Saturday, August 1, 2015

First Impressions - Kentucky Route Zero


I guess in Kentucky the sun doesn't always shine on TV

I managed to get Kentucky Route Zero mainly because of my love of "story rich" games (to borrow a tag used on Steam) and after hearing so many glowing reviews (the game holds a Metacritic rating of 81 and a Very Positive rating on Steam after over 1,000 reviews). Described as a magic realist adventure game, Cardboard Computer (the developers) managed to raise over $8,500 on Kickstarter way back in 2011, making it the earliest video game Kickstarter I've heard of (even before the huge success of 2012's Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter). The game's first act was released in 2013 and as of 2015, two more have been completed (with another two still to follow).

So when I finished the third act of the game I was thinking "Haha! I have finished yet another game on my backlog that I can now review!" But alas, as mentioned there are still two more acts to go and considering Cardboard Computer's track record, it could be 2017 before we can finally complete the game! Oh well, at least I can do a "First Impressions" article on it right?

What I like:

  • Tribute to interactive fiction and early adventure games: Despite the game using a point ‘n' click interface most of the time, most of the conversations and decisions are done using a text-based menu system akin to visual novels, interactive fiction and early adventure games. You'll even come across some characters in the game which have suspiciously similar names to pioneers of the interactive fiction/adventure genre and a whole act dedicated to that nostalgic era of text-based gaming.
  • Excellent use of sound effects to create ambience: The sound effects are done so well you could almost imagine yourself being there. Music is used sparingly but to great effect.
  • Art style: The animations and artwork in the game seem to have taken inspiration from classic French games like Little Big Adventure and Another World, which isn't a bad thing.
  • You can pick your own lyrics to a song!: Not only that but the song has actual vocals. So you're basically choosing what you'll hear through your speakers next (not just reading what's on the screen like most of the game).
  • A surreal arthouse film but as a game: The game's greatest strength is the fact it's like a surreal arthouse film where you're not quite sure what's going on and it seems to be more about emotions and self-discovery than actually following a cohesive plot. This does have the effect of building up your curiosity so you'll want to return and learn more…

What I don't like:

  • A surreal arthouse film but as a game: But this is also the game's greatest flaw. If you're the sort to like "beating" a game or a person who likes their plots to make sense, Kentucky Route Zero isn't one of those games. The game is a borderline "walking simulator" in that you're just along there for the ride (along Route Zero. Huehuehuehue).
  • Camera angles: Sometimes the game has really annoying camera angles that obscure other parts of the game you're meant to explore (sometimes preventing you to continue).
  • Interface is sometimes cumbersome: At one point of the game the camera kept rotating in circles while I was viewing the map. The problem is, the mouse cursor also rotates as well making it quite difficult to select menu buttons
  • Still not finished: The biggest complaint you'll see if visiting the Steam store page for the game is that the game is still not finished. While I don't mind delays when it comes to games (I'd prefer a polished product than a half-finished one) it has been almost two years since the first act was released and that's a long time in the world of computer games.

Verdict:

I'm curious to learn more about the characters as you definitely become invested in their stories (as you're the one that is responsible for filling in the blanks, a bit like how Always Sometimes Monsters works). The game's magic realist setting definitely keeps things mysterious and consequently you'll want to stick around a bit longer to make some sense of it. Too bad it could be a while before I get to play the final two acts!

[ LINK: Kentucky Route Zero Official Website ]

Thursday, July 30, 2015

First Impressions - AntharioN

Don't ask him about his little red book.

Just like Interstellaria, AntharioN happens to be another game I managed to back via Kickstarter yet not remembering how I originally found out about it. The first Kickstarter funding campaign was unsuccessful but the second one happened to successfully raise $22,508 (of a $10,000 goal) thanks to me (and 729 other backers ;)). AntharioN advertised itself as an old-school, turn-based, party-based RPG so it definitely piqued my interest (I love turn-based games).

The game was released only recently so now that I’ve managed to clock a few hours into the completed product I’m ready to give my first impressions on it:

What I like:

  • Tribute to classic RPGs: Despite the isometric viewpoint and cute graphics, the game actually reminds me of games like Ultima VI. Exploring the world is "tick-based" (i.e. NPCs only move one step when you move one step) and in combat you revert to turn-based mode. The game also allows you to build a custom party which reminds me of games like Wizardry or Icewind Dale.
  • Music: The game has excellent music thanks to Eric J. Gallardo. His work on AntharioN actually sounds very similar to Jeremy Soule's work in the Elder Scrolls games. No mean feat!
  • Turn-based: As already mentioned, the game is turn and tick based, so you can play the game at your own pace!
  • Not overly complicated: Unlike a lot of D&D CRPGs, the game isn't that complicated and has a fairly intuitive interface. You'll be able to figure out how 90% of the game works without needing to search for help. There are also preset classes you can choose from when creating characters for your party.

What I don’t like:

  • No real explanation on how classes work: While you've got the typical classes you'd expect in RPGs sometimes it's dangerous in assuming they work the same way as RPGs you've played before. For example, I have a thief in my party and he seems to be pretty useless except for being able to pick locks. Apparently he's got some skill in pickpocketing but I'm not quite sure how you're meant to do this. Also can thieves sneak? Can they backstab? Or are they meant to be a ranged character? Some questions I don't have the answers to, yet.
  • No manual: For many games nowadays, manuals aren’t really required but you still can’t really get away from it with RPGs, simulation or strategy games. Apparently one is in the works thankfully.
  • Derivative plot: I haven't got far enough yet but seems to be your typical fantasy plot where an ancient evil is awakening and your intrepid party needs to stop it!
  • Cumbersome trading interface: You can't at a glance tell what you can afford and what you can't. You also can't sort items in price or category order (they're all displayed in the shopkeeper's inventory) and there's no way to distinguish the stuff you just sold and other items.
  • Game can be quite difficult at start: ... but persevere! It does get better and easier as you continue - or at least where I'm up to anyway (probably because my characters have levelled). You need food to rest which means you can't just rest ad infinitum to restore your health and energy. One saving grace is that at least there isn't permadeath if one of your party members is still alive at the end of a battle...

Verdict:

While the plot seems rather barebones at the moment and I haven't come across any memorable characters yet I am keen to explore the world of AntharioN and the turn-based, custom party RPG combat is a blast from the past which will keep me coming back for more. The developer is also continually updating the game to make it more user friendly (e.g. better explanations on what are ingredients and what are not, how difficult particular locks are, etc.) so that's always a good thing.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Where are they now? - Wendell Hicken

Whoa! What just happened? Did I fire an Ion Cannon or something?

Today's "Where are they now?" post is going to be a relatively short one, mainly because there isn't really that much information out there for the creator of one of the most addictive little shareware games of the 1990s - an artillery game called Scorched Earth. Developed in Borland C++ and Turbo Assembler by a chap named Wendell Hicken, I wasted many hours playing this game during my school years. The game was released as shareware in 1991 (although I played it much later when Worms, another artillery game, had already surfaced). Like Worms, you're able to pick from a long list of weapons but only if you have enough money to purchase them in between rounds (you earn money by defeating enemies). Despite its primitive graphics, the game was quite addictive and obviously a blast when it came to hotseat multiplayer (artillery games tend to be :)). The last version of Scorched Earth, 1.5 was released in 1995 and you can still grab the shareware version of this from Hicken's official Scorched Earth webpage, 20 years later! You can also pay what you want to get the official registered version.

So what happened to Mr. Hicken after Scorched Earth? Where is he now?

Well, Mr. Hicken's online presence is rather limited, or more to the point, out-of-date - so while he was relatively active online during the 2000s, there hasn't been much since then. He did run a personal blog between 2006 - 2011 and is apparently still running it but he hasn't posted anything since 2011. He also has a Twitter feed but hasn't really tweeted anything regularly since 2012. The most recent bit of information I can find is that he developed a mobile phone app called Dark Prevailer for a miniatures game called Dark Age and that was in 2013.

Hicken has apparently been working at what used to be known as Yellow Pages (it's now simply known as "yp" in the United States) since 2014 as Vice President for the Ad Platform so while it's great to hear he's still in the business of developing software it's too bad it doesn't happen to be a new game :). Will he ever develop another game or even another Scorched Earth? Who knows but whatever happens, I'd like to thank Mr. Hicken for developing one of the classic DOS games of the 1990s.

LINKS:
[ Wikipedia: Scorched Earth (video game) ]
[ MobyGames: Wendell Hicken]
[ Wendell Hicken's Official Website ]