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RPG Codex Report: Gamescom 2016 - Pathologic, Shock Tactics, End State, Demons Age and more
Editorial - posted by JarlFrank on Tue 21 February 2017, 23:55:55Tags: Bigmoon Entertainment; Demons Age; End State; Gamescom 2016; Ice-Pick Lodge; Iron Sight; Pathologic; Pixelated Milk; Point Blank Games; Regalia; Shock Tactics; Sunburned Games; The Great Whale Road
Alexandra Golubeva: Pathologic was released in 2005, and it was critically acclaimed for its weird atmosphere and mood, and for being rather uninviting. It was still a game that was trying to be accessible to a general player audience; I just want to say that it "Didn't Scale to Their Level", you know? [laughs] It had its downsides obviously; the game was developed a very amateur team. None of the people who worked on the original Pathologic were actually game developers; it was their first attempt.
Pathologic is a so-called "survival thriller" with horror elements. It has this brooding, suspenseful atmosphere, but it doesn't feature jump scares and stuff like that. The story is set in a Twin Peaks-ish, small, semi-lovely town somewhere in Eastern Europe... probably in Russia, but it's never said for sure. The town is inhabited by rather odd and quirky people, with a few different factions among them. And then a plague breaks out.
In Pathologic, you play as a doctor who's trying to save the town from this outbreak. Genre-wise, it's an adventure: you're not supposed to fight the final boss, but you're supposed to understand the nature of the disease. There are three playable characters, each of them with their own background and personality. Each of them plays through the same set of events; there are 12 days in the game, and time progresses in real time. For example, on day 7 and 8, an Inquisitor will arrive in town, and she'll do that on every playthrough.
Each player character has their own world view; the Bachelor is very scientific minded, while the Changeling believes herself to be blessed. They are all healers, but they are very different from each other. For the Bachelor, the disease is a bacteria; for the Changeling, this kind of deranged girl, the plague is a sentient entity that wants to communicate with people by infecting them. Have you seen Rashomon? Storytelling-wise it's the same premise; you have one story told from three different points of view. They all contradict each other, but they complement each other too. None of your characters are lying.
Gameplay-wise, Pathologic is a rather hardcore and classical survival game. You have stats like hunger, thirst, and fatigue, and you have to avoid dying of any of those things. You have to gather resources and you have different options of getting them; you can barter with somebody, try to mug someone, you can try and be an upright citizen and do the good thing, hoping that somebody will reward you – which they will not! [laughs] The game is open world; you have free roaming within the borders of that town.
But it does make sense to follow the plot; the game doesn't force you to do it, but it makes sense if you're a savy gamer. You want to know what people value. The town has this community of children – a bit like Lord of the Flies – who live separately from the adults and put their own values on items. For eample, nuts, like chestnuts and walnuts, are an item in the game, and you can munch them if you like. But an attentive player can find out that children actually value nuts very highly. They play this weird game with them; they believe that people's souls can be preserved within nuts and that you can listen to them like seashells. So if you miss that, you get a kind of lousy eatable item, but it you were attentive, you can barter them with children to aquire rarer items, like bullets. Because children carry bullets in Pathologic. It's not a very violent game, so you're supposed to ask yourself... "why do they have bullets?" and that invites you to delve even deeper into the lore.
Bubbles: But you don't get a pop-up from Pathologic Boy telling you to give nuts to children?
Alexandra: No! Actually, that's always a point of tension within the team, because Nikolay [Dybowski, the Creative Lead] just hates tool tips, and he hates giving guidance to the player. To the extent of... maybe not being 100% spot-on. The original Pathologic was released in the era of printed manuals, and the mechanics of the game were explained in a printed manual. And so the people who acquired it online, like on Steam, were a bit confused, because there are crucial mechanics that are never explained. Oh, they are communicated to the player, but in an extremely non-intrusive way. It's the epitome of "non-handholding."
B: That's wonderful!
Alexandra: This new version will probably be a bit more communicative, but Nikolay's catchphrase is "We want to make a game that would hate the player." But that's meant as a joke. Please mark that quote as a joke if you use it in your article.
B: How do you expect players to feel satisfaction when playing the game? I don't mean this in the sense of "positively rewarded", but... let's say you lose on day 10, what happens?
Alexandra: Well... life sucks. [laughs] That's actually an interesting question. We do want to make it possible for you to lose or get yourself in a no-win situation; it's a resource management game, and you can get yourself in a situation where you don't even have a chance of getting vital resources. Go ahead and load a save file then.
B: Do you make daily save files, or save before every decision...?
Alexandra: In the original Pathologic, we have a very classical save system; you can save at any point, expect during the dialogue. In the new Pathologic, we're actually thinking about limiting saving options for the player; you know, having an option to save before any decision you make kind of devalues it. We want the choices to have weight. As for the exact system: I don't think there's a set decision yet. We've thought about having a daily checkpoint-ish system, and maybe allowing for more saves during the day – but that would have detrimental effects on the gameplay.
As for the player satisfaction, we believe that coming to understand something, overcoming a challenge, beating the odds stacked against you is satisfying in and of itself. You don't need cheerleader girls saying "Heeeey, you're the hero here!" If the game is rather challenging, you know that you're the hero when you beat it.
B: No unlockable outfits or funny hats?
Alexandra: Noooo! No, no, no! Nothing of the kind.
B: Do you have a vision of an "ideal" game that you're building towards? Because you've made the original Pathologic, then Pathologic HD, now the Pathologic remake.... are you building towards some "ideal game" in your studio, and is that game the one you're currently making? [forums question]
Alexandra: I think the answer would be different for every member of our studio. But for me personally, Pathologic is the ultimate Ice Pick game in many ways. First of all, it's an experienced version of the first game made by this studio. It was the game that defined Ice Pick Lodge as an entity. Now IPL has been existing for 15 years, and we're going back to the source basically.
Then again, I don't believe that Nikolay – who's the creative lead, and the creator of the setting and so on –I don't know if he even notices the fact that this version of Pathologic features some themes from other Ice Pick games, like The Void, for example. And even Knock-Kock. Which is kind of surprising, because Knock-Knock was a smaller, arcade-ish game that was released on mobile...
B: Oh! [sucks in air through his teeth] I'll have to mention that, sorry.
Alexandra: [laughs] But it is still an Ice Pick game, very much. And even some elements of it are going into the new [Pathologic]. There is no arcade gameplay, but... Knock-Knock was heavily based on this extra-game myth. There was this story about [Ice Pick Lodge] receiving an encrypted message from some unknown person, and the files from the package went into the game. I wasn't with the studio back then, so I don't know if that is true.
And the same mythological approach is also heavily present when making Pathologic. So basically, every word I'm saying is a lie. [laughs]
B: [looks befuddled]
JarlFrank: [walking over from the demo booth] One of the guys over there said that the story is gonna be "inspired" by the original, but not a straight remake.
Alexandra: Was it that guy? Well, pfft, he's not a writer! [laughs] "Inspired by" bears some weird connotations to me; if a story is inspired by a book, I kinda assume it sucks... [laughs] But yes, it will not be a word-for-word retelling of the original story; the original players would know all of the twists, and it wouldn't pack the punch that it had 10 years ago.
And the storytelling will also be different. The original Pathologic had a very straightforward quest system, even though it tried to conceal it. You received a letter, and you went there and there and there and there. Now we want to make it less straightforward and more exploration based. The game isn't finished yet – maybe we'll find out that it's totally impenetrable – but we're hoping to make a game where you don't receive quests. You just explore the town, and hear bits and pieces of rumors and information, and pierce them together, and then you realize what to explore further.
You might know that the original Pathologic wasn't even devised as a game; it was devised as a kind of "social experiment"... another phrase that bears weird connotations these days. It was supposed to be a simulation that would allow you to explore ethical issues that you would not encounter in real life... well, that you would hopefully not encounter in real life. And to Ice Pick Lodge, this idea that the game should help players to improve themselves, and help them to understand themselves better, this idea is still very much a part of out philosophy. And just making the same game wouldn't serve this goal, so we need to put new challenges into it.
J: Will the time limits of the original game still be...
Alexandra: That will still be in there, yes. That is still one of the basic aspects of the gameplay. In the original Pathologic, quests simply had a fail state; in the new version, we're hoping to allow the player to kind of "drag himself back into the plot." We don't want to encourage the player to load an older save file; we want to encourage him to go on playing. The original Pathologic had this mechanic of people dying if you didn't meet your quest objectives; now we want to make it a bit more flexible. Failing should be a part of the experience, because it's a depressing game; and the original Pathologic was depressing, but it also encouraged you to cheat. We want to encourage players to not cheat and embrace the despair. [laughs]
B: So if you don't die throughout the game, you can arrive at an ending?
Alexandra: Yes. Obviously, if you spend all your time just looting containers and eating and sleeping and nothing else, then the ending will be disappointing to you as a player, because it won't make much sense. Because the world moves on around you. One of the [playable] characters, the Haruspex, is perceived as a sort of messiah by some characters in the lore – and you can play as a very lazy sort of messiah who just does nothing. And maybe there will be an ending with someone else taking your place as the new messiah...
If the player wants to play against the game, we're not going to punish them in terms of resources and so on. But the ending will be more confusing to them, and that will be their punishment for not being engaged in the game. "Okay, so you wanted to play a game of looting containers? Well, you were successful in that! And as for the plot? Well, it went on without you!" For me, one of the references is The Last Express, a game which I think did it unnervingly well. This feeling of the world just moving on... Do you know, does The Last Express have any spiritual successors in that regard?
B: No, no remotely.
Alexandra: Well, for me, [Pathologic] is an attempt to work in that vein. Because The Last Express was splendid, and I found it very disappointing that the idea wasn't explored further.
B: It's astonishing, yes. It was released back in the golden age of adventure games, and it could easily have become a big thing back then... but that didn't happen.
Alexandra: I think it is because [The Last Express] is unnerving. You know, I feel very uneasy playing it, because I always know that things are happening over there and over there and I'm missing content, and so I say "I give up!" and I open a walkthrough. Well, Pathologic may be a bit about making people uneasy like that...
J: So the three player characters – the Haruspex, the Changeling, and the Bachelor – they're basically the original characters from the first game, only written differently?
Alexandra: Yes. Nikolay likes to describe it as “a different staging of the same play.” Like, you can have Hamlet staged by modern director who makes everybody wear weird hats and stuff; there won't be any weird hats in Pathologic, but we are taking that sort of approach.
B: Do you ever think about reimagining your other games, like Knock-Knock or The Void? [forums question]
Alexandra: Knock-Knock was only released in 2014, so it's a little early to be feeling nostalgic for it. As for The Void, the international version is already a kind of semi-remake. It was originally released in Russia, and it was super hardcore, no one could get through it. So the studio was kindly encouraged to make it a bit easier and add a more coherent storyline to it. And it would be weird to remake a remake… so no. Not at the moment at least.
B: But it's an open option?
Alexandra: Noo… I mean, “never say never”, but as far as I know, most people are strongly against remaking other games.
B: The stretch goals that weren't achieved in the Kickstarter, like the Termitary and Abbatoir, is there any chance that we'll see anything like them in the game, as DLC maybe? [forums question]
Alexandra: Pfft… I think there was some talk about the Prequel story… I think it's a thing that could be doable because we could use most of the same assets for it… but as for the Termitary and Abbatoir, it sounds unlikely. And we are just no DLC people, you know. It's not the mindset that we're going into gaming with.
B: How do you feel about Quick Time Events?
Alexandra: [laughs] Well, actually the simulation of a fight in the demo is sort of like a QTE…
Alexandra: ...but that's not how it's going to be in the final game. You know, we're rather old school. Nikolay, the Creative Lead, is a very old school kind of gamer; his favourite game is the original Thief.
J: OH. MY. GOD. YES!
Alexandra: He does obviously play modern games, and he does embrace some modern traditions, but he's like “ahh, the olden games, I understood them better.”
B: And how about minigames, like “click the tumbler”? ... Is there lockpicking in the game?
Alexandra: Yes! [to the lockpicking question] Personally, I hate minigames with a passion. So whenever we discuss something like that, I always go all-in with rage. But no, I don't think so. [to the minigames question]
But! On the other hand! Nikolay is a very immersive player, in the sense that he roleplays every game he plays. He doesn't need traditional challenges and objectives; he can just immerse himself in the surroundings and try to do whatever stuff is available. So he is actually in favour of making some very optional things available to the player. Not lockpicking cause that is stupid. So, for example, whatever character you play, you are a doctor. But the game is actually rather plot driven, and you don't do many doctor things. As the Bachelor, you're this kind of science investigator, as the Haruspex you delve into the lore and become this kind of religious figure – so you're not, like, treating people. But Nikolay is very much in favour of allowing the player to do that.
If you want to put yourself into the shoes of a doctor, you're supposed to have an option to, you know, cure random people without many in-game rewards, just for the sake of it. Can you call that minigames? I'm not sure. Probably, technically, a bit.
J: I have some more questions based on the demo experience I just had. I've already seen some architectural pieces that were almost 1-to-1 taken from the original game. Will the level design mostly be a restoration of the original city, or will you be putting in some new areas, or twists on the original architecture?
Alexandra: A bit of this and a bit of that. As you may have seen, the Polyhedron is highly reminiscent of the original one because… [laughs] well, basically, they're the same. It's perfect for our goals, so why change it? Some places have changed a lot, like... Stillwater, ... the house you start in as the Bachelor, that's been completely redone. The original one seemed a bit generic to us, from modern experience; we wanted to put much more lore into its architecture.
Nikolay Dybowski: Hi guys, nice to meet you! Here I am. I am Nikolay.
Alexandra: And is this RPGCodex! The ones I told you about.
Nikolay: Wooow. It's an honour to me.
J: I heard you were a fan of Thief! The first and the second are the best games ever made. I just gotta say that.
Nikolay: [turns to leave]
Alexandra: No! Nonono, stay here!
Nikolay: [turns back again]
Alexandra: Basically, the question was: are there going to be minigames in Pathologic?
Nikolay: No. You know, there is a single episode with rat races, but actually it's a parody of minigames.
Alexandra: I was just talking about these ideas you had, about allowing the player to heal people. To me, those feel like minigames…
Nikolay: Actually, I don't like such features, and I will do my best to prevent…
Alexandra: Well, you were the one in favour of it…
Nikolay: What? Me?
Alexandra: Yes, “you're supposed to role play,” and… okay, maybe I missed the point.[laughs]
B: So, the idea that lockpicking shouldn't be done through a minigame; where does that conviction stem from?
Nikolay: Actually, I'm always changing my mind during development. But I think that's normal. You see the current build, and now we understand how it's possible to make a minigame out of lockpicking, if it would also be an artistic instrument which would help us to be more involved in the atmosphere – to add some special feature to this lockpicking. If it were not only related to this lockpicking, but also connected to ethics, or some moral dilemmas, or something else.
Alexandra: That reminds me of looting containers in the current build. You have to hold a key to loot a container instead of just pressing it, and I think it was done to immerse the player more into this feeling of opening drawers and taking stuff. So it's not pointless. And it is theoretically possible that a lockpicking minigame may also be not pointless to a game like, you know... [she inhales sharply] If you can be attacked while lockpicking, it becomes a design thing, you know. It forces you to make a choice. I'm not saying lockpicking minigames will be a thing in Pathologic; this was just a random example, just… [she sighs] ...to give you the idea of how we go about these things.
B: Why are you calling Pathologic a “Survival game”, instead of a “Survival RPG”, for example? Why is Pathologic not a role playing game for you?
Nikolay: You know, when we're talking about genres in visual games, I'm always telling that there are no genres in visual games. I know that I am not right. In literature, there is a rather complicated definition of what the “genre” is. As for visual games: what makes RPG an RPG? Roles. Yes. What are roles? Characters with lots of stats, which can be upgraded, maybe yes, maybe no. For me, Pathologic is a role playing game because your avatar is not yourself. It is actually a role you must… [long silence]
Alexandra: … play.
Nikolay: Play. Because our game is very much about theatre, and there are lots of theatrical innuendos, theatrical stuff, theatrical…
Nikolay: Huh? Imagery. Yes. Correct. And... [long silence] That's why, for me, Pathologic is always about role playing, because you're always playing someone who are not yourself. Who are not you. But…
Alexandra: But officially calling it a role playing game would probably set incorrect expectations for the players, who are used to the fact that role playing games demand you to have Strength and Agility and Dexterity and Luck and so on. So it doesn't make sense from the marketing standpoint. But it is a game in which you do role play a lot.
B: So when you say it's theatrical, does that also extend to calling the whole game world a sort of stage?
Nikolay: Yes. Of course.
Alexandra: The world's a stage...
J: Let's get to the characters and the roles you play. The original Pathologic was known for having only one role that was completely fleshed out – the Bachelor –, while the other two were a little less solid and were difficult to get through, especially in the English translation. Will the remake have these roles balanced, or will one role be the focus?
Alexandra: I'm not a Bachelor hater, but I hated the fact that the original Pathologic had so much emphasis on this character, because it didn't make sense. This time, we started working from the Haruspex's storyline. Because the Bachelor's storyline is fleshed out in the original game, and we can always fall back to that, remembering how it was back then. But the Haruspex's storyline had to be reinvented in many ways, because it was a bit clumsy. “We don't know what to make him do? Let him do some fetch quests collecting herbs and stuff...” This time, his story will be fleshed out, if only because it is the first one we were/are making.
B: Would you say that we have to play all three characters to fully understand the story?
Nikolay: It's complex. For me, of course you do. In the new version of Pathologic... the same play, but the new performance.. as if the same situation would be seen by some other men – actually, we are these very people! But we are different. I have become different. That is why I am telling the same story, but in quite new words. And the visions of these three healers tend to be much more different than they used to be. And their pictures of the world, and their understanding of what's happening is much more different than what it used to be in the original game.
So when Ivan, for example, suggested that “okay, we're having some trouble with the release date, so let's release it partially, yes?” with, for example, half a year breaks, I said “Never.” He said “Why? People would play it anyway. First it would be one playthrough, then the second, then the third – why not?” For me it's quite impossible. You must understand that this is a stereometrical story, which is seen by three different points of view. Actually, for me, some players must – not “must” but “might” – start playing for the Bachelor, and then, on the fourth day, seeing how the Changeling is acting, he leaves the Bachelor and he starts playing for the Changeling, because he wants to understand why he should behave so. And then, maybe, return to his Bachelor playthrough. So it's some stereometry, you know? You want to see it from three different points of view, but in the meantime I didn't want to make it comfortable and easy to switch these points of view during the game process.
So that's it.
B: That was very interesting, thank you.
[we had very little time, and the “interview” is very short; backer beta is supposed to release very soon]
B: We had a question from a community member…
Polish jRPG dev: Yes, I read it. [laughs] They were two questions. One, about the Vita, and one about the difference between us and Final Fantasy Tactics. The difference between us and FFT is that FFT was actually the main reason to make Regalia. We are not always referring to FFT; there are some difference between the games. There are no height differences on the battlefield here; there are no classes.
FFT might also be called “Game of Thrones before actual Game of Thrones” because of its dark story; here in Regalia it is more like Disgaea plot. It is much lighter than FFT. There are many references to other games, and pop culture things like making fun of Fallout, Star Wars...
B: Making fun of Fallout?
Pjd: ...no, it's not making fun... it's a reference... “War. War never changes”, like that…
J: Okay. That's it. Okay. That's good.
Pjd: Now, about the Vita. Currently we are developing a PC version; we are releasing in the first quarter for 2017. PS4 and Vita versions are in further development; 2017, but definitely not in the first quarter.
A "screenshot" of the combat (yeah I just photographed my screen), which felt solid enough.
Right after the presentation on Kingdom Come was finished, I went to see the Finns behind the turn based squad tactics game "End State". Bubbles was still busy squeezing some more answers out of Sven Vincke, so I sneaked inside without him and secured myself a position on the developers' laptop, where they just threw me into a combat scenario and let me play, explaining features while I did so. Once Bubbles arrived, he switched on his recorder and asked the devs some questions while I tried to kill the enemies with my guys while trying not to be killed myself. The devs also kept commenting on the gameplay with their adorable Finnish accents while I played.
The gameplay basics are simple and will seem instantly familiar if you have ever played a squad tactics game before - especially Jagged Alliance 2 and Silent Storm, End State's most obvious influences. Your soldiers can walk, run, crouch, shoot - and, what I really liked, they can turn around for no AP cost which lets you face the direction you suspect enemies to come from even when you're out of AP. The optimal way to move about in this game is to go from cover to cover and turn to face the enemy once you're in position. You do have to beware interrupts, though: running across an open field overlooked by enemy troops is always a bad idea that will most certainly end up with you being riddled with bullets (and, as a consequence of that, dead). The cover mechanics of End State are quite interesting as they're a little more involved than just crouching behind an object that blocks bullets. Some objects, such as bushes, will only block the enemy's line of sight but won't block a bullet. If you run towards a bush and an enemy sees you, and then you crouch down to hide behind it, chances are the enemy will just fire into the bush because he saw you and expects you to still be there. The likely result of that is a wounded (or dead if you're unlucky) soldier.
As for the cover that actually protects you from bullets, there is low cover and high cover. Low cover can be looked over and only fully protects you when you're crouched; high cover also protects you when you're standing upright. The interesting feature in End State that I haven't seen in other games of this genre is that you can peek out from cover without revealing yourself to the enemy. You might compare that to how leaning works in Dishonored: peek out, get a line of sight to where you're looking at without risking detection, then make your plans based on what you've just seen. The interface is also very nice and helps you with your tactical planning: when you select your attack, it shows you the to-hit chance on all visible enemies, and you can see on the grid how far you can move while still having enough action points left for shooting.
The weapon mechanics of this game are really nice, too. They follow the principle of physics simulation rather than pure dice rolls, and every bullet will behave realistically once it leaves the rifle's muzzle. You can aim at different body parts (arms, legs, torso, head), each with a different chance to hit, and the damage done is, of course, dependent on the hit location. A headshot does more damage than a shot to the arm. Sometimes, though, a shot to the arm might penetrate and hit the torso of the man behind, then penetrate that guy's torse, hit a wooden fence behind him, penetrate the wooden fence and finally hit the leg of an enemy behind that fence. It entirely depends on your weapon's penetration stat. A low calibre pistol might not even be able to go through a wooden fence, but a high calibre sniper bullet can go through multiple enemies and take them all out in one go.
"Your chance to hit is not random," I am told. "It's always calculated based on the direction and elevation, it's really a simulated raycast. There is a lot of mathematics under the hood there, it's not just a simple percentile chance or dice roll. Technically, it's quite different from other games in this genre."
"It's a two-part calculation of the to-hit chance," the other developer says. "First is the shooter's ability to point his weapon at the target, and then there's the weapon's ability to propel the bullet to the point it's aimed at. So you will find that a good shooter won't be able to hit with a bad weapon. And another thing that is really important is the reaction mechanic which is also tied to this system. So if you have a fast reaction weapon, for example an SMG, you can stand at a corner and if you know the enemy's there you can look in that direction. When the enemy passes your line of sight, there is an interruption, and the reaction times are dependant on view direction. So if you look directly at an enemy and there's an interruption, you have a better reaction time than if you viewed him at an angle and had to turn a little bit to face him. With a better reaction time, you can kill him before he kills you."
The interruption mechanic of End State is really interesting and reminded me of the real-time squad tactics game 7.62 High Calibre. When you know an enemy is around the corner, and the enemy knows you are around the corner, in Jagged Alliance 2 you would try to camp behind the corner and hope to get an interrupt so you can shoot him without any danger to yourself. Here, it is a little different. An enemy who knows you're camping there can strafe around the corner facing you, and when he passes your line of sight the interrupt starts. Rather than pausing his turn and giving you a free shot at him, though, the game compares your reaction times and has you both fire your weapons. With a fast-firing SMG you would easily kill an enemy with a semi-automatic rifle, but if you're the one with the slower weapon, chances are your interrupt isn't going to turn out in your favor. And if you're facing him at a 45° angle rather than straight up, you're probably going to die regardless of your weapon because in a situation like that, every second counts - and those milliseconds spent moving your weapon might already be too many.
Small obstacles, like a waist-high fence, can be climbed so if you are certain that an enemy is watching the fence's gate and will shoot at you once you go through... well, you can just climb over it and shoot him in the back. Of course, the AI is also able to do that so you should always be aware of your environment. Soldiers should always move out in pairs, so one can watch the other's back. Having one of your guys go Rambo will very likely end up with him being dead.
This stresses the importance of facing in this game. The direction you're facing in not only determines your line of sight, it also determines your reaction time in an interrupt, and lets you go around corners more safely. Whenever you're moving past a window or door or open space where you suspect enemies to be positioned, it's a good idea to strafe rather than run past. It allows you to see any dangers awaiting you from that direction and you can defend yourself against any possible ambushes that might be set up against you. If you just run walk past a window rather than strafing past it with your weapon raised, an interrupting enemy will just shoot at you and you're basically screwed. This system lets you effectively set up ambushes by scouting out enemy patrol routes, then setting up your soldiers at the appropriate positions and putting their stance on opportunity fire. But you have to play it smart: interrupts never give you a free shot; it's always a fight between those who have set up their opportunity fire and those who try to flush them out. If the enemy knows you're there and strafes in with his weapon raised, there's a chance that your guys end up as the dead ones.
Apart from sight, there is also sound, which works in a similar way to Silent Storm. When your guys hear footsteps, you will see where the footsteps came from and you can shoot at the enemy's position, for example when you hear footsteps behind a group of bushes and don't see anyone since they block your line of sight. Since the AI operates by the same rules as the player (the devs assured me that it doesn't cheat: it plays with the same line of sight, simulated bullet trajectories, and noise propagation rules as the player), the enemy will also be able to hear you if you run everywhere rather than slowly sneaking about, so you always have to be mindful of that. Speaking of the AI, each enemy soldier will have his own personality: one might be cautious and try to camp behind cover, setting up ambushes and trying to get interrupts; another might be more daring and charge forward with his SMG; some might even be stupid and just run into your position to be gunned down. There is a lot of variety in AI behaviors, which makes the game less predictable and requires the player to adjust his tactics. You can never be certain how the AI will react to your actions, since every single solidier has his own AI profile with slight behavioral variations.
Of course, since this is the RPG Codex and we're covering this game, there are also RPG elements. Your soldiers get XP for each kill and you can level them up with additional skills in the different weapon categories. The game is not class-based: any soldier can choose to level up in any weapon category. Skills give you special attack abilities, such as aimed shots or quick shots. While the game aims for realism and simulation in all of its gameplay aspects, these special skills follow a convention that is very common in the turn based games of recent years: cooldowns. You could use an ability that increases your to-hit chance for this turn, and then you're have to wait 2 turns to use it again. It's a simple system and it prevents the abilities from becoming overpowered, but by now we've reached a point where I'd just be happy to see a turn based tactics game which doesn't use cooldowns.
The wound system of this game does things a little bit different than most others in the genre. There is no total hitpoint pool that is depleted with each shot, instead every body part has its own HP and damaging it will have different effects. If you want to kill someone, shooting him in the foot 100 times isn't the best solution. If your hand gets wounded heavily, you won't be able to use it anymore, but it's not going to kill you. If you want to go for the kill, torso and head are the locations you want to go for. Against an enemy with good body armor, hitting the arms would be a good idea though, as that will severely reduce his to-hit chance.
At the time I played this (August 2016 - Codex reporters are truly the speediest in the world!) there were a couple of things I thought were missing, and the devs said they were still undecided on whether to implement them or not, so this might have changed by now. There are only two positions for your soldiers: standing and crouching; you cannot go prone, but, quoting one of the devs: "We might implement that but currently it's not in." To be honest, I just expected a prone position to be there because JA2 and Silent Storm have it. When you play the game for a while you won't even notice the lack of a prone position anymore; End State offers you enough tactical options with its cover and facing mechanics that this is only a minor nitpick. Reloading of weapons always reloads the entire magazine, and when I asked if weapons such as pump-action shotguns can be/need to be reloaded one bullet at a time, the devs said that it would be a nice feature to have and might be implemented in the future, but it's not a top priority. So right now, if your shotgun has 6 shots left and you reload it, it takes the same amount of action points as when you have no shots left at all. Again, just a minor nitpick, but I would've liked to see something like this as it would make shotguns more unique and interesting to use.
Also, when I asked what happens to half-empty magazines when I reload, the devs said: "The plan is that you put them back in your pouch and when you're out of full magazines, you can fall back to your half-empty ones instead of just having an empty gun. But currently it is not implemented at all, right now you have a limited amount of clips you can reload. At this point the inventory is not yet implemented, but later on you should have an inventory similar to Jagged Alliance, with different carrying devices so the amount of stuff you can carry depends on your equipment."
I have mentioned that the biggest inspirations for End State are JA2 (when I mentioned that I played the 1.13 mod, one of the devs called it "the gold standard of turn based tactics") and Silent Storm, so one feature the game absolutely needs to have if it wants to compete with these is destructible environments. And oh boy, does this game have destructible environments! Are the enemies set up inside a house, ready to shoot at anyone passing by the windows? Is there a sniper on the roof, ready to go all Simo Häyhä on everyone who tries to approach the building? No problem, just move close enough to throw a grenade and blow a hole into the wall. There are no walls that cannot be destroyed. As long as you have the appropriate explosives, you can blow a hole into any wall, or ceiling, or floor, or even just destroy an object that offers cover to the enemy. Someone's hiding behind a crate? Blow it up. Someone's hiding behind a wall? Blow it up. You know someone's on the floor above you? Blow a hole into the roof, see him fall down. In this hands-on preview, I only used a grenade once, but the effect it had was amazing. It blew a huge hole into the wall of the house I threw it at, and it took out a large chunk of the first floor's floor too.
But the tactical battles aren't everything: the game also has a campaign set in a fictional Eastern European country threatened by a terrorist network. The player is tasked to hunt them down, and in each combat scenario you're fighting the terrorists and try to find more clues to the whereabouts of their leaders. The campaign is dynamic: while the combat maps are all hand-crafted, their actual contents vary from game to game. In one playthrough, there might be a mansion where there's a mafia boss you have to kill, but in the next playthrough that very same mafia boss has his base of operations in an office building somewhere in the city. So, in multiple playthroughs you will likely see the same environments, but you will face different enemies and have different objectives each time.
* * *
Overall, my impressions of this game have been thoroughly positive. While there were some minor details that hadn't been implemented yet, such as the inventory, the gameplay basics were very solid and provide many tactical opportunities for the player. Different types of weapons that all have their situations where they're useful (SMGs, pistols and shotguns are great for short range encounters, assault rifles are great at medium range, and sniper rifles are only useful for long range shots), every wall and object on the map can be used for cover but can also be blown apart with explosives, the strafing mechanic makes both attacking and defending more interesting since interrupts don't give you free shots and camping isn't as effective, each enemy soldier has his own AI patterns so the behavior won't be predictable. The half hour of hands-on gameplay went by really quickly; this is one of those "just one more turn" games that make you want to play a scenario to its end once you start it.
I'm really looking forward to this game, especially to using explosives more often. Hey, what can I say, I just have a fetish for well-made destructible environments.
End State looks like it will be a worthy successor to JA2 and Silent Storm, bringing more advanced physics and a few interesting new features to the table while keeping the basic gameplay of these classics intact. If you ever played JA2, you'll know what to expect here. The game is made by fans of the genre, and you really notice it: they aren't wasting any time on unnecessary features such as a complex story or large amounts of C&C. The story is as simple as it gets: you're leading a bunch of mercenaries. You have to kill the terrorists. Now go and have fun with the tactical combat.
The Great Whale Road
The Great Whale Road is a game inspired by King of Dragon Pass and set in the Viking Age, and it has been previewed by Bubbles himself. At Gamescom, we got a little hands-on action with a more advanced version of the game that fixed some of the problems Bubbles had with the older preview version. The version we played at Gamescom only had a part of the Danish campaign available to play, but the guy we interviewed was confident that by the end of October 2016, chapters 2 and 3 would be finished. In the finished game, once it was out of Early Access and at version 1.0, there will be some additional campaigns to play. The developers want to center the campaigns on the historical events of the time - mostly set around the 8th and 9th centuries AD - as they believe there are many interesting stories that can be told around these events. "The goal is to combine the macro-history of the time with the micro-histories of small towns, tribes and cities," we are told. "There are the large historical events, and then there is you, leading a village and making your own fate within this historical framework."
Now, the basic elements of this game can be read up in Bubbles' old preview, as that covers the basics pretty well.
What I will focus on here are the changes and improvements that had been made from the older version, and my gameplay impressions of the hands-on demo. Many additional events had been added, and they are one of the main focus areas of the devs. Each season has its own events (there are summer events and winter events), and events can happen both in the town and during a voyage. While I hadn't played the previous preview version, I found the density and amount of events we've seen here satisfactory enough, but it remains to be seen whether they become repetitive during a longer session of gameplay. Since the devs have been adding more and more events since August, by now there should be a much larger amount available, guaranteeing a varied experience. They obviously take a lot of inspiration from King of Dragon Pass, but they don't quite reach the variety and flavor of that game, mostly because the event screens are just text boxes rather than beautifully drawn illustrations of what's happening.
The travel mode has also seen quite a few changes since the preview version Bubbles played. The speed has been increased dramatically, so you will spend less time watching a ship move over water - one of the main points of criticism Bubbles had with the earlier version. Personally, I would've liked the option to speed it up even more, but it was fine as it was. You might compare it to Banner Saga: your ship sails over the ocean and you wait until it reaches the next point of interest or until you're interrupted by an event. Systems like this always benefit from a speedup, as the waiting game that is inherent to it does get tedious when you play for longer amounts of time. Your ship does move at an acceptable pace, though; personally, a speedup button that could potentially reduce waiting time even further is something I would welcome. It's also important to pack enough food, as running out of food comes with heavy penalties to your crew's effectiveness. You need to balance your cargo accordingly: bring enough food to avoid running out, but don't fill your entire hold with it as you should also take some trading goods to make a profit when you reach your location.
Halfway to our chosen location, our journey was interrupted by a random event: we were approached by another ship, and I decided to hail them. It turned out that they were raiders and they decided to board us. "Battles at sea are a little more difficult since their difficulty, right now, is mostly random. You can get a fight that is balanced for year 3 in the first year, if you're unlucky."
This did turn out to be quite a difficult fight, indeed. The goal is to defeat the enemy leader while keeping your own leader alive. The enemy leader was strong and had a lot of hitpoints, and he had an archer in his army. I didn't. As I wasn't familiar with how the combat worked and the enemy had such powerful troops at his disposal, it didn't take very long. While my guys managed to hold off the enemy from boarding my ship for a while, it was pretty much decided once the enemy leader jumped across. My own leader went down, which lost me the battle, and the voyage went on with most of my characters having lost some health. "If you lose two or three times, your expedition fails and you return home, but if you just lose one sea battle, the penalties aren't that strong," I am told.
When we reach our location, there is another event-related fight which is much easier than the random encounter at sea, and now, with the experience of one battle behind me, I manage to defeat the enemies quite easily. After that, we're in a town and have the option to rest, to go hunt for additional food, and to trade. I sell all my trade goods, buy a new sword and give it to one of my crewmen, rest until all of my guys are healed, then return back to our home town.
That was it for the gameplay - a little bit of travel, a little bit of combat, a few events. My overall impression of the game was that it feels like King of Dragon Pass with tactical combat, and that's "exactly what we were trying to go for," the developer tells us. King of Dragon Pass is the main inspiration behind the game, and despite all the comparisons to Banner Saga (it has been called "KoDP meets Banner Saga" by some people), he admits that he hadn't even played that game before he heard those comparisons. It's quite the curious coincidence, then, that the travel screen of BS and GWR is so similar. Other actual inspirations of the game include old German trading games such as Patrizier III, we are told. Mainly, though, it's an attempt to marry the event-focused gameplay of King of Dragon Pass with turn based combat and a little bit of trading.
So, has the game improved over the earlier preview build Bubbles had written about? Since I hadn't played it, I have no idea, but I found what I played at Gamescom quite enjoyable. The events are fun and they're certainly the meat of the game, as you will happen upon them everywhere: in your home town, at sea, in the faraway locations you visit. If having random events dropped on you and making decisions is a thing you enjoy, you will likely enjoy this game. The main polarizing feature, however, is probably the combat system. Since it is card based, there is a fair bit of luck involved, although what kind of deck you get is based on the characters and items you bring with you. A character with certain skills will contribute certain buff cards to the deck, for example. The main element of luck here is the order in which you receive your cards: you start out with only your leader on the battlefield, and in order to put additional troops out, you need to have their cards on your hand. In the first combat I fought in the hands-on presentation, it took me two turns to get my men into the fight as the first cards I received didn't include any character cards. Other than that, the system is really solid and success depends more on how you use the cards you get and how you position your men than on being dealt good cards. The best way to describe the combat system is "tactical turn based combat with card buffs".
Overall, I found the game to be quite enjoyable, but being a jack of all trades also makes it a master of none. The combat is solid and has an interesting and unique card system at its core that makes it different from the competition, but it doesn't have battlefields as sizeable as, say, Battle Brothers. There are a lot of events to deal with, but it doesn't quite reach the charm and atmosphere of King of Dragon Pass. As of now, it's still in Early Access and we can expect quite some improvements (as well as additional campaigns) before it's released properly.
Shock Tactics is a game I had never heard about before Gamescom, and it was quite the pleasant surprise. It seems like the turn based squad tactics genre is becoming popular again.
The two devs (one guy, one girl, both of them German which is why they held their presentation in German; sadly, I forgot their names which is why I'll just refer to them as "dude" and "girl") presenting their game to us were incredibly enthusiastic and it was obvious that Shock Tactics is their passion project. "We've been working on it for about two years now," they told us, "and this year we've started to go to conventions like Gamescom and show the world what we've got." And that's what they did.
Shock Tactics is a single player turn based tactics game with a squad of up to 6 soldiers, and there is world map exploration along with tactical battles fought on battlemaps. "We're going to show you the battle maps first because that's the real meat of the game, the world map exploration is just the frame giving context to the fights."
We're told that the defining element of this game compared to others of its genre is that the player is encouraged to play offensively rather than defensively, to rush foward and conquer enemy positions quickly rather than sitting back and camping. "Most games of this genre have you progress slowly, move one tile forward, one tile, another tile, look around the corner, select overwatch to defend the position and so on. We want to give the whole formula a new take and force the player to be aggressive, you have to push forward, you have to push forward quickly, you have to flank the enemy, you can't just keep your soldiers behind cover and shoot at enemies who are also behind cover until you get a good hit."
The way the game manages to achieve this is by throwing reinforcements at the player if he takes too long, so if you play defensively rather than pushing forward and fulfilling your objective, you might simply be overrun. To enable the player to actually do this with some modicum of success, the devs have implemented something they refer to as "controlled-aggressive approaches". When you tell one of your guys to move forward and he spots an enemy, the soldier will stop in his tracks and only the movement points that have been used up until that point will be substracted from the movement point pool. This means you don't have to slowly progress one tile at a time but can just charge forward without risking to rush into an enemy position that you could have spotted had you progressed more slowly. "We want to give the player as much control as possible and never take away control because of a decision he made."
Another element that supports aggressive approaches is the AI. "In some games, you can eliminate enemy groups one by one - you attack from the left flank, and the soldiers all the way over at the right flank will still patrol the area as if nothing has happened. Here, as soon as you fire off your first shot, the entire enemy base is triggered and they're going to attack your last known position, so you will have to be quick before they manage to form up and push you out." And if that isn't enough to deter the player from employing a defensive camping tactic, in most of the game's missions enemy reinforcements will spawn if the fight takes too long.
"Once you fire off your first shot, you pretty much have to take out an enemy each turn if you don't want to be overrun. Ideally, you would attack the base, go inside, wipe out the entire garrison, and when the reinforcements arrive you've already prepared an ambush for them and are ready to take them."
"We're also having the player manage his resources, and manage risks. You can't just heal your troops in combat: if someone gets hurt, you pull him back and push forward with another soldier. If you make a mistake, you can't just take it back easily." On the other hand, no matter how much damage your soldiers take, they're never killed right away. You always get a few rounds to save them before they die. If one of your men gets taken down, you'll have four or five turns to go in with someone else and stabilize him so he'll survive the battle. "If one of your men goes down, it's probably because you made a mistake and put him into an unsafe position. That's why we give you a couple of rounds to stabilize him: you can't just rush in without securing the area first. Again, this is an approach of controlled aggression, you need to push forward but if you just rush into the enemy gunfire, it's not going to work."
There are also special abilities that make agression more viable. Some weapons have alternate attacks, and some soldiers have special skills, that allow for different kinds of AoE attacks taking positioning into account. The grenade that does splash damage in a certain radius is a well-known tool, but Shock Tactics also has penetrating sniper rifles, for example, that can hit every enemy in its line of fire, making it perfect for taking out a defensive line if you flank it from the right direction. Elevation is important, too: the higher your elevation compared to the enemy, the less effective is his cover. Weapons are, as they should be in a game like this, different in their use: sniper rifles are great at range and crap up close while SMGs are exactly the opposite, and so on. "We want the weapons types the player chooses to impact his combat approach, rather than just having different damage values. Every weapon is used differently, and you have to adjust your tactics according to how you're equipped."
There are also three different hitpoint pools for your troops: energy shields, armor, and health, and the different weapon types all vary in their effectiveness against these pools. "Laser weapons," the dude tells us, "may be slightly more accurate than other types of weaponry, but the important point is that they deal double damage against shields. While there are three types of weapon damage corresponding to the three types of hitpoint pools, every soldier can only carry two weapons, so you have to make important decisions: will I give my sniper a laser rifle against shields, and a conventional bullet rifle so he can effectively take down the enemies whose shields his lasers took down? Then he won't have a weapon slot left for a close-range weapon and will be screwed if anyone comes too close to him."
The main aspect of your squad composition will therefore be the choice on which two weapons to equip your soldiers with. Short, medium, or long range? Shield, armor, or health damage? In the end, you squad of 6 soldiers has to be able to counter any threat, so a balance has to be struck there. The fact that every soldier can carry only two weapons means that nobody can go Rambo - no single soldier can deal with every threat equally.
Apart from the choice of weapons, you also have four different classes to pick from. Each class has unique abilities, but you also get "training points" that let you assign new skills that are independent of class. This way, you can customize your soldiers independently of their class. There is one training, for example, that reduces the AP cost of climbing up a ledge. You could give this to your close combat specialist to make him charge enemies on a hill more effectively, or you could give it to your sniper to make him get to good vantage points faster.
"We want everything in the game to be simple and easy to understand," the dude says, "but we also want every decision to have a direct and noticeable effect on the gameplay. We tried to make different weapons, classes and abilities actually handle differently, rather than just giving percentile bonuses to damage or health or things like that."
After explaining the basics of the combat and showing us some of the gameplay, the two devs went on to the other part of the game: the world map and the story. You're playing as a squad of colonial troops sent to the first alien planet discovered by humanity. There are ruins of an extinct civilization on this planet, and the discovery of these ruins caused a gold rush to break out. The first phase of gameplay is exploration: you are the first people who arrived on this planet, and now your job is to find alien ruins and excavate whatever valuable stuff is in there (or, as the dev put it: "everyone expects that in these alien ruins, humanity will find the shit that propels it into its next golden age"). In these ruins, you'll have to fight whatever remains of the electronic security systems the aliens installed there, such as combat robots and other mechanical enemies. In these runs, you can find blueprints for advanced weapons and armor, and once you overcome the defense systems you can build an excavation camp and contruct improved equipment for your troops based on this alien tech.
At one point in the game, you will be attacked by the Consortium: "The Consortium are the typical evil fascist space empire that have been in a conflict with the Space Pioneers for years, and while they have the larger numbers, you stand a good chance against them if you manage to secure enough of the ancient alien technology before their arrival." This is the point when the game changes from the exploration phase to the warfare phase. The Consortium attacks and you have to defend against them and try to wipe them off the planet you just claimed for yourself.
Once the war phase is in full swing, it escalates even further and your planet is attacked by the Scorch, the "big bad boogeyman" of this setting. They're a destructive alien force that want to completely destroy the planet you're on. They arrive on the planet, nobody knows where they come from, and they just start to randomly annihilate bases. And suddenly the Consortium isn't as bad as you thought and everyone just tries to survive.
This shakes up the campaign gameplay a bit, making each stage of the game different in an attempt to prevent repetition.
* * *
That was the presentation. Afterwards, Bubbles and I asked a couple of questions that the devs gladly answered.
Jarl: "All right, let's start with the classic question: which games are the main sources of your inspiration? What games, would you say, have influenced you the most?"
Dude: "Of course, I was a huge Jagged Alliance fan because it's such a great game. I think it's almost impossible to reach the level of Jagged Alliance 2, because back then you were so hyped about this game, everything in the genre nowadays is pretty much based on it. It is of course a great influence on us, the action point system and the level of control you have over your troops is directly inspired by it. But one thing we didn't like much about it was the end of battles when you were searching each corner of the level for that last surviving enemy, and that's a thing we wanted to avoid in Shock Tactics."
Jarl: "So about the three phases of the game: first there's the exploration phase, then the war phase, then these alien creatures arrive. So with this you're trying to keep the endgame exciting and put some variety into the game, right?"
Dude: "Yeah. With tactical games it's often the case that after about half of the game, you have the feeling that it's getting a little repetitive. Do one more mission, defend one more base, etc. So we thought we'd shake it a little up and change the events on the macro level so the player keeps playing and wondering what's going to happen next, because the overarching goal of the game always changes. When you reach the point of a game where you've seen all it has to offer, you often lose interest, so we tried to bring more variety into the lategame and change both the goal of the player as well as the enemies he has to fight."
Bubbles: "There are many discussions about whether a game should have procedually generated content or hand-crafted content. What's your opinion on this?"
Dude: "Well, we're huge fans of procedual generation, we're both programmers and specialized on AIs and we had to decide, will we focus on AI or will we focus on prodecual content? In the end we decided on AI, because while we're huge fans of procedual content, doing that well takes a lot of time and effort. Shock Tactics is partially procedual, the world map for example is generated, and the vegetation on our combat maps is generated, too. Bushes, trees, grass, all that kind of stuff. But the actual layout of the battle maps, and the architecture of the buildings, that's all hand-made, because the way buildings are placed is very important in a tactical game. There's a lot of strategy in the placement of architecture and obstacles. If you want to generate these elements procedually, you have to put in a REAL lot of work if you want the results to be good."
Girl: "You just have to stay realistic and start small in an aspect like that."
Dude: "Yeah. In a game where cover is imporant, the placement of objects and buildings is very important. We have experimented with procedual generation a bit, but we realized that it takes a lot of time to do properly, and if we don't do it properly it'll end up being shit. That's why we decided to procedually generate only the world map and the vegetation, that's going to teach us a lot about how to program this kind of thing, but we build the actual battle maps by hand. You also have to take care that the maps have variety in them and don't feel the same, and having your game just randomly drop buildings on the maps isn't going to cut it."
Bubbles: "What kind of cover do you have in the game?"
Dude: "Most of the cover on the maps is good cover: you have crates and low walls, medium cover would be something like a fence, bad cover would be a bush, and so on. There are also two types of flanking: if you have an angle of 45 degrees to the enemy you have a better chance to hit than when you face the cover head-on, and when you flank completely the enemy cover is ignored entirely. Also ,the higher you are compared to your enemy, the less defense his cover gives him."
Jarl: "Do you use this in the level design, too? So, for example, you'd have a mission where the enemy is on top of a hill and you have to overcome their elevation advantage?"
Dude: "Because we're handcrafting we have a lot of variety we can do in the level design, yeah... and that idea of a hill fortress really sounds cool" - he laughs - "and it sounds like something we could implement in the game, yeah, good idea! But we mostly worked in the other direction in our designs, where we have a building with enemies at the bottom of a hill and you work yourself down from your advantageous position. But we're still in the alpha version and we still have a lot to do in regards to level design, we need to make a lot more maps with more variety and interesting elements. We have one canyon with buildings in the middle where the roofs of the buildings serve as a kind of bridge, for example."
Jarl: "Does the game have special difficulty modes, like ironman for example?"
Dude: "We basically have three different difficulty modes. We're aiming for challenging gameplay already, and we think every strategist should get the level of difficulty they can handle. It's pointless to hopelessly overwhelm people who just want to jump in and play a few fights, so we thought different difficulty levels for players of different skills are a good idea. We also included ironman as an optional difficulty choice, yes, because our game's systems are solid enough to allow for non-frustrating ironman gameplay. If a game is too luck-dependent and a lucky headshot can take out one of your characters because the RNG rolled something good on an enemy attack, ironman can be very frustrating, but here this doesn't happen because we have the three different HP pools and you always get a few turns to rescue a downed comrade. This makes ironman a very playable option in Shock Tactics, so we included it. Optional of course."
Girl: "Let's talk about the different game modes, that's interesting too."
Dude: "Right! Well, we have different types of missions. In assassination missions you have to eliminate a special target, and generally these missions have very short reinforcement timers. You have to go in quickly and eliminate the target, and by that time the reinforcements should already have arrived so you need to pull out just as quickly. This means you have to be very aggressive, and since there's no chance to win the fight against the reinforcements you have to think: which of the enemies will I just leave be, because you don't have the time to clean out the entire base before being overwhelmed. Most other mission types are relatively similar, we're going for very classic styles of missions here: eliminate a target, or conquer a place and hold it. Variety is not so much about how fundamentally different mission goals are from each other, but about the way you implement them. What we're focusing on is putting our own twist on the usual types of objectives found in the tactics genre and force the player to go at them aggressively."
Bubbles: "This is going to be a nice last question: why are you using hexes on the overworld and squares on the battle maps?"
Dude: "That's a good question, yeah! Actually we wanted to have hexes on the battle maps too, but placing the content on the map is really tricky with hexes. Squares allow us to build the maps and environments much more easily, but hexes are much cooler for the world map. So in the end we just concluded: each mode gets that which works best for it."
Jarl: "One last thing before we go: is there stuff like walls that can be blown up with grenades? Destructible environments, essentially."
Dude: "We don't have any destructible environments. It was a very early design decision that we've made. We said to ourselves: we'd really love to have that feature, but it would be a lot of work to implement properly and we don't want to half-ass anything. We'd rather do a few things right than a lot of things wrong."
* * *
So, overall, the dev team made a really good impression on me. The two were incredibly motivated during their presentation and it was apparent that this is their passion project. The answers they gave during the interview also gave the impression of developers who know exactly what they're doing: they managed to explain each and every design decision of theirs and give reasons to why they made them. From what we've seen in that presentation, I'd expect a well-designed and polished game from this.
While the actual gameplay sounds a little less my style than, say, End State which was also presented at 2016's Gamescom, I'm definitely going to check the game out as it tries to do some things differently than the competition within the genre. Where End State emphasizes realism and a slow, measured approach, Shock Tactics is about fast and aggressive attacks in a high-tech science fiction setting. The three different phases of the overworld gameplay (exploration, fight against the Consortium, defense against overpowered invaders) are the icing on the cake, adding some welcome variety.
The devs are German (entire presentation and interview was done in German) and it really shows in their approach towards combat design: guess we just can't shake off that old craving for a quick, aggressive Blitzkrieg.
Demons Age is an interesting case. The developer Bigmoon Games, known for its ports and expansion packs (the first part of their Gamescom presentation was entirely about the ports and DLC packs they made for games developed by other studios, and they talked about it with so much pride it was almost surreal), somehow got its hands on the remains of Chaos Chronicles, the hugely promising party-based RPG that went into vapourware hell thanks to disagreements between developer and publisher.
During the presentation, however, Bigmoon Games never once mentioned that Demons Age is based on a game already half-developed by someone else. They always talked about it like it was their game entirely, even though they had obviously kept a lot of the previous work intact - the name of the game's main city, for example, is the same as it had been in Chaos Chronicles. The mechanics, of course, and most of the assets have been kept too: comparing the pre-release screenshots of Chaos Chronicles to what they showed off at Gamescom doesn't really show any differences. Just from what was there on the screen, it looked like Bigmoon Games would attempt to finish a promising game left unfinished due to publisher-developer issues without bringing in too many of their own ideas. And considering what kind of studio Bigmoon Games had been up until this point - creators of ports and DLCs - that would be perfectly fine.
Thing is, Demons Age isn't just that. While keeping the assets and the basic systems in place, they introduce some of their own ideas into the game, a lot of which sound very questionable from the perspective of a classic RPG fan.
The most questionable of these ideas is the character creation system. For reasons I did not entirely understand, you cannot create a full party of 4 to 6 characters, nor can you freely create your main character. "In games like Baldur's Gate," we are told, "you play this special character, like the Bhaalspawn, but you can choose this character to be anyone! You can be male or female, elf or dwarf, fighter or mage. Similar in action RPGs like Morrowind: you are the Nerevarine, but you can choose to be any race or class. So in the end, the character you build feels divorced from the role he takes in the game. You have a role given to you by the story, but you build a character without any backstory so it doesn't feel like that character actually is the role! To fix this, we don't let the player create just any character, but select from an amount of pre-made characters each with their own backstory, but we have enough of these to choose - many combinations of race and class and sex - that you don't feel forced to play a fixed character. It is the best of both worlds, giving you freedom while still keeping you grounded in the story! You play a prisoner from a stranded prison ship, and there are 16 prisoners from different races and different classes on the ship, each with their own backstory, and one of them will be your character."
Even months after the presentation, this explanation doesn't make any sense to me, and the more I think about it the less sense it makes. So you are supposed to play a certain role like in Baldur's Gate or Morrowind, specific enough to give your character a motivation but vague enough to allow you to develop the character as you see fit, and you get a bunch of pre-made backgrounds to choose from in order to be more grounded in the story... enough backgrounds to allow for a variety of class, race and sex combinations, but you can't pick any of these freely? Why not? What's the point? Why restrict the player to these pre-made characters at all when there is such a variety of them, and the backgrounds don't actually matter much as the game goes on anyway? When you give the player a role that can be played by characters as diverse as a male dwarf fighter, female elf ranger and female human wizard, why not let the player make his own unique character in the first place rather than restricting him to a selection of pre-made race-class-sex combinations?
"During playtesting, it often occured that the character people created did not fit with the story, so this is why we decided to supply a large selection of pre-made characters with fitting backstories to choose from," is the argument used to justify this decision, but it doesn't really click with me. In Baldur's Gate and Morrowind you could create whatever characrer you liked, and in the end you'd still be the Bhaalspawn or Nerevarine, respectively. It puzzles me especially because the backstory of your character in Demons Age is so similar to the backstory of your character in Morrowind: you start out as a prisoner on a prison ship. Why restrict the choice to 16 pre-made characters then? Why would it "not fit with the story" if I created a female dwarven fighter/wizard of my own design, or a half-orc cleric? If there are 16 prisoners to choose from, each with a different race-sex-class combination, how would my own custom-made 17th character be signifcantly different from these 16 to make him or her not fit the story, while all of those 16 do? It's a very weird decision and the more I think about it, the less sense it makes to me. If you want the player to choose from a bunch of backgrounds, do it like Arcanum did it, not by restricting the player to pre-made characters.
The henchmen-system did make a little more sense to me, but I still feel it's inferior to just letting the player create a full 4 to 6 character party by himself.
"We have created 40 characters for the game that you can hire, and each has a scripted personality," we are told. "You can hire someone who can be loyal or not loyal. How do you know that? You don't know that. There is no such thing as this is a bad guy or this is a good guy, you have to take your chances with who you hire. Every character has a few things he likes or dislikes. Maybe this guy does not like elves, or maybe this is a woman who does not like men. So if I put too many men into my party, she will go mad and attack the others. So with your hirelings, you have to be very careful about what they like or not like or they might betray you. Every single character has his own agenda but will stay with you if you work under their rules."
It sounds interesting enough and might make for some interesting scenarios, but I feel that it mostly just restricts your choice of party composition further. What if you have chosen a party of 5 already and only need one cleric to round it off, but the one cleric who would fit perfectly into your party absolutely hates everyone else in it? You'll have to make do without him.
In the best case scenario, this system could end up being as fun as Jagged Alliance 2's inter-character relationships, where some mercs were best buddies while others hated each other's guts and would even threaten to leave your employ if you forced them to fight side by side for too long. Quality banter and specific relationships between single characters is the key to making this work, rather than just a generic "this girl dislikes men and leaves your party if too many of them are in it". Fidel's disdain for Florence in Jagged Alliance 2 because she is a weak young girl not trained for war is interesting because it's based on these two characters disliking each other for their specific character traits; Fidel has a problem with her, but not with most other women you can hire. A generic "dislikes all characters of race X or gender Y" is much less interesting and, if done badly, just serves to restrict your party composition without really contributing anything.
Those two decisions show that while Bigmoon Games have their heart in the right place, citing classic influences such as Baldur's Gate, they don't entirely understand what makes RPGs work. In their attempt to create a more focused experience, they make compromises that don't sound that appealing to either extreme of RPG design: the storyfags would likely prefer to have a fixed character and well-written companions, while the combat- and systemfags would rather create their entire party without restrictions. The "choose from a bunch of pre-made chars with different backgrounds and hire mercenaries with vaguely defined personality traits" is a weird in-between position that doesn't really please anyone. Really, from all the things mentioned during the presentation, the character creation was the worst. I'd vastly prefer to create my entire party, but I'd also be fine with something like Planescape Torment or Witcher, where I get a well-defined character to roleplay as. But this? This just feels like taking away options for no real reason.
Luckily, the systems themselves are solid enough. Demons Age is largely based on the open source D&D 3.5 SRD with some homebrew elements, and the combat is turn-based and happens on a hex grid. As far as systems go, this is as solid as it gets. Depending on the actual implementation of the system, Demons Age might even rival ToEE (or end up surpassing it if the encounters are better - the fun factor of this game depends 100% on the encounter design, considering how crippled character creation is). There are hand-placed encounters ("story-related encounters", as the dev called them) as well as random encounters that can happen while you travel across the world map. From what we've seen in the presentation, the combat looks similar to ToEE, just with a hex grid instead of free movement. One major change to the classic D&D formula is that instead of getting one full action per turn, Demons Age uses an action point system with each character having a pool of 5 AP.
During combat, disloyal characters you hired might also betray you: "If a character you hired hates spiders and you fight a lot of spiders, he might turn against you during battle because he doesn't want to face all these spiders." Suffering from severe arachnophobia myself, I can completely understand such a move.
"When such a betrayal happens, it will happen at the most dramatic moment - and the most dramatic moment is in combat," the other dev explains. "So you have a party prepared for battle, you equip the guys and et cetera, and then you go into battle. But you go into battle and let's say you have this guy who loves spiders, and then you encounter spiders! And he will refuse to attack, and if you kill all the spiders he will betray you to protect the spiders against you. It's just an example, obviously, but this is how it works."
Now, one of the devs said a guy who hates spiders might betray you if he's forced to fight them, while the other dev said a guy who loves them will betray you if you kill too many of them (I wouldn't mind that, actually... I'd gladly put the spider-lover down along with the disgusting creatures he so adores). Both were obviously just examples, but that could actually lead to some interesting situations. It also makes party-building very complicated and forces you to carefully select who to take along, restricting your party choice further. Say, you're going down into a crypt filled with undead and you have a guy in your party who is deathly afraid of skellingtons, one guy who loves skellingtons so much he could cuddle them all day long, and a girl who hates men but more than half of your party is men. You find yourself surrounded by a horde of undead - and just at that moment each of these three decides to betray you. "Fuck" would be a very good term to describe that situation.
That was most of the gameplay presentation. While some of the decisions are rather questionable (like the pool of 16 pre-made characters rather than free character creation - this is the one feature that majorly drags down the game for me; the mercenary system could end up being interesting if implemented well, but this? This just screams bad decision to me), the game's underlying systems are solid and it might actually end up being a solid RPG.
One thing mentioned towards the end of the presentation, however, also seemed very questionable to me: this game is being developed for PC, XBox and PlayStation. It's a classic oldschool mouse-driven party-based turn-based RPG. Why go to consoles with a game like this? Weird decision. But then, Bigmoon had mostly worked on ports before, so porting a game from PC to console or vice versa is a thing they have a lot of experience in, and they are focusing primarily on the PC version.
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Overall, my impressions of this game are rather mixed. The decision to restrict character creation to choosing from a pool of 16 pre-made chars is certainly questionable. The hireling system really depends on how well it's implemented if it leads to some interesting character interactions, it has great potential. If all it does is make hirelings betray you if they disagree with your current party composition, or - worse - think the enemies you're currently fighting are too adorable to kill, it will only end up being frustrating and restricting your choices of party composition. The way it was explained by the devs suggests there might be situations where should leave your cleric who's been with you from the start behind, just because you're planning to attack the lair of a lich and she just so happens to be a lich-lover and would betray you during combat even though she fought on your side you for half the game.
The combat system itself looks promising. D&D rules with some homebrew elements such as action points rather than a simple "one turn, one action" system, and all that on a hex grid? You just can't go wrong with that, really. The combat system alone makes this worth checking out. But whether it will actuall be a good game overall - that depends entirely on how the gimmicky hireling-system plays out. Its potential impact on the gameplay is so major, it could make or break the entire game.
One thing I wondered throughout the presentation - and a thing I never got an answer to because the developers not once mentioned that their game is based on another studio's assets - was how much of this is actually their own design, and how much they just took straight from Chaos Chronicles. Since I did some freelance writing work on CC, I am rather familiar with that game, and everything except for the idiotic character creation system seemed to be an exact copy. When the devs opened the "load game" menu to load a game, all the savegames were named after the locations they were set in - and among them, I spotted one named "Rethgard". Rethgard was the name of the main city in Chaos Chronicles, so despite all the talk of "our game", "our world" and "our story", the setting of Demons Age is not entirely Bigmoon's. This may seem like a minor detail, but from everything I've seen, it looked to me like all of the good features were inherited from the legacy of another studio's game - the combat system, the D&D based classes, the division in overworld travel and combat maps, and so on. The only features that are genuinely of their own creation are those that are extremely questionable and show little understanding into the workings of an RPG.
My final assessment of Demons Age is therefore: the less of their own ideas they introduce, the better it will be for the game.
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Aaaaand that's 2016's Gamescom wrapped up.