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RPG Codex Review: Disco Elysium

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Tue 5 November 2019, 16:03:47

Tags: Disco Elysium; ZA/UM

There was only a single review of Disco Elysium up on Metacritic when the game was released. Now there are many of them, nearly all glowingly positive. It's time the Codex joined its voice to that chorus, and I can think of no better person to do the singing than blessed bataille, our expert on all things literary and post-Soviet. Get ready, because things are about to get deep:

Instead of giving us the usual freedom to become a soon-heroic, god-chosen nobody, Disco Elysium puts the player in the tear-and-alcohol-soaked shoes of a particular *somebody*. That somebody has a name, a face (sort of), a semblance of life, and a long history of destructive self-abuse, all of which slowly resurface during the course of the game.

While it may seem somewhat restrictive to disallow self-insertion in a cRPG, it helps the story to focus on the inner turmoil of our character as much as on the people and events that surround him. After all, the game’s original title used to be No Truce With The Furies, and that alone illustrates pretty well how important it must have been for the authors to have a singular ruined soul at the epicenter of the narrative. Since one obviously cannot construct effective personal drama for all possible player avatars (the only guaranteed common trait being player agency), the authors made the furies torment our hero through his prior life. It’s one of the instances where Disco Elysium’s PC-centric pen-and-paper origins shine through and affect the standard cRPG conventions. The scope is narrower but more focused, intimate, intense. A bit like that other text-heavy RPG with a set protagonist.

To dial it back a little and return us to the dimension of *computer* role-playing games and their freedom to play as whomever thou wilt, ZA/UM employs an obscure literary trope known as “total retrograde amnesia.” Or was it a selective memory wipe? A mere pretense fueled by shame? Repressed memories? Something more supra-natural? The reason for blanking out is up to the player to establish later down the line. Whatever the cause, only our past is set in stone, and it is for us to decide what kind of person we will become by the time all hell inevitably breaks loose.

The first step on the path of self-discovery is to distribute 8 points between the four main attributes: intelligence, psyche, physique, and motorics. Each attribute governs 6 thematically appropriate skills that may range from something as simple as Logic or Endurance to the more esoteric Inland Empire and Shivers. I highly recommend everyone to read their full descriptions, even if you don’t plan on investing in some of the skills. Besides providing clues and tips on what attributes to pick for certain archetypes, they’re simply a joy to read.

What really stands out when you start familiarizing yourself with the skills is how difficult it may be to fit some of them into the existing RPG categories. It takes a bit of time with the game to truly get what Esprit de Corps is really about, for example. What do Shivers actually do? What’s the difference between Drama and Suggestion? The skill selection might be the player’s first encounter with the experimental side of Disco Elysium, a sign of things to come. It only gets weirder - and sadder.

After a binge of world-ending proportions, our nameless, featureless, and pantsless hero wakes up on the floor, in a room, in a city, on a continent; all of them totally unknown and mysterious (except maybe the floor). How does one proceed under such arcane circumstances? By initiating an inner monologue of course! But who does the talking? Your skills, my liege. Depending on your choices during character creation, it may be Inland Empire lamenting that we didn’t get to see what was on the other side of the killer debauch, or Logic trying to piece something together from what little information about our current situation we have, or Pain Threshold welcoming the anguish that comes with being alive. They start talking when you regain some of your higher cognitive faculties and don’t shut up until the credits roll.

The easiest way to understand how you interact with your skills is to imagine the bicameral mind and-- that’s it, actually. That is exactly how it’s done. The player is in control of what the cop (ah, that’s one mystery solved) says and does, and your skills do most of the background thinking, guiding you to failure and regret (and an occasional triumph).

Oddly enough, each of them has a distinct personality and a... portrait. In a lesser RPG, these could have been templates for the player’s potential party members. They’re chatty, opinionated, and, most importantly, often fallible. Half Light, the mix of a psychotic barbarian and a scaredy-cat which is supposed to represent your fight-or-flight response and vigilance in the face of danger, will misjudge the gravity of a situation as often as assess one correctly. Despite its strong-willed facade, Authority often acts as a feeble sleazeball that tries to exploit its position in the warrior caste and use it as a lever to subjugate other people and get RESPECT. Conceptualization is just a third year humanities student always looking for opportunities to turn life into a living canvas. Fair enough. 24 almost-people to see you through this week-long hangover.​

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RPG Codex Review: Tale of Wuxia

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Fri 25 October 2019, 20:11:11

Tags: Heluo Studio; Tale of Wuxia

All right, that's enough JRPGs on the Codex front page. It's time for a CRPG. By which I mean a Chinese RPG of course. I've never heard of Tale of Wuxia before, but it must be good if Darth Roxor decided to just randomly review it out of the blue. Indeed, he considers it to have one of the best character systems he's ever seen in an RPG. So read on, gweilos:

Tale of Wuxia’s main tagline is that it “has been dedicated to providing gameplayers with a player-defined platform, where they can customize their own Wuxia” (“Wuxia” is Chinese for “martial hero”), so as you may imagine, character building is an important part of this game.

And what a platform for character building it is! When you look at the system at first, you might get suspicious, because it has all the elements that don’t work in most other games, and which lend themselves to a great many trap builds. I’m talking of course about the multitude of statistics (there are around 40 things to raise), and the fact that seemingly useless things (“tea-making”, “calligraphy”) are coupled with what looks like obviously superior options (combat stats). In another game, you’d identify the dump stats, pump your sword skill to maximum and set sail to victory.

This is not at all the case in Tale of Wuxia. Here, all the statistics, from floriculture to martial arts, are useful to some degree, for a number of reasons. For starters, most combat styles in the game scale off two abilities – a primary combat skill and a secondary skill. For example, there’s a Taoist sword-fighting style, whose effectiveness is influenced by your skill in calligraphy. Similarly, a throwing weapon style will need high chess-playing. A zither (yes, the musical instrument) fighting style requires a high score in music. So on and so forth.

Also, a word on how the styles actually work. Apart from being influenced by a primary weapon skill and a secondary support skill, they usually give you a set of three unique moves in combat, though the most basic ones may be limited to two moves. All the moves require energy (mana, more or less) to perform, while the higher-tier abilities are only unlocked when you reach enough proficiency in a given style, and they also go on cooldown when used. Switching between styles in combat is possible, but it puts all the better abilities on cooldown, so effective switching requires a modicum of planning to pull off. The move sets are all clearly focused on a specific purpose, and the abilities often work best in combos. To follow the example of the Taoist sword style – the first, basic attack gives you a mana shield, the second move buffs you with vampirism (leeching both health and energy from damaged enemies), and the third is an area-wide slash that ignores armour. Proper combination of the three can leave you almost unkillable.

The versatility and flexibility when it comes to the combinations of skills and fighting styles gives tremendous freedom and breadth to the character system. The ways of building your wuxia are numerous, and you might switch between different styles many times throughout the course of the game – whether it’s because a new one you’ve just unlocked is more powerful than what you had before, or because you got bored of the old one and want to try something different.

Furthermore, raising various skills to high levels often gives you various long-term boons. These might be unlockable choices in adventures, skill check opportunities, or entirely unique events that are triggered only at certain skill thresholds.

There’s also a nice synergy between the above aspects, as the events you unlock often serve to let you gain new combat styles, which might not even be related to the skill that triggered a given adventure. Of course, these events will also net you experience, new acquaintances, items and the like.

Another element that ties all these parts together are the “internal arts”. These are basically passive abilities that boost your character’s performance, and their functionalities vary wildly. Some simply give stat bonuses (some of which keep rising the longer combat goes on), but others are more involved, and may give you a poisoning aura, let you move freely through enemy zones of control, periodically remove debuffs, etc.

Obviously the final piece of the puzzle that makes the system whole is equipment. You don’t get to play dress-up too much in Tale of Wuxia, as you can only have three items equipped at a time (a weapon, an armour, an accessory), but the bonuses they provide are still significant. Apart from the obvious features like boosting your attack and defence, your gear will also grant you additional abilities, which are not unlike the internal styles.

When you combine all these parts – stats, combat styles, internal arts and equipment – you can get so many, so different character builds and playstyles, it’s honestly almost overwhelming. You can mould your character into an unbreakable, ever-regenerating bulldozer, an artful dodger, a toxic avenger, a mass-slicer and dicer, Cacofonix, a ranged pinner and kiter, an immortal swordsman, a fan-slapping paralyser… and more. Or combinations thereof. It’s completely crazy, and it’s unlike anything I’ve seen in an RPG.​

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RPG Codex Review: Sengoku Rance

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Sat 19 October 2019, 01:40:51

Tags: AliceSoft; Sengoku Rance

Codexers don't usually like JRPGs, but when they do they're often games from the Rance series, the long-running line of satirical eroge RPGs by Japanese developer AliceSoft. Everybody knows the best game in the series is Sengoku Rance, the 2006 strategy RPG in which the titular character sets out to conquer a fictionalized version of Warring States-period Japan. After years of being played in the West exclusively using fan translations, Sengoku Rance was finally officially released in English last month. Which means it's time to finally publish this review of the game by Deuce Traveler that we've been saving up for over a year(!). Here's an excerpt:

I'm going to take a moment to compare the strategic layer of Sengoku Rance to grand strategy mainstays such as Europa Universalis or the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series. During a given turn in a grand strategy game, you gauge the strength of your enemy and then build up the appropriate forces to take a territory you want. You are likely to be victorious on the field, but there are other factors which determine if the attack will have been worthwhile. For example, what resources were lost to ensure the victory? Were your best officers and units used up in the attack, leaving only scrubs and depleted troops available to defend what you won during that turn? What enemy resources were captured that would make the losses acceptable? How will the rulers of opposing factions react? Will your enemies seek an alliance, declare war, offer tribute in the hopes of staying neutral, or act in the shadows in an attempt to weaken your forces? There’s a lot of complexity in a typical grand strategy title, but Sengoku Rance is probably one of the most accessible and easy to learn of this genre.

There are continuous choices and consequences to your actions as the game unfolds. For example, one industrious clan sells powerful weapons to its sole ally but also offers to sell rifle units to you. However, if you attack the ally of this arms dealing territory they will begin to sell their weapons to everyone in the hopes of slowing your conquests down without having to actively engage you. To avoid this you could make the allied clan your vassal instead of invading them, but then you miss out on having greater control of their territory.

During the latter part of the game you find yourself having to fight on multiple fronts, but you have the option to shut a large gateway and trap one of your opponents behind it. Doing so protects your flank, but the gate cannot be opened again and you lose the opportunity to claim more territory and capture its powerful commanders. Most of the more well-known grand strategy games are sandboxes where events are essentially random. Sengoku Rance has a much more static world, but it compensates by having tons of scripted events, most of which are impossible to witness in a single playthrough. You will likely have to beat the game more than a half-dozen times to see the majority of its hidden lore.

Sengoku Rance's characters are some of the most distinct and memorable in the history of video games. The leaders and subordinate officers of the game’s various factions each stand out in their own small way thanks to its well-drawn art and visual novel storytelling. One of the first factions you go to war with is led by the leader of a strong unit of archers who has one of the best special skills for ranged units, but he’s beaten down by life and constantly pushed into making poor military decisions by his beautiful and spoiled wife. Another faction is led by a giant creature called a raccoon dog and his army of smaller furry ninjas. They inherited their territory after capturing it from their human oppressors and hope to take advantage of Rance’s rise to weaken their neighbors. A third faction is led by a corrupt court, but their greatest officer is the game’s equivalent of a virtuous paladin who will lead her unit in support of factions Rance declares war against. Ironically, she and her best friend end up having more to fear from the machinations of those she serves. Later in the game, Rance will come into contact with a nation of undead soldiers led by a samurai eyeball and his harem of supportive, monstrous wives. Most of the officers and units of this particular faction are subpar, but they lead huge forces and battles with them become particularly difficult if one of the wives is part of the attacking army. I can think of no other game where there are so many factions with such distinctly drawn characters, each of which gets their own small moment to shine. Sengoku Rance is one of the few games out there where the visual novel style of storytelling feels well-integrated with the flow of gameplay.

[...] Your ultimate goal is to take over this world's version of Japan during an alternate Warring States period, in which the historical figures have been replaced by political parodies. Combat is a simple affair. Place your melee fighters on the front row to protect support units that operate in the back. During battles, you can place up to six commanders and their units onto the battlefield to slog it out. You start off the game running the Oda Clan with a few basic types of units, such as warriors like Rance who have high offensive attributes and skills that allow them to perform special offensive maneuvers. Complementing them are commanders of foot soldiers, whose attacks aren’t as powerful, but have high defensive attributes and specialized skills for protecting allied units. You are also given a commander of archers, whose attacks are not as powerful as warriors either, but can attack from the back row and strike any enemy unit regardless of location. Archers are quite useful for disrupting spell casters who are preparing their more powerful spells from the enemy’s back row. Finally, you are given a tactician commander, whose skills can be used to enhance the fighting abilities of allied units or diminish those of the enemy.

Sengoku Rance starts you out with these basic units and gradually adds more diverse character classes as you proceed through the game. The ninja behaves in a similar way to the archer, but can quickly learn the assassinate skill which allows it to instantly wipe out enemy units. Monks are decent front row melee fighters who also have an assortment of skills, such as the ability to heal themselves or make foot soldiers drop their guard. Diviner commanders can throw up barriers to guard their allies, or spend some time chanting in order to cast a spell that strikes at each of the opposing enemy units. Musketeers are the most deadly units on the battlefield, but they can't take much damage and can only attack once or twice before exhausting all of their actions for the entire battle. Cavalry units are the ones I fear the most, since they can attack multiple times, have great offensive attributes, and can strike any unit regardless of whether they’re in the front or back rows. I still haven't touched upon some of the more unique commanders and their abilities, nor have I talked about the non-human units. In short, there's a lot of variation in the opponents you will face.

The handful of officers you start out with are a dubious group of misfits that you are forced to rely upon to survive (although Rance himself is the backbone of your offense at this stage). One of the game’s more charming aspects is how even the minor officers on both sides of the battlefield have their own personalities and quirks. By improving your relationship with your officers, upgrading their ability scores with books, and equipping them with items, you will have a chance to turn some of the more mediocre recruits into a respectable fighting force. Every officer has several attributes which determine how fast they can act, how hard they attack, how well they defend, how well they search, and how effective they are at diplomacy. Some officers also have unlockable special abilities, such as the ability to fire a volley of arrows that peppers an entire enemy force instead of just one opposing unit. You can only have thirty officers in your roster and by mid-game you'll find yourself having to make hard choices about who will make the cut.​

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RPG Codex Review: Stygian Reign of the Old Ones

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Sat 12 October 2019, 00:10:04

Tags: Cultic Games; Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones

It looked really cool when it was announced, seemed like vaporware for years, and eventually came to be seen as one of the most important releases of the year. I'm speaking of course about Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones, the Lovecraftian RPG by Cultic Games released just over two weeks ago. Making his first appearance on our front page in many years, the inimitable Roguey has volunteered to review this somewhat beleaguered title. I would say that his review places Stygian in the same category as something like Serpent of the Staglands. It's an amateur effort that is styled in a way that particularly appeals to Codexian sensibilities, but which never quite comes around to being good enough. Here's an excerpt:

When it comes to setting, Stygian makes the same mistake games like Neverwinter Nights, Bloodlines, and Shadowrun Returns did by cramming in as many references as it possibly can, turning it into a Lovecraft theme park. Cthulhu, Randolph Carter, The Outsider, one of Herbert West's reanimated zombies, Pickman's models, the Terrible Old Man and the Strange High House in the Mist, the Dreamlands, the Witch House, the Mi-Go, the Elder Things, they're all here. I would prefer a more focused story that relies less on direct references, though I recognize the temptation is high to put in everything you can on your first and perhaps only attempt at an adaptation.

It's not all bad. The writing isn't brilliant or deep, but it is superficially entertaining and well-paced, which is a low bar many other modern traditional RPGs have been unable to reach. You won't get plagued by walls of exposition and prose descriptions during dialogue here. There are a few typos and English-as-a-Second-Language mishaps here and there. If your character goes insane, sometimes your dialogue options are replaced with Malkavian-esque lines which can be funny but are occasionally too childish. Sometimes non-player characters react specifically to the different line; other times their reaction remains unchanged. There are a good number of other "false" flavor options that lead to the same dialogue node, which is a shame.

Quest design isn't anything too ambitious: you find plot coupons, investigate a murder, infiltrate a cult, and engage in other Lovecraftian activities. How you're able to carry out these tasks is determined by your character's skills; you'll be locked out of certain interactions if you don't have the right build for it, but there's always a way through. There can be quite a bit of combat, but most of your time is spent walking and interacting with people and objects. As I wrote earlier, Stygian reminds me a lot of the first few hubs in Bloodlines; there's quite a bit of freedom in terms of supported character concepts and playstyles, but the story is on rails with only cosmetic narrative reactivity, no significant branches.

While the journal does give directions, it doesn't hold your hand; there's no quest compass here, so there were times where I felt lost as to what to do next, though I wasn't actually lost since exploring the world and following a thread on any active quest would continue the plot. It's a good feeling rarely found these days.

[...] The combat encounters themselves are incredibly lazy. The first potential fight in the game is against six people. Then you enter an abandoned bank and fight six lunatics up to three times. This is what you can expect to experience for the rest of the game. To the developers' partial credit, the bank had one additional encounter in the demo that was seemingly removed due to negative feedback. Additionally, there are only three of these lousy copy-paste-filled combat crawls (i.e. any location with multiple battles in succession), but going through them is still far more annoying than the usual one-and-done areas.

In addition to being lazy, the encounters are also pretty easy. Granted, I made a combat-oriented character, and I have an above-average (though not great) understanding of how to play cRPGs. There were only two fights that gave me trouble; the first involved reinforcements that pop in behind you after two turns, and the second was an annoying gimmick boss where reinforcements are constantly trickling in behind you while you have to dig up the boss before it can be damaged. Both were manageable once I figured out the ideal positioning within the environment.

Bad news for would-be brave diplomats: you can't totally avoid combat in Stygian. I encountered 21 battles, and you can sneak and potentially talk your way past most of them, but there were at least two on the critical path that can't be avoided (one of which is that annoying gimmick boss I just mentioned). A solo run seems implausible if not impossible on account of that one fight.

At least the endgame isn't an annoying combat crawl in its entirety. Unfortunately, what it does have is comparably annoying: a series of rooms where you have to do the same time-padding pattern matching puzzle over and over again. After a brief reprieve, you're thrown into an area where you have to navigate around real-time patrols. Cultic made the same mistake here Harebrained Schemes did with Shadowrun: Hong Kong; real-time stealth gameplay is inappropriate and out of place in a turn-based RPG. It's like the developers forgot they were making an RPG and decided to make an adventure game complete with stereotypical action-oriented gimmicks.

I'll avoid spoiling the details of the ending, but as Cultic themselves confirmed before release, it ends on a cliffhanger after about 20 hours. It stops after a dramatic moment, but it's not a proper climax by any means. The developers had a lot of hubris and optimism to end it like this; it was certainly within their ability to rewrite the story to give it a more definite ending with what they had available. Instead what we have is comparable to Bloodlines if it just suddenly stopped after the sewers and played a cinematic that teased what to expect in Chinatown. It's an Early Access or Episode 1 release that doesn't label itself as such, which is a dishonorable way to release a game.​

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RPG Codex Review: Legends of Amberland

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Tue 17 September 2019, 00:15:28

Tags: Legends of Amberland: The Forgotten Crown; Silver Lemur Games

A whole bunch of indie RPGs came out last month - isometric tactical RPGs, narrative RPGs, roguelikes and more. However, the one that definitely left the deepest impression on us was the retro-styled Might & Magic-inspired blobber Legends of Amberland: The Forgotten Crown. Which to be honest is not so surprising on the forum that turned Grimoire into a cultic object. Indeed, who better to review Amberland than Dorateen, the author of our definitive review of Grimoire? It's not as positive a review, of course. Compared to a Wizardry-style blobber like Grimoire, Amberland's dungeons are simplistic. Its itemization is weak and its pixel art might be an acquired taste. But due to its great exploration and innovative mechanics, it ultimately gets a solid thumbs-up from Dorateen. Here's an excerpt from the review:

Battle is joined when the party steps on a tile occupied by an enemy, or in some instances when the enemy jumps into the party's face. While exploring, monsters and men alike are not stationary but move around in their own radius. This creates a situation where an adventuring party can decide each turn whether to advance, retreat or wait while the enemy reposition themselves like pieces on a game board. Sometimes monsters seek to block or restrict the player’s mobility. When both sides finally clash, they are locked in a life and death struggle until one side emerges victorious. And once vanquished, enemies are gone forever as maps do not repopulate.

There's a non-transparent initiative value which determines who gets to act first. Enemies who come in early are typically quick foes who will sneak in a hit before you can react. As for the heroes, the order that each character goes is determined by their position in the party. In a row of seven, it is the central spot that is considered Position One. This character will always be the first party member to take an action, and is also on the receiving end of most incoming attacks. Flanked on either side by characters in Position Two and Three, these act in sequence respectively and they are also treated as part of the front line. The formation ranks continue so that back row support characters are the ones on the far left and far right, who will always act last. It is a system that leverages initiative versus relative security from being targeted. However, once more dangerous enemies who have area-of-effect attacks show up, no party member is completely safe.

Opponents arrange themselves in rows of up to three at a time. Due to their mobile nature, it's likely that others in an area will join a battle in progress once a spot opens up. For example, imagine a large room filled with monsters, moving closer as they engage the party. The player might start out facing two or three of them, but could end up taking on a half dozen or more before gaining any respite. Another tactic enemies use is to crowd inside doorways. Thus, before successfully entering a chamber the party is forced to cut through what seems like an endless horde, which can make for some tense pitched battles.

Every class in Legends of Amberland has a Special Ability that a character of that class can use in addition to their standard attack. The Knight and its variants have a Charge attack that can hit all three enemies on screen. Warriors get a powerful Strike attack that is used to inflict greater damage to a single opponent. Bards can play a song that will replenish a percentage of Spell Points and Hit Points for all party members, while Healers have a lifesaving Recovery ability that will restore all characters who have fallen in battle. The catch is that these Special Abilities can only be activated once before requiring a rest. This becomes a strategic consideration for the player, who has to pick the right moment to use them and ensure that his characters have recharged before facing particularly deadly adversaries.

Resources are vital in a game with frequent combat. Heroes will lose hit points, expend their magic and trigger single use abilities. Thus it becomes necessary to rest, which in turn like in any good Might & Magic-type adventure requires food. There are two forms of nourishment that can be restocked in towns, with two corresponding modes of resting. A full rest is eight hours long and revives the party completely at the cost of both one vegetable ration and one meat ration. Then there's the quick rest, only four hours long, which uses up just one vegetable ration. The quick rest does not restore spell points and only restores half of the party's hit points, but it does reset Special Abilities and cure certain status effects. Therefore it can be used more strategically to save on resources.

Spells can sorted into three general categories. There's offensive magic, healing and curative magic, and preventative or enhancement magic. The latter takes the form of party-wide buffs, including spells like Regeneration, Inspiration (for extra strength), and Magic Armor. These spells do not have a fixed duration. Instead, all buffs expire at midnight on a twenty-four hour clock. It sets a pattern of casting your protections early in the day to take advantage of having them up as long as possible. Later in the game, I often had as many as seven effects running at the same time. (A single mass buff spell would have been a welcome addition.) As mentioned previously, all spells have mastery levels ranked from one to five which increase their power and efficiency. However, with direct damage spells being fairly limited, it seems spellcasters are more suitable as support characters for the fighters who deliver the majority of destruction.​

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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!

[​IMG]

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.​

Read the full article: RPG Codex Review: Pillars of Eternity II - It's Pretty Alright

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