RPG Worlds Can Do More

Some say that games are a limited creation, only able to replicate certain experiences. Indeed, this was a core argument behind the “Games cannot be art” statement: They were believed (Although contradictory evidence has existed since the early days) unable to speak to experience, or make statements, or do many of the things art can do. Indeed, as time has gone by, we’ve had to invent new genres to talk about new games, and not a year goes by without me looking at something and saying “Ah, that’s pretty innovative!”… And meaning it. Unlike many times I’ve heard the word (That’s no doubt an article for another day…)

But games do have a limiting factor, and it’s a limiting factor that doesn’t promise to go away: The creativity of its makers. I’m going to pick on DnD games in this case, because there are interesting facets of Dungeons and Dragons universes past and present that RPGs, as my chosen example, just don’t replicate. And it’s not that it’s impossible… Tell a particularly stubborn or creative game designer something is impossible, or even “hard to make entertaining”, and there is a strong possibility that you will find, some time later, that they’ve proven you wrong. Pacifist games. World Simulations. Multiple path murder mysteries… I could find you examples of these, and quite a few more out there ones. There’s a game about the dangers of assuming simulations can give clues to historical events (Opera Omnia, by Increpare). There’s at least two games about jobs of crushing futility (Papers Please and Cart Life). There are procedurally generated murder mysteries (A small, but fun example is The Inquisitor, from ProcJam 2014). But let’s get back to DnD. Specifically, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, and (briefly) Forgotten Realms.

The only Ravenloft games to be made, to my knowledge.

The only Ravenloft games to be made, to my knowledge.

There are two Dark Sun games, two Ravenloft games, and several Forgotten Realms games, but each setting has elements that games struggle to replicate. Let’s start with the most interesting one, Ravenloft. Ravenloft was TSR’s attempt at horror, and one of its core supplement series are Van Richten’s Guides. Van Richten’s Guides, much like Trollpak, many 90s RPGs, and countless race supplements have done (or at least attempted), attempted to make monsters we normally fought as fodder interesting, unique, and, because horror monsters have to be more powerful than the protagonists in some fashion, harder to dismiss as Just Another Kill. It explores it from the perspective of a premiere monster hunter, all the ways they could be wrong, all the ways they have been wrong, and what it cost. They’re pretty good reads, and, for good or for ill, are also good examples of how tabletop RPGs deal with making threats interesting.

And then you play the two games and… It’s set pieces, a series of fights and puzzles. They’re limited, not only by the technology of the time (The Ravenloft games, and the one FR game using the same engine, Menzoberranzan, were notoriously picky to run for the time, and are still technically tile based, first person view games), but by game design thinking of the time. RPGs must have a BOSS MONSTER… So for the first game, they picked the most iconic, Strahd Von Zarovich, Darklord of Barovia… A character who can never actually be defeated, due to the way Ravenloft works. And the means of defeating him is, of course, a McGuffin. Along the way, you can cure a werewolf of his affliction. Sounds like an average day for the adventurer, right? Oh, and they make it horrific by having endlessly respawning monsters.

Pictured: A dull, uninteresting fight with a dull, uninteresting monster.

Pictured: A dull, uninteresting fight with a dull, uninteresting monster.

What results is a tiresome slog. But, within their limitations, they try to be atmospheric, in the sound design, the speeches by (rare) scared peasants, gypsies, and, of course, Strahd’s Vampiric Monologue… But what it amounts to is a Dungeon Bash By Any Other Name, complete with Helpful, But Oddly Powerless Deity that gives you the knowledge that you need the McGuffin of Vague Holiness, the Potion of Protection From Arbitrary Obstacle (Obtained by making sure you collect every coin in a certain dungeon, and giving them to the local Vistani Wise Woman), and, of course, the RPG equivalent of an 80s Training Montage (Grinding on monsters until you have the right level to safely proceed in the story. Not helped by the fact that some monsters drain experience levels. Have fuuuun!)

Now let’s compare that to the experience in tabletop. Strahd as a direct enemy is usually right out. He has Cursed Plot Armour (No really, he’s cursed to forever make the same mistakes, to never outright be killed, all for the giggles of cosmic entities who hate everything nice and fluffy). On top of that, he’s somewhat boring, precisely because of this. It’s a common problem with making Ravenloft a campaign setting: As soon as you actually involve the Big Bads, or the players try to get out of Dodge, it’s a rapid downward spiral. And, due to the way DnD works, eventually you will.

While each concentrates on a single type of monster, each of Van Richten's Guides had interesting ideas.

While each concentrates on a single type of monster, each of Van Richten’s Guides had interesting ideas.

But the setting takes a great effort to keep things interesting. Yes, McGuffins are still involved, to some extent or another, but they most often take the form of symbolic weaknesses. Certain things nearly always work, such as a stake to the heart and decapitation in the case of vampires, but other things depend on the vampire. In fact, a big part of a monster hunt in Ravenloft is recognising the monster for what it is. People are disappearing in the area? Not good enough. That could be quite a few things. There’s investigation, both in the sense of becoming aware of the type of threat, and investigating how to defeat it, with real consequences for fucking up. And, competently told, this story is suspenseful, can be heartbreaking and entertaining, and has the potential for an interesting game. There’s lots of variation possible there, too. For example, curing a werewolf of his affliction could, due to the way it works, take a small campaign and still fail, whether due to the person not wanting to be cured, or not having correctly gone through all the steps, and, even when things are done right, it involves an immense effort of will on the part of the afflicted. Keep in mind, even failure can be made interesting if you do it right.

Meanwhile, back in the computer game world, Strahd patiently sits in his castle and waits equally patiently for you to jack him up. He’s mentioned as the owner of all he surveys (Which, as an aside, gets around the vampire weakness of not being able to enter a home. He owns all the homes in Barovia), but… He’s a glorified boss monster.

These beetles actually have brains. And mind control. But here, they're a monster with some ranged attacks.

These beetles actually have brains. And mind control. But here, they’re a monster with some ranged attacks.

Dark Sun, also, is an interesting setting. Magic is harmful to the world’s well being, relying on life force to flourish. Water and metal are scarce, and survival is considered more important than trust. Even in the desert, there’s a flourishing (and lethal) ecosystem, and unwise magic or decisions can make an area barren forever. There are entire cultures, with their society dictated by the world they live in, but when you get to the computer games… Again, due to a limitation of beliefs and mechanics of the time, it’s… Once again, mostly a series of fights and puzzles. The closest you come to any of this interesting stuff is that defilers aren’t allowed as characters, only enemies (But become less effective as enemies in the second game’s fights as less and less foliage becomes available as fuel), a few sidequests where you can be betrayed, or help a village or person survive (Occasionally involving water, which you’ll otherwise never use), and the fact that the endgame is easier (Although still a massive, painful battle) if you’re not a dick. Oh, and sometimes weapons break, if they’re not steel.

You could have a Thri’Kreen (Mantis person) in your party, and never be aware of their customs, their culture, their language, or their psychology (It’s interesting stuff, and the book you want to read there is “Thri-Kreen of Athas”, from 2E AD&D… TSR #2437). By the end of the game, you’ve got metal plate armour for everyone who can use it, steel weapons for everyone who can use them, and you’re quite happily roaming through scorching deserts with all this on, giving nary a single fuck about the consequences. Equally, the plant life, the ecology… They’re just monsters to beat up.

For all that the artwork appears goofy, this is a *good* book.

For all that the artwork appears goofy, this is a *good* book.

Seriously, for all that both settings got silly, the computer games really don’t give you much of a clue as to how much effort went into each setting. Even Forgotten Realms, a world where the gods literally depend on belief for their survival, and can act directly in the world, in a setting with enough computer games to fill a small bookshelf (If you so chose), don’t really give you as much support between the setting and mechanics as you may like. Yes, not even Baldur’s Gate 2, widely considered to be the best Forgotten Realms computer game around. There’s an excellent and informative VideoBrains talk on the subject of religion in games by Jenni Goodchild here, and even though Dragon Age is the main example, it applies equally well to Forgotten Realms.

Now, you may be saying that size, or complexity, is an issue here. And in a sense, you’d be right. Previously, this was the case. But it’s much less of a problem now, and size, or complexity, aren’t the main issues here. The main issue is one of how well games sync up with the things they’re trying to talk about or portray. We talk about The Last of Us because of how it deals with survival, and relationships, and responsibility. We talk about Bioshock because of how it deals with choice, and the degradation of ideals. We talk about Analogue: A Hate Story because of, again, relationships… But also how the known past can be misleading, and about societal expectations, toxic or otherwise. These games, while they are by no means perfect, are held up as games that do the job they aimed for particularly well. We don’t have as many problems with authorial intent in these examples as otherwise, because it’s more often the case that the game laser focuses on these specific issues.

Sometimes, you just want to make or play a dungeon bash, and that’s cool. Done well, it’s entertaining, and it’s all good. But that is by no means the only kind of game you can make, and I think it’s time that more people realised that. I wouldn’t mind seeing an Eberron game about being an Inquisitive. Or a Dark Sun game about a tribe’s survival, or the ecosystem of the world. I wouldn’t mind, in short, seeing more games that explore their settings. And I pick on RPGs, because, very often, we’re too focused on The Hero’s Journey, or on pretty numbers going up and Big Bads. There are games out there that do more… And there can be more. While this article picked somewhat on licensed RPGs (For the simple reason that licensed media often vary widely in quality), it’s true of pretty much any setting or genre… How you show an aspect of your setting is important. And you can completely miss aspects that people might find more interesting than you’ve actually shown.

Afterlife Empire (Review)

Afterlife Empire, developed by Autobotika, and published by The Fine Young Capitalists, is a sort of expanding tower defence type game, where the afterlife apparently involves scaring the wits out of anyone genre unaware enough to visit (Because Fear = Belief, and Belief = Life/Power for a ghost), and expanding your home, while scaring away troublesome exorcists, policemen, and assorted busybodies (who reduce belief in death threatening ways.) It has some interesting ideas, but… The execution could do with work. A fair bit of work. Let’s begin with the loading screen, and what appears to be one of two pieces of music for this game.

The tutorial messages, while helpful and skippable, also have the chance of you not being able to remind yourself of something you missed.

The tutorial messages, while helpful and skippable, also have the chance of you not being able to remind yourself of something you missed.

The loading screen tips are, for the most part, helpful, but there is one in particular that feels less helpful, and badly worded. “The Authorities notice when people die in your mansion. Yes, even the ugly ones.” Nobody appears particularly ugly, and… Do ghosts even have a preference there? Is “ugly” people fear less useful somehow? Do they have preferences? I couldn’t be sure, because of a core problem. The music needs equalisation, as instruments vie with each other for the top spot, volume wise, in their simple melodies. I turned it down (but not off), because… It vies with the game as well. The warning music does its job better, but… Two short loops for music make me feel… A little hollow while playing. And not in the mood enhancing way.

The UI. Not the UI in general, it’s mostly does its job. I like that I know what threats are coming from roughly where. I’m less fond of the tiny scare indicators… But I’m specifically less fond of the tooltips, or, more accurately, the lack thereof. The game provides little feedback (Except on powers, where it gives you a rough idea of what you do via the tutorial messages), and I cannot tell without a notepad which props are more or less useful for their price, beyond “More expensive = Good”. While, on the one hand, this could accurately simulate a ghost who knows nothing, the tooltips, frustratingly, never really appear. A new player won’t know what a scare trap does without trying one (Does one generate more fear than another? Don’t know for sure. I know what area of effect they have, but it always appears to be “The tile next to the object.”), just as they won’t know with props.

This becomes *less* of an issue when the game begins. But remains an issue which camera rotation would help with.

This becomes *less* of an issue when the game begins. But remains an issue which camera rotation would help with.

The tutorial is mostly fine, but does highlight a couple of problems. For example, camera and object rotation (And, for that matter, moving or deleting objects that are poorly placed). If there is any, I couldn’t detect it. Yet, for all that it’s usefully highlighted that one of the people I need to scare off in the tutorial is behind a tree with a tutorial path, nonetheless, they are behind a tree. Similarly, when placing props, not being able to see them to place them is a mood killer. As is not being able to place them because something I can’t see is obstructing them. For this, I recommend cutaway walls or some form of X-Ray technique. It’s very useful in an isometric game. Being able to scroll back on messages is also a good idea, and an encyclopedia of enemies might give both an incentive to proceed (Currently sort of lacking) and a means of remembering who does what. Sadly, neither of these things currently exist. The medium section, also, has its problems, as I failed to kill her by scaring her twice before she ran off the map, which… Meant she respawned, standing still, at the edge of the map. Thankfully, there was no power cooldown, so I just clicked twice, but… That’s something that should be avoided in tutorials. A tutorial should be a controlled experience.

Aesthetic wise, the models are nice. I can tell a civilian at a glance (Although apparently there are different kinds, and that’s less clear), and immediately tell them apart from an exorcist, a policeman, or any of the other folks who modify the score or threaten me in some manner. They tend to shuffle around quite slowly (A boon in the case of the exorcist, who drains your fear much faster when in the house, cleansing it), but they look fine. So do the tiles, the trees, and the walls. The props, though, I’m less enamoured of.

A fairly stable house design. Limitations mean the house isn't going to be very houselike, though.

A fairly stable house design. Limitations mean the house isn’t going to be very houselike, though.

I understand that what we start in is a dingy shack, and that we “gain more powers, props, and traps as you level up”, but I couldn’t find a single prop that was furniture at the beginning. Not even a tattered chair, table, or one of those cheap replicas of the Dogs playing Poker paintings. It’s a disconnect, and an obvious one. It does get better, but that was after the first ten minutes (Counting the tutorial), and the first ten minutes of a game are important. Especially with refunds on less than 2 hours of play now being a thing. Freezing the arrow scroll controls when in building mode also feels like an odd decision.

Finally, we have sound. Not everything makes a sound. Our ghost, in the title, silently mouths/laughs/screams at us (And sometimes laughs eerily when using his first power.) The props make no noise as they spooookily move of their own accord, and while people make sounds, they tend to only be a short, sharp scream before they run away. Those screams tend to wear thin after only a short time.

Consistent UI placement is a common first time developer problem. But once noticed, it *can* be fixed.

Consistent UI placement is a common first time developer problem. But once noticed, it *can* be fixed.

And all of this was noted in the first ten minutes of play. I’ve tried to play since then, but a lack of many forms of feedback a game generally contains means that, despite the tutorial explaining the basics, the game feels both incomplete, and an exercise in trial and error. I eventually got the hang of the core concepts, and things slowly get better and more varied, but, in short, it feels slow, dragging, unchallenging once those concepts are mastered, and incomplete. I don’t really feel much incentive to expand, as I can seemingly scare many people off with a single trap centrally placed, repeating this in adjoining rooms to make sure, and I don’t feel much incentive to open more doors to the outside, especially to the back, where it becomes easier for an exorcist to sneak in the back (Despite the handy notification that there are troublesome folks on the map). Loading a save resets the map’s population, but, and I’m guessing this is unintentional, so does hitting escape after you’ve right clicked to remind yourself what a power does (Also setting your power to 1000, which I suspect is due to a missing event flag.)

So that’s Afterlife Empire. I applaud the effort, but feel that the game needs a fair bit of work at the time of review before it could be considered a finished game. I hope those suggestions and pointers help the developers.

The Cat Machine (Review)

As any cat owner can tell you, cats domesticated humans, not the other way around. It was a clever scheme, but only recently have we acknowledged precisely how clever cats really are. In a video game. Obviously, I’m not being entirely truthful here, this is just a charming puzzle game, but it’s hard not to talk as I have been considering the concept of this puzzle game: Descendants of Schrödinger’s Cat, stopping the earth from leaving its orbit and plunging into the sun… With cats riding on trains.

Simple. Logical. Cute.

Simple. Logical. Cute.

Yes, that is The Cat Machine. Much like a cat, it is audacious, clever yet simple, and unbearably cute.

I could have made the screenshots the first three messages of the tutorial, and I’m pretty sure people would have flocked to buy the game for charm. But enough purring in delight, let’s talk what it all means.

Essentially, it’s a track puzzle. There is at least one train of cats, different coloured tracks, and always, at the end of each, a white cat. The cats must be directed to tracks of the correct colour (So they fly off and preserve the Earth’s angular momentum), and all the white cats must leave on the white tracks that are pre-placed. It’s a logic puzzle, and, while it’s simple in concept, it adds new wrinkles as time goes by. You cannot cross tracks, for example. Not even if they’re the same colour. And the cat train must never collide with itself.

Things start pretty simple, and clear...

Things start pretty simple, and clear…

In fact, half the problem with reviewing this game is because its rules, and its spaces are clear. Solutions, on the other hand, are not so clear cut. For example, you do not have to use all the tracks. But you have to be careful where loops are placed. I know in one level, I have to get the cats to finish, no matter how they travel, with two yellow cats. I have to think, not just in terms of order, but loops. And there’s this nagging feeling I’m not being as efficient as I could be. And I know it can be broken down by whether there’s an even or odd number of cats…

There’s not a whole lot of variety in the music or visuals, but you know what? The puzzle music is simple, giving you room to think, and the colours are very clear, which, as a colourblind person, I am very grateful for. However, one bug, which definitely needs to be fixed, is that trying to speed up the game will inevitably lead to a collision of cats… Even, it sometimes appears, on straights. That’s slightly frustrating, please fix it, devs!

...But ramp up in difficulty as the game goes on. This is still a fairly early puzzle.

…But ramp up in difficulty as the game goes on. This is still a fairly early puzzle.

For £6.99 though, there’s more than fifty of these puzzles (Which start to get difficult around six or seven puzzles in, and, if you like a good logic puzzle, this is definitely not a bad purchase. Apart from the tutorial, it concentrates on the puzzles themselves, leaving you to ignore the sometimes hit-or-miss dialogue from your mentor of the game, Science Cat. And I like that. It’s got a little charm, but nothing is getting in the way of what the game is: A good set of logic puzzles about herding cats. And we all know what they say about herding cats.

As he watched another cat fly by, The Mad Welshman mused about criticisms of Quantum Physics, Real Cats, and the elusive dream of the cat-and-toast motor. Truly, he thought, Cats are magnificent creatures.

Going Back: The Eye of the Beholder Trilogy

The Eye of the Beholder Trilogy is a microcosm of the problems of the games industry, even today. Despite this, they’re still pretty much lauded among RPG players, with the exception of the third game, which has widely been panned, for reasons we’ll go into. So let’s go back, to the early to mid 90s, to see exactly why these games are both good… And why I said that first sentence.

D'aww, isn't that Kobold adora- AHH KILLITKILLITKILLIT!

D’aww, isn’t that Kobold adora- AHH KILLITKILLITKILLIT!

Eye of the Beholder was developed by Westwood games, who you may remember for the Command & Conquer series, and, if you’re old or savvy enough, the Lands of Lore and Kyrandia games. It was published by SSI (Who had a license from TSR to make Dungeons and Dragons games) in 1991, and, for the time, it was pretty good. In essence, it was a simple dungeon crawl beneath the city of Waterdeep, which had a big problem: An unknown threat (That totally isn’t a Beholder, folks!) wanting to conquer the city from beneath. As you travelled, first through sewers, then through ancient dwarven tunnels (Recently recolonised by some of said dwarves), and through ever weirder locales until you reached the Xanathar, head of the monstrous guild of the same name, and slew him. Along the way, you had hints of a larger plot that, for the most part, went unanswered. What was up with the dark elves (Drow) under the city, and their fight with the dwarves? Were they connected? What were these portals, and how did they come into the whole picture? Why did Waterdeep’s Sewers have a prison system, of all things inside it?

Meet one of the tenants of the "Correction Facility". Next stop, the Death Room!

Meet one of the tenants of the “Correction Facility”. Next stop, the Death Room!

Part of this would have been the 90s “Rule of Cool” design (Where style over substance was the key), but just as importantly, the game was rushed. How do we know it was rushed? Because we can see cut content, if we look hard enough. And, since games were somewhat simpler back then, and state or save hacking was easier, it was completely possible to see hints of cut content, just by exploring empty space. For example, there is a stairway, from the lowest level to the highest. You can never walk to it without a trainer, and there is one final portal, with no missing slots for you to put one of the many portal keys you get in the game into. The official guidebook doesn’t even have them on the map. There’s other, smaller signs (Such as one of the surefire ways to kill Xanathar being hidden behind a “Secret Quest” that it’s kind of hard not to run into, or the somewhat abrupt ending, partly fixed in the Amiga and Sega CD versions of the game), but even reviewers of the time noticed it was incomplete.

Still, for the time, it was a pretty good game with a difficulty curve that nonetheless spiked rather hard toward the end, with some good enemy visuals, real time combat (Which was a slightly awkward fit with the spellcasting system… Right click on the spellbook/holy symbol and… Oh, shit, whole party paralyze from the Mind Flayer) and, despite the incomplete feeling, a surprisingly good story for RPGs of the time. I say this, in spite of the seemingly nonsensical placement of monsters (Kobolds on level 1, followed swiftly by undead, then Gnolls and Kuo-Toa, Spiders and Dwarves… ), because it was aimed at AD&D fans, and it was set in one of the more well known settings of the time: Forgotten Realms. Specifically, the City of Waterdeep, and the dungeon the city was built upon, Undermountain.

That Mind Flayer fires invisible all-party paralyzes, to represent his psychic powers. He has brothers.

That Mind Flayer fires invisible all-party paralyzes, to represent his psychic powers. He has brothers.

That’s right, in a true blue example of Fantasy Characters Are Not The Smartest, they built a capital city on top of a massive, active dungeon. Several years before Recettear and other games lampshaded this rather distressing tendency.  A shining example of Civic Planning in Fantasy Worlds, people!

Playing through it, at first, is a delight. It’s a simple setup: We’re sent to investigate the threat beneath Waterdeep (One of, it must be stressed, a multitude), and along the way, we find shining gems that defy explanation. The Sewer system has a small, forgotten prison complex inside it (With an execution chamber, hence the undead), and evidence of some pretty nifty, if badly applied fantasy technology (The Rapid Access Transport System… Teleporters for sewer workers. A pressure plate based flow management system). Later on, there’s a small, failing dwarven kingdom, besieged on all sides, but unable to ask the Lords of Waterdeep for assistance (And, as it turns out, hold a key to defeating the Xanathar.) Both the known henchmen of the Xanathar are treacherous (Shindia, and a threatening mage who sadly remains unnamed) , aaaand… While it’s absorbing, it’s bittersweet to look back and know that precisely none of those mysteries (Shindia led a group of Dark Elves planning to attack the surface. What became of that? What was with that “Museum” full of monsters in stasis? Had we upset the delicate balance of power in Undermountain?) are explained.

Outdoors! Finall- Eeee, wolves! Crap!

Outdoors! Finall- Eeee, wolves! Crap!

For the second game was to take place somewhere entirely different. Now, one thing about the Eye of the Beholder series (And many other RPG franchises of the time, such as The Bard’s Tale, Wizardry, Might and Magic, and a few other games, such as Breach and the rest of OmniTrend’s “Interlocking Games System” series) is that the characters can be preserved between games, and Eye of the Beholder 2… Depended on that. EoB 1 was an incomplete game (Albeit a fully working one). Eye of the Beholder 2 suffered from a second common problem in game design: Difficulty Balancing Issues.

Eye of the Beholder 2, very early on, pitches you into a cramped room with sixteen skeleton warriors. It has an entire set of levels where you can’t heal, or regain spells. It’s a tough game to finish. But it’s still lauded as the best of the trilogy. Why is that? Well, partly rose coloured glasses, but it has to be admitted that Westwood stepped up their game on every front except balancing. More spells. More moments where your characters’ alignment/class actually means something (For example, if you try to dig up some graves you find in the first area, your Paladin will tell you it’s wrong… And then just straight up leaves if you push. No, I’m not going to tell you if it’s worth losing them.) Better music, and somewhat better visuals. The main villain is still a stereotypically evil cackling… Er… Skeleton Dragon (Dran Daggoran, or A Grand Dragon… sigh) with stereotypical, cacklingly evil plans (Build up a fake church in a world where atheism is a bad choice, gain an army of undead goons, rampage for a bit… ??? … Profit?) but the writing, overall, is better. Here, let me take an example from the beginning.

See! She's so harmless... Like... That other lady, from Lands of Lo- Oh. OH...

See! She’s so harmless… Like… That other lady, from Lands of Lo- Oh. OH…

There’s a nice old lady you meet in the woods who can guide you straight to the Temple of Darkmoon (Where your quest lies), avoiding encounters along the way… But, in a fit of Adventurer’s Paranoia, you strike her down. On her body is a single note. No, she’s not a mimic, or a spy… She’s a terrified old lady whose family is being held hostage. Well, now you know the temple is shady… But at what cost?

The Temple of Darkmoon, in a shift from the first game, is pretty self contained. Everything is to do with the quest, and there are no unexplained details that I’m aware of, and this actually adds to both the quality of writing… And the feel of isolation. You are definitely up against it, but alas, the difficulty really does spike in this game. Fought Xanathar last time without the oh-so-secret item? Had a hard time? How about multiple Beholders? Or timed puzzles? The ending, once it comes, feels less of a reward, being almost as perfunctory as the last game. Well done, said Khelben Blackstaff, High Wizard of Waterdeep. You stopped the evil plans, go rest for a bit in a pub, that’s what you adventurers do, isn’t it?

Sod you, Blackstaff. You and the rest of Waterdeep.

Yes, and you're a 20/20/20 Wizard/Fighter/Plot Device , maybe, just this once, you can sort it out?

Yes, and you’re a 20/20/20 Wizard/Fighter/Plot Device , maybe, just this once, you can sort it out?

So we come now to the third game. The one that, of the trilogy, is widely considered both the worst, and part of the reason the “Legends” series didn’t continue. And it arose because of a third common problem in the games industry: Creative Differences. Now, that label covers a multitude of possible reasons for cutting ties with a studio, not all of which are actually to do with the creative direction intended, but, for whatever reason (I refuse to speculate, although I’m quite happy to be told), Westwood and SSI parted ways, with the in-house team creating Eye of the Beholder 3.

Visually, it was much better. The music was good, the cutscenes were good. But other things were… Not so good. No, let’s not mince words here. Other things were abysmal. Once again, you could import characters, and that was all well and good. But I hope somebody kept an axe, because without one, you’re going to be wailing and gnashing your teeth… In the very first area. At least until you firstly find an axe, and secondly, realise that large portions of the first area (A forest) can be cut away to reveal treasures, more encounters, and a dungeon. The game was relatively nonlinear, but the encounters felt weaker (With a few surprise exceptions, such as the Feyr… A mostly invisible monster. Thanks, folks, for reminding me to always have See Invisibility on… Or, y’know, flail in that general direction until it died), and the story.

The story also felt weaker. Especially since you could see the plot beats before they happened. From the top…

Yep, this isn't in any way going to lead to resurrected evil gods, no sirree! That's a trustworthy face!

Yep, this isn’t in any way going to lead to resurrected evil gods, no sirree! That’s a trustworthy face!

…A totally not suspicious guy asks you to go to a lil’ place called Myth Drannor (Known among FR fans as a place where Ancient Magic and Things Not Meant To Be Woken Up reside) to kill a demilich (Known to be mostly good), which is guarding something Not-Suspicious Guy’s boss claims is endangering things.

At least one god (Lathander, the Morning Lord) has to help you clean up a mess that you, the player, knows is coming. Hell, the characters, being longstanding adventuring types, should know this is a bad idea. But no, you wake up an Ancient Evil, have to put it back in the box, and…

…Really, as in Wargames, the only winning move is not to play. The cutscenes are pretty, it’s true. But they’re the story of four to six folks doing something they should have known better than to do in the first place, then cleaning it up with divine assistance. The characters, rather than tied up in a cohesive plot, are split among the history of Myth Drannor, and… Don’t really have much to say, beyond what you already know (This Is A Bad Idea). All the extra nice bits, the new monsters, the pretty outdoors areas… They don’t compensate for this core fact. The difficulty curve, if anything, swung the other way to EoB 2… And the critical reception was, as I’ll get to in a moment, deafeningly negative.

Looks meaty... Not actually all that bad.

Looks meaty… Not actually all that bad.

Good writing won’t always save a game. But bad writing, and frustrating design decisions can definitely help kill it. Reviewers at the time disagreed with my note on the visuals and audio, and, if anything, were more disappointed than I am, looking back after some years. It was seen as a Cash-Grab (ding), a disappointing end to a series, and it was unequivocally seen as an end. They were perfectly correct. Apart from the remakes of the first two games, the Eye of the Beholder series was dead, dead, dead.

Now, for all my talk of the games showing that problems have existed in the games industry for some time, and are by no means new, does that mean they’re bad games? Funnily enough, no. Just as some games have their flaws, but are still enjoyable (And indeed, enjoyed) by many, the Eye of the Beholder trilogy is enjoyable. You can even try them yourselves, thanks to the wonderful folks at Good Old Games. They even come with the official cluebooks and manuals of the time, which are themselves worth commenting on, because they’re good examples of such things done pretty well. I have fond memories of the first two games, and, when I feel I’m confident enough to tackle them, will definitely try to Let’s Play the trilogy, warts and all.

But I wonder how things could have turned out differently, sometimes.

IlluminASCII (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £7.99
Where To Get It: Steam

There is a world you don’t know out there. A world where a soggy newspaper, picked up out of boredom, can achieve sentience and shoot you in the face. A world, split into levels, with a maximum of 5 clues to a grand conspiracy in each one. Unless you have to kill someone, or blow an office up, or encounter a boss… It’s a world where everything is simple, and yet… Quite, quite complex. Welcome to the world run by the IlluminASCII… Good luck uncovering the Conspiracy.

...Nah, it died. Procedural naming, eh? ;)

Well, part of that wasn’t true… Or *was* it? The mystery deepens…

IlluminASCII is a first person shooter roguelike with ASCII graphics. Sort of. Now, when you think ASCII graphics, the average person will say “What, like Dwarf Fortress, with all those unreadable commas and ampersands and smileys?”, but IlluminASCII is… Slightly different. Many of the graphics are made of ASCII symbols, it’s true, and the enemies, just like in traditional roguelikes, are massive letters representing species, but there’s also nice, simple, 3D models to represent the landscape. So… An ASCII aesthetic, rather than “The graphics are letters and symbols.”

It’s a pretty simple game, and a single game can be played in a coffee break (For example, just before starting this review, I’d finished three games of varying levels of success in half an hour), but that’s not to say that score attack Shootmans with a boss every five or so levels is the entirety of the game. You get hungry, the guns and pickups are procedurally generated (So it’s unlikely that a second pistol will act exactly the same as the first, in terms of ammo), and there are features you can miss, like gambling machines, timed escapes, and the fact that there are “Big” enemies, harder to defeat than the average. You’ll know them by the sheer firepower they bring, and the angry eyes stapled onto their threatening typefaces.

THE ALT-TEXT LIES.

For being built of simple models and ASCII graphics, the game shows its dystopian world quite well.

The thing is, I can’t guarantee you’ll enjoy it. I like it for what it is, with the silence punctuated by the angry beeps and boops of enemies spotting you, the interplay between simple models and ASCII, the simplicity of play, and the references both to memes and conspiracy theories in the scores (One day, I’m certain, somebody will make a conspiracy theory linking Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams to Alien Astronaut RFID Tagging), but it is a coffee break, score attack type deal, and that’s definitely not for everyone. Having the roguelike elements it does, the difficulty curve can be quite erratic, with the skill being in adapting to difficult situations… And again, that’s not for everyone. As such, while I personally like it, I’d have to say “Only go for IlluminASCII if you’ve seen footage of it, and decided ‘Hey, I wouldn’t mind paying £8 for that game I can come back to every now and again!’”

SLEEP. OBEY. CONSUME.

As the textual blood seeped down the screen, I knew it was over. But it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to hop back in.

The Mad Welshman was already aware of The Conspiracy. Everywhere he looked, threatening letters made eldritch patterns. But he wasn’t afraid. Sooner or later, he would go after Big Comic Sans, even if it meant his life.