The Artful Escape

Here’s another title that I decided to try based on the fact that it was leaving Xbox Game Pass soon. The Artful Escape is (kind of) a game where you play as the nephew of a famous folk musician who is, for reasons never really made clear, expected to follow in the footsteps of his uncle. And while he is a capable folk musician, in his heart there dwells a shrieking electric guitar rocker.

When a mysterious woman hears him shredding, she gives him a nudge that leads him on a psychedelic trip of self-discovery.

Scene from a fake late-night talk show
Things do get weird after a while…

So a few important facts. First, The Artful Escape is very short. Four or five hours long, and it has no more ‘replay value’ than a book or a movie. In other words, the only reason to play a second time is if you want to experience the story again. I played for a few hours this morning, broke for lunch and to do a few errands, then finished this afternoon AND I got all the Achievements. Too bad Xbox doesn’t have Platinum Trophies.

Second, it is barely a game. You move along a prescribed path with some very very light platforming (sometimes you have to double jump!) and there are sections where you have to play a Simon-like copy-cat “press the buttons in the order I pressed them” mini-game. These segments eventually get a little challenging as things speed up but I felt like the developers made this all fairly forgiving. I’m pretty sure a few times it let me “pass” the challenge after like 3 fails even though I didn’t nail it perfectly.

But there is really no exploring or puzzle-solving or anything like that. You have some multiple choice options here and there but they seem to be only for ‘flavor.’

Here’s a random 60 seconds of gameplay to give you an idea of what the experience looks and sounds like:

So yeah, basically it’s an interactive story, but a pretty entertaining one. You really need to enjoy jamming electric guitars though, as this kind of music plays a HUGE role in the game. Also I’d suggest playing with headphones and the volume cranked up.

Oh, and probably worth noting the voice talent is quite good, with some names most of us would recognize (Carl Weathers and Lena Headey).

The first 20 minutes or so, while you’re still in your sleepy little home town, are kind of sleepy periods of the game but things pick up after that. In the middle I started to get a little bored. When I stopped for lunch I was almost thinking “OK I’ve seen enough of this.” but after a break I came back and soon it was clear that the story was starting to move towards a culmination which convinced me to stick around and I’m glad I did.

So yeah, if you don’t mind the length (and I’m glad it wasn’t any longer), I’d probably recommend this one. Pay for it like you would a movie or something. Whatever you feel comfortable spending on a movie, spend on this game. If I had to put a price on it I’d say like $10. Probably you will spend your 4-5 hours on it then never play it again.

I have to say it felt kind of awesome starting and finishing a game on the same day. I wish there were more quality short games like this one! Also Bhagpuss, if you’re reading this, I kept thinking of you and your music posts while I was playing. I’d be really interested to hear what you thought of The Artful Escape!

Francis starring at a concert

How Ni No Kuni 2 Ruined Labor Day

Last weekend was a 3-day weekend for many of us here in the US: Labor Day weekend. I had been almost desperately looking forward to it for over a month. I REALLY hate my job so an extra day off is always very much anticipated and my head was full of half-made plans about what I would do with that glorious extra day of me-time.

Instead of any of those plans, I spent the whole weekend playing Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom. That would’ve been fine if I’d been playing because I was really enjoying myself, but no. I was playing because it was one of those instances when a game just gets stuck in my craw and I can’t let it go until I finish it. For some reason I just felt like I needed to complete this game, and I never really understand my brain when it does this. Partly it was because I wanted to see what happened, partly because I’d already put 30 hours into it (over several months) and I wanted some kind of a return on that investment (said return being the satisfaction of finishing). I don’t think either of those reasons are enough to explain my behavior, though.

So yeah, I spent the whole weekend playing a game I wasn’t super-excited about playing and, to throw salt in the wound, I still didn’t finish it. Last night (Wednesday) I finally did. Golly I’m glad that’s over. (See, I’ve been playing it so much I say things like “Golly” and “Gosh” now.)

And before I get much further I need to add that it isn’t that Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is a bad game. Not at all. It’s got an 87/100 rating at Open Critic. Most people really liked it. I just didn’t enjoy the tone (constant breathless enthusiasm) plus I played it “wrong”. If I could send a message back to my younger-by-a-few-months self about this game I would send this: “Do not do that thing where you try to clear all the side quests before advancing the main story, and consider playing on Hard difficulty.”

My usual methodical way of playing a game is to work on the lowest level side quests first, and work my way up until all that I can do are completed, then I work on the main story. Because I did this in Ni No Kuni 2, most of my 40-50 hours of playing were easy-mode since I was over powered for the content I was doing. What finally broke me out of that mode was when (at around 30 hours) a Trophy popped up for completing 50 side quests. That prompted me to check the Unearned Trophy list and I found there were trophies for completing 100 & 150 side quests! No way I was going to spend 90 hours doing side quests, so I just started to focus on the main story.

Once I did this I quickly caught up to where content was a bit harder which made the game more enjoyable but by that time the damage was done and I was already bored and in “let’s just finish this” mode. Plus I’d essentially forgotten how a lot of the game systems worked since I’d just been button-mashing and breezing through content since June. There were a lot of things I’d either forgotten or never learned I could do, like improving weapons and spells and leveling up the sickeningly cute little creatures that fight with you. Higglies or Higgledies or something. Useful but SO annoying.

But hey, it is done now. I’m glad it is done. And yet there’s a tickle in my brain that says “Next time I should play on Hard mode.” Like I said, it’s not a bad game and I think it could be a lot better with the challenge cranked up from the very start.

Here’s a battle with a dragon to celebrate the finish. Mind you I thought this level 50 beasties was the top of the monster food chain but nope. By the time I completed the game my characters were in their high-50s and the final boss was I think level 72 or something. (Don’t quote me on that.) So this guy was just a little fella.

Destiny 2: Why I Quit

Recently I’ve started playing Destiny 2 again and I kind of want to talk about how much fun I’m having, but it seemed only right to begin at the beginning, so to speak. I played Destiny a lot, and was excited about Destiny 2 when it launched. Initially I enjoyed the second game (I think? I assume? I can’t really remember) but then I started having Issues.

So here’s the thing about me: I love progression. I love leveling. In a lot of games once I hit cap I stop playing. Finding that loot that is 1% stronger than the loot I currently have now is always a thrill for me. What can I say, I have simple tastes.

Back to Destiny 2, a game that Bungie keeps rolling out new content for. This is great, of course. New content is always fun. What wasn’t so great for me is that they’d remove older content. In at least one case (the Forsaken expansion) I purchased the content but before I could play it, Bungie “vaulted” it (ie, removed it from the game). That really pissed me off. Now to be fair I was WAY late to the party on that expansion but still… I bought it and couldn’t play it.

That was a big part of why I quit. I was simply mad at Bungie, as if Bungie was a person. But I’m not the first person to anthropomorphize a company.

There was also another reason why I quit. Bungie kept raising the level cap, which is common with games-as-a-service titles. I don’t mind that. But they also raised the level floor. (Maybe I should call it the level shoes, the opposite of cap?) In MMO terms, imagine a game had a level cap of 50, and an expansion came out that raised the cap to 75, but it made the minimum level increase to 25. That’s basically what Bungie does, but in Destiny 2 “levels” come from your gear rather than your character.

When the floor rises, every piece of gear that isn’t at the minimum level gets raised to the minimum level. I’m sure a lot of players appreciate this, but not me. Destiny 2 was never my main hobby so I was rarely at cap and usually wasn’t even at the new minimum level.

To make up a practical example, say I’ve been playing and finding new gear and I get my gear to level 40 & I’m feeling good about my progress. Then an expansion comes out that raises the floor to 50 and suddenly all my gear is now level 50. For me and my weird brain, this invalidates all the fun I had getting stuff to 40; that ‘work’ no longer matters. It started to feel like the most efficient way for me to level in Destiny 2 was to just not play and instead wait for an expansion to level me up.

So essentially, that’s what I did. I stopped playing. At the top of this post is one of my first screenshots from D2 where my power level was 58. Since then, without playing for a single minute, I have characters at 1350! That’s quite a lot of progress gained from not-playing! I’m so efficient! [This is also a lie; I played a lot more after that screenshot was taken, but eventually I did fall behind enough that the “level floor” kept boosting me up.]

Next post (in theory): So what changed and why am I back?

August 2022

Well we finally got August out of the way. Another month or so of heat and life outdoors can start again. Mind you we had a week in August where it was hot but not completely oppressively hot, so that was nice. A couple times I took the dog out around midnight and it was actually pleasant out there.

Yeah kids, it’s true. The older you get, the more you prattle on about the weather. So let’s get into the recap because it is stupid-long this month.

Games

Mafia Definitive Edition got its own post. Spoiler: I really enjoyed it.

Mafia 2 Definitive Edition also got its own post. Spoiler: wasn’t too much of a fan.

Ni No Kuni II is in the recap for the third month. Unless I give up on it, it’ll probably be in next month, too. I don’t know why I DON’T give up on it. I started it in June and here it is, end of August and it still hasn’t really grabbed me. There’s no reason to think it ever will. So why am I still playing? FOMO I guess? This series gets so much praise and I’m trying to figure out why, beyond that it has a lovely art style.

I just find it pretty boring. Maybe I should be playing on a higher difficulty level or something. I’m also not really a fan of the tone which is that kind of breathless child enthusiasm as seen on shows like “Leave It To Beaver.” (Am I dating myself?) But mostly it’s the boredom. The other day I spent over an hour in a session where all I did was solve “quests” that involved fast travelling/running to a waypoint on the map where some random character tells me “Gee whiz, yes I’d LOVE to join your kingdom!”

Well for now I’ll keep plodding along. There was a really dark moment at the very start of the game and I’m interested to see what happens in the story, with regard to this moment. Which I won’t spoil even though it happens at the very start of the game.

Moving on…

Every month a handful of games leave Xbox Game Pass. You generally get at least a few weeks warning, so whenever a new list comes out I scan it and if anything looks remotely interesting I’ll at least boot it up once to see if it appeals to me. That’s how I found Spiritfarer. Spiritfarer bills itself as a “cozy management game.” I’m not really sure what that means, but I like Spiritfarer quite a bit. In it you play Stella who has taken over for Charon. The river Styx feels more like a harbor or even an ocean. Stella sails around in her boat (which is also her base — you can see my version at the top of this post) visiting islands where she finds souls that need her help to pass on to… presumably a better place.

In order to help these lost souls Stella will have to gather resources to both improve her boat and provide for her spirit guests. She also spends a lot of time talking to the spirits to find out what they need, and I find their stories intriguing. It’s a pretty low stress game; I don’t think you can die or fail, though I’m not 100% sure. The spirits I have aboard seem pretty patient. For example, if you don’t prepare meals for them they’ll get unhappy because they’re hungry, but they won’t die (they’re already dead!), and I don’t think they’ll leave. I haven’t had anyone leave anyway.

It’s the kind of gameplay we’ve seen before but the spirits’ stories and the aesthetics are what make it special. It’s all hand-drawn, seemingly hand-animated art full of clever touches. For instance, Stella has a cat companion named Daffodil (you can have a friend join your game and they’ll play as Daffodil). Daffodil follows Stella everywhere, but when Stella goes swimming Daffodil follows her by balancing on a tiny ball of light which floats on the water because, y’know, cats and water. It’s cute as heck. Stella can give the spirits a hug to lift their…erm… spirits, and every time she does this I swear I feel it in my heart, these moments are animated so well.

I like Spiritfarer so much I bought it so I won’t lose access when it leaves Game Pass, so more to come on this one.

I’ve always heard great things about the Yakuza games but never made much headway in any of them. After being in the US mob in the Mafia games I decided to join the Japanese mob by playing Yakuza 0. So far, I have to say, it’s not really grabbing me. Running around the streets of the city (which you do a lot) feels really clunky in that old-school Resident Evil way. Other than that you mostly brawl. I’ve heard there’s a ton to do in these games so maybe they just start slowly. There’re a lot of very long cut scenes (my Xbox goes into idle mode during them, they’re so long). I don’t really mind these since the story is actually kind of interesting, but I mention it as a warning for folks who aren’t a fan of extended cut scenes. I’m on the fence with this one. Someone whose opinion I trust really loves these games which makes me lean towards keeping on with it for now.

When I first heard about Tribes of Midgard I was pretty excited because, hey it’s about Vikings! I also really dug the art style. Then I learned it was best played with others and I sadly crossed it off my list. At some point I got a copy for free (Playstation Plus, I think) so gave it a try and yeah, it was terrible solo. Well, terrible for me because you had to really rush around and maximize your actions in order to do what a team would normally be doing. The idea is that during the day you gather resources to improve the defenses of your village before night falls. There’s also some fighting to be done. Then when it gets dark your village gets attacked and you have to defend the village. All the while a giant boss creature is slowly moving towards your village and you have to defeat it before it arrives. I just found it really challenging to fight and gather and build during the daylight hours while keeping to a time table that would get me strong enough to defeat the boss before it crushed me and my village. Anyway, I deleted Tribes of Midgard and moved on.

This month a new update to Survival Mode came out. (I’m not sure I even tried Survival Mode before this.) No longer do you have a village to defend, unless you choose to make one. Instead it plays a little like Valheim. You gather, you craft, you find enemies to fight when you want to fight. When it gets dark harder enemies appear but you can fight them or avoid them: your choice. Eventually you’re supposed to take down some boss enemies but you do this on your own timetable. I do not like being rushed so this lack of a timetable made a HUGE difference for me, and now I’m enjoying Tribes of Midgard, Survival Mode (the other mode is Saga Mode which still operates as described above and is still much too frantic for me). It isn’t going to become my main game or anything but it did totally suck me in for a few nights. I killed 3 of the big boss critters before I got distracted by another game, but it’s still in my rotation.

Over on Twitter a bunch of folks I follow were talking about a new game called Tower of Fantasy which was being compared to Genshin Impact. Since Tower of Fantasy isn’t on console and Genshin Impact is, I decided to join in the fun one step removed and finally play Genshin and I have to say, it’s a lot of fun this time around. I have played it, some, in the past and bounced off it. It might have been Paimon, the little creature that follows you around yammering at you in that “adult voice actor doing a screechy child’ voice and referring to their self in the third person. Or it might have been my belief that it was an MMO, or my concern over the gacha mechanics. I just can’t remember.

Whatever the reason this time I came into it somewhat more educated. I’m still in the very early game but so far the vibe I’m getting is that this is a single player game with some of an MMO’s benefits in that it is constantly changing/being updated. I love the anime-inspired aesthetics and in the course of playing you get enough characters that you don’t have to enter into the gacha stuff if you don’t want to. Gameplay is a mix of action combat and some environmental puzzle solving, mostly involving how to get up high enough to get some item floating in the air.

Like I said, I am still VERY early in the game so maybe there’s a big ugly ‘gotcha’ (as opposed to gacha) waiting when I hit some point but for now I’m really enjoying it.

Last up, and I almost left it out because I just started playing last weekend, is The Ascent. Folks in my Twitter timeline were talking about a new season in Path of Exile and it put me in the mood for an ARPG, but PoE has never resonated well with me. I actually fired up Diablo 3 a time or two but, y’know, it’s still Diablo 3. Then I remembered The Ascent which is on Gamepass and which I thought was an ARPG. Turns out it isn’t; it’s a twin-stick shooter. Granted the difference is fairly subtle but I was getting my butt handed to me until my brain re-aligned itself.

The Ascent, which takes place in a cyberpunk-infused alien world, doesn’t make a great 1st impression. You start off in the bowels of some gigantic city fixing a sewage issue. You’re an indentured servant and life ain’t great. The titular Ascent is a mega-corporation that you work for. Soon after you get the toilets working, Ascent announces it is bankrupt and basically pulls out of the city leaving a power vacuum that plenty of gangs are looking to fill. You end up working as muscle for your unsavory boss, who, to his credit, is trying to get the gang leaders together so that some semblance of order can be maintained. And that’s about as far as I’ve gotten, but after that first mission the game gets pretty fun. You shoot a lot of baddies, scavenge and/or buy better gear, including implants and upgrades to your cyberdeck and fun stuff like that.

If I’m being vague it’s because I’ve barely gotten started, but here’s a combat demo for you:

And a super last-minute addition is Destiny 2, which I’ve come back to have a few years away. That one I will save for a separate post, though.

TV

For All Mankind S3 (Apple TV) was really good. We’ve enjoyed this alternate history of the space program quite a bit. Wondering if we’ll get a 4th season.
Sandman (Netflix) was also really good. We had only the vaguest notion of the comics so the first couple eps we were a bit lost but by episode 3 or so we were well and truly hooked. A couple weeks after release they dropped a ‘bonus episode’ which consists of two short stories that take place in the Sandman universe but that basically stand alone. This episode is worth watching even if the main series wasn’t for you.

Westworld (HBO Max) is such a fun, nerdy, confusing show and Season 4 didn’t disappoint. I’m going to have to rewatch it. The series always twists and turns and rewards a second viewing. Heck I’ve watched the first season 3 times now and am looking forward to a 4th time. I always pick up on something new. All that said if you enjoy your narratives nice and neat and tidy, Westworld probably won’t be for you.

The Old Man (Hulu) was a pretty great spy series with a strange ending that to me felt rushed and disjointed. A second season is planned and I’m hoping it’ll ‘backfill’ some of the “WTF?” moments from the ending of Season 1. In fact I might suggest waiting for Season 2 before you dive into this one.

We finished our re-watch of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Well it was a re-watch for me anyway. I remember not being thrilled with DS9 when it first aired and having watched it again, I haven’t changed my mind. Still I was somehow sad when it was over. I do remember really not liking Quark or Odo back in the day and this time they were my favorite characters, at least in the early seasons when Quark was always running schemes and Odo was always foiling them. Perfect set of frenemies, those two. And then the weird friendship between Bashir and O’brien. But most of the command crew: Cisko and Kira and Dax… meh, I never felt very connected to any of them. General Motag (?? the Klingon) stole every scene he was in. I’d watch a show based on him!

With Deep Space Nine behind us we rolled right into Star Trek: Voyager (another rewatch for me) which I am enjoying much more than I did DS9.

The Wilds (Prime Video) – The synopsis said this was a show about some young women stranded on a desert island after a plane crash. I was thinking “Lord of the Flies” but nope. The show opens with the women being interviewed after their rescue, which immediately drains a lot of the tension from things. Then over time you learn that there is something strange happening. I started thinking “Lost” but nope. Turns out [spoilers tho you learn this in the first couple of episodes] that there wasn’t actually a crash and these women were put there deliberately (though they still think they crashed). I wasn’t really enjoying the individual episodes but I did want to know how the ‘arc’ resolved. Unfortunately by the end of Season 1 it didn’t completely resolve. There’s a Season 2 but I decided I didn’t care enough to sit through 10 more episodes of angst. This might be more interesting for younger people, I’m not sure.

And still more TV, but in the ‘too early to say’ bin: She-Hulk (Disney+), Star Trek: The Lower Decks S3 (Paramount+) and House of the Dragon (HBO+). Of these, we love The Lower Decks seasons 1 & 2 so we feel pretty confident about that one, but the other two the jury is still out on.

Reading

Still on the classic comics, where I learned of a villain named Paste Pot Pete and now I wonder why he doesn’t have his own movie franchise. Basically he is armed with a gun that shoots paste. Terrifying!

The scary part about these classic comics is that there are SO many of them. I’ve only made it through a year or 2 of issues. Stuff I’m reading right now came out in 1963! I might have to start skipping around.

And that’s it for the overly verbose recap. I should’ve split a couple of those games out into their own posts, I guess. Hope your September is cool and crisp and dry in a way that I know mine won’t be!!

Mafia 2 Definitive Edition Review

After having a surprisingly good time playing Mafia Definitive Edition, I decided to see what else the series has to offer. As luck would have it, Mafia 2 DE is also on Playstation Plus Pass. I rolled right into it. I kind of wish I hadn’t.

I didn’t enjoy Mafia 2 nearly as much as I did the first game. It wasn’t all bad, but I had enough issues that I almost didn’t finish it. Let’s get into my critique.

First, and worst, is that it is a really offensive game. The dialog is chock full of racial, ethnic and misogynist slurs. I guess I get that they were trying to capture the times (the game takes place in 1945 & 1951) but you can do that without using every offensive term you can think of, and maybe making some up to boot. It was really way over the top and this is why I almost quit playing.

In Mafia 1 you collected detective comics. In Mafia 2 you collect Playboy magazines, and every time you pick one up you get a full-screen photo of a centerfold. I didn’t really mind this, but it was a little surprising and definitely earned some eye-rolling from @partpurple. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I recognized a few of these and they were NOT from 1951.

The game is also not very stable. I had some crashes and a few glitches including some bad enough that I had to look online to find a workaround.

Vito and two women
Waiting for the “broads” to leave so Vito can go to work. The one facing the door kept walking into it without opening it

This time out you play Vito Scaletta, a real dirt bag with pretty much no redeeming qualities. As a kid he gets arrested but since he speaks Italian he is sent to the war to fight in the campaign in Sicily (this is all off-screen). When he comes back after being wounded, he immediately and with no hesitation starts taking on hit jobs. He never shows a hint of remorse over this. The story in Mafia 2 is much weaker than the one in Mafia 1. It’s really just Vito and his pal Joe making a lot of dumb decisions and murdering their way out of them.

The one giant redeeming quality in Mafia 2 is the music. It has a ton of great music (most of which wasn’t actually recorded when the game is supposed to take place, but what can ya do?). Check out the list of tracks over on the Wiki. Driving around listening to the radio was what convinced me to stick around.

I also thought the gun combat felt better in this game. Guns felt like they had more punch, and this one has regenerating health (in Mafia 1 you had to find a first aid station to heal). This made shootouts more fun (for me anyway) since you could play a little more fast and loose, knowing you could hide and regenerate health.

The melee combat still felt bad, and the driving felt good, though honestly by the end of the game I was pretty sick of driving around these streets, even WITH the great radio stations.

A line of old timey cars waiting at a traffic light
Sitting in traffic in 1945

Maybe I’m being overly hard on Mafia 2 just due to the fact that I played it immediately after Mafia 1, which may have led to some gangster fatigue, but I don’t think so. The story was meh, the dialog was so offensive it made me uncomfortable, and technically the game was rather dodgy. Also checkpoints were way too far between (this was a problem with Mafia 1 as well). At least it was quite short.

I dunno, I can’t really recommend this game unless you are just hard up for vintage centerfolds to gawk at.

Mafia Definitive Edition Review

Mafia Definitive Edition is a throw-back, in a couple of ways.

The most obvious is the story, which takes place in the early-mid 1930s, that strange part of US history where drinking a beer was illegal but grabbing a soda laced with cocaine was fine. It really does a great job of transporting you back to those days, with characters slinging old-timey slang left & right, and old music and news snippets playing on radios.

But it’s a throw-back in terms of gameplay, too. We just don’t get many games like this any more. The game plays out as a series of missions, each telling a chunk of the overall (and very decent) story. To support the strong narrative the missions are all quite linear, and while there is a pretty large city for you to drive around in, it is ‘open world’ in only the most technical sense. There’s no reason to roam around other than for fun. There’re no character levels, no crafting. There are collectibles but those are just for Achievements/bragging rights; they don’t impact gameplay at all.

There’s a lot of driving too, which I loved but might annoy others (it’s the 1930s, the cars aren’t very fast). Most missions start with you driving to the location and then after all the action you have to drive back home. It adds a certain cadence to the story and I enjoyed the driving but gamers who want all action all the time might feel frustrated. I went so far as to ‘roleplay’ my driving, trying to drive safely so as not to draw the attention of the cops on the way to or from a job. There are achievements that suggest that at times the cops will come after you for driving poorly but it never happened to me.

Driving around in Mafia
I loved driving these old cars around

As for the story, you play as Tommy Angelo (no customization available), who starts the game as a cabbie and gets involved with an organized crime family and rises through the ranks. Let’s be clear: you are playing a bad guy in this game. He has a little more of a conscience than some of his colleagues but he is still a very bad man. So keep that in mind.

I don’t usually do well playing a bad guy but for some reason I really enjoyed Mafia. Maybe it is just the era or something, or maybe Hollywood has de-sensitized me to being a bad guy in this kind of organized crime setting.

Overall I’d rate the actual gameplay somewhere around a 3 out of 5. It was fine, but not super special. It was the time period and the story that really hooked me. It also helped that it was pretty short. 10-15 hours or so. And that was enough. I was sated by the time it was done, and had no interest in replaying it or hunting Achievements.

This is the perfect kind of game to play on a subscription service (I played it via Playstation Plus Pass) or if you can get it for cheap as part of a bundle or something. Recommended as long as you like gangster stories.

July 2022

Hot enough for ya? July has been absolutely brutal in terms of the heat, not only here in North Carolina but seemingly everywhere in the northern hemisphere. Here at Dragonchasers HQ we’re all going a bit stir-crazy since it is so awful outside that we just sit indoors staring at the same walls, day in, day out. August isn’t looking much better in the long-range forecast, but in my mind I envision July 31st as existing at the bottom of a deep hot pit. May-July we’re heading down into the grossness, then come August 1st we’ve hit the bottom of that pit and are starting the slow climb back to temperatures that are comfortable (highs of 60-70F). We should get there by November.

Anyway, on to the recap!

Games

Deliver Us The Moon is part adventure, part puzzler, and part simulation. It’s fairly short, and I say that as a compliment because it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It also isn’t particularly hard. I suck at adventure games and only had to look up a hint once and that was really because I was tired and my brain was being lazy. Once I looked up what to do I realized I’d been looking at the ‘thing that can be manipulated’ without it sinking in that it was glowing as ‘things that can be manipulated’ do in this game. The story is both pretty implausible (you have to launch yourself in a rocket to the moon to fix a reactor that provides Earth with all its power) but also pretty entertaining. Definitely would recommend it if you haven’t played yet. You can easily finish it in a weekend. I played it on Playstation Pass (which is what I insist on calling Playstation Plus Extra- the tier that gives you a bunch of PS4 & PS5 games to play.)

Progress in Ni No Kuni 2 has slowed down. Now that I’m thinking about it, it has been a LONG time since I’ve stuck with an RPG for very long. They all start to feel so tedious since you wind up doing the same thing over and over for tens of hours. It’s really up to the narrative to pull you along, but generally these games have a 1-2 hour story stretched over 30 hours of game play. Same feels true here. It’s fun enough to play in short doses but I get bored after an hour and set it aside again.

Far Cry 6  completed and I wrote a post about that.

Middle Earth: Shadow Of War also warranted its own post. After writing that post I spent an evening having some success and making what felt like progress. I thought I’d turned a corner. Then the next evening I was back to rage-inducing frustration, to the point where the rest of the family literally left the room to get away from me. Haven’t booted it since. Not sure I will. When a game gets you frustrated to the point that your dog gets upset & worried, it’s time to set it aside.

No Man’s Sky got a new update. New updates always bring me back, but because I’m weird I always start a new game and tend to drift away before I get to whatever is in the new update. Same thing happening this time; started a new game, sort of played for a few days. Then everyone on Twitter was talking about doing the new Expedition so I started over AGAIN in an Expedition and am sort of playing. I really like No Man’s Sky but it always feels like a real time-sink. It’s a good ‘on vacation’ kind of game.

Stray — Short and sweet. Probably helps to be a cat fan. I thought it was OK, but I am not in the camp that sees it as a game of the year contender or anything like that. Playing it soon after Deliver Us the Moon was maybe a disservice since DUtM gave me my fill of wandering around doing puzzles with no combat. While the narrative and tone of the two games are very different, they still kind of scratched the same itch in my brain. You walk around, solve some puzzles, talk to some people.

Mafia: Definitive Edition is another game I downloaded thanks to Playstation Pass. I just started it a couple days ago but I’m finding it pretty engrossing. Weird thing is, I’ve hardly PLAYED the game; mostly it’s been cut scenes and driving around. Hopefully when I get to the real interactive parts I’ll continue to like that as much as I’m enjoying the narrative bits.

There’s more; quite a bit more. But just a lot of things that I’ve dipped into here and there and I don’t want to try everyone’s patience any more than I already have!

TV

Stranger Things (Netflix) surprised me by having only 2 more episodes to air in the ‘2nd half’ of the season, but they comprised 4 hours of show.  It was amazing. They have one more season of the series but I guess it won’t be out for a couple years. The characters will have to be in college by then!

The Dragon Prince (Netflix) is a YA Netflix anime show that I really enjoyed. It is kind of sweet, kind of light in a lot of ways. But it also explores some aspects of human behavior that we don’t often see. Watching characters you like drift towards becoming a villain without ever realizing they’re becoming a villain. Or exploring what it is like to be one of the family members of the villain. There’re three seasons with a 4th season coming out this fall, I believe, and I’m really looking forward to it. Would broadly recommend this series.

Lillyhammer was one of the first original Netflix shows. It’s about a mob boss who goes into protective custody in Lillehammer because he watched some of the Olympics when they took place there. He’s a complete fish out of water in Norway but soon returns to his old ways. It’s one of those shows  that I really WANT to like (mostly because Steven Van Zandt stars in it) but honestly, it’s just OK.

RFDS (PBS) stands for Royal Flying Doctor Service. This was basically a soap opera that aired on PBS Masterpiece. It takes place in Australia. Doctors have to do emergency calls via plane. Drama ensues. I like it since it was such a change from what I usually watch. Plus, y’know, lots of Aussie accents. Who (in NA) can resist that?

Ms Marvel (Disney+) was an absolute joy and a surprise. I never expected to love this show as much as I did. It was just (dare I say it?) MARVELous! Sadly I think we’ll have quite a wait for a second season and I’m not sure if they’ll be able to catch lightning in a bottle twice.

Strange New Worlds (Paramount+) was so so good. I’m sad it is over. If you watched Discovery or Picard and have written off ‘New Trek’ I urge you to give this a try. Strange New Worlds recaptures the spirit of the original seriess and Next Generation.

The Sea Beast is a movie on Netflix that you really need to watch. It’s about a world where wooden ships set sail to fight sea monsters. It’s both a great sea yarn and a sweet story about understanding, and it has one of the sassiest young characters I’ve seen in a while. She is, as the ship’s captain (voiced wonderfully by Jared Harris) says, “pure vinegar.”

We’ve finally gotten around to season 3 of For All Mankind (Apple TV) and so far the show still delivers. I was worried that it might slip as we got farther and farther from what actually happened (the whole show posits an alternate timeline where the USSR beat the US to the moon and the space race never slowed down) but so far, so good. Mind you, we haven’t finished the season yet.

Reading

All I’ve been reading this month are ancient Marvel Comics. I’m using this site (that someone shared with me in a comment last fall) and the Marvel Unlimited app on the iPad. The “Read it Online” links on the former open the comic in the app, making it easy to follow the order. These comics (we’re talking issues from the early 1960s) are honestly not great but I find them very amusing. If it isn’t a random alien causing problems it’s the commies! And it’s fun to see how some of the superheroes we know today started out. Thor was a regular guy with a magic cane that could transform him into his superhero self. The Hulk used a machine to transform between Bruce Banner and Hulk, and Hulk was acerbic but otherwise talks normally. Antman uses a gas to shrink and enlarge himself, and he gets to the scene of a crime by launching himself via catapult and telepathically ordering ants to form a big pile for him to land softly in.

The big names back then were the Fantastic Four, and the Human Torch seems to be the most popular character. He often appears in his own in spin off comics. In the first Iron Man, Tony Stark is captured by the commmies (it’s always “the commies” or “the reds” in these old books) while in Vietnam. The
origin story is fairly close to the scene in one of the Iron Man movies where he’s captured by terrorists in the Middle East. He’s supposed to be building them weapons but instead builds his armor. Only since this was the early 60s it all happens in Vietnam, and Stark is a wizard with transistors! (Remember transistors were cutting edge back then). Next hero to get his own book is Spiderman. He’d appeared as a 1-off in 1962, but in 1963 the first issue of Spiderman hit the newstands. This has been a really fun project, reading these stories and thinking about what the world was like then.

And that was July 2022. Kind of a ‘meh’ month all-in-all. Besides the heat, Lola was quite ill, work has been sucking the life out of me and there’s just not much fun stuff happening, aside from lots of great TV. But again, July is the worst month in a lot of ways. August should be better, and September better still. Right?

Revisiting Middle Earth: Shadow of War

This post started as a paragraph for the monthly recap but it kept growing and growing. Then I found myself with an unexpected pocket of free time. So here we go.

Middle Earth: Shadow Of War is a game I’ve been meaning to give another go for years. I absolutely loved Midde Earth: Shadow of Mordor and what’s better than more of a good thing, right?

So this month I finally decided to jump back into it. You can only have one save file so I deleted whatever progress I’d made whenever I’d previously played and started fresh. Initially I was delighted and really enjoyed Act 1 which plays pretty much like a typical open world RPG. You have a fairly linear main quest line, and lots of side activities. It was fun and I felt like I made pretty good progress.

Talion aims his bow at a pack of orcs
Stealth is easy when orcs are this oblivious

Then I hit Act 2 and everything changed. Now you have a smattering of quests but mostly it’s an open world for you to conquer.  That sounds great in theory but in practice I am finding it kind of exhausting. The star here is the Nemesis system where the game throws various Orc captains at you over and over and you develop a (mostly hateful) relationship with them.  As cool as system is, it can also be rather annoying (to me). There was one orc captain who did nothing but scream these incoherent screams. Just hearing him made me super irritated. I made a point of seeking him out and killing him so I’d never have to hear that scream again. And he came back (orcs frequently come back from the dead, visually mangled but generally higher level). I fought him again, but he retreated. Then a third time and I killed him…but he came back again. All this time I was just getting madder and madder because every time I encountered him he’d just SCREAM that incredibly annoying scream of his.

He FINALLY stayed dead (I hope…it’s been a long time since he popped up) but the damage was done and from then on every time an enemy would come back from the dead or betray me, I’d just mutter “fuck this game” to myself. Every time you encounter an orc captain the action pauses so the orc can say something (or scream incoherently). Originally I found these captain quips amusing but after a while they became grating — they really excel at breaking whatever combat rhythm you may have found.

So I was feeling frustrated, but it’s a Lord of the Rings game so I kept playing and hoping it would get fun again.

This went on for a couple weeks of on and off play before I just accepted that I spent more time annoyed with the game that I did enjoying the game. In addition to my grumpiness about the Nemesis system, if I had a nickel for every time I aimed for one orc only to have my highlight shift to a different orc at the last second, I could retire and spend the rest of my life writing grumpy blog posts. Then there are frustrations with trying to climb a building and instead rolling into it over and over while a dozen orcs beat on me (the same button is used for climbing and evading).  It finally got to the point where I just rage-quit (after an orc captain magically didn’t die when I beat him one too many times) and uninstalled.

It was such a relief to have this game out of my life.

The next night, I re-installed it and started playing again. And it was JUST as frustrating and I cursed just as often. I should add that I don’t normally get mad when playing a game. I’m not one to fling a controller or anything; they’re just games, why let them get under your skin? Shadow of War definitely gets under my skin and I can’t even understand why I’m still playing it.

I’m not even sure I’m making any progress. Whenever you die, enemy orcs tend to level up. In particular the orc that kills you will gain a level or two, but often some others will as well. (Orcs are always going on missions and things, separate from anything you are doing, and when you die time advances and they complete these missions and earn levels.) So while I am gaining levels slowly, so are the orcs and certainly nothing is feeling any easier.

I feel like I’m missing something but I’m not sure what it is. But I also feel compelled to keep playing, and I’m not sure WHY that is!

I guess I’ll report back if I figure anything out!

An example of the army management interface
The Orc army as it stands today. My spies are ready!

Blaugust Announcement Post

There’s a very very tiny small slim chance you don’t already know, but Blaugust 2022 is coming. Blaugust being the annual festival of Blogging In August. You can learn all the details over at Belghast’s blog. He is who runs the program. I hope he doesn’t get pissed that I stole his header image.

I did it last year and it was pretty fun to do I guess, but my circumstances were very different last year. My workload was pretty light (little did I know it was because I was about to be demoted) and my head was in a decent place.

This year it takes all my willpower every day to lever myself out of bed each morning and work is a constant steaming pile of stress and anger.  It’s taken me 3 days to find a point where I have both the time and the energy in the same moment to write this short post.

So no Blaugust for me, but good luck to everyone who decides to participate!

Finished Far Cry 6

Last night I finally finished the main story in Far Cry 6. Never have I felt more confused about my reaction to a game. I would not recommend it, and can’t say I really enjoyed playing it. But I just felt compelled to keep going and I’m not sure why. At one point I decided I was done, uninstalled it and hours later reinstalled it and kept playing.

I think I was just craving that Far Cry mayhem that happens when one of these games is firing on all cylinders. It’s a little bit like GTA or Saints Row games, right? The AI is either broken or crazy and has both vehicles and weapons to create chaos with. Sometimes you don’t even have to initiate any of this: you can just watch. I’ve played through Far Cry 4, Far Cry Primal, Far Cry 5 and Far Cry New Dawn. I really enjoyed the first 3, but New Dawn was just OK. I guess I was hoping for more of that Far Cry magic.

So what went wrong? Broken down into 2 broad categories, both the story/tone and the gameplay had issues for me.

Story & Tone

This game just doesn’t know what it wants to be. The main story is grim & tragic. You are part of a group that is trying to overthrow an oppressive regime. You constantly hear tales of atrocities. Then you get a mission where you have to follow a psychotic rooster around as it takes over enemy bases. It’s like one person wrote a serious script then someone else came along and smeared the ‘wacky Far Cry’ stuff over the top. The villains in Far Cry are always evil but often in a mustache-twirling kind of way that feels very “Saturday matinee adventure story” evil. You hate them but they’re so out-there that they don’t feel real. Far Cry’s regime feels “pulled from today’s headlines” evil and that makes it harder for me to just laugh it off. I don’t mind serious stories in games; but this whiplash between serious story and ridiculous quests just turned me off.

Then there were the characters. I am not sure if these freedom fighters are all that much better than the evil overlord, and that was maybe the point but again, it’s a Far Cry game. I don’t want to think that hard about it, y’know? I didn’t like most of the characters, including the character I played as. Some of this may be age related as most of the characters are young and they act like the stupid kids they are (and that most of us, including me, once were!) Like after a victory your character drinks until they pass out and wake up in a ditch or something. Is that supposed to be ‘cool’ behavior or is the game telling us our character has serious problems? I’m not sure. When they aren’t drinking they’re listening to music that just was not my style, and music plays a pretty big part in one section of the game (a group is using their music to try to draw people to the cause). I found myself skipping a lot of the dialog because I just couldn’t deal with listening to these characters trying desperately to be hip or edgy or something. Characters are always saying things like “I like my dogs like I like my wars: violent and with a lot of humping.” (Not even sure what that means.) Or talking about how they peed a little or have erections or whatever.

There’s also a cock-fighting mini-game. If that isn’t in bad taste, I don’t know what is. I’ll grant you that the actual mini-game has you play as the rooster in a Street Fighter kind of way (which felt better than just watching roosters kill each other), but let’s not glamourize this kind of thing, OK Ubisoft?

Gameplay

OK in the interest of brevity I’ll move on. My biggest issue with the actual gameplay was the progression system. As you do quests and things, you level up. What does leveling up do? As far as I can tell, nothing. It is supposed to unlock better gear from vendors. I didn’t notice this happening but then I’m not sure I ever felt the need to buy gear. When you level up you get a message that enemy troops have gotten stronger. If they did, it was pretty subtle.

There are no skills in Far Cry 6, no stats on your character. So why level? I have no idea.

Gear initially appears to have levels but these are actually tiers of quality, from 1 to 4 stars. The difference between a 1 star rifle and a 4 star rifle is in the number of mods you can apply to it. Mods are crafted and do things like add scopes, suppressors and such, and maybe traits like faster reloads. There’s nothing wrong with this system once you understand how it all works, but the fact that your character levels up just led me to believe that a 4 star weapon would do more damage than a 1 star weapon, and that isn’t necessarily the case.

There are lots of side-activities that I completely ignored. Hunting, fishing, cooking… I cooked food once. Eating gives you a buff, but again the effect was so subtle I didn’t notice it. There’re races to take part in. Never did those so not sure what they do. Lots of side quest stuff, most of which I wound up ignoring because I had no interest in helping out these characters I hated. There’re materials all over the world to harvest, and you can use these to upgrade your bases with new functionality. That was interesting enough but it takes very little time to get everything fully upgraded. I was probably done with that while still in the first third of the game.

In the end, by mid-game I’d chosen about 5 weapons I liked and I just used them until the credits rolled. It’s not that there’s anything really wrong with that, but you know me, I like my progression systems so not getting cool new gear regularly was a little disappointing. Oh, and I almost forgot there is a gear system. I mostly forgot about it while playing the game, too. So maybe this pair of sneakers makes you quieter, while that pair of sneakers makes you faster. I sound like a broken record, but the differences seemed pretty subtle. In theory you can don gear that, for example, buffs your fire resistance if you’re going to be fighting enemies that attack with fire. But virtually every fight pits you against groups of enemies that do soft-target, armored-target, explosive AND fire damage so it only makes sense to generalize your defense, then forget about it for the rest of the game. This led me, in the game with its tragic story, to wear a crocodile head helmet through most of the game (see screenshot at the top of the post). Thankfully you can hide your helm.

OK at this point I’m boring myself so I’ll end this. I wrote an earlier post if you want to read even more of my ranting about this game. At that point I hadn’t yet figured out that the leveling system was pointless.

I guess I’m glad I finished it, but I won’t be buying the next Far Cry game at launch. I’ll wait for reviews and/or a sale. To me Far Cry peaked at Far Cry 5. New Dawn was kind of odd and now Far Cry 6 has drifted further from the old formula. We’ll see if they turn things around for the next game.