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Archive for October, 2012

Ninja Blues: Castle Crashers ep. 1.2

New half-episode! The opening frame montage thing still isn’t working properly. I tried adding a filler frame before Jarenth’s, on the hopes that it just cuts out the first frame, but it cut out both.

So the monsters kidnap a bunch of helpless princesses, the dudes come kill the monsters, and then kill each other over who ‘gets’ the princess. And then she kisses the winner.

Surely I don’t need to point out what is sexist about this.

You can defend it by saying, “Oh, well, it’s an homage to classic tropes! It’s the hero rescuing the lady, etc.!” or “Well this game shouldn’t be taken seriously, it’s just trying to be silly and funny!” And maybe I’d buy either of those defenses if we weren’t seeing the same trope(s) everywhere else. That’s the thing about games with sexist tropes: They don’t exist in a vacuum. They offer sexist concepts to their audiences. Of course Castle Crashers alone won’t convince me or anyone else to be sexist and think of women as objects for us men to obtain; it’s the fact that so many stories that we consume carry that same message.

Am I saying Castle Crashers is bad because of this? No. I’m saying we should be wary of these tropes and the effect they have on our community.

Anyway, sorry for being That Guy. Here’s Jarenth’s post about the episode.

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Ninja Blues: Castle Crashers ep. 1.1

Jarenth and I are doing a new Let’s Play! And it’s not of a laughably terrible game this time.

Also, we came up with a name for our show other than Jarenth and JPH Play. Clever, right?! It was Jarenth’s idea, I think.

You may have seen Jarenth mention this on his site awhile ago. Yes, I’ve had this episode on my hard drive for awhile. It took me so long to upload it because my connection is fairly slow. Also,  for some reason Youtube appears to have almost entirely chopped off the opening slide that shows Jarenth’s avatar along with a line of text saying “A mild-mannered glowing eyes man…”

I’m not sure how, or why, this happened. The video on my hard drive doesn’t have this problem, so it’s probably Youtube’s fault. Whatever. Also, sorry about the echo of my voice. I think that’s Jarenth’s headset being stupid.

Anyway, now I can explain what I was saying at around the 4:20 mark: Castle Crashers seems to be a casual beat-em-up for nerd parties, but it comes with a lot of elements we associate with RPGs: Weapon collection, leveling, character unlocking, stat building, etc. It seems strange to me. This seems like the sort of game you’d play through maybe once with some friends, but it looks like they designed it with the intention of you playing it over and over again with the same friends so all of you can unlock and try out all the different weapons and characters.

And one issue with character unlocking is that every character starts at level 1, which means that if you decide to try a different character, you have to start out at level 1 again, and if your friends are sticking to the same characters, then they’re getting ahead of you.

I’m not saying these are bad things to put in a game like this; it just seems strange.

Jarenth’s post about the episode can be found here.


Mark of the Ninja

Guys, I think I’ve found my soulmate.

She’s beautiful, she’s thoughtful, she’s well-rounded, she’s smart, she’s lively, and she understands me. She’s so perfect for me.

Her name is Mark of the Ninja.

Mark of the Ninja is the latest game by Klei, a dev team previously known for Shank. Shank was a 2D beat-em-up that took influence from hack-and-slashers like God of War and Devil May Cry. It was all about stringing together combos of light, medium and heavy attacks to beat down varieties of enemies. I liked it quite a bit, mostly because of the visceral feel. The combat flowed remarkably well, and it carried a great sense of kinesthetic immersion; it made you feel like you were really brawling, even though all you were actually doing was pressing buttons and waggling a joystick. It’s one of the few games I can think of that made me feel feral when playing it.

Mark of the Ninja, on the other hand, is a stealth game where you play as a ninja and prowl in the shadows, sneaking past security and assassinating targets. The devs have said in interviews that their motivation early on was to make a ninja game that actually required you to act like an archetypal ninja, rather than almost all other ninja games that basically just consist of beating up armies of baddies.

And let me just say that they succeeded with flying colors. This isn’t just a stealth game; it might be the best stealth game I’ve ever played.

The game runs on a platforming engine, but there isn’t a whole lot of precision platforming involved. The gameplay is mostly about precision timing. I’ve said in the past that at its core a stealth game should feel like a puzzle game, and I stand by that thesis, because that’s exactly what this feels like. Each encounter with guards requires you to analyze the situation and choose your own method of overcoming it.

You have a number of tools at your disposal, and more become available throughout the game — you can shoot bamboo darts to break lights or distract guards, you can throw noisemaker arrows, you can drop spike traps on the floor, you can hurl smoke bombs, and so on. Pacifism is always an option, as is meticulously stabbing each and every guard until the only living creature within three miles is you.

Each level tends to have its own gimmicks that affect the gameplay without forcing you to relearn everything from the ground up. A few levels take place outdoors in a thunderstorm, so every time lightning strikes, the entire area is lit up and enemies can see you for just a moment. There’s one level that takes place in a sandstorm, so you can’t see past a certain distance. A few levels are littered with deadly traps. None of these are jarring like the vehicle sections in your typical shooter; you’re still playing the same game, but the changes force you to look at situations differently.

The levels are big and sprawling, and reward diligent and careful exploration. Each one has three optional challenges and three hidden scrolls; finding the scrolls and completing the challenges gives you points to unlock more tools you can swap out. None of the tools are particularly overpowered or game-breaking, but they add more variety and can help give you an edge in the later levels.

There’s a common tendency for otherwise good stealth games to force in out-of-place combat sequences, usually toward the endgame. (Thief: The Dark Project, Metal Gear Solid and Deus Ex: Human Revolution are all guilty of this.) It’s generally done to ramp up the tension. It’s the kiss of death for stealth games. At best it’s jarring, since we’ve spent the whole game learning to be sneaky and suddenly can’t use the skills we’ve acquired up to this point; at worst it’s dreadful, because the engine is designed for stealth and not combat.

Amazingly, Mark of the Ninja never does this. I kept expecting to run into a boss battle or a bunch of gun-less guards and have to punch them out, but that moment never came. And I’ll tell you why it never happened: because the folks at Klei are smart. They knew exactly what they wanted to achieve with this game and how to achieve it. The game ramps up tension not by throwing you into a boxing match, but by introducing more threatening guards that are more difficult to sneak by or defeat, and by setting up more complex situations where you’ll have to use strategy in order to get by without being spotted.

Completing the game isn’t extremely difficult, but there’s a New Game + mode that introduces additional challenges. And you can always challenge yourself to, say, complete all the levels without killing anyone. Or without using any items. Or without breaking any lights. The list goes on.

This game has a wonderful checkpoint system. The checkpoints are plentiful and you’re rarely expected to repeat long encounters you’ve already completed. And crucially, if you screw up, you can instantly revert back to the last checkpoint without an unnecessary “You Are Dead!” screen or even a loading screen. It hits that wonderful Super Meat Boy sweet spot where each failed attempt leads straight to the next one, so the game can be challenging while rarely being frustrating.

Before I played Mark of the Ninja, I saw that the Destructoid review said this:

“I find Mark of the Ninja to be perfect. Let it stand as the benchmark by which all stealth games are now measured.”

My initial reaction was, “Oh, come on. That’s got to be hyperbole.” But now that I’ve finished it, I think Destructoid is onto something. I’m still a firm believer in the notion that No Game Is Perfect, but this game is the closest to perfect that I’ve seen in a long time.

Before I leave, I’d like to give a big thank-you to Varewulf for gifting me this game. And also a big thank-you to developer Klei for making it. You two gave me the opportunity to feel like a ninja, and I can’t thank you enough for that.


Guild Wars 2: Gravelings Broke My Pants

I recently reached level 80 in Guild Wars 2. This marks the first time I’ve ever reached the level cap in an MMO. For the most part, it’s a very finely crafted game that can appeal to many different people. There’s exploration, fast-paced and aesthetically appealing combat, structured PvP, unstructured PvP, piles of interesting lore, and the whole world is beautiful and lovingly stylized. If you play with a few friends, it’s an absolute blast. It can even be a lot of fun if you’re playing as a loner. It’s highly accommodating.

And then there are the dungeons.

This is me hiding under my associate’s robe, in case you were confused.

Ascalonian Catacombs, or AC as it is now known by historians, is the first dungeon in the game. Bear in mind that the rest of the game works very differently from the dungeons. One of the major selling points of Guild Wars 2 is that the quests and events involve fighting alongside other players without actually having to communicate with them. Anybody who deals any meaningful amount of damage to a monster gains experience for its death, and anybody who contributes to an event’s completion in any way gains rewards afterward. It’s a great way to streamline MMO questing and preserve game flow while also making you feel like you’re contributing to something bigger than yourself.

The dungeons, by contrast, are instanced and encourage (i.e. require) you to join or form a party of five before entering. These are the only places in the game that actually emphasize collaboration between players. (Excluding PvP, but fuck PvP.) This means that Ascalonian Catacombs is the first time the player is expected to actually collaborate with other players.

So, exactly as you would expect, the dungeon is gruelingly difficult to the point of frustration and tedium.

Wait, what?

Us staring hopelessly at the battleground where we will die.

Each dungeon has two modes: Story mode and Explorable mode. I’m not sure if ArenaNet understands what the words “story” and “explorable” mean, because Explorable mode doesn’t have any more exploration than Story mode, or any less story. The way it actually works is that you’re supposed to do story mode first; Explorable mode is a more difficult version of the dungeon that continues the story after Story mode. What they should really be called is Part 1 and Part 2, or perhaps Hard Mode and Fuck You Player.

On our first attempt at story mode, we Total Party Wiped on the second room. The room consists of at least three dudes that each have powerful abilities and massive health bars, and there are several traps that can kill you in one or two hits. Any reasonable game designer can tell you that that’s horrible pacing. Difficulty is a complex thing and it’s hard to get it exactly right, but as a basic rule of thumb, you generally want to introduce one extremely lethal game mechanic at a time. Don’t combine these two elements until we’re acquainted with both.

Tell me this isn’t the dumbest looking ghost you’ve ever seen. This asshole is the boss.

The boss encounters are generally exercises in watching for hard-to-spot attacks that kill everyone in the room if you don’t dodge at the right time. Both the final boss of Story mode and one of the mid-dungeon bosses in Explorable mode have an attack that instantly pulls everyone toward him, and then deals a big AoE attack that is absolutely guaranteed to kill you. You can dodge it if you press the dodge button right as he’s telegraphing it, but his telegraph can be hard to spot. Oh, and since this is an online game, input lag is always, always going to be a thing.

And by the way, that’s a problem in general with the combat, not just with those individual bosses. The dodge ability is something every player has, and it’s essentially about a second (or even less than a second) long move that makes you dodge all attacks while in effect. This is one of many examples of the game trying to make itself feel like an action game. And it works, for the most part, unless you’re lagging ever-so-slightly and you just happened to be dodging a split-second before the attack, even though you can clearly see you were dodging when the attack happened.

Don’t get me wrong; as an action fan I’m glad to see an MMO courting action game elements. But when it demands that we use these abilities at just the right time when input lag is hiding in the shadows, it’s a recipe for frustration.

Oh, and then there’s the gravelings.

Can you tell what’s going on? Me neither.

There’s an event in explorable mode that my guildies and I just could not get past. Gravelings are these annoying black lizard things that jump out from big burrows and nibble at your shins. They come in armies, and this event involved breaking down multiple burrows at once, while fighting off the little pricks, and while defending two energy crystals. If the crystals break, the monsters disappear and you have to try again from the beginning.

We tried the event dozens of times. We tried different tactics, we tried forming together at certain intervals, splitting up, turtling, aggressively attacking burrows, basically anything we could fathom. Nothing worked. One of us switched characters to see if the party setup was the problem. We even tried consulting online guides. Nothing worked!

The icing on the cake is that when you die — and you will die — your armor becomes damaged. Armor costs money to repair, and it only becomes damaged from death. What this means is that the game is going out of its way to punish us for failing at its absurd challenges. Why? I’m already being punished by having to start the stupid event over; why do you have to append more punishment on top of that?! If you expect me to try over and over to complete your dungeon, then fair enough, but don’t break my pants and take my money and expect me not to rage quit!

Shamus didn’t feel like going and repairing his armor during the dungeon. I guess he likes feeling the breeze.

I really hate to say this, but playing through the Ascalonian Catacombs gives me the same feeling that fighting the boss fights in Deus Ex: Human Revolution did. They both feel extremely out-of-place with regard to their respective games, and for all the worst reasons. Guild Wars 2 is otherwise a very gentle, accommodating, accessible and inviting game. This dungeon, on the other hand, is overly punitive and aggressively difficult, and it makes no effort to convey its mechanics gradually. It makes me wonder if ArenaNet outsourced it, because that would explain a lot.

I really, really hope they fix these balance and pacing issues in a patch. It’s simply not fair, and it stands out in an otherwise great game.