Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Gems of War Review

Pro tip: Leave the wall alone - it can't actually hurt you! (ORLY? YARLY. NOWAI!)

  • Developer: Infinity Plus 2
  • Publisher: 505 Games
  • Release Date: 20 November 2014
  • Time played: 5 hours (INCOMPLETE)

Before I go any further let me tell you two things about this game:

  1. It's a mobile port
  2. It's Free-to-Play

Are you still with me? I suspect some of you aren't. When people hear "mobile port" and "free-to-play" in the same sentence they probably think of freemium titles like Candy Crush which try to extort the player of his/her hard-earned cash. There's no doubt that there are some downright evil "free-to-play" games out there, ones where it's nigh on impossible to progress or succeed without relinquishing some coin, and then there's "free-to-play" done right - games where there is very little or no disadvantage to having a free account with income being generated only for cosmetic changes such as custom costumes or skins.

I don't think Gems of War is one of the "evil" free-to-play games although I'll go into that after I talk a bit about the plot.

Plot (2/5)
From what I've experienced so far, which is actually quite little in terms of the overall campaign, but most of what could be considered the first storyline mission or mini-campaign, the plot is rather lacklustre and definitely not the main focus. At the beginning of the game, you along with some old codger are trying to kill waves of enemies as you work your way up a spire to kill a lava worm or something. No real reason why, just because you have to. You're a hero! It's what you do!

A lack of focus on the story isn't necessarily a bad thing since it does mean they've placed most of their focus on the gameplay, which is probably the most important aspect in a puzzle game.

Gameplay (4/5)
Okay, let's first talk about the actual gameplay before talking about Gems of War being a Free-to-Play title. So, the game is very similar to Puzzle Quest, which is no surprise considering Infinite Interactive is behind this game, the original creators of Puzzle Quest. Yes, I do realise that somehow they have a funny developer name of Infinity Plus 2 - I have no idea what that's about but trust me, there's a reason this game seems like a Puzzle Quest sequel - that's because it is, save for the name. The game is also similar to another game by Infinite Interactive called Puzzle Kingdoms which used the same match-3 mechanic but instead of your player character going toe-to-toe with an enemy instead you had several units or an army fighting against another army. Just like Puzzle Kingdoms, you'll command multiple units in Gems of War but that's where the similarities end.

So just like in Puzzle Quest you'll be fighting several battles that you'll come across by visiting kingdoms. You can do storyline quests/battles and you can do challenges which reward skill points you can use to upgrade your units. You're also able to join guilds for the first time although you're unable to actually play with anyone in the guild since there isn't any real-time multiplayer whatsoever in this. You can spend gold towards completing guild projects but that's the extent of the cooperation. There's only a limited number of things you can do with a guild really as there's no means of communicating with other members (e.g. via chat or forums) and the guild customisation options leave a lot to be desired. Also, whenever you fight other players, you're not really fighting them in real-time but fighting an AI that is controlling their current deck of units.

Okay, so you're probably thinking this doesn't sound too bad but is this a "Pay-2-Win" title? If I wanted to be completely honest, I couldn't say. If you're treating this game as a single-player game, definitely not (since it doesn't matter if you pay to get an advantage then, right?). If you're playing competitively (trying to get your guild to be the top of the leaderboards) - maybe, although I hope not.

You see, every battle you undertake in Gems of War requires the use of gold or coins. If you don't have enough coins, you pretty much can't play. However, you usually generate a sufficient number of coins each day (at least enough for a few battles daily) not to mention winning battles effectively reimburses some of the cost (a bit like visiting Medicare for a rebate on the doctor's visit). Unless you go on a mad spending spree on stuff, you're unlikely to run out of gold anytime soon. You can spend real money to buy things like in-game gold along with skill points and some cosmetic items. So if you spend real money, you're going to level up faster or be able to play the game more often than a player who doesn't spend any money - unless that player is a gun at the game and never loses. This isn't really a big deal (at least I don't think so) if you're treating the game as a single-player experience. The grey area comes about when you're trying to take your guild to the top of the leaderboards.

In order to make your guild rise the ranks of the leaderboards, you have to win trophies and the way you win trophies is by fighting other players (or at least the decks of other players as you're actually just fighting the AI). I do believe the game has a matchmaking system which tries to match you with someone of a similar skill level but what I'm worried about is when that doesn't work - or worse, when matchmaking it doesn't take into account the level of the player's units and just the player character's level. I can't really say this for certain but I find it unlikely there would've been such an oversight, so fingers crossed my negative scenario doesn't occur in reality.

The main screen

Sound (5/5)
Sound effects consist of the typical fantasy battle fare. No complaints.

Music (4/5)
The music isn't too memorable being your typical epic fantasy affair.

Graphics (2/5)
Graphics are pretty basic but they've employed a similar approach to presentation as they did with the original Puzzle Quest. There's not much in terms of animation but the art for the various creatures and backgrounds are nicely done.

Replay (5/5)
It probably takes about 5 hours to finish all of a kingdom's quests and I do believe there are 15 kingdoms in total to unlock meaning there's potentially 75 hours of gameplay here which isn't too bad for a puzzle game (not to mention the game doesn't, or at least shouldn't end when you finish all the quests as you can still "invade" other players or attempt to finish all the challenges associated with each kingdom). The game is an addictive time-waster and I can see myself playing this almost daily for a quick 15 minute game or so.

Polish (3/5)
When the game originally came out I had some issues with respect to the game freezing and losing connectivity, meaning I couldn't get to play the game. Fortunately, I haven't encountered any of those issues recently so hopefully they won't crop up again.

Score – 7/10

Gems of War is a worth successor to Puzzle Quest in the gameplay department, taking elements from the original game that started it all and the more strategic Puzzle Kingdoms and offering it for the very attractive price of $0. Sure, spending some real money might mean less grind or that you're able to play the game for more than 2 hours a day, but if you're not intending to play the game for longer than that daily, then you'll never really need to open your wallet - unless you want that sexy looking Dragon Armour...

Gems of War is available from these retailers:

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[ LINK: Official Gems of War website ]

Monday, November 24, 2014

Choicest VGM - VGM #158 - Quest for Glory III - Eastern Fricana Savanna



Composed by: Rudy Helm

This piece plays when the Hero ventures east from the Liontaur city of Tarna towards the Simbani camp, the Simbani being a people obviously modelled off the Maasai people of East Africa. Before you arrive there you'll have to cross what is known as the East African Savannah - er, I mean the "East Fricana Savanna". The music is really epic and I think that's why it sticks in my mind to this day - probably the most epic main city departure music you'll ever hear in a Quest for Glory game, but to be fair, it's not like Quest for Glory 1, Quest for Glory 2 or Quest for Glory 4 had much in terms of wilderness music. I especially like it when the harmonising kicks in around 1:06.

Thanks to Sierra On-Line and Quest Studios for providing these memorable tracks.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

First Impressions - Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

During this year's Steam Summer Sale, I managed to grab quite a few games and one of those games was Enslaved: Odyssey to the West for a neat $5 USD. The game is set in post-apocalyptic America but the story is apparently based off one of the great classical novels of Chinese literature known as Journey to the West. I'm fascinated by Chinese culture, history and literature so while this is probably a very liberal take on the story, I was nevertheless intrigued to see how Ninja Theory adapted it.

What I like

  • Tie-in with Journey to the West: As I've already mentioned, this game is a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi adaptation of Journey to the West. So you've obviously got characters like Monkey and Tripitaka but it's interesting how the developers represent them in this world (and how they came about with those names). I also found some amusement in how they adapted magical items in the original story into pieces of technology for the sci-fi game version
  • Top notch voice acting: Monkey is voice acted by noneother than Captain Gollum Haddock himself: Andy Serkis and he does a splendid job of it. Lindsey Shaw as Tripitaka is no slouch either.
  • Breathtaking combat: While other aspects of gameplay might not be so good the combat is really quite exciting. Monkey is actually pretty vulnerable if you don't time your blocks well enough and the slo-mo finishing moves makes the game look like a John Woo film. All we need now are the doves.
  • Great character detail: Despite the rest of the game's graphics having quite a few low-res textures (apparently this game was originally a 2010 game for consoles) the painstaking detail that must've gone into the character models and animations is obvious.

What I don't like

  • Annoying camera angles: Unfortunately Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is one of those games with an automated camera angle. Consequently there will be many times where during combat the camera will be flying all over the place and it'll be difficult to focus on the action or realise which way you're really facing now.
  • Hard-coded keybinds: A minor pet peeve of mine but I don't like games that force you to use certain key bindings (and I suspect a lot of PC gamers would agree). One of the worst offenders is middle mouse button being hard-coded since that also happens to be my Push-to-Talk key for TeamSpeak.
  • No long-term appeal: While the levels I've played so far require a minimal amount of puzzle solving, overall there doesn't seem to be too much variation in the type of enemies you fight (robots) or how to approach the level. Ultimately, everything comes back to how good you're in combat anyway since even if you're able to be stealthy and avoid some combat there will always be some mechs you'll have no option but to fight with, especially during boss fights. The game is also quite linear too which makes the gameplay seem dated when compared to other games from 2013 such as Tomb Raider


Verdict

I'll never be able to get over the annoying camera angles and I'm starting to doubt the game's ability in drawing me back due to monotonous gameplay. However, the game is a sci-fi adaptation of a classic work of Chinese literature and this, along with the sublime voice acting and character animations, have kept my attention.

[ LINK: Official Enslaved: Odyssey to the West website ]