Wednesday, November 20, 2013

#67: To Heavy Rain and Beyond: David Cage's Problems

(Spoiler Alert for Beyond: Two Souls. I wanted to keep this post spoiler-free. However, as I was typing it I realized that my points are stronger in the presence of clear examples from the game.)

As those of you who follow me on Twitter know, I purchased and played through Beyond: Two Souls: Starring Ellen Page and Willam Dafoe, developed by David Cage and Quantic Dream, when it came out a while back. Despite the similarities between Beyond and Quantic Dream's previous opus, Heavy Rain, Beyond has been much more negatively received than its predecessor. On Metacritic, for example, Two Souls received a 71 on Metacritic, whereas Heavy Rain received an 87. That is a grand total of a 16 point difference between the games, which is fairly significant. What is it about Beyond that makes people dislike it so much more? This week, I propose a possible answer.

One of the biggest reasons I feel that Beyond received a more lukewarm reception was that, unlike Heavy Rain, came out amongst stiff competition in the space of the “interactive fiction” genre. At the time of Heavy Rain's release, Quantic Dream was the only company who made games of that type. Aside from Heavy Rain, the only notable “interactive fiction” game was Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit, also developed by the same company. Fast forward to the time of Beyond: Two Soul's release, and this is now no longer the case. Now, there are quite a few competitors in this space. Chief among them is Telltale Games, famous for both the spectacular release of The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. To The Moon is another great example, developed by Firebird Games in the indie space. Though these games lack the budget of the works of Quantic Dream, they command very strong followings in their own right.
Fans of the genre previously had only one place to go to get their fix. As a direct result, they were less likely to criticize games from David Cage. Since there are more points of comparison for “interactive fiction” than there were even 5 years ago, we see more of the flaws in games of that genre than we used to. Cage no longer has the defense of being the only developer in the field. He needs to do much more to impress audiences. Beyond really does not do much to move the goal post at all. In fact, it is much worse in many respects. Therefore, it is natural to expect it to have a lower score than its predecessors.

Another reason that Beyond might not have been as well received as well as other Quantic Dream games is that the control scheme is a much more ambiguous than in those games. Presumably in order to to avoid the common criticism that David Cage's games are nothing more than a series of Quick Time Events, the systems used during action sequences have been revised. Instead of displaying the button prompts on screen, the game uses a new mechanic. All action sequences are handled using the right analog stick. When the action goes into slow-motion, players are supposed to move the stick in the same direction Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes is whatever action she is performing in. The problem with this is twofold. First, many movements can be ambiguous with regards to which direction they are going towards. Since the game expects players to perform them with relative haste, this leads to unnecessary failures. The other issue is that the game has an annoying tendency to have action sequences in dimly or poorly lit areas.
As a result, it is often hard to see exactly what Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes is doing, let alone which direction she is doing it in. Compared to the discreet button prompts present in Heavy Rain, Beyond makes it much more difficult to correctly input the proper commands. As an example, there is a scene that takes place “early on” in the game (I'll explain later) where Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes is on the run from the CIA. She is on a train and seen by police officers, creating a chase scene. When she makes it off the train, she has to jump over and/or duck under tree branches as she is running into a forest in order to avoid capture. As Ellen Page approaches a branch, the game slows-down, indicating that it is time to move the right stick. Unfortunately, it is very hard to make out if Ellen Page is ducking or preparing to jump in the darkness of the night. This gives players a 50/50 chance of guessing whether to move the right stick up or down. It results in confusion, irritation, and anger on the player's part, which are not the emotions David Cage wants to instill in audiences.

The final problem that Beyond: Two Souls had was its completely disjointed narrative. For the unaware, the game's story is not told in chronological order. Instead, the game flashes forward and backward in time. One moment, players can be playing as child Jodie. Then, the very next scene can involve Jodie as a homeless, young adult. This happens up until the last 2-3 scenes, where the finale suddenly presents itself in a linear fashion. The effect is that otherwise tense or dramatic scenes are undermined by either a lack of narrative context or knowledge of what occurs in scenes that chronologically take place later on.
A case of the first can be easily demonstrated by a sequence of two scenes from the middle of the game. In the first scene, Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes is drafted into the CIA by high-level government officials, thanks to her powers. The man who takes her is extremely cold and unfeeling towards her, and she leaves in tears. The very next scene has her in an apartment, preparing for a date with the very same man, which she has apparently fallen in love with. It is up to the player to prepare food, get washed and dressed, and clean up the apartment in time for the date. All the while, the player has no idea what happened in the time between these two scenes to so radically change the relationship between Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes and CIA Jerkwad. While it is plausible that they have grown close in the time between, the relationship feels like a hallow one without the prerequisite context. Any emotional connections the scene could invoke is undermined by that.
However, the reverse of this phenomenon is also true. Sometimes, knowledge of what goes on in Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes's future undermines all the tension a given scene has in the present. For example, one scene in the game involves Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes escaping a burning building, rescuing her fellow homeless friends along the way. There are a few different ways this scene can play out, but all of them end with her on the ground, unconscious and possibly bleeding out. In most works of fiction, this would be a tense moment where we do not know if the protagonist survives. However, Beyond: Two Souls has the problem where players know that Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes survives because they just finished playing scene which chronologically takes place after the current one. Since we know Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes is alive in a future scene, she cannot die in the scene the player is watching, making the tense buildup utterly pointless. Ultimately, the story's structure undermines the vast majority of it in very similar ways.

On some level, I respect David Cage and Quantic Dream. Those guys are doing something truly unique in the video game industry. Few developers do make games like the ones he makes. However, in light of what we see from other developers and obvious flaws in his own design, Cage is not good enough to justify all the copious resources and talent put his games. His largest problem seems to be that no one is willing to tell him when his scripts need work. Though he clearly subscribes to auteur theory, he is not skilled enough of a writer to be a auteur. Maybe in future projects, Cage will find an editor to improve the overall product. However, I wonder in Quantic Dream might start to crack after another few releases. It will be interesting to watch either way.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 32: DisclosureCast

Not much of note happens in this episode. We couldn't stop at Episode 31 because the cutscenes kept playing and there wasn't a good save point. Even when the cutscenes were over, we just kept talking and the result is that we ended up with enough material for an entire episode.

This is actually a very interesting conversation with Mina. I feel the need to point out that if Mina liked us at the end of the game, that she'd come in person to have this chat. (That would also be the point at which you can have sex with her to get XP and level up.) We'd also have the choice of asking her to find a safehouse to hide if we didn't want her to go back to Alpha Protocol. Since she hates our guts, this conversation is played over the monitor and Mina stays there regardless.
You can also use this point to uncover that Mina is the one who cut you loose, like we did here. If you fail to get enough dossier entries and connect the dots, then it becomes a bit of a loose thread. Although, by this point I don't think a detail like that matters. By now, Thorton has enough of an interest in stopping Halbech that Saudi Arabia is a passing concern.

In another nod to how old this recording is, we were discussing the revelations with Edward Snowden at the time. It had just hit the news and was a major topic. Without delving too much into politics, government spying and overreach have been massive topics for the past decade or so. As a result, it makes sense for a modern day spy game to have some commentary on the matter. This just happened to be an interesting thought in light of what was going on at the time.

"We might be able to finish this by the time I start class next month." In retrospect, that comment is one of the funniest things I said in this block of episodes. Such optimism. Such blind, stupid optimism.

So yeah, spoilers. We plan to do the finale without a guest. Sorry about that, but it's thematically appropriate!

I'm not going to comment much on the conversation we had with Shamus. Honestly, I think it stands for itself without requiring further input in text form. All I'll say is that it was a delight to bring Shamus on for the recording. In another season, sometime before Half-Life 3 comes out, he'll be willing to join us again sometime. For now, you may be interested in his other musings about Alpha Protocol: here and here.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 31: Revenge of the Trolled

What follows is perhaps the saddest thing I've been a part of since that time when we went months without producing a single video.

Let the record show that I DID tell Aldowyn to "Pick Suave, and then pick Suave again." #AldowynIsDumb

I think both this scene and the Surkov escort mission are the only two point in the entire game where your actions can lead to game over (aside from the normal HP=0). I kind of wish they'd just make you live with the consequences of failing of save Madison or stop the bombs. However, I know that would cause tons of problems in and of itself. I'm sure Obsidian had this very same debate when creating this scenario and I'd love to have been a fly on the wall for it.

I want to make it clear that I've only shot Madison on accident once in the 3-4 times I made this choice.

To elaborate on the trick to killing Marburg easily: You need to have Shadow Operative and Chain Shot. Use Shadow Operative and then use Chain Shot while you are invisible and land all your shots on Marburg. If you do it right, Marburg will be completely still until he takes another dose of damage. It's actually pretty pathetic.

With regards to an "RPG where 'Attack' is always an option in dialog." I believe in our talks after recording the episode, we fleshed out that idea a bit more. It could be a check of your weapon skill versus the skill of the NPC. If you have a higher skill, then you win and kill them. Else, you fail and suffer the consequences. I wonder if any of you RPG fans have any thoughts on that?

Finally, considering that Deng came up in discussion and the author himself was featured in the episode, this post would be incomplete without linking Shamus's Stolen Pixels comic regarding that boss fight.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 30: Chain-Letter Terrorism

In this episode, we muse about the nature of life, shock traps, and tea. Also, some chick gets shot.

The e-mail in this game really is a missed opportunity. Since the game doesn't really allow for Thorton to really keep up casual conversation with a lot of his contacts, this could have easily been a way to build up (or maintain/reduce) Thorton's rapport with somebody well after you've completed the hub they were featured in. It also would've given them a chance to flesh out the world a bit more through newsletters, spam, and the like. (Yes, I know that Thorton's e-mail is top secret and encrypted, but Rule of Funny allows it.) It's a shame, really.

I actually really like the mission in the warehouse. It's a short section that establishes a few facts that become relevant in light of things we learn in other missions. Stealth and combat are both viable options, and some light hacking is involved as well. Anaphysik is correct, though, that it would make more sense as an introductory mission than one in the second half of Rome.

It is interesting to note that had Spoiler Warning actually started an Alpha Protocol season, we would never have started Disclosure Alert. The whole premise of this show is that "Spoiler Warning won't do Alpha Protocol, so we have do it ourselves." If they do decide to do AP in the future, I'd be curious to see how their commentary lines up with ours.

The "shallow way" that Shamus was playing games back then is exactly how I've been playing games lately. My Twitter is afoul with many many games I quit in the middle when I got bored of them.

I love how, in a matter of a one minute side conversation, we completely tear apart the very notion behind Rome's storyline. It is very much in the line of Bond villainy seen in many spy movies. Part of me wonders if that's the point. The other half wonders if I'm giving the game too much credit. With Alpha Protocol, it's sometimes hard to distinguish between what was intended and what was a quick rewrite. This is one of those times.

Really, once we get out of the broom closet, the plot to Rome doesn't make sense. Still, I can't help but adore it for being over-the-top Hollywood-style. As I keep saying in these posts, AP feels like a homage to spy movies of all sorts. This is a Bond-style plot, so it fits. Moscow and Taipei are also ripped straight from spy movies. I want to say this is intentional, but truthfully I don't know for sure.

True story, an alternate title for this episode was "Michael Thorton Comes Out of the (Broom) Closet."

Also, here's a clip of the "Shock Trap" scene we were talking about in this episode (Skip to 3:06):

Monday, November 11, 2013

Disclosure Alert: Alpha Protocol: Episode 29: The Spy-Themed Beard Simulator

At long last, Disclosure Alert has FINALLY returned. For those of you who haven't been following the saga on Twitter, Aldowyn meant to have this out to you guys months ago, but forgot to bring his desktop computer to college with him. This was a problem because that was the only computer capable of editing everything.

So, we no longer have to keep you from that week's special guest. Shamus Young, contributor to The Escapist and owner of Twenty Sided is here this week. As memory serves, this was a very fun recording session.

Wow. It's been so long ago that Tom Braider jokes were still relevant. (For those who don't get the joke, watch the Tomb Raider season of Spoiler Warning.) I wish I could say that I felt bad for making Shamus feel old, but I honestly don't.

That glitch where Al-Samad gets a reputation ding is an interesting insight into how the game originally was supposed to work. I wish I could peer into the original designs of this game. It's fairly common knowledge that this game was a victim of publishing meddling on Sega's part, which explains so many of its problems.

Shamus is right, this game is heavily designed around Pistols, to the point where it's actively worse if you specialize in any other weapon. Chain Shot is just such a strong skill that it makes every other skill look worse. Plus, you can shoot behind cover.

When we made jokes about how long it would take for these episodes to come out, we did not intend for those to be literal. I imagine Aldowyn felt really bad editing these.

I really dislike "ambush" style missions in general, but this one is particularly bad. This whole "protect the trace" thing is clearly an excuse to force you to mow down tons of mooks. Especially since in other missions, Mina seems perfectly capable of bugging and tracing things discretely, like when bugging the G22 base in Taipei.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

#66: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Retrospective: The Two Thrones of Compromise

(Spoiler Alert for the entire Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time trilogy)
And so we have reached the end of this little series. The Two Thrones, released in 2005, had a major problem from the get go. While most fans of the franchise vastly preferred The Sands of Time, there was enough of a positive reception to some aspects of The Warrior Within that its fans also needed to be catered to. This new game needed to walk a fine line between calling back to what fans enjoyed about the first game while taking in the improvements and knowledge gained from work on The Warrior Within, a challenging prospect to be sure. The end result was a carefully balanced compromise that works surprisingly well, more than making up for its lackluster predecessor.

The Prince himself is one of the biggest symbols of this compromise that the Two Thrones embodies. Yuri Lowenthal reprised his role as the titular Prince, with a harder edge than in the Sands of Time. This is the Prince people knew from the Sands of Time, as he still uses his old regal speech pattern and rarely resorts to simply uttering curse words. He also has a fair degree of snark, self-awareness, and snide confidence. However, experience has made him a colder and harsher individual than he used to be. This is a man who is significantly less likely to go out of his way to assist others unless he has made some form of vow to them in the past. However, gradually as the story progresses, he learns the error of his ways and slowly, but surely, returns to who he used to be, going so far as to literally combat his darker self, appropriately referred to as the Dark Prince. It is as if the game is performing a sort of meta-commentary on how the Warrior Within's take on the character was so reviled compared to the Sand of Time's take, which I found to be truly fascinating.

The other thing that the story did right was bringing back the premise of being a retelling a story that has already played out. However, instead of the Prince himself telling the story to the player, who is revealed to be Farah, the sidekick from the same game (due to the Prince's complete rewind of time, she has no memory of the events that transpired). Rather, the story is told by Kaileena, the Empress of Time from The Warrior Within. Though this does give the game all the advantages that it gave the Sands of Time, it does not make as much sense. The Prince never dies in the series and is known to be a bit of a braggart, so it makes sense that he would be the one to tell the story even before the reveal that Farah is the audience. In The Two Thrones, Kaileena dies very early on in the game, so it is weird to have her tell anyone a story. Even though she is brought back to life by the end, she leaves to go to a different world so that the Sands of Time cannot be abused again, making it implausible that she is telling the tale to anyone. Though I appreciate the return to form, I wish that the conceit of a retelling of the story, like it was in the first game, was more plausible in the game's narrative context.

One last criticism that I would make towards the plot to the Two Thrones is that is it completely necessary to know the plot of the previous games in order to fully understand what is going on before playing. This is something that even The Warrior Within did better. One of the early cutscenes in the The Warrior Within took a few minutes at the most to explain why the Prince was on his quest and what happened not just in the Sands of Time, but in the time between the two games. The Two Thrones explains some of what happened purely through the implications of what characters say, but without any outside knowledge I am fairly sure it would be hard to follow. There is no attempt to summarize or explain what happened in the previous two games to catch new players up. I weep for the poor fools who went into the game with no prior experience with the trilogy.

The underlying compromise between the Sands of Time and the Warrior Within also extended to the gameplay in a number of ways, the biggest of which is the combat. Combat in the Two Thrones is taken wholesale from the Warrior Within, taking the systems of that game and refining them a bit more. However, the game included a very interesting addition not present in either of the other two games. In the Two Thrones, it was possible to sneak up to an enemy and silently dispatch them without them ever noticing you. Though it is technically a stealth system, in reality it is a method for allowing players to bypass combat sections by utilizing their platforming skills to keep out of sight of enemy groups, picking them off one by one. This accomplished several things. One, it forced enemy encounters to be in small groups of 3-4 enemies to avoid making any one section of the game last too long. Two, it gave fans who enjoyed platforming more than combat a way to either avoid the combat or make it a little bit easier by removing a few enemies from the equation.

The platforming also got an few notable additions. The most visceral of these was the springboard. While wall-running, the Prince will occasionally end up on a springboard, which he can use to leap off of in order to change direction and land in otherwise inaccessible places. The Prince is also now able to brace himself in narrow wall spaces, allowing to climb up and down them. Lastly, the prince is now capable of sticking his weapon into groves in the wall, keeping himself from falling. Like most of the returning platforming features, all of these additions also have stealth kills associated with them, allowing players to ambush enemies from many different positions. Including all of these new methods of transportation made the platforming feel much more interesting than it did before.

The game also ditched the open-world elements of the Warrior Within, opting to return to the linearity of the Sands of Time. This prevents the repetition that was present in the previous entry. Also, it allowed the developers to better focus and improve upon each area rather than worry about how a given area connects to the world at large. Linearity is not a bad thing, especially in the context of a platformer. Furthermore, since the Two Thrones had the same 6 sand tank limit that the Warrior Within had, there was still a lessened amount of wiggle room for players. However, the improved level layout and camera positioning made it so that the game was rarely impacted by it.

The big gimmick included in the Two Thrones is the Dark Prince. Due to the Vizier from the first game releasing the Sands of Time, the Prince became corrupted by the sands. Fortunately, he was able to grasp the Dagger of Time quickly enough that he did not completely succumb. Unfortunately, he was left partially corrupted, giving him a new, dark persona that manifests itself as both a voice in his head and a new, occasionally emerging corrupted form. Counter to what one would initially suspect, this is not some form that the Prince needs to gather rage to enter and gain a temporary boost to combat ability in. Rather, the Dark Prince will manifest itself at certain points in the story. Once the Dark Prince emerges, the Prince can only return to his normal form once he enters a body of water at the end of the segment.

While at first this seems like an odd choice for a super-powered dark side, it works in the context of the game. The Dark Prince has his own completely different move-set and gameplay style, separate from the Prince, and since the game has discreet sections of the story where he manifests, levels that include him are allowed to cater to his strengths. The biggest change that occurs in the Dark Prince's gameplay sections is that his health gradually drops as time goes on, which is lethal if left unchecked. However, he recovers full health if he defeats an enemy or acquires a portion of the Sands of Time. In that way, players have to work quickly in order to make sure that they get to their next fix of enemies or sand before they die. Although this could be a recipe for disaster, the Dark Prince levels space out enemies and sand just well enough so that getting to them can be a challenge, but hardly impossible.

The other thing that only the Dark Prince has is a chain attached to his left arm. Thanks to that chain, the Dark Prince does not have access to other secondary weapons like he normally would. However, the chain in and of itself more than makes up for it. Having a weapon with good range really changes combat by given players much more options on how to take down enemies. Furthermore, the chain is also useful when platforming. When making leaps across wide gaps, the Dark Prince can use the chain to latch onto hanging structure and gain enough extra distance to make it to the other side. This can also be done while wall-running to keep up momentum and stay on the wall for longer periods of time. It is only one small addition, but it does change the way players think about the area when going through platforming sections.

The Two Thrones had a lot to accomplish, bridging together its two radically different predecessor. Overall, it succeeded in that respect. I do not know if I would call it superior to the Sands of Time, but it is at least comparable in my opinion. Someone could make a case for it being the best in the franchise and I would be open to hearing it. There is a lot to like about the grand finale to the Sands of Time trilogy. It represents the combined lessons from the first and second games. If you guys out there were like I used to be, and avoided the trilogy for whatever reason, I would recommend that you play the Sands of Time, watch someone else play the Warrior Within, and then play the Two Thrones. If you enjoy platforms with light combat elements, you will enjoy this series.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

#65: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Retrospective: The Blunder Within

Last week, I began a series of retrospectives on the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy. Starting with the original Sands of Time, I mostly praised the game for the many, many things it did correctly, including its gameplay, narrative, and setting. However, despite the great reception of the game, all good things must one day come to an end. Of course, I am referring to the direct sequel to the game, Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within. Released in 2004 as the second game in a soon to be trilogy, The Warrior Within had a lot to live up to. Sadly, it failed to do so it many, painful ways. For very good reason, this second entry in the trilogy has been labeled a black sheep by fans. Allow me to elaborate.

The very first thing that people noticed about The Warrior Within was that the Prince had undergone a severe personality shift somewhere between the two games. In the previous entry, our protagonist was a bit of a snark, but otherwise went out of his way to help those in need when he had the chance. His demeanor added a degree of levity to the preceding, helping to maintain the original game's fairly light tone. In its sequel, this was flatly not the case. Though he was technically the same Prince players knew from The Sands of Time, he acted in a completely different manner. As an example, one of the earliest lines in the game has our dear Prince calling a female lieutenant of an unknown enemy a “Bitch.” Now, to our modern AAA sensibilities, that is hardly a blip on the radar, since “Bitch” is such a common word that it feels tame. However, the Prince and a much more regal speech pattern in the Sands of Time, so this new personality was simply jarring, and the new personality permeates the entire game. Ubisoft even went so far as to get a new voice actor, Robin Atkin Downes to replace Yuri Lowenthal, who had voiced the Prince in the previous game, to sell fans on the new Prince.
If I am being honest, though. That was only a symptom of a greater problem. Overall, the Warrior Within tried to go in a much darker direction than the Sands of Time. The level design and graphics look noticeably bleaker than the much more vibrant locales of the original game. The original game's bright yellow sands, blue waters, and green grass have been replaced by dark caves, dark ruins, dark towers, and dark green gardens. Even the relative cartoon-like graphics of the original game were replaced with a more “gritty, realistic, mature” style (about 4-5 years too early, guys). This was so bad that the earliest female enemy was wearing nothing but a leather bikini with gauntlets and iron leggings in an obvious case of pandering. While Farah's outfit in Sands of Time was a little skimpy, it fit with the setting and her origins as a princess from India. This dominatrix leather outfit looked completely ridiculous, like the game was trying too hard to be mature.
Even the plot suffered from this new tone. To avoid spoiling the game for those who have not yet played it and for some reason still intend to, I will paint in broad strokes. With that said, after the time-bending antics of the Sands of Time, the prince is being chased by a Guardian of Time, called the “Dahaka”, because he was supposed to die in the “true” timeline. In order to save his own skin, the Prince embarks on a quest to the Island of Time with the purpose of going back in time to stop the creation on the Sands of Time. This will resolve the temporal paradox because he could never have fiddled with time had the Sands of Time never been created... or something. This element of the plot does not bother me too much because to some degree all time-travel plots have an element of “Just go with it”, being innately vulnerable to plot holes or logical inconsistencies. What bothered me was how the plot took all the light-hardheartedness and humor of the first game and replaced it with grim-dark upon grim-dark, since the Prince does little else but brood over his likely demise and complain to others about how unfair his circumstances are. I suppose that on some level, I can applaud the designers for daring to do something comparatively different. However, this was a bit of a slap in the face for series fans.

Not everything the Warrior Within changed was for the worse. Some of the things they tweaked were actually genuine improvements. The most notable of these improvements was with the game's combat system, fitting for a game called “The Warrior Within.” Now, the Prince has the ability to pick up secondary weapons for use in his off-hand. Though these weapons will break after enough use, the new combat system allowed players to very their attacks and perform different combos with them. In addition, secondary weapons can be thrown at enemies, permanently discarding them, but adding extra attack options to deal with ranged foes. Though I enjoyed the combat of the Sands of Time, even I must admit that this was an improvement. The combat has gone from a fairly hack and slash fest to a more visceral experience that skilled players can excel at.
Furthermore, even in the original game, ranged enemies could be difficult because melee combat was really the only option in a fight, meaning players had to either wait for enemies to come to them or find a way to close the distance. My biggest criticism of the Sands of Time was also answered, because enemies in The Warrior Within rarely exceeded 4-5 enemies, although there were points where they slipped into old habits. And yet again my praise is tempered with a handful of other issues. For example, while the game rarely threw large waves of enemies at the player, foes often had a large amount of health. I was no longer tired by the overabundance of weak enemies. Now, I was tired by the overabundance of health each individual enemy had and the sheer amount of damage they would soak up before they died. The series had gone from one extreme to the other, and neither one of them were exactly pleasant.

Other changes to the gameplay were made as well, aside from the combat. The most notable of these changes was the semi-open world of the game. In the previous game, the layout of the world was decidedly linear. Players would enter an area where they would then solve a puzzle, undergo a platforming segment, or fight a group of enemies. This would unlock a save point and the entrance to the next location and so on. The beginning of The Warrior Within follows this for a while. Then, the Island of Time opens up a little. Players are able to, with some restrictions, explore the island almost completely. Through sand portals, it is also possible to travel between the past and present versions of the island. This allowed the game to give players multiple objectives that they could tackle in any order in certain points in the story.
While this was an interesting little experiment with game design in a platformer, ultimately it had a number of problems associated with it. For one, it resulted in a major design oversight such that it a certain area of the game was not arranged in a specific fashion before it is revisited in the story, it would literally be impossible to finish the game. Another problem is that due to the similarities between past and present areas and the need to go back to previously explored areas, the Warrior Within feels like it is wasting the player's by literally forcing them to repeat already completed areas two, maybe even three or more times in the story in nearly the exactly same way.
Hardware limitations also stifled this pseudo open-world concept. As a special guest for nidoking042's Let's Play of the game, one of the developers stated that the original intent was to give players a series of shortcuts that unlocked once they completed an area in order to return to the central section of the Island of Time, similar to the way Skyrim always gave player's a secret exit at the end of a dungeon. However, the hardware of the PS2, Gamecube, and original Xbox were unable to load quickly enough to make this possible. As a result, when a player clears an area, they need to go back through it in order to make their way to the central hub which connects all the areas in the game. Speaking from experience, this added needless frustration to the game.
By comparison, other changes to gameplay are minor. For one, the amount of the Sands of Time players will be able to store is much more limiting than it was in the original. Though both games started the player off with three tanks of sand, the Warrior Within gives only an additional three through progression of the story, as opposed to the gradual upgrading via absorption of sand clouds in the original. Furthermore, the tanks are used to both fuel time rewind and the other sand powers obtained throughout the game. Unlike the previous game, where the tanks for rewinding time and for using powers were separate resources. While on the subject of sands, the Prince no longer has to absorb sand from enemies to finish them off, as he no longer possesses the Dagger of Time. Instead, sand is semi-randomly obtained through breaking objects and defeating sand creatures. These factors combined give the player a significantly smaller margin of error for making mistakes in the game. With less sand, players (myself included) would see the game over screen much more frequently.

In the end, this is easily the worst game in the Sands of Time trilogy. Fans of The Warrior Within do exist, but they are vastly outnumbered by the group who preferred the original game over it. As for myself, I ragequit the game when I realized how tired I was growing of constantly fighting enemies and dying while backtracking in platforming sections. I only know about what happens in the game thanks to nidoking042's Let's Play. This game was an experiment as to how to improve the Prince of Persia franchise, and for the most part a failed one. Even Ubisoft's developers realized that by the time development of the final game in the trilogy began. As loathe as I am to admit it, the Warrior Within is likely an important stepping stone to the grand finale of the Sands of Time trilogy as without it, Ubisoft would not have learned the lessons that they did. But we will talk about that in greater detail next time.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

#64: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Retrospective: Where it All Began

(This article is spoiler-free, for those of you who, like myself until recently, have yet to play a game from 10 years ago.)
As a child gamer, I was told of the greatness of the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy. Despite the praise, I had never played the games because I had somehow convinced myself (with reasons that I can no longer recall) that I would hate them. Last summer, the HD collection of the franchise went on sale on the PlayStation Network for about $7.50. Even then, I was not terribly interested in the trilogy. However, this time I was much more open to the opinions of others. Hearing recommendations from a few people and considering how cheap the collection was, I decided to finally throw caution to the wind and take the plunge for myself. Now that I have played all three games in the trilogy, I strongly believe that they serve as an interesting case study in game design from the PlayStation 2 era. Because of this, I will be running a series of articles discussing each game in the franchise, along with its positives and negatives. There is no better place to start than with the game that started it all, so without further ado:

The Sands of Time trilogy began, fittingly enough, with the 2003 release of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. This game served as a reboot of the Prince of Persia brand name, since the original incarnations did not do terribly well in their day. Rather than shy away from its roots in difficult platforming, the game opted to embrace this tradition at the core of its design, setting the tone for the gameplay of the franchise henceforth. Death defying jumps, wall running, and various other feats of acrobatics and athleticism were par for the course. Fans of the platforming genre would be immensely satisfied by this element of the Sands of Time. However, the developers knew that they needed to do more than that.
Given that this was in the PlayStation 2 era, consumers were just beginning to shy away from the unforgiving style of older games. The mechanics of the game had to be updated in order to avoid the pain of constant failure states. This is likely what inspired the most well known mechanic from the trilogy: the ability to rewind time. In the beginning of the game, the titular Prince acquires an artifact called the Dagger of Time, which allows its user to absorb the Sands of Time into it and use them to manipulate time. With this weapon, players could rewind time up to 10 seconds into the past, allowing them to recover from receiving large amounts of damage in short periods of time and/or dying from a fall during a platforming section. In this way, players could recover from failure states, if only a finite number of times, and try sections again without getting a game over. Though this does not completely prevent the frustration caused by failing a difficult and long platforming section, it lessens the pain by giving players multiple chances to get passed troublesome obstacles with having to redo entire segments of play.
Another aspect of the game the seems geared toward limiting frustrations are the visions that the Prince receives throughout the game. Scattered throughout the game world are plumes of the Sands of Time that the Prince can step into. These plumes have two purposes. The first purpose is to provide save points for the player. The second is to give visions to the Prince. Visions give both the player and the Prince previews of future events, displaying a rough picture of what to do in order to complete the next section leading to the next save point. This removes part of the trial and error commonly associated with platformers of this type, especially when coupled with the ability to rewind time. As a result, the challenge of the game is preserved while stifling the unforgiving nature of constant game overs.

However, these elements cannot simply exist in a vacuum. Like any somewhat modern game, there needs to be a solid story to tie these elements together into a cohesive whole. Though I cannot be sure as to what the thought processes were behind the development of the game, I suspect the Ubisoft created the story to the Sands of Time in very much the same way that Naughty Dog created the story for the Uncharted franchise, which is the same way many industry veterans have done it. They created a set of mechanics and level designs, then wrote the story around them. Unlike many other stories generated in this fashion, it was very well received by those who played the game and stood out in its own right, for a number of reasons.
One of the smartest moves that the game made regarding the story was to present the entire narrative as a tale told by the Prince to somebody else after events have already unfolded. This alone serves multiple purposes. First, it allows the Prince to explain details of the plot that needed to be elaborated on, but the developers lacked either the time or resources to delve into. Like any good storyteller, the Prince is willing to fill in details and lampshade otherwise absurd notions in the story through his narration. Second, this gives an in-game justification for all of the countless deaths a given player will receive in a playthrough of the game. Although the game does a lot to keep players from reaching such a state, it is still possible, and quite likely, that players will achieve a game over at some point. When this happens, the Prince says something along the lines of “Wait. That's not right. I didn't die. Let me start again.” and the game gives the player the option to retry the section they died on. Instead of doing what most games do and making death something that never truly happens, The Sands of Time acknowledges the fact that it can happen and framed the story in a way that allowed it to account for player death.
Another intelligent choice made by the writers of the game is to only have a small cast of three major characters with only one or two minor characters. The Prince, his captured princess turned unlikely partner Farah, who players meet and befriend fairly early in the game, and the evil vizier are the only real characters who drive the plot. This allows the plot to be basic enough that any form of level or gameplay design can fit around it. Rather than complex politic intrigue and reputations with large factions, The Sands of Time chooses to focus on interactions between these characters and how their relationships and opinions of each other evolve throughout the course of the game. Instead of a global, world-spanning story, it is a personal one that, except for the prologue, takes place entirely with the Sultan's Palace. The way Farah and the Prince grow to respect one another is interesting, especially since they both have a snarky attitude that makes it nearly impossible for them to just come out and admit that they respect one another. Like the time reversal mechanics mentioned earlier, this lack of characters would grow to become a recurring element in the trilogy.
Lastly, the narrative is bolstered by a strong Arabian theme that is present throughout the entire game. Areas in the Sultan's Palace seemed ripped straight out of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. From the castle terrace to the caged gardens, and even the top of the Vizier's Tower all look distinctive in their own right while retaining a continuity of theme and setting. Another notable way that the Sands of Time establishes the Arabian theme is through the game's very impressive soundtrack. While many tracks utilize an electric guitar to an extent, they weave together Indian and Arabian instruments and sounds, resulting in a musical score than further immerses players into the story. Further selling the setting is the fact that the Prince can only regain health by drinking out of bodies of water. There are even special magical bodies of water players can stumble onto throughout the game that will increase the Prince's maximum health. In the desert, having a steady supply of water is very important. Making water a resource that players will need to seek out in order to keep themselves alive is a nice subtle touch that adds a layer of plausibility to the world. Together with the titular Sands of Time, these small, seemingly minor details form the gestalt of a believable Arabian setting.

However, despite the vast amounts of praise I can levy towards the game, there are a couple of problems. The biggest issue I have with the Sands of Time is its combat. The way combat works is that in certain areas of the game, Sand Creatures, humans and animals possessed by the Sands of Time, will spawn and strike out at The Prince. The easiest way to defeat these enemies is to attack them until they are downed, at which point The Prince can use the Dagger of Time to extract the Sands of Time from them and add those Sands to Dagger's supply of sand. Players can attack enemies with their scimitar in order to inflict damage, but they also have access to the usual arsenal of blocks, counters, and dodges. Since the Prince is an acrobat at heart, he is able to dodge over most enemies and strike at their blind sides. Furthermore, the Dagger of Time is given more uses than simple extraction and time reversal, which can be used to recover from battles that are not going in the player's favor. Other time powers that utilize the Sands include a freeze attack that leaves the afflicted foe open to an instant kill 2-hit combo and a move called Mega Freeze that drastically increases the speed and power of the Prince, allowing him to dispatch numerous foes in a short time.
Despite common criticism, I do not have a complaint with the combat system itself. In fact, I think it works. Enemies are not “bullet-spongy” and can be downed in a few combos (at the same time, so can players if not careful) and the system is enjoyable enough to make these sequences entertaining. The problem I had with the combat is the sheer amount of it that was thrown at players at any given time. While the system itself is fairly solid, anything can become a problem in excess. One of the first things I noticed when fighting Sand Creatures is that the moment I had finished dispatching of two or three enemies, another group had spawned in almost immediately. This would continue on until I was defeating at least 20 and possibly even 30 enemies in the same area in the exact same fight. Often times I was getting tired of fighting at around half that number of foes. The nature of the game's lethal play makes combat seem like it goes on for far longer than it actually does, giving off the feeling that combat is padding out the game. Although this seems like a minor issue, over time it makes an otherwise interesting combat system grow dull and repetitive very quickly.

The other issue is, by comparison, not as big of a deal. Towards the beginning and the end of the game, The Prince does not possess the Dagger of Time. As a result, the time reversal mechanic is not available to the player during these sections. This is an issue that is not particularly noticeable towards the start of the game. Since the game assumes that a given player has either no knowledge or limited knowledge of the game mechanics, the platforming in that section of the game is fairly easy to pull off. However, towards the end of the game, the game no longer has these expectations. In fact, some of the platforming segments towards the ends are some of the hardest in the game. When cut off from the time reversal mechanics that made failure states less of an issue, an otherwise simple platforming section becomes needlessly frustrating. While it is an interesting narrative and thematic choice to strip the Prince of his time bending powers in the climax of the game, the gameplay itself suffers as a result.

Overall, the Sands of Time was a fantastic game released during the PlayStation 2's lifespan. There are many, myself included, who would go so far as to call it the best game in the trilogy, if not the Prince of Persia series. So many things, both big and small, were done correctly in this game that the things it and its sequels did wrong strongly stand out simply by comparison. Going forward, all Ubisoft really had to do is refine the template laid out here and continue providing excellent platforming in an Arabian-inspired setting, with some slight refinements to the combat. Unfortunately, that is not what happened. As we will see in the next article, the sequel decided to go in another direction. A very annoying and stupid direction. Until then, see you next time!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

#63: CRPGs: Why are They Always so Terrible to Start?

Much of my time this summer has been spent playing games from a bygone era. Because I have only recently started gaming on the PC a few years ago, there is a whole backlog of games, both old and new, that demand my attention. Of those older games on my backlog, I have mostly been playing some of the classic RPGs (cRPGs) from the late 90s and early 2000s. These titles include games such as Baldur's Gate and it's sequel, Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, Planescape: Torment, and Neverwinter Nights. All of these games used the Dungeons and Dragons license to create what were essentially virtual DnD campaigns, even using the same rules and systems. As a result of all the hours I have poured into them, these types of games have been occupying my mind and most of my thoughts lately. Although each of these games had their own way of utilizing old school RPG concepts, they mostly seem to have glaring flaws in one particular area: the beginning.

In almost every one of these games, the beginning is easily one of the worst aspects of it by far. This runs counter to what one might consider to be the logical way to design a video game. After all, the introduction to the game, including story and mechanics, is the point where the designer has the responsibility to hook the player and keep their attention. If the start of the game does little to generate interest and convince players to stick with it, than it has failed at its job. In my opinion, there are a number of contributing factors that led to this phenomenon. This week, I will discuss why I believe this happens and possible ways to help mitigate the problem, now that the genre is seeing a bit of a resurgence in the realm of Kickstarter.

One of the biggest reasons that the introductions to cRPGs can have problematic introductions is that often many of the most crucial choices a player will make in the game are done at the very beginning, before the player is even introduced to any aspects of gameplay. The Baldur's Gate series is a pretty good example of this. In both games, when the player selects “New Game”, they are immediately bombarded by a list of options. First, the gender of the protagonist character needs to be selected, followed by their race. After that, the player chooses which of the playable classes the protagonist will be (and if they wish to utilize any of the class kits made available). Next, the karmic alignment of the character is chosen among the axis of Law/Chaos and Good/Evil. It is then that the main character's statistics, include Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma need to be allocated from a static, finite pool of points. The same must also be done for weapon proficiencies (and Thief skills if that is the protagonist's chosen profession). Finally, the player is left with cosmetic choices like appearance and name.
As one can easily discern, that is quite the list of choices that need to be made. This alone can prove to be a daunting task for new players, but it is worsened by the fact that there is no real context with which to make those choices in beyond a typical DnD adventure. The player has no idea what kind of obstacles they will be facing along the way, which playstyle will suit them best, nor the amount/variety of situations they will be thrown into. At the very best, they can make an educated guess based on their own personality and possibly the track record of the company who developed the game. The player does not even know anything about the plot when making these decisions. Worst still, once they have been made, there is no going back and no way of correcting any mistakes aside from starting anew. If the player decides about 3-4 hours in that their character is no longer working for them for whatever reason, there is no way to mitigate the damage done and try to change tactics. (There is an exception if they are playing as a human, giving them the option to Dual-Class. However, since both games have a hard experience cap, this too may cause problems if not done early enough.)
However, not all cRPGs have this issue, despite its prevalence. Another, very well-loved game from this genre, Planescape: Torment, had a pretty interesting way of skirting around this issue. The only real significant choice players needed to make at the beginning of Planescape was which statistics to put points. Even that decision was partially made for the player, since no stat could be lower than 9 for the protagonist. Most other characteristics of the player character were either preselected or were emergently generated as a result of play. The player character of the game was a human male that had immortality, but no name and no memory of who he used to be. “The Nameless One”, as he was called by the game's text, starts out as True Neutral-alignment Fighter class. This can change depending on what actions he takes over the course of the game and whether or not he chooses to undertake training as a Mage or a Thief. As long as there is someone willing to train The Nameless One, he can always undergo a class change if his current profession no longer suits the current situation. Even if the player learns that he/she did not allocate his stat points favorably later on, leveling up to high enough levels of any class will grant them more stat points to allocate, so even then there are ways to “fix” any perceived damage done. All these elements combined give players the ability to react to the game and adapt to challenges as they progress as opposed to working around challenges based on what their party is capable of doing at the time.

Another very common problem I noticed in the introductory sequences to classic RPGs is that oftentimes the initial encounters are fairly difficult. Often, I found myself encountering enemies that I could not have been reasonably expected to defeat at the start of the game, even on the easiest difficulty setting. One example of this comes again from the Baldur's Gate franchise, although this time from the first game. I have a very distinct memory of the start of that game. After leaving the first town of Candlekeep and officially beginning the story, I explored the starting area of the game, just the very first zone. As with many games I play, I wanted to do as much as I can in a given area as possible before moving on. While looking around and making sure I did everything and talked to everyone, I encountered a brown bear. Thinking that this was the first zone, and therefore the designers could not possibly think to throw a challenge at me that a starting character could not be expected to overcome, I used my Thief skills to Hide in Shadows and go for the Backstab Critical. Despite landing a successful attack and dealing damage, the bear turned around and hit me, killing me in a single blow.
This was not the only such experience I had playing these types of games. In the first chapter of Neverwinter Nights, shortly after the prelude, players are task with locating four creatures important to the story scattered across the city of Neverwinter. I decided to check out the Prison District because that was my first lead. There, I defeated quite a few random thugs through Sneak Attacks and liberal use of ranged weaponry on my way. While exploring the area looking for clues as to where to go next, I was attacked by a Thug Leader and died when he landed a successful Sneak Attack. When reloading and successfully fending him off, at the cost of quite a few healing potions, I pressed on into the Prison District's sewer system. Shortly upon entry, I was felled by another Gang Leader and three of his henchmen. It took the use of console commands to boost my character's level a few times in order to defeat this foe. Only ten minutes later, I needed to utilize the console again in order to fight a Sorcerer whose spells kept defeating me in a single deadly blow.
This is a pretty simple problem with a pretty simple solution. All it requires is a better balance of enemies encountered throughout the adventure and a more clear communication of where tougher enemies are located. Although there is no way to be absolutely sure where players will go in these kinds of games, designers do have a general sense of what most players will do and in what order it is done. This can be used to better balance the encounters and provide a steady progression of more and more difficult opponents. Furthermore, since game designers know how much experience players can be typically expected to gain over the course of a given segment (through play testing and tuning the number of enemies and their positions), it is possible, though still admittedly difficult, to use that information to better tune the level and types of encounters throughout the game.
Though not exactly a classic RPG, and highly contentious among its audience, this is something that I found that Fallout: New Vegas did very well. At the start of New Vegas, players are explicitly directed to take the South path around to the town of Primm. However, the player is allowed to head north through Sloan if they choose. Should they do so, they will be warned that it is smarter to turn around and go the other way because deathclaws patrol the area. This clearly communicates to the player that the enemies they will encounter are well over their current abilities. With this information in hand, most will make the decision to go back and take the South path, which has weaker enemies that are designed for low-level players to fight. Some will undoubtedly go and fight the deathclaws anyway, but the intent and direction of the design has been made very clear. There is little in terms of ambiguity. As a result, the game has a steady progression such that players will rarely face a challenge that is too tough for their level unless they are deliberately making the choice to give themselves a tough challenge.

I am overall very pleasantly surprised by the coming resurgence of this particular genre of games. Though I have only recently begun to play them for myself, I find that there is a lot designers and players can do with it. However, I hope that the designers of this new wave of cRPGs learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. While many were of very high quality, they were far from perfect. There is clearly lots of room for improvement. The introduction is of particular importance to get right. Without a strong intro, players can find themselves quitting a game before it realizes its full potential. I hope that my advise will not fall on deaf ears.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

“What a Terrible Accident” Let's Play Dishonored: Part 16: The Finale

The journey must have only taken an hour or two at the most. It's still clearly midday by the time we arrive, but it feels like ages. Hell, these passed few days must have shaved years off my life with all the stresses they've put me through. But at long last, our trials have nearly come to a close. All I need to do now is to save Emily from what remains of the so-called “Loyalist” conspiracy. Havelock, Martin, and Pendleton will likely need to be dealt with in some capacity if I want to succeed, but that's no reason to suddenly start to get sloppy. I've mostly kept it clean so far, and it's best to keep that tradition going.

As Samuel explains to me, there's a very good reason Havelock chose this place to be his stronghold in the event of emergencies. There are only two ways to get into the courtyard leading to the lighthouse proper. Each of these entrances is guarded not only by city watchmen on patrol, but also by their own Walls of Light. Once I get passed that, there's only one route to the lighthouse, meaning that I'll be funneled into taking a single path, likely crawling with guards. Though the place takes the guise of a lighthouse, it would be more accurate to call it a fortress. A normal man would probably never get in. Unfortunately for Havelock, I am not a normal man even without the magic given to me by the Outsider. As long as I'm careful, I can do this. Before I hop on to the docks, Samuel wishes me the best of luck, saying that it was a pleasure to work with me. Hopefully, once this is all over, we can sit down for a drink and just talk like friends. Unfortunately, he needs to speed off and go into hiding so that I have an escape route.

With that said, I start getting to work right away. There are some old supply crates right next to the drop-off point containing some plague elixirs, so I snatch a few up in case I need them later. Then, I notice a vantage point atop a set of stairs that I can use plan my strategy for infiltrating the citadel. I see a guard tower just before me. Lucky for me, I'm just out of its range so I don't have to worry about being caught. I can just barely get good look at the two entrances from here. That's when I get an idea of how to improve my view. With a running start I leap into the air and teleport to the very top of the watch tower. Once I remove the whale oil tank powering it, I have a much better sight of the exterior. There a certainly enough guards to be a decent fight, but I honestly expected quite a few more on each entrance. It's almost like they don't expect heavy resistance, which is odd since the conspirators must know I'm coming for them. Maybe they're just certain that I won't be able to bypass the Walls of Light.

There's where the real challenge will come from. I see them both pretty clearly and I won't be able to just walk passed them... not in my own body. There's an idea. Jumping once again, I use my powers to Blink behind a barrier. The guards must not have seen anything, because their demeanor hasn't changed in the slightest. From there, I sneak around using the supply crates littered about as cover, moving passed a large storm drain, using my powers of Possession to invade the mind one of the rats skulking about. Once I've assumed direct control of its form, I use this vessel to crawl through the small vents and right around the Wall of Light. Exiting the rat and returning control of its facilities, I see another barrier in my path, this time one of metal. Unlike the Wall of Light preceding it, this one can be simply climbed over. I'm up the wall and into the fortress proper well before any of the guards have time to spot me.

That's when I see another patrolman about to turn around and face me, so I Blink behind a large pillar before he has the chance. Now I see where all the patrols went. The courtyard has guards in abundance. If I got into a scrap, I could be here for hours and still not dispatch all of them. My only chance is to sneak into the lighthouse unseen. That's when I see the guard who almost spotted me going to relieve himself behind another stack of crates. From my position, I can also clearly view the Wall of Light guarding the only entrance to the lighthouse, itself protected by an Overseer with one of those power-jamming music boxes, so I come up with an idea on the spot. With a wave of my hand, I break through the pissing watchman's mental defense and jump into his mind. Properly asserting my dominance, I walk in his form towards the Wall of Light. The Musical Overseer on patrol must have noticed that something was off, because he seems concerned the his friend looked a little sick. He doesn't press the issue though, and I am able to stroll on through without a saying a word. Heading up the stairs and out of sight, I leave this body and continue my advance upwards, consuming one of Piero's potions to sooth my aching head.

In front of me, I see a guard at a desk. The next set of stairs crosses his line of sight, so I would normally be barred from making further advances without taking care of him. However, I'm much stronger now than I was at the start of this whole ordeal. Focusing my mind, I use my powers over the continuum to freeze space-time. Rather than use it to only get passed a single guard, I make a split second decision to make a mad dash to the top. I just barely make, and time resumes just as I return to a prone position, drinking another one of Piero's elixirs to quell my pounding head again. These powers are incredibly useful, but perhaps there are consequences to abusing them the way I am.

In this next area, I see that there is a set of rafters housing a few guards and an Arc Pylon. The direct route would be suicide due to the pylon, let alone the patrols. That's when I see that there's a little wiggle room under the rafters. They must have that crawlspace under there for maintenance. Well, no one's fixing anything today, so I might as well use it for my own purposes. After all, it's only a Blink away. When I reach the other side, I see that there's nothing more than a ramp separating me from the elevator to the top of the lighthouse. I'd never make it without alerting the guards, so I stop time and begin another race against the clock. I reach the elevator door, but when I try to open it I find that it's locked. Shit! I need to think quickly. Okay, there has to be a guard around here with the key. Searching behind the elevator, I see a guard with a key in his pocket. I snatch it up, open the door, and close it just as time resumes. Pulling the lever, I activate the elevator and breath a sigh of relief. Even if they did notice me, there's nothing they can do now.
I arrive near the top of the lighthouse, only a stone's throw away from the grand finale. I deftly tiptoe around the guards on my way to the top, feeling my moves becoming bolder and bolder. Just as I was about to be seen, I take possession of a guard and use him to bypass the remaining patrols. The top of the lighthouse can be more accurately described as a penthouse suite. This place is very lavishly decorated, with a winding staircase surrounding the golden statue of our former Lord Regent. As I scale the staircase, I hear, to my surprise, only a single voice. Havelock appears to be ranting on and on to himself. I didn't see hide nor hair of Martin or Pendleton during my ascension, so I expected that they'd be here with him as well. When I reach the top, just outside of the room, rather than go through the main entrance to what looks like a dining hall, I opt to scale a bookcase to observe the situation from the rafters.

That's when the grizzly sight unfolds before my very eyes. It appears that I did not ingest all of the poison Havelock had up his sleeve. I see Martin and Pendleton dead in their respective seats, each of them clutching a glass in their hands. From the looks of it, they've been dead for a while. Rigor Mortis has started to set in. I suppose in a way, that's a fitting end for a group of chronic backstabbers. Havelock continues to rant out loud, apparently to himself. I don't know what's going on in his head, but he's clearly gone off the deep end. All he keeps saying is that it's Martin's fault, then Pendleton's, then mine. Then, he goes on about how all the moves he's made have made sense. The paranoia inherent to someone who's spent most of their time conspiring has clearly done what years at war with other nations could not, broken him down a sniveling child. I almost feel sympathy for the poor fool... almost. Unlike Daud, this man is only sorry that his little house of cards has come crashing down. He must know that I'm at the very least on the island. And he must also know that his days are numbered. If I don't kill take Havelock's life, then the people of Dunwall sure as hell will.

Once I've seen enough. I decide to end it myself. I'd rather let him live to face proper judgment, but ultimately he's going to get in the way of my rescue efforts, so he has to die. I'm not an idiot though. I know that if I go down to fight him, that he may very well defeat me at the last possible second. Instead of chancing a direct confrontation, I summon two swarms of rats to devour his flesh. It's for the best. Farewell, Admiral Havelock. May you enjoy your stay in hell. Taking the key off his desk, I hear another voice, that of my little girl. It's actually kinda cute listening to her trying to intimidate Havelock into releasing her. She'll make a fine Empress. Once she calms down, I open the door and rescue her. Together, we make our way back to the docks where Samuel is waiting to come out of hiding. Since the future Empress is with me, the guards know better than to impede our progress, and the return trip is a smooth as can be.

And so ends my contribution to the myths and legends of Dunwall. In the years since, I've faded into the background, returning to my duties as Royal Protector. With Sokolov and Piero working together, a cure to the plague ravaging the city is developed faster than any of us thought possible. A new era of prosperity is ushered in with the rise of the next Empress, Emily Kaldwin “the Wise”, as she would come to be known. I cling to life for a long while, keeping my daughter as safe as I can. The task is easier than one might think since so few would even attempt to cross me. I live out the rest of my days in relative peace and happiness. However, like all other mortals, my life will one day fade. When that happens, I think I'll go out with a smile.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

“What a Terrible Accident” Let's Play Dishonored: Part 15: The Loyalists

As I advance through the Old Port District, I realize that the fastest route to the Hound Pits is to go through the Old Dunwall Sewer. I'm getting close. I can feel it. It's only a matter of time before Emily is safe from those backstabbers. On my way to the sewers, I see a Bone Charm in a nearby building and nab it before returning to the main path. Weaving around a few weepers I encounter on the way, I find myself at the closest sewage disposal shaft. The valve was a little rusted, but with a bit of elbow grease I managed to work out the kinks and open the shaft, sneaking in before the trap door closed above me. When I enter the sewer, I scavenge a few bullets for the Overseer pistol in my possession from what looks to have been a guard post of some sort. Passed it is an old, unlocked gate, so I open it and head through to my objective.

That's when I find, to my surprise, a small settlement of what appear to be either plague victims or refugees from Dunwall's poorer areas. My heart goes out to these folks. Even in these tough times, they're doing the best they can. I notice a few River Krusts acting up on my way over to them, so I dispatch a few using the pistol rounds I gathered earlier. While exploring the “village” of sorts, I found a Rune among a number of crates filled with various supplies, including food, water, and medicine. In their hands, it's bound to elicit feelings of paranoia and shatter the group dynamic, so I secret it away while no one is looking. With no other place to go, and no reason to stay, I head to the other side of this shantytown and continue towards the Hound Pits.

That's when I see another batch of River Krusts. The moment I get close, they begin to pellet me with their spray. Rather the fight them head on, since I no longer have any ammo to do so, I teleport onto a pipe overhead to avoid their fire. While a few pellets did end up hitting me here, it isn't so bad that a drink of Sokolov's plague elixir couldn't dull the pain and heal my injuries. I notice a Rune Charm in the corner of my eye, hidden behind the grotesque forms of plant life, but they would surely do me in before I got to it. It's much safer to proceed as normal than to take the undue risk. Once I'm in the clear, I see a literal light at the end of the tunnel. Emerging from the sewers, the back door to Cecelia's secret apartment is right there in plain view, completely unlocked. That's the closest thing I'll get to a written invitation these days, so I enter and find myself in the backyard of the bar I've been staying at for what seems like months, despite only being a few days.

Inside, I find Cecelia pulling a metal barricade down. When she sees me, she jumps. After observing my mask, she calms down and begins to explain what went on in my brief absence. When Samuel shipped me off, he left to avoid what was about to happen next. It was then that Havelock, Martin, and Pendleton told all of the employees that they would be given a bonus. Instead, Wallace and Lydia were shot in the back of the head. Cecelia would've been out there herself if Wallace didn't tell her that she wasn't getting anything and that her presence would be a waste of time. I wonder if that was Wallace being a dick, or doing his best to warn Cecelia before she found herself caught in the crossfire. Callista was also somehow spared. Apparently, Havelock was muttering something about owing a debt to Geoff. They went to go kill Sokolov before Cecelia made a break for this little apartment.

I know at least two of our compatriots are dead, maybe more. This is complete madness. I need to finish this quickly. The only way to do that will be to pick up the trail. Somewhere around here, there has to a clue as to where they've taken Emily. If I can get to her, everything will finally be done. The Hound Pits Pub is a small building, so there won't be too many places to look. Taking a few of Cecelia's spare elixirs, I open the door and begin to assess the area. That's when I realize that this job will be a lot more complicated than I thought. Havelock must have known I would come back here, because the place is swarming with guards. I'll need to find some way to get passed them if I want to search with impunity. If Piero's alive, maybe he'll have some ideas. If he's not, maybe there'll be something among his possessions I can use to solve this problem. Either way, I hedge my bets and decide that visiting Piero's workshop is the best course of action.

I'd ordinarily be too worried about giving myself away to try this, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Once I'm certain the path is clear, I use my newest ability, the power to freeze time, and make a series of teleportations, across the street to the awning and then to the ventilation shaft surrounding the workshop, to get to it before the tallboys see me. It was tight, but I managed to get close enough to it that I could sneak in undetected. Using my powers so extensively in such a short period of time was mentally taxing, but a few swigs of Piero's elixir helped sooth my mind, restoring my mental stamina. Speaking of Piero, when I enter the shop I'm pleased to hear his voice. But his was not the only voice I was listening to. Indeed, Sokolov was also alive, and the two seemed to be hitting it off. I guess even a disgusting creep like Sokolov can't be all bad. Considering our current predicament, the two of them working together might be exactly what I need right now. While they converse about their plague elixir formulas, I find and take a Rune off Piero's desk. Once it's clear the discussion is meeting it's end, I head down to make my presence known to them.

Once they realize it's me and not some watchman, they come out of their hiding places and immediately get to the point. Since they can't fight as well as I can, they decided to try to get themselves out of this situation by building an super-Arc Pylon capable of either incapacitating all watchman in the area or reducing them to ash. Thanks to their clever engineering, the pylon will not target any friendlies in the area, only guards. Sadly, the design still needs one last final touch. A blueprint which Havelock was inspecting contains all the information Piero needs. I knew coming here was a good idea. If they can knock out everyone in a single burst, then it will be easy to find the clues I need.

Tiptoeing out via the balcony on the second floor of the workshop, I head for the window outside my room to quickly break into the pub itself. Considering the number of times I've gone through his things, I should have no difficulty getting to Havelock's room. Once I get there a see a few guards just outside the doorway. I watch as one of them skulks into the servant's quarters while the other enters Havelock's room himself. With the area clear, I halt the flow of time once more, snatching the blueprint and hauling ass to the upper floors before time resumes. Heading back the way I came in, I make my way back to the two inventor-philosophers. Handing Piero his blueprint, he asks whether I want the guards knocked out or incinerated. Considering these fools are probably just doing what they think is right, I tell Piero to put them all to sleep.

Only one thing remains before the Pylon can be activated. The device needs one more tank of whale oil to power it. Just like when I first met Piero, I use his devices to fill an oil tank. This time, I head for the workshop's roof and affix the container to the only one of three sockets that isn't already filled. The Pylon sparks to life with a flash so bright that I'm nearly blinded. Once the flash subsides, all the guards in the area get knocked on their asses and into a deep slumber. When we're all sure that the place is secure, we part ways. I head into my room, where I'm greeted by a picture, no doubt drawn by Emily, of me. I look a little worn and scruffy, but mostly intact. When this is all said and done, I think the first thing I'm doing to do is shower and shave. A Royal Protector needs to look the part, and I appear to have let myself go during my six month incarceration. Next to the picture, on my desk, I see a letter in Emily's handwriting. It appears to have been written while I was out committing Regicide. She says that while she hopes that I see this picture, everyone's been acting strange. Callista and Samuel were talking about a flare launcher in the lighthouse and Havelock mentioned Kingsparrow Island. I know that place. Before I was jailed, the former Lord Regent spoke of building a fortress there. If he finished, it would the ideal place to set up camp.

At least now I have my goal. I need to travel to Kingsparrow Island to defeat the conspiracy and restore Emily to the throne. Thanks to Emily's intel, I also know how I'll get there. Samuel and Callista probably meant to use the launcher to send a signal flare for when the coast was clear. It will be sure to attract the boatman's attention. When I tell him my destination, I'm sure he'll give me a ride. There's no point in wasting any more time here. I need to get this done quickly before something bad happens to Emily. I don't think they'll physically injure her, but who knows what those three will do to get her to do their bidding. With great haste, I run to the lighthouse to launch the flare. I try the door but it's locked and I can't get in. That's when I realize there would be only one reason to lock this door, and I shout for Callista on the other side, telling her that's it's only me.

When she opens up, I can tell that she's worried sick. Frantically, she goes over the details of what happened. None of it is new to me at this point, but I think she just needs to get it off her chest, so I sit down on Emily's bed and let her talk for a bit. I'm glad they gave her the task of being Emily's caretaker here. She genuinely cares about the girl for more reason than just that she's the heir to the throne. I hope that she considers continuing to keep Emily on the straight and narrow even after this is all said and done. The world needs more people like her. After she finishes, she explains that Samuel set up the flare gun to signal my return. He promised her that he would come quickly once the flare went off. Her sendoff seems to be more confident than the rest of her speech. Since I've taken care of the guards, Callista will get out of here just fine. However, even she knows that she can no longer help Emily right now. It's up to me to finish this once and for all. All she can do is give me her blessing. Now that all is said and done, I send out the signal and teleport to the beach area out front. Samuel pulls up only a few seconds after me, and he appears relieved. We both know there's no point in talking, so I give him Emily's location and we embark on one final boat ride. Security on Kingsparrow is bound to be tight, and I miss my equipment more than I thought I would. This will be a true test of skill, greater than any I've has thus far...

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

“What a Terrible Accident” Let's Play Dishonored: Part 14: The Assassins

In the remains of what used to be the train station, I scavenge a few bullets and a schematic for explosive rounds. If Piero is still around, he might want to take a look at this when I return to the Hound Pits. To my left, I see an makeshift bridge that leads out of the building, through a massive hole in the wall. Following it, I arrive just outside of another complex with a statue of a former Empress, from before Jessamine's time, outside of it: The Chamber of Commerce. I've arrived at what is most likely Daud's headquarters. Were there any other choice, I would go around and avoid confrontation. As it stands, if I want to stop the Loyalists from using Emily, I'll need to go right through the very same men who killed Jessamine those six months ago. No use dwelling on it, I suppose. It's best to get to the task at hand.

Using my mask's spyglass to get a good look, I see an entrance into the Chamber on the upper levels. The problem here is two-fold. One, I am sitting down on the lower levels, meaning that I'll need to find a way up there. Two, the place is crawling with Daud's men. I don't think I'll be able to just sneak my way through them, so I'm going to need to find a way around in order to keep making progress. Looking around a bit, I spot an alley to my left. It leads away from the Chamber of Commerce, but it's my only real chance of avoiding open conflict. Quietly, I teleport into the alley hoping that it will lead me passed, or even above the assassins. That's when I realize that the alley is also flooded, and fall into the water. Jumping onto the roof of a small shack, I see a route from my current position to another rooftop significantly higher up than I am, so I climb. From this vantage point, I have a clearer look of the area. There may not be as many assassins as I had initially though, I count at least 5, but still enough that I'm weary of being seen. Behind me, I see an entrance to an apartment building. Since jumping from the roof would give Daud's men a direct line of sight, I opt to use this apartment to keep going around them.

From the other side of the apartment, I blink into another building, passed the gaze of a patrolling guard. I'm quite out of the woods yet, as I can see him walking around just outside the building. I can't make my move until his eyes are pointed away from the Chamber of Commerce, so there's not much I can do but sit here and wait. While I'm waiting, I overhear a few of the guards compliment my weaponry, noting that despite their quality, Daud will not use them himself. I wonder about this man. He's as much a mystery to me as I am to him, but I suppose that isn't terribly important at the moment. When I'm sure that they are no longer looking my way, I quickly teleport into the ruins of another building closer to the Chamber of Commerce and duck behind a wall. Getting from there to the Chamber Interior was just a matter of waiting for the right moment again, as the guards couldn't see me from up above.

Once inside, I tried to open the door to the path that will lead me directly on the path to the Hound Pits. To my disappointment, but not surprise, the door was locked. While I'm thinking about my next move, I hear people coming, so I head for cover and lean slightly outward to get a better look. Two of Daud's men are in the hallway. One of them mentions going on assignment, but says that the door to the tunnel is blocked, which I already knew. The other one says that the key is in Daud's possession. Of course it is. If anyone around here has a key to it, it had to be Daud. This means that my worst fears have come to pass. To accomplish my goal, I am going to need to face the man who murdered an Empress. He has powers like mine too, and a small army at his beck and call. If I slip up, I'm a dead man. Once they finish talking, one of them heads my way. I move passed him using the bookshelves in this room as cover.

The other guy is another issue. He appears to be unmoving, so I can't just sneak by him. That's when I glimpse the two chandeliers in the hallway. Teleporting to the top of one of them, I manage to stay out of sight while continuing my advance into the Chamber. Once again Blinking to the end of the hallway, I come across a new assassin acolyte in training. The instructor appears to be teaching him how to keep hidden in shadows. Considering the profession of these men, that's not exactly a bad idea. After watching them for a bit to see if I could learn anything, which I didn't, I tiptoe around them and into what looks to have been a garden area. I see two windows to my left and right that I can use to get closer to Daud. If the maps I once studied of this building are correct, the central office, where Daud is sure to be located, is just ahead. Taking the left side, I observe as one of Daud's men goes in to give him a report, eavesdropping on their conversation.

Seeing Daud like this gives me a new perspective on him. I hear him talk of the Lord Regent with a mix of pity and spite. He muses of all the various ways he would have killed Hiram Burrows had he received the chance, calling the Mole quite a few nasty names. That's when he begins to talk of the many people the Mole hired him to kill. In his words, “none of them like the last. I'd give back all the coin if I could. No one should have to kill an Empress.” I thought many times of what I might do if I had the opportunity to get close to the man who murdered my love, but all of those plans really don't seem to matter anymore. Now, this shell of a man fills me with nothing but sorrow and pity. Even if revenge still mattered at this point, I don't think I could bring myself to extract it from him. Nonetheless, there is still the problem that I need his key in order to protect my daughter.

That's when I think of a bold, daring plan. Instead of fighting him, I can try to steal the key and leave before he or any of his men notice me. Perhaps that's the best way to leave him my message, one of mercy. I notice a bookshelf close to the pitiful man, and teleport to the top of it to wait for my chance. Once he begins to read from his book, I teleport in, grab his key off the desk and a Bone Charm from his pocket, throw myself back onto the bookshelf and again out of the room. The whole ordeal took a matter of seconds, but in the end he's free to live his days as he sees fit, seeking death or redemption, and I can move on from here. I hope I'm making the right decision by sparring him. If not, I may have inadvertently killed quite a few people.

But there's no point in dwelling on the potential consequences of my actions. There is still much work that needs to be done. Returning to the locked door using very much the same route I arrived at Daud's office with, I close the door behind me and jump onto a chain leading downward. On the way down, I find a Rune and absorb it's energy. At the bottom of the Chamber of Commerce, I used the key stolen from Daud to open a tunnel, leading me one step closer to rescuing my daughter from her would-be puppeteers. On the other side of the tunnel, I emerge to find more flooded ruins. I start to lose hope that I'll ever make it back, when suddenly I notice a train dumping the bodies of plague victims to my left. Those things don't travel far from Dunwall as a way to save money on whale oil, so I must be close. That train also looks like a good way to hasten my travels. With that in mind, I make getting up to it a priority.

Spotting a bridge below the train within range, I ready my powers and throw my being up there. Analyzing my surroundings, I see a window into another old apartment building. Climbing into it, I find that it makes for a great way to advance upwards. As I ascend, I see a woman who is clearly distraught. She initially suspects that I'm a new kind of guard and raises her arms to defend herself. When I don't respond in kind, she gets the hint and withdraws. Though she continues to rant afterward, I lose my patience and continue onward and upward. When I make it to the roof, I see and grab another Rune. It's been a long time, and I've gained a lot of Rune energy. While I wait for the train to return, I take this time to increase my power. Just like before, a vision appears in my head. In it, I am accosted on all sides by city watchmen. When they go to strike, I raise my hand in a similar manner to my previous vision of slowing down time. Except now, rather than simply slow the flow of time, the world itself seems to be frozen in place. Since no one is moving, I take this as my moment to escape. Pouring my energy into this vision, I feel my powers over Space-Time growing stronger.

As the haze of my mental landscape fades, the train finally appears. After it finishes dumping the bodies, I do not hesitate to jump aboard. I see buildings, guards, and even Tallboys pass by before I notice the Wall of Light closing in. At the last possible second, I Blink onto the platform just outside the Wall, pulling the oil tanker fueling it out of it's socket. Then, I climb down a nearby training and move passed the Wall of Light. I'm now just outside the Old Port District, where the Hound Pits Pub is located. Soon Emily. I'll be there for you soon....