a quick attack before you can carry out your planned headshot. So it adds an additional layer of strategic planning, with more factors to take into account before issuing your actions. In the latest version, you can even use the mouse wheel to advance time in ticks (i.e. 0.25 seconds) while watching your party members carry out their actions. It’s surprisingly cool, and especially handy for tough battles where you want to keep everything under control.

Loot is basically nonexistent at this point. I managed to scavenge a few laser-SMGs from the guards and later on some knives, but I could not search or move their bodies.

Also of interest is the wounds system. Hit points are completely absent. Instead, your character’s status is determined by the number of hits they have taken. Wounds are applied to specific body parts: head, torso, arms, and legs. The penalties you get differ depending on where you are hit. I.e. a shot to the head might decrease your chance to hit, while getting hit in the torso or legs can cause bleeding and affect movement speed. In theory this is cool, but it seems the negative effects on player characters are not fully implemented at this stage.

My thoughts on combat are mixed so far. On one hand, I like how the turn-based system allows more player agency and adds depth to the classic formula, and it generally plays well. On the other hand, it still needs a lot of balancing and polish in that everything seems to happen way too fast. After you issue an action, the screen just explodes with enemies, shooting/ducking/moving at a frantic pace for a few seconds before everything freezes again. Added to this is the lack of sound effects and general feedback, meaning you are often at a loss as to how the situation is progressing. I also found it bizarre how apparently different attack types (targeted, burst, quick etc.) have identical damage potential. Intuitively, using more ‘ticks’ should result in more damage to compensate for the time needed. Fortunately, I think these issues are the fault of the game being unpolished in its current state rather than the system being inherently ‘bad’. If they manage to polish and balance it well enough, it has the potential to be interesting.

I really liked the wounds system. Having no HPs seems radical at first, but the decent visual cues mean you barely notice their absence. Aiming at heads and limbs can lead to critical hits, instant kills and ‘shock-effects’ which is fun to play around with. Strangely though, it seems that applying medkits during combat costs no ticks. That means you can effectively stitch and heal up your wounds ad infinitum while the enemies politely wait around. This will surely be addressed but sticks out in the game's current state.

As for stealth, it’s difficult to really assess at the moment. As mentioned, it is not possible to move/hide bodies which was a big deal during the Kickstarter campaign and subsequent updates.

Character progression also remains a mystery, as it is not featured in the alpha. According to Joe and Hannah, the game will start with the player being interviewed by the government officials. This will allow you to choose background traits, appearance and stats like aptitudes and proficiencies. It seems like you will be able recruits NPCs as well (including mind-controlled ones), a feature which is already somewhat present in the latest version of the alpha. But your followers just drone around, so I didn’t particularly enjoy that feature.

I’m slightly worried about the absence of XP points. Apparently, the goal is to scrap XP completely in favor of rewarding you with skill points for completing missions. Personally, I love getting XP both for killing enemies and completing quests. It’s a don’t fix if ain't broke issue for me, but I can see why Joe and Hannah want to try something different. Let’s hope it works out.​

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RPG Codex Preview: Disco Elysium

Codex Preview - posted by Infinitron on Thu 28 March 2019, 23:13:50

Tags: Disco Elysium; ZA/UM

We first previewed Disco Elysium back in 2017, when it was still called No Truce With The Furies. A lot has happened since then, but the game remains stubbornly unreleased. When is it coming out? Hopefully the answer to that question will be revealed at one of this year's industry events. In the meantime, we figured it was worth checking up on it again. It just so happens that our man Tigranes was in San Francisco last week during GDC. He wasn't there to attend the conference, but with a few quick DMs to the right people, we were able to arrange a special preview. It begins thus:

In 2016, the Codex was visited by a delegation of strange Estonians. They cold-called our resident newsbot to promise what they called a "story-driven isometric role playing game about being a total failure". Since then, Prime Junta previewed the game in 2017, describing it as a 'work of art in progress'. And now, because ZA/UM still haven't learnt their lesson, I've managed to take another look in person.

Now, this isn't a full blown preview/interview. It just so happened that a filthy Codexer was wandering the even filthier streets of San Francisco, and ZA/UM were showing Disco Elysium at the GDC. The filthy Codexer had neither money nor doritos to procure a GDC pass, and instead cavorted with them in a hipster cafe. What follows are a bunch of personal impressions from a sub-hour hands-on playthrough, and some chatting with the devs.

Where's your RPG badge, boy
What is an RPG, anyway? I don't know, but usually I know it when I see it. There's a familiar pattern that we all recline on: a comfortable blend of looting, pillaging and lying, or the obsessive numerical optimisation of the perfect murderhobo. Disco Elysium, from that perspective, is an odd one. The game constantly feels like both something you've played and loved before, and something you've never played before.

In the first five minutes, I thought I was going to say Disco Elysium feels like an adventure game. There's a point-and-click system in place, and an attention to detail in your environment that's the hallmark of the genre. But then, your physiology starts to talk to you. Electrochemistry wants you to smoke, or at least to think about smoking. How you respond helps shape your character. There are 'thoughts' you can pick up as a result of your decisions, which in turn define future options (more on this later). There's even highly customised, pseudo-turn based combat sequences (more on this later too), though I didn't get far enough to see one myself. It quickly lays on gameplay elements that feel clearly RPG-ish in spirit, but often distinct from the kinds of systems we are used to seeing.

At the same time, this is a game that knows exactly what it is and what it isn't, and it's a game that has gone through a great deal of iteration. There aren't any half-baked systems that are included just because we expect them from RPGs; every piece of the game works together in a natural way, to communicate to the player what kind of world they are in. Within 5 minutes, I understood what I was: a drunk fuck whose life is as fucked up as his room - which would translate into every interaction option, every dialogue line, and even skill names. Within half an hour, I birthed the grand ambition for the playthrough: to be the dirtiest, smelliest, most deplorable Herr Hobocop I could manage.

Choices & Consequences
In an earlier time, when the Codex was the bastion of civilised tastes, C&C was the holy grail of a good RPG. In my mind, C&C will be the difference between whether Disco Elysium ends up an interesting adventure game-RPG hybrid or a truly memorable classic. There's no combat system to provide variety in terms of party-building or tactical encounters, so the extent to which you can shape your character through dialogue, thoughts, interactions, is really the meat of the gameplay. In my sub-hour playthrough, Herr Hobocop struggled to get dressed (and partially failed), got insulted by almost every NPC he met, and nearly mutilated a corpse trying to steal its belongings. The real question, then, is how much those bumbling interactions are going to remain fresh and consequential.

From chatting with the devs, it seems they are fully behind branching paths & real consequences as a design goal at least. They're not particularly worried about making sure every player gets to see all the content, or that every option is similarly rewarding. I'm told that depending on your skills and choices, you might get to, say, a cafe, and see very different interaction possibilities; and if your particular guy can't even start a conversation with the barista, that's just how it goes.

Two design decisions, to me, indicate that their heart is in the right place. First, I'm told that anticipating & designing interesting failure states are a key part of the design. Though some catastrophic failures lead to game over, many others are par for the course, and update the state of the world in interesting ways. Second, choices are (partly) limited and irreversible. Interaction options are classified as white or red. Red options can only be tried once, and you roll with the result; white options can be tried again, but only after levelling up relevant skills, and/or changing something else in the world so that the odds of success have been modified. From my sub-hour hands-on, there's no way to tell how successful they'll actually be at this, but at least they understand the nature of the problem.

And yes, they've heard of Age of Decadence.​

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Knights of the Chalice 2 Pre-Kickstarter Interview

Codex Interview - posted by VentilatorOfDoom on Tue 5 March 2019, 11:29:11

Tags: Heroic Fantasy Games; Knights of the Chalice 2

I took the opportunity to talk to Pierre Begue, the developer behind the 10 years old cRPG gem Knights of the Chalice, about his upcoming Kickstarter campaign for Knights of the Chalice 2 among other things.

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The main story of KotC1 was inspired by old-school modules like "Slave Lords" and "Against the Giants". What inspired KotC2?

KotC 2 Augury of Chaos is a brand new adventure which does not really borrow much from any particular classic D&D module. Parts of it may have been inspired by the classic D&D module White Plume Mountain, other parts by the Slave Lords series, and yet other parts by Planescape: Torment, Dark Sun: Shattered Lands and the Baldur's Gate series. Cryptographic challenges were inspired by the adventure game Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars. However, for the most part, Augury of Chaos is the result of a number of cool ideas I've been writing down over the years.

For the Kickstarter module, KotC 2 The Dark Arena, and the other modules in the planned trilogy, my sources of inspiration include the D&D module Red Hand of Doom, the games Dark Sun: Shattered Lands and Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager, the Baldur's Gate series, Conan books, Spartacus films, the book The Seven Serpents, the d20 module Mad Manor of Astabar and various classic D&D modules, such as Against the Cult of the Reptile God, Castle Amber, Castle Caldwell and Beyond, The Veiled Society and Lost Tomb of Martek (in it, particularly the Mobius Tower).​

Thanks to Pierre for the great answers.
The splendiferous return of turn-based D&D in video game form is at hand.
Also, offering a finished game as KS reward for the next module seems like an interesting plan.

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RPG Codex Review: Kingdom Come: Deliverance

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Mon 4 March 2019, 01:14:53

Tags: Kingdom Come: Deliverance; Warhorse Studios

Warhorse Studios' medieval open world action-RPG Kingdom Come: Deliverance was released a year ago and became an immediate commercial success despite the best efforts of insipid cultural commissars. Since then the game has seen win after win. It's gotten three DLCs with another on the way, Warhorse have been acquired for a cool 33M Euros for their efforts, and it even won second place in our 2018 GOTY awards. How then can it be that it never received a proper Codex review? I assume PorkyThePaladin was wondering that himself, which is why he decided to write one. Porky finds Kingdom Come to be a wonderfully realized medieval adventure - albeit one that comes short of achieving true greatness, due to both combat balance issues and more intractably, a lack of narrative agency. Here's an excerpt from his review:

On top of the things mentioned before, KCD is full of interesting systems and simulation aspects. Aside from the deep combat system talked about earlier, there is fairly deep NPC behavior. At night, NPCs go home and sleep in their beds, taking off their day clothes. If they must go out, they will walk with torches or candle lamps. In the morning, they have breakfast in their homes and go outside, typically to their workplace. Farmers work the land, blacksmiths pound on metal, millers carry sacks around, and guards patrol the streets and roads. In the evenings, men often go to taverns and drink or play dice games. Women sweep the houses or streets. There are a lot of little custom touches that really make the world feel alive. There are even dogs and pigs walking around, or lounging under the sun. The AI is also good enough to run away from trouble, raise an alarm if it sees you doing shady things, close and lock doors when needed, and other such things.

There is an in-depth stealth and subterfuge system. You can sneak by staying out of sight and hearing, which is affected not only by your stats in the relevant skills, but also by what you are wearing. Put on soft, dark clothes, and you will make virtually no noise and blend into the night. Try sneaking in a suit of plate mail, on the other hand, and you will make enough noise to bring the entire Cuman army down your way. Correct clothes can also serve as a disguise, allowing you to enter hostile areas, for instance wearing Cuman armor will let you infiltrate an enemy camp in one of the main quests. You can also perform sneak attacks if you catch an enemy unawares, and there is an interesting lockpicking system in play. To navigate it, you move the mouse around until finding the lock's sweet spot, and then rotate the lock with the D key, while at the same time using the mouse to keep the sweet spot moving so that it stays in the same place relative to the rest of the lock. Not exactly rocket science, but it's probably the most interesting lockpicking system I've seen so far in a game.

There is also a very interesting and deep charisma system. It is affected by many factors, such as the quality of your armor and clothing (a shining suit of plate will impress people a lot more than peasant rags), your deeds and stats/perks, whether or not your clothing and armor are repaired and in good condition, or torn apart and covered with dirt and blood, if your weapon is covered in blood (this helps to intimidate people), when was the last time you bathed, and other such factors. The humorously designed perks add to this in various ways. For instance, there is one perk that makes your character more attractive to the opposite sex if he doesn't shower a certain amount of time. On the other hand, the stench is so strong, that your stealth is reduced by 30%.

Horse-riding is another in-depth system, with your skill at Horsemanship, and various equipment such as different types of saddles, reins and horseshoes affecting how well your horse can "handle", and how fast it can go. Horses themselves can be purchased (you get one free one in the beginning), and have different stats in different areas. They can also be outfitted with caparisons for that medieval knight steed look.

Even something like sharpening your sword is a detailed activity, as is alchemy and gambling. Reading is something that has to be learned, and until you do, manuscripts will appear as gibberish to you when you try to read them.​

[...] KCD is not a game like Fallout or Arcanum or New Vegas, where you can side with different factions, or complete the entire game without combat. The high level plot is locked in and will flow the same way regardless. You are Henry, and you will side with Radzig Kobyla and fight againts the forces of Sigismund, the Red Fox. While you can use diplomacy and speech and charisma at times to avoid combat, or at other times and with other builds, use your stealth and subterfuge skills to get what you need, you can never truly build a character around these things, and get through the game that way. At some points, you will have to fight. So from a strictly traditional RPG view, KCD would definitely be lacking in this regard. And yet, within that somewhat restricting narrative and mechanical structure, the game still manages to feel rather free and open-ended. This is partially due to being open world, of course, since at any given moment, you can travel in any direction, and choose to focus on various side quests or activities, should you not feel drawn to the main quest at that time. But aside from that, the way the quests are constructed, there is often some choice to be had on the micro level.

You can barge in and fight, occasionally sneak around and use cunning, or talk your way through some (but not all) situations. Sometimes you can pay your way around an obstacle. Sometimes you can poison your enemies so you don't have to fight them all. Or you can at least decide to fight them in melee, at range, or at range while riding your horse away. You can forgive your enemies and let them go once they surrender, or finish them off. You can dress yourself in different ways, do things in different order, or tackle problems in novel ways. So even though the overall story of the game will always be the same, and you won't always be able to handle things in different ways, the underlying details are varied enough to provide you with a feeling of a dynamic world.

For such a large game, there are not a huge number of quests, around eighty or so, but they are all very beefy. There are no fetch quests here, just substantial missions with a lot of stuff to do and many phases to them. For example, in one of the early game quests, you are supposed to go on a hunt with a young nobleman. So you travel to some woods together, and after an exchange of "pleasantries", the first phase of this quest revolves around a competition to see who can shoot down more rabbits within several hours. Once that's done, you embark on a boar hunt, and the noble rides off on his horse hot on the trail. Being horseless, you quickly lose track of him and must now find him in the large expanse of the forest. This is the second phase. Once you track him down, you realize he has been captured by two Cuman bandits. So at this point, the third phase begins, where you must either defeat them in combat to free him, or to sneak in and untie him, escaping together. So this one quest involves hunting, conversations, exploration, combat and/or stealth. And this is by no means an outlier, as pretty much all the other quests are similar in terms of not just being a simple "go to A, do B" type of quest, but rather involving multiple steps, and combinations of dialogue, combat, exploration and optionally (and only at times) stealth, diplomacy, and other approaches.

On the flip side, as mentioned above, people who love Fallout/Arcanum/Bloodlines type quests will find KCD quests not providing them with enough choice on a regular enough basis. There are some great ones in KCD in this regard, that allow the player to use their build to progress in completely different ways, including combat, speech, intimidation, stealth, or trickery. And yet, in many other situations, your hands will be a lot more tied, and you will have to resort to the more standard combination of combat, exploration, and limited-choice dialogue to get where you are going. So if having all or most quests be approachable from many different directions and to have all of this tightly tied to your character build is what's most important about RPGs for you, KCD might not be a game that will scratch that particular itch.​

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RPG Codex Editorial: Without Map, Compass, or Destination - MRY on RPG Writing

Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Wed 13 February 2019, 01:29:30


Two years ago, Darth Roxor wrote a fierce editorial where he tore into the various deficiencies of modern RPG writing. Unbeknownst to us, the esteemed MRY - creator of cult adventure game Primordia and the upcoming roguelite Fallen Gods - wrote a full-length response to Roxor's polemic, which he ultimately chose not to make public due to his then-recent involvement with Torment: Tides of Numenera, one of the games it criticized. Well, that was then. Recently MRY decided on a whim to share his editorial in a thread about the literary qualities of Planescape: Torment (which has since been derailed by random nonsense as Codex threads tend to be). It's a great piece, and so with his permission we've decided to give it a proper home. In truth, it's less a response to Roxor's editorial than it is an analysis of the issue at a deeper level. It attempts to explain why RPG studios find it so difficult to produce consistently high quality writing - and why we should still cut them some slack. Here's an excerpt:

Unlike in other fields, an RPG writer reaches a professional level in the near complete absence of coaching, junior leagues, and "practice" -- particularly with regard to the design and implementation of conversations.

The first point, about coaching, is the easier one to prove. I'm not a good basketball player, but to the extent I can play at all, it is because many better basketball players taught me, informally and formally, from the time I was very young. It's not necessary to be a professional basketball player to receive basketball coaching, and in fact totally inexperienced and untalented players receive coaching from relatively experienced and talented players all the time: for example, I received coaching, formal and informal, from a variety of college-level basketball players and one Olympic player, albeit before he played in the Olympics.

There is no such coaching for RPG writing. I have been, in one form or another, endeavoring to write RPGs for many years. But the only coaching I ever received came after I already had secured a job as an RPG writer (for Bioware, and later for inXile). To be sure, I have seen occasional instances over the years when experienced RPG writers advised amateurs, and I've tried to do that myself. There are few ridiculous for-profit trade schools you can go to and attend courses in game design, perhaps in RPG writing. There are lectures at conferences that you can stream on YouTube. There are message boards like the Codex where people debate and critique RPG dialogue. But the chance of having a skilled practitioner watch an amateur in action and provide advice over a sustained period of time, or even to "play against" or alongside an amateur, is essentially zero. I can't think of any other field of endeavor in my life (academic, legal, athletic, literary) in which this is true. (I'm sure there are other examples, but they aren't obvious.)

The second point about "junior leagues" is harder to prove because it is undeniably true that a form of junior league exists in the modding community. But in other fields what you see is a very wide base to a very tall pyramid, whereas in the field of RPG writing what you see is a very short inverted pyramid, with the top (i.e., professional RPG writers) larger than the base (i.e., non-professional RPG writers actually producing playable works). Millions of children play full games of basketball, write short stories to be read or listened to by dozens, compete in math Olympiads, play clarinets at concerts, and so forth. The opportunities narrow as the skill level increases: fewer will play high school varsity basketball, and fewer will start; fewer of those who start will play college ball, and fewer of those will start; a tiny fraction of those will make professional leagues, and fewer of those will start. But there is no comparable winnowing going on in RPG writing. A guy like me basically goes from unsuccessfully making an amateur RPG to working on Dragon Age: Origins, albeit with a mostly irrelevant interlude at TimeGate in the middle.

One reason for an absence of "junior leagues" is that RPGs involve many component other than writing. To make even a NWN module entails a number of additional skills (like map layout, encounter design, balancing, etc.). And you can't "play" at being an RPG writer by scripting once-off characters -- you need to build something larger and more complete. The result is that there are high barriers to participating in the kind of amateur development that could constitute such a junior league. Moreover, the junior leagues themselves lack coaching, rigorous feedback, and -- in many instances -- even non-rigorous feedback because most mods go mostly unplayed.

Finally, my point about practice is the least significant, but I think it's relevant all the same. In most professional endeavors, the ratio of performance time to practice (or preparation) time is skewed heavily toward the latter. Actors and musicians rehearse; athletes have many practice days before every game day and entire off-seasons of training; lawyers do moot courts and mock trials. But essentially everything an RPG writer does is performance, not practice. Indeed, the "writing test" I took to win a spot on the Torment team consisted of writing two conversations for use in the game. I believe the same is true of the test I did for Bioware on Dragon Age: Origins. (This would be equivalent to auditions being used in movies, right?)

What all of these factors mean is that the overwhelming majority of RPG writers will start out on professional projects without being seasoned in the craft. They may be good at writing in an abstract sense, and they may have a feel for RPG conversations from playing RPGs, but some of what you are seeing in commercial titles is the work of raw recruits. Of course, veterans take time to train and review that work, but the veterans themselves have writing responsibilities, so much of it is learn-by-doing -- you are seeing the equivalent of the failed Tolkien pastiche that some novelist wrote in college, rather than the third novel he wrote when such mischief was beaten out of him.​

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RPG Codex GOTY 2018: Results & Cool Graphs

Community - posted by felipepepe on Mon 21 January 2019, 12:35:09

Tags: GOTY 2018

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the RPG Codex 2018 GOTY Award!

This year we had 773 voters, who rated a whopping 114 RPGs that came out in 2018, including DLCs, PC ports and remakes. Once again we had three categories: Game of the Year, Best Expansion/DLC and Best PC Port/Remaster.

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

Game of the Year
1st - Pathfinder: Kingmaker
2nd - Kingdom Come: Deliverance
3rd - ATOM RPG

Best Remake/Port
The Bard's Tale Trilogy

Best DLC/Expansion
Battle Brothers: Beast & Exploration

For the full results and fancy graphs, just follow the link bellow.

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RPG Codex's 2018 GOTY - VOTE NOW!

Community - posted by felipepepe on Sun 13 January 2019, 02:59:11

Tags: GOTY 2018

Ladies and gentlemen, it is time!

The voting for the RPG Codex's 2018 GOTY poll is now open: https://goo.gl/forms/iRugybmNxjKHFtJp1

2018 was a very different year, as we had more RPGs than ever before, but few "must-play" big releases. Instead, every sub-genre got its own niche title:

ATOM for Fallout fans,
Pathfinder & PoE2 for Infinity Engine fans,
Monster Hunter for Action-RPG fans,
Dragon Quest XI for JRPG fans,
The Bard's Tale trilogy remake for nostalgic people,
Battletech and Mutant Year Zero for Tacticool bros,
Kingdom Come for walking simulator fans,
and so on...

As such, this time we have almost 100 games in our GOTY poll, divided into three categories: GOTY, Best DLC/Expansion and Best Port/Remake. The poll is long, but just scroll past all the games you didn't play and focus on the ones you did.

Hopefully we can narrow that list down to the the truly special games released this year. Or maybe we will find out that everyone enjoyed a different game. Who knows?

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RPG Codex Review: ATOM RPG

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Wed 9 January 2019, 00:09:03

Tags: ATOM RPG; ATOM Team

Against all odds, the Atom Team's ATOM RPG has turned out to be one of 2018's most well-received titles and a strong contender for our next RPG of the year. Together with Pathfinder: Kingmaker, it forms the basis of an unexpected Russian RPG Renaissance which we hope will continue. That said, for most people ATOM is probably just a well-executed Fallout homage with some funny memes. Not so for the esteemed bataille however, who identified the game's more esoteric qualities early on. In fact, bataille found ATOM so inspired that she volunteered to review it for us, and did a damn fine job. Here's an excerpt from her literary analysis of the game:

First, let’s address the enormous, almost embarrassingly fat elephant in the room before proceeding. The elephant that, before now, I have tried not to glance at too often.

ATOM RPG is exceedingly postmodernist. Actually, I’m fairly certain that it’s the most conventionally postmodernist game I have ever played. Virtually its every aspect is a citation. Its source may be an old Soviet song, a socialist realist film, an actor from the era of Perestroika, a novel written by a dissident, a controversial public figure, an internet meme (yikes), or Fallout. A lot of Fallout. At its most surface level, mechanically and story-wise, ATOM is made of Fallout. It’s got its own Iguana Bob, Richard Grey, The Followers, Rad-X, Vaults, FEV, the BoS, etc. Whether it’s part of the nostalgia motif, a set of homages, or plagiarism is for you to decide, but I think it fits the game’s fever dream feel very well.

It’s not Fallout 2, however, where the elements of its first part were deconstructed to inspect them from a different perspective, but rather a boxful of stuff to play with. In Atom Team’s hands, the borrowed material is clay to create a statue of Lenin with, tear it down, and then make a million other things following the same scenario. It’s playful, lively, and not preachy in any way.

A fair warning, though: like with any PM text, to enjoy ATOM fully, you’ll probably need to play it in Russian and be quite a prestigious Codexer who is no stranger to the 20th century Russian culture. Half the game’s population talks in direct quotes from literature, songs, films, or Soviet clichés. Knowing Sorokin, Yerofeyev, Zinovyev, and Shalamov is a must. Otherwise, you’ll be doomed to giggle at jokes about bigots assuming someone’s hunger level for the 40 to 50 hours required to finish the game. Which is funny enough, I guess, but the game’s main strength lies within the bounds of its literary exercises.

Otradnoye serves as a tutorial village (or as Shady Sands if we were to speak the elephant language), a place designed to be quite moderate in all aspects so as not to overwhelm a beginner. Its secrets are not too obscure; the mutated wildlife is easily dispatched; the quests are simple and easy to follow. The characters are mostly played straight, too.

It’s interesting to note that there are no generic NPCs. Not in Otradnoye, not anywhere else. Every character has their own name, dialogue, and a portrait. Even guards, farmers, and drunkards.

While the ominous implications of this are quite obvious, mostly, ATOM RPG doesn’t degenerate into filler conversations. I’d say only about 5 to 10 percent of all NPCs don’t have anything notable about them. Usually, even if they haven’t got a role in the grander scheme of things, people either have an interesting rumor to share or reference/parody/quote some other Russian text (thus amusing you a bit, hopefully).

Structurally, the conversations are pretty basic. If a character is not involved in a quest of some kind, you’ll only be able to ask them the same four questions. This highlights one somewhat major problem with the game’s dialogues: it seems that some of them have been done absentmindedly, almost on autopilot. More than once I have found myself scratching my head in surprise at some painfully obvious and stupid sentences. A few dozen conversations read (clearly unintentionally) like an unedited stream of consciousness. Again, it’s for you to decide if that’s a dadaist technique that deepens the artistic merit of ATOM or laziness/lack of time on the part of Atom Team.

But when conversations are good, they are witty, often times hilarious, and even touching. Death or misery is rarely the punch line to a joke. The writers are clearly in love with the strange and eccentric but never do they take sides. Be it a hypocritical cult leader, wacky conspiracy theorist, devoted red commissar, or time traveler who is often confused by his own omniscience, all of them are exaggerated to emphasize the qualities that make them tick.​

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RPG Codex Review: Das Geisterschiff

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Sun 16 December 2018, 02:17:41

Tags: Das Geisterschiff; Graverobber Foundation

If you're like me, you may have once thought that zwanzig_zwoelf was just some dude who spent all his time shitposting in our Shoutbox. It turns out he'd spent the last few years teaching himself Unity and working on his first game - Das Geisterschiff, a cyberpunk-themed wireframe dungeon crawler which he finally released back in September (and on Steam in November). Since then, zwanzig has periodically whined politely requested that we review it. It took a while, but in the end Darth Roxor himself stepped up to perform the task. His conclusion? Das Geistershiff is a decent first attempt which is more cleverly designed than it may first appear to be, though it's too short and simple to be considered great. Here's an excerpt:

To dismiss the most obvious bit first, despite calling itself a dungeon crawler, and certainly being one, Das Geisterschiff is not an RPG. There’s no character creation or inventory, statistics are limited to the bare minimum like accuracy, evasion and health, you have four different guns, and that’s basically it.

Then what’s left? A weird mash-up of features that ends up fairly compelling in practice. You are the pilot of a combat suit sent on covert ops that involve prowling through maze-like levels with step-based movement and blasting various undesirables in turn-based combat.

The combat works on an I-go-you-go basis, and though the narrow list of basic building blocks highlighted above could make it seem very simple, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Das Geisterschiff compensates the simplicity with many minor mechanics and quirks that give the gameplay more involvement than just shooting and ending turn.

For starters, all your guns are very distinct and fit for different purposes. The submachine gun is effective at short range and boosts your evasion, the assault rifle is better for longer engagements but makes you move like a slug, the laser rifle is more of a tool for busting through locked doors or mines since it’s too easily dodged by enemies, while the bazooka is a weapon of last resort with great damage but low ammo and splash damage that can also harm you if not handled with care. Choosing the right gun for the job is important, as enemies are varied in movement speed (some can move two steps in combat), behaviour and stats.

Another important thing to consider are your surroundings. Often it’s better to run away from an enemy than waste ammo and health, but for that you need a winding path where you could safely lose the heat. You can also gain advantage from high ground by standing on top of ramps or try to lead baddies into the vicinity of mines and blast them for splash damage, although truth be told you’re more likely to step into them yourself.

Since movement is paired with shooting, and you don’t have to choose one or the other, this gives you some more options as well. You can backpedal and shoot incoming melee enemies or hide behind a corner, then charge and fire off a burst from your smg as they get close. Or you can go for a straight-up crash course and ram the gits, though this makes both you and the target take damage – calculated by comparing the weights of both combatants – which will also let you shoot after the ramming is done. But you have to be careful, because dodging a ramming attack gives the combatant a free action – whether it’s moving back, counter-ramming or shooting, it’s never pretty for those on the receiving end.

You could still argue that all of this sounds basic, and I agree, but the thing is – it works. Thanks to all this, Das Geisterschiff rarely falls into a routine of predictable/throwaway encounters, because something can always go wrong, not to mention that they work well at burning through your resources. These would be health, which can be replenished if you find extra armour plating in a level, and ammunition, which can’t be refilled at all, and which makes running from unnecessary encounters all the more important.

However, there’s one big bummer that strips the combat of many of its merits, and that’s the enemy AI. I can understand simple bots being dumb, but the game also involves fights with enemy commandos who are just as likely to fall for the cheapest of tricks and who sometimes act in odd ways. For example, if you go into a minefield and combat starts, you’d expect your foe to wait for you to come through the hazard, but no, they’re in fact very happy to clear the way for you, often leaving themselves vulnerable once they need to reload after shooting the mines. Further, and this is a much bigger problem, running away from enemies is often as easy as moving around a column in circles until they lose interest and leave.

Finally, I think a major oversight that doesn’t let the combat really shine, and which lends itself to some of the AI exploits, is that you always face single enemies. If they came at least in pairs sometimes, you’d have to think much harder about tackling them efficiently, be careful about getting cornered, etc. Bonus points if you could also turn them against each other with friendly fire or just pre-scripted animosity.​

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RPG Codex Review: Grimoire - The Real Official Review

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Sun 21 October 2018, 02:31:18

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

Some of you were unhappy with our original review of Cleve Blakemore's Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar. You said the reviewer just didn't get it. That balance doesn't matter in a game like Grimoire. Clearly those criticisms were entirely correct! To rectify our errors, I'm happy to present the new definitive Codex review, courtesy of the esteemed Dorateen. It's full of nuggets of truth such as these:

So then, after spending a full weekend to build a party of eight created characters, the player is now ready to begin Grimoire. Upon entry onto a vibrant handcrafted 2D map presented in first-person perspective, there will be read narration written to provoke the imagination, painting the tone and atmosphere of the adventure. One of the areas where this role-playing game excels, such word imagery from descriptions to NPC dialogues exudes charm and whimsy, detailed with flourishing prose. After being treated to the game author’s inimitable style of text, the player will take a step or two and be promptly confronted by a one-eyed flower with violent intentions.

[...] I think it would be difficult to gracefully summarize the game’s backstory, and going into great detail would not do justice to the wonder of an emergent narrative. I will mention only that early on, the name of one of the chief antagonists is presented to the party like a fearful whisper and they will encounter the ripple effects of his forces and agenda throughout their adventures. It builds up with sublime pacing until at last meeting this character produces a dramatic interaction. The way events play out can vary, which is another attribute of the wild nature how Grimoire unfolds.

[...] The adventuring landscape of Grimoire is vast, and a large swath of time will be spent in the hunting of cuneiform tablets that are pieces necessary to the central quest. Often these are only found locked away in deep dungeons, and claimed by conquering some tyrannical guardian. As I looked back at the culmination of our party’s progress in the game, I realized it was not just about traveling from one dungeon to the other, but rather the fashion in which these locations are rooted in Hyperborea and attached to surrounding environments, which created a sense of separate modular adventures. Taken together, these episodes form a much broader campaign, with individual tales like streams that feed a river’s current pressing toward an unforgettable crescendo. More than any other role-playing game in a long time, Grimoire kept me in suspense all the way up to its multiple endings.

For what it’s worth, the story of the Heralds of the Winged Exemplar is a heroic romance, filled with tragedy and flawed characters as well as a realistic desire to set things right again. To return the world to what it once was. The party of characters thus answer the call to do the deed at hand, whatever the cost.

While the writing in the game is humorous and can at times be as fourth wall breaking as the Might & Magic series, nevertheless it touches upon serious subjects such as war, the nature of totalitarian state, and marketing media corruption. One of the lasting themes of the narrative is the transcendent power of music.

Computer role-playing games of this style and magnitude are not being produced in our present age. Not like Wizardry 6, not like Wizardry 7, or the classic party and turned-based dungeon crawlers of yesteryear. But the independent developer of Grimoire took it upon himself to craft such a title. For good or bad, like it or not, Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar stands as a once in a generation contribution to the hobby.​

Now to be fair, the review does also include a few careful criticisms:

On each map the player will face a variety of creatures. However, they appear usually packaged in the same configurations. For example, in the city of Waterport, among the enemies thrown at you are Highwaymen, Mutineers, Naga scavangers, and Vanguard marines. But they will always be presented in their respective groups and with little difference in numbers. If the encounter table could have mixed up these combinations, such as facing scavengers and highwaymen together, there would be more of an element of unpredictability. Even better, the game could have pulled from the wider palette of monsters available. In Castle Skulheim, among the undead, confronting wraiths that are encountered from other maps should not be out of place. Another preference in combat is to see a greater concentration of enemy forces. I recall in Wizardry 7, nuking 29 floaters or using death wish on 25 ratkin in a battle. The fights in Grimoire never approach those kinds of numbers. Then again, with the speed at which combat situations tend to be resolved, perhaps it is the reason fewer is better.

Make no mistake, the gameplay in Heralds of the Winged Exemplar is methodical and ponderous to an extent. Combat can be sped up by holding down the Enter key, but to me this ruined the enjoyment of watching a battle play out, and it might be more likely to cause the game to freeze. Rather, a brisker passing of combat feedback messages would serve well, especially after special effects, to avoid consideration to "fast forward" the turns of a cluster of six dark faeries, which takes a long time.

I don't mind automapping in general, but it is always more appreciated if tied to a cartography skill, the way it was in Crusaders of the Dark Savant. That game also featured a journey map kit the player needed to obtain to even bring up the automap. With all of Grimoire's itemization, something similar would be a nice addition. I also prefer individual character inventories instead of the pooled bar to access items, so this system definitely has room for improvement.

Accumulation of gold is never going to be an issue because the amount awarded to the party after an encounter is equivalent to one third of the experience points gained. So a battle that is worth 900 XP, will add 300 gold to the party. When you are fighting a lot, and at higher levels, this turns into a mountain of coin pretty fast. There are plenty of opportunities to spend money, including bribery, but it just seems there is never any pressure put on the party’s financial resources. Earlier I mentioned NPCs who might try to extort the characters. We could have easily managed to pay the amount demanded, but decided to beat the hell out of them as a matter of principle.

Finally, the restrictions on class changing are understandable, but more freedom in that area is something enjoyable to me. The ability to dip into one profession, and then switch back again. I wish our party's Thief could have been switched into a Ranger to pick up the lethal blow skill, but thieves are not allowed to become rangers. And some of the most elite professions must take a lot of dedication and save/reloading for those six bonus points when leveling, to have any hope of reaching the attribute threshold.
But overall, it's both a thorough introduction and a solemn elegy to the glory that is Grimoire. So hopefully Cleve will stop sending us threatening emails now.

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RPG Codex Review: The Bard's Tale IV

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Fri 12 October 2018, 00:10:28

Tags: inXile Entertainment; The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep

As you probably know, The Bard's Tale IV had an absolutely disastrous launch. It's safe to say that the game is a flop. Ambushed right out of the gate by performance issues on one side and angry grognards on the other, it never even had a chance. The sad thing is that most of the people who actually bothered to play it past the first few hours seem to have found it fun. Not exactly good, mind you, but fun. Esteemed Codex contributor felipepepe, who is a frequent connoisseur of the unusual, found the game to be so interesting in its idiosyncrasy that he felt compelled to write a review. His conclusion? The Bard's Tale IV could have been a good-for-what-it-is casual gem, if only it wasn't so bloated with filler content. I quote:

Bard's Tale IV only has about 6 enemy archetypes: Humanoids, Goblins, skeletons, ogres, liches and those weird one-eyed things. Of course, you have several classes of humanoids, goblins and undead, some with bows, others with shields, etc. And the ogres are reskinned to be demons or even a dwarven golem.

They also look very good (except the human faces) and have very elaborate animations, kneeling down when poisoned, struggling when teleported and so on. Of course more variety is always good, but this would be a decent bestiary for a short game.

But Bard's Tale IV doesn't want to be short. And it has no qualms about making you fight 20 groups of cultists, berserks or undead in a row if that means making the game longer.

This isn't me bitching about enemies looking the same. The problem here is that they fight the same. And so do you!

The enemies also don't do anything to demand a change of tactics either, as they always fight the same way. The underlying system is good, but it's underused and fails to offer diverse challenges. Once you learn to fight berserkers that counter your attacks, every single battle against them plays the same. See a wizard? He'll just summon goblins in the first turn and then keep using Mangar's Mind Jab. The weird one-eyed thing? It will just charge its beam attack every. single. time.

There are some very unique encounters, like a hidden stone golem that has massive armor, a plant boss that regenerates every turn, or several waves of reviving skeletons, and these will make you stop to think, maybe even retry with different skills. They show the potential the system holds, and it is indeed a good system. But I'm talking about maybe eight fights in my 30 hours playing. Once again, the problem is not the system per se, it's the "quantity over quality" mindset that's operating it.

Sadly, this also affects the dungeons and puzzles.

In a sense, the dungeons of Bard's Tale IV are closer to Legend of Grimrock than Bard's Tale I-III. Enemies are visible on the screen, they don't respawn (except for the end-game [fuck whoever approved that]) and every area is filled with puzzles and secrets.

Sadly, level design-wise, they are much closer to Skyrim's dungeons. That's because they are all mostly linear, moving you from set piece to set piece. The only true maze is a single underground area based on Skara Brae from Bard's Tale I. Other than that, all dungeons force you through a fixed path, offering at best a large area with three inter-connected puzzles, that must all be completed to advance.

Yet, I had fun with some of the dungeons. The best ones, such as Mangar's Tower, set a nice pacing between unique puzzles, fight a few harder battles and uncovering some hidden secret. That dungeon even knows how to use empty spaces, such as a long and ominous walk towards a dark altar, walking across a gorgeous scenery while eerie music plays.

I understand that this has nothing to do with what Bard's Tale I-III did but, again, I'm judging it for its actual content, not its Kickstarter promises. This is a casual, mass market game, something much closer to an RPG version of Portal or The Witness.

Now, personally, I think that the best puzzles in RPGs are the ones that make use of the lore, NPCs and/or environment. NPCs in this game are terrible and just stand in place giving quests, but Bard's Tale IV has some nice puzzles based on searching your surroundings or understanding a riddle hidden in a story. They are easily the best puzzles in the game.

In fact, Bard's Tale IV made me do something that few RPGs in the past 20 years did: take notes.

One puzzle, for example, has you inside a small garrison, reading notes from the soldiers and officers about what kind of beverages they are allowed to drink, and then using that information to unlock a secret passage by the storage room. None of these puzzles are hard (save for two very obscure ones based on crows), but they work well with the first-person view, atmospheric ambiance and shiny graphics to immerse you in this world.

Sadly, that kind of puzzle is vastly outnumbered by a far less exciting type: purely mechanical puzzles, like pushing blocks, gear puzzles, pipe puzzles and the "fairy puzzles", which are about using signposts to guide a fairy. These puzzles are completely disconnected from the world. You reach them, solve them in a vacuum, and then move on.​

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RPG Codex Review: Pillars of Eternity II - It's Pretty Alright

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Sat 25 August 2018, 01:37:48

Tags: Obsidian Entertainment; Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire

On the Codex, there tend to be two types of people with negative feelings towards the original Pillars of Eternity. There are those who thought it was crap and never looked at it again, and those who thought it was crap and became obsessed with it, played it seven times, and have never stopped talking about it. Darth Roxor definitely belongs to that first group of people, so it was hardly a given that he would agree to review its sequel, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. Yet that's what he's done, thanks to a key provided by a mysterious benefactor. His verdict? In short, Pillars of Eternity II is a game of fun exploration, inconsistent combat and horrible writing, which to a lovable murderhobo like Roxor averages out to "pretty alright". Here's a relevant excerpt from his review:

Anyway, once you learn to stop paying attention to all the ship-related nonsense and focus on clearing out the fog of war, Deadfire is definitely at its best. The archipelago is huge and has a lot of varied places to check, from native villages and jungles through pirate forts to spooky isles overrun by the undead, and more. As I noted before, the freedom in this game also means you can frequently run into places that are way above your paygrade, which you’ll need to return to later once you’re tougher – this is also why disabling difficulty indicators for all places is mandatory to get the best out of Deadfire, since it lets you get in the correct mood of an explorer stepping into the unknown.

Sometimes, “the unknown” will mean some kind of dungeon. Their sizes differ a lot, from just two or three rooms with angry yokels, to bigger ones that span multiple floors or maps. I wouldn’t say they are anything outstanding design-wise, but similarly to Obsidian’s Storm of Zehir from 10 years ago, they do their job well. They are varied enough to stay fun throughout the game, some of them have multiple points of entry and a bunch of “side” setpieces and points of interest, and a few even contain the odd very light puzzle or secret area, though these are easy to find or get through. One of the best in the game is probably the “undercity” of the Deadfire capital, Neketaka. It's accessible early, which means you’ll probably stumble upon a few hard fights there, it has some quests related to it and it is also rather big.

Every place you go to is also ripe with text adventures, which are another strong part of Deadfire. Whereas in the first game they all used to work like “1. Do things; 2. Use an item to do things; 3. Leave,” this one actually gives them proper depth, freedom of choice and variety of outcomes. Your party skills will be checked very often, with full or partial successes, sometimes you’ll also get checks based on class or background, other times only specific party members can do things, and even dudes who aren’t picked for something remain useful because the skill scores of all characters are tallied as assist bonuses (provided the assisting character is close to the acting one, although the game never really splits your party in a way that would prevent this). Also, I thought the skill/class-specific choices unlocked in the text adventures were very exhaustive, and I rarely felt like there was an option missing that would be obvious to have given my party composition.

Of course one problem here is that failed skill checks usually lead to a party member becoming injured, and the relevance of that is about the same as getting injured in combat. Although in the case of text adventures failing will sometimes result in both an injury and combat start, so I guess at least it matters for a brief span. The same is true for traps placed around some areas, since traps in Deadfire also only apply injuries. If the traps are “alone”, you can just step over them, rest and move on. They can get more interesting if set up within combat encounters, but instances of that are way too rare.

[...] To be honest, it’s pretty amazing just how non-existent the main quest is in Deadfire. You literally just follow Eothas from place to place, as he keeps stomping around stealing people’s souls, and there’s nothing else to it. It only gets dumber when you dive into the details too, because after visiting each Eothas-stomped place, you get Skype calls from the gods, where they bicker and banter like children, and somehow you are expected to care about all this nonsense and ignore the fact that Eothas is the real protagonist of the story, while you’re only there along for the ride. It wouldn’t even be so bad if you could ignore all this stuff by simply not participating in the main storyline (i.e. by sailing around and pillaging), but the game feels the need to rub “Eothas this, Eothas that” in your face terribly often given how short, stupid and non-interactive the thing is.

In fact, the entire “gods” shtick might be the most baffling part of the story when you take the Grand Reveal™ of PoE1 into consideration. PoE1 establishes that the gods are fake/artificial/whatever, meanwhile PoE2 establishes (through the Skype calls) that they are condescending idiots who don’t care about anything other than their own asses. Eothas’s agenda is roughly the same as in PoE1, namely to cut/reduce the influence of the gods on the physical world. And then at the end comes the Big Choice™ of what to do – and I can’t for the life of me imagine why anyone would choose not to side with Eothas. There is just no dilemma here, no downs that would accompany the ups.

The god-oriented main story is even more baffling within the context of the game’s themes and setting. For all intents and purposes, Deadfire is an age of sail colonial squabble, with greedy colonists, oppressed natives and scurvy pirates, but then on top of it there’s the tacked on dump of godly nonsense. What makes this even better is how many people in the game are so crazy about the gods, while you, the Watcher™ (whose chief superpower is still, uh, watching) who knows the truth about them can’t even try to capitalise on this knowledge. My favourite example of that is during an argument between two companions, where the pious Xoti tells you to stop the irreligious Pallegina from mocking her beliefs. Your responses include things like “Pallegina, you should learn to respect her opinions”. I can only laugh when looking at that through the context of the protagonist’s own knowledge. It’s like the writers of Deadfire don’t even know the basic state of their own deep lore.

Now if only that were their only problem. The far bigger one is that the writing in Deadfire is simply bad, bad, bad. Player character responses read like they’ve been written by a snarky high-schooler. Nearly every companion is a flaming homo who wants a piece of your butt. Dialogues are still pestered by completely skippable narration bits. Characters don’t talk like real people. The descriptive texts during “cutscenes” must have gone through multiple thesaurus “enhancements”. There are scenarios that don’t make even the tiniest bit of sense, like a native village that is starving because they only eat one specific kind of fruit, and their stocks of this specific fruit have run out, and they never had the bright idea to save the seeds because uh stop asking questions (and finally a dialogue option unlocked by [intelligence] impresses another native with your profound knowledge of… putting seeds into the earth to make them grow into trees). I could go on, perhaps with more specific examples, but the length of this article would explode.

The writing in Deadfire drops more balls than a juggler with Parkinson’s, and I’d say the only thing about it that is any kind of improvement over PoE1 is the fact that there’s less of it. Primarily because all the Deep Lore is now stored behind convenient wiki-links in dialogues, which means you never have to read them, and thank God for that. Also, a funny thing is that despite not reading them, I never felt like I was missing any sort of context at any time. Truly makes you think whether that crap has ever been necessary. Still, the wiki-links are a good enough “compromise”, so I welcome them.​

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RPG Codex Review: Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Sun 29 July 2018, 17:23:12

Tags: Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption; Transolar Games

Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption has been out for about three weeks now. Commercially, it's done about as well as you might expect from a game with exactly zero mainstream reviews. Who cares about that, though? We like it! It's not a great game, but it is a good game, and most importantly, 20 years after Quest for Glory V, it's indisputably a Corey and Lori Cole game. Frequent contributor Deuce Traveler has written a review that should give you a good idea of what it's like to play Hero-U. Here's an excerpt:

In Hero-U, you play as wannabe master thief Shawn O'Conner, who is caught stealing a certain special coin from a rich man's manor. To atone for his crime, Shawn is forced to attend the titular Hero University. At Hero-U, you're just one student in a classroom full of aspiring rogues (though they insist upon calling themselves "disbarred bards" in public to avoid scrutiny). Your teacher, Master von Urwald, encourages you to take the virtuous path of the roguish hero instead of that of the thieving villain. Over the course of the game, you'll have to survive through the fifty day long school year, with the goal of making it to graduation without being expelled or killed. Expulsion is the most immediate threat since the school hands out demerits like candy. You start out with a few coins worth of valuables and have to find a way to purchase your own school uniform before the school administrator Terk starts dropping them on you. If you collect 100 demerits then it's game over.

Terk is a great example of an effective one-dimensional villain. He's a power-hungry weasel, delighting at every opportunity to torment you and your fellow schoolmates. As a character he has no real depth outside of being weak and opportunistic, but the man is utterly relentless, always ready to drop a demerit on you for the slightest perceived insult, or if he catches you walking around past curfew, or if you aren't wearing your full uniform during school hours. Every time Terk spots you he'll stop you in your tracks just to heckle you, making you want to strangle the man for the needless disruption. The petty asshole is everywhere, constantly abusing his power, for which you have no immediate means to strike back.

Terk does a good job of setting the game's tone. In Hero-U, you're not a paladin ready to take on swarms of foes, or a sorcerer who can bend the fabric of reality. You're just some poor kid with a bit of talent for sneaking, thrown into an unfamiliar academic setting where you have to put in real effort to survive. In this game, time is your greatest enemy. You spend the majority of your days in class, with about an hour to yourself before your elective class starts, another hour before dinner, and another three hours before curfew. After curfew you'll want to shower so people don't complain about your stench, do some studying, and chat with your roommate before going to bed. You could stay up late, but if you overdo it you'll be too exhausted to stay awake during the next day's class and suffer penalties to your skills.

Therein lies much of Hero-U's difficulty. I'll get to the combat system later, but for now just be aware that you can successfully retreat from a fight at any time, and if you fall to an enemy often the game will tell you that a classmate rescued you from death. But despite not having to worry about death, the experience of playing Hero-U is stressful because you always have to keep one eye on the clock. Over the course of the game, you'll have to find the time to explore the dungeons beneath the school. Having to sneak past threats down there will slow you down, and one wrong move can cost you hours. Personally, I found this enjoyable, since it kept my mind focused and I never felt like I could just glide effortlessly through the game. But I could see people feeling that Hero-U is just too slow to give them the buzz that they need. I will admit that it gave me unpleasant flashbacks to my college freshman year. No other game has ever done that to me, so at least I can say it's a great university simulator.

The downside of Hero-U's time-based structure is that there are some situations that seem like you should be able to solve them right away, but the game won't allow you to until enough days have passed. For example, early on I discovered some secret passages that a nighttime thief may have been using, but I wasn't allowed to set a trap for the thief until I'd collected all of the clues to what was going on. It's frustrating when a game that allows so much choice still finds ways to railroad you, especially when there's no hint that you need to sleep in order to progress.

Do you like choice and consequence? Every decision you make in Hero-U has some sort of consequence. The type of training you decide to take will improve your character in different ways, as will your choice of elective. If you decide that your basic thieving skills are more important to you, you can ditch the electives altogether and ignore invitations to hang out with your classmates, giving you the time to build a very talented character at the expense of losing out on craftable items, clues and extra coin. The story continues whether or not you decide to become involved with events.

Ignoring important quests in favor of other pursuits will result in one of the other students stepping up to solve them instead, which will impress your teacher. Impressing your teacher doesn't actually matter much unless you care about what he has to say when you graduate, though. You can also decide to be an asshole, earning the appreciation of the class bully at the expense of alienating everybody else. For example, at one point your roommate thinks someone stole his instrument when it was actually lost in a pile of junk. You can give it back to him, but you can also keep it to mess with his head. Hero-U wants you to perform good deeds, but it also allows you to pass on all of the heroics and gives you the opportunity to selfishly pull the rug out from under everyone at its conclusion.

As INXS would say, there's not enough time for all that I want to do. In order to survive, you'll have to quickly figure out what kind of disbarred bard you want to be and train up your skills accordingly. Skills can be increased by taking classes or by practicing them. Shawn's scores are pretty pathetic on day one and you won't be able to max them all out in a single playthrough. The first time I played the game, I was only able to max out my Climbing and Magic skills, while on my second run I maxed out Smarts and Gaming skills. Every one of your skills has some use. When you try to use one of them to overcome a challenge, it's compared to a hidden threshold. For example, you need a high enough Gaming skill to beat your fellow students at a game of billiards and take their money, otherwise you'll lose and have to pay them. If you have no magical skills, forget about being able to cast a spell to get through a magically locked portal. And if you're charming enough, you just might be able to pass one of the toughest challenges in the game and get your roommate to clean his side of the room without pissing him off.

The game has three such social skills - Charm, Smarts, and Moxie. Different characters will respond more positively to different skills depending on their personalities. Charm dialogue options allow you to be compassionate when people are talking about their issues, but you might also come across as a bit of an ass kisser. Smart rogues come across as cold and calculated, but the skill can be helpful for walking people through solutions to problems. And Moxie allows you to unleash your inner troll and piss off everyone with snarky comments. You should focus on one of the social skills and stick with it, since different characters will be drawn to you and different events will open up depending on your choice. Storywise there isn't much of a difference between Smarts and Charm, but playing a character with high Moxie will drastically change your outcome.​

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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: Forsaken Virtues

Codex 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

Codex 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).
Read the full article: RPG Codex Interview: Chris Avellone on Pillars Cut Content, Game Development Hierarchies and More

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