Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 4

I wrote about Part 3 of this game series when it came out, so it seems only fair to write about the conclusion here too, since it’s out and all.  And at $4.99 they’re practically just giving it away for a new-release title; I have to say that I don’t have as much gaming time as I used to before I had a real job and responsibilities and so forth, but I am enjoying the new world of digital publishing and indie developers that sell new games at under the $10 price point.

If you played the third one, this one picks up right where that one left off.  Gabe and Tycho managed to destroy the entire universe at the end of Part 3, or at least that was Tycho’s plan, his idea being that it sucked so badly that it should start over again, under the benign guidance of his niece Anne-Claire.  Unfortunately the plan didn’t quite work, since only three of the gods have been defeated and there’s one more remaining, holding a teeny-tiny bit of reality together.

And that is why your party finds itself in Underhell, which is supposedly much worse than normal Hell.

I really liked the writing in this one.  I mentioned in my previous review that the third game suffered from sticking too closely to the prose story that had been written when it didn’t look like the game would actually be made.  Without similar shackles here, and being designed as a game from day one, there was a lot more room for actual Penny Arcade humor.  I’ll be perfectly honest and say that not all of it works, but they keep it coming fast enough that it doesn’t really matter.  If one joke falls flat, there's another one just behind it.

One of the quirks about Underhell is that normal squishy people can’t hope to hurt its denizens, so you actually do most of your fighting with summoned monsters, a la Pokemon.  The monsters are assigned a trainer, and they get level up bonuses affiliated with the trainer’s stats, and one slate of abilities associated with them as well.  For example, if Moira trains Brodent, then he’ll get extra speed on leveling up and will be able to use her Gumshoe abilities, but if Jim trains him, he’ll get extra magical defense and be able to use Necromaster abilities.  He’ll still have his own slate of special attacks either way.

Like in the previous game, your characters return to full HP after each battle, your items can be used a certain number of times in every battle, and MP increases by 1 per round (subject to other effects), meaning there’s no reason to hoard items or not cast your best spells whenever you can.  Your enemies also increase in attack power and speed after every combat round, so you need to take them out quickly or risk being overwhelmed.  There are also a fair number of fights where you have additional combat restrictions or modifiers like I’ve seen in other tactical RPGs.

The game is also relentlessly silly.  Like I said above, it’s got lots of Penny Arcade humor throughout, and they’re basically daring you to take it seriously at any point, such as when a super dramatic reunion suddenly gets stuck in Japanese language mode, helpfully back-translated translated by some sort of brain-dead Babelfish knockoff.  Ostensibly you’re trying to go about destroying the entire universe, but it’s played for laughs throughout.  By the time you’re stabbing an evil god in the spleen you’ll be thinking it’s a perfectly normal day at the office.  I bet it’s also fun for the “real” Tycho to write for Tycho in this game, but I’m pretty sure in the first and second games he wasn’t such a raving psychotic.  I guess we’ll never know.  But everyone treats out-and-out murder as about as controversial as picking up a lotto ticket at the gas station.

I felt like this one was easier than the third one, or at least it didn’t kill me quite as much.  This may have been because I got familiarized with the combat style previously, but I’m not sure.  There are at least eighteen summoned monsters, most of which you will never use if you are anything like me.  The combat system basically forces you to inflict as many status effects and repeating-damage spells as you can for long fights on pain of grisly death, and that means that monsters which can’t do that for you are not going to be part of your party.  There’s maybe six or seven that have such abilities and I found a party of four that pretty handily took out everything the game threw at me, even the scary optional boss.  The game design really emphasizes its stripped-down nature, but Zeboyd may have finally stripped down a little much in this instance.  I found myself having the same fight over and over again and always winning, and by the end I was getting a little bored.  At least you don’t have to grind, as such, as once again all the encounters are right there on the screen.

The game is also pretty linear.  You will basically follow the plot for ten chapters and then get an airship, which you can use to access some secret areas and get some powerful items.  Or you can skip that if you want and just go straight to Overhell.  This is a one-way trip but you are warned about it, it’s not a surprise and it’s up to you.  I got some of the bonus stuff, but I don’t think I got all of it.  I’d say that the game is five to ten hours long, depending on playstyle.  I also don’t think there’s necessarily any replay value unless you thrive on playing the increased difficulty levels.  Perhaps I should have been on one of the harder modes, but I am essentially too apathetic about it to go back and see.

So I said that the third game was great, go get it.  The fourth game is also good, with nice humor, good storyline, and all that jazz, but at some point I felt that I’d had enough of it and I was glad it was done with.  Nonetheless, still a good show for Zeboyd and PA, and probably worth the $5.  As far as I can tell there’s no plan for DLC, so this does appear to be the end of this particular endeavor.  Congratulations to the PA guys on their first foray into game design, and maybe next time they’ll do something with a little more substance to it.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Been a little slow recently because I’ve been reading some stuff that didn’t really excite me one way or the other and I didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm either good or bad to write about it.  So I went on vacation and decided to re-read some classics.  And here we go.

Lord of Light won the 1968 Hugo for best novel and is one of the stranger works of the period.  One of the things that I really like about it is how much is left unsaid and undeveloped.  In this current environment of sequel after sequel, you’d expect a whole world like this to be the setting of novel after novel, but Zelazny wrote about it once and moved on.

In describing the plot you have to read between the lines quite a bit, but here’s the basic gist.  On an interplanetary colonization ship, the “Star of India”, a bunch of human colonists left Earth some unspecified time before the novel begins.  It’s probably been on the order of five hundred years, possibly longer.  When they arrived at their destination, the crew members discovered that they had developed latent psychic powers, unique to each person, and they used those powers combined with technology from the ship to subdue the various hostile alien species on the planet and achieve a foothold there.  They’ve also got the technology to grow cloned bodies and transfer their consciousness over so they don’t die of old age, although the process doesn’t work if you are already dead.

Rather than explain all this to the colonists and the descendants of their various bodies, the crew spreads the Hindu religion and claim to be various gods.  During the initial desperate fighting this is one thing, but after things calm down there is something of a schism among the “gods” or the First, as they are sometimes called.  One faction believes the time has come to abandon the charade and begin spreading advanced technology to everyone, and are known as Accelerationists.  The other faction, the Deicrats, likes things just fine as they are and since they politically maneuver themselves into running the reincarnation machines there soon aren’t any Accelerationists left.

Except Sam.

The book itself is extremely vague in these specifics and has one of the strangest structures of any book that I can recall reading.  The first couple of chapters and the last ones are the only ones that occur in the “present”.  It kicks off right in medias res and doesn’t bother to explain a whole lot, with Lord Yama, the god of death, figuring out how to rescue Sam’s spirit from the planet’s Van Allen radiation belt where it’s been trapped for a while and to stick it back into a body.  At that point Sam decides he needs to meditate for a while, and he thinks about his war with the gods and how he got into that state in the first place.  This recollection takes by far the majority of the book, and when he’s done he gets back up, we get the final battle, and then it wraps up amazingly quickly.

Since the book starts toward the end of the action, as it were, you know that certain things are bound to happen and the only question is why.  For instance, we’re introduced to Yama helping Sam out, but they clearly weren’t always allies, and we get to see a couple of occasions where Yama was either sent to assassinate Sam or was helping some other gods try to kill him.  Tak wasn’t always in the body of an ape, and so on.

Sam’s revolt against the gods takes place over centuries and is a bizarrely interesting struggle.  He’s got some supernormal powers of his own, which helps, but primarily he has his strong will and sense of moral righteousness.  I like characters like this, although he is pretty terrifying as well.  Early on he commits to doing whatever is necessary to break the reign of the gods, and keeps his word to do it, even when he could quit, even when he might die.  If he has to kill, he'll do it, and if he has to make a pact with the aliens he previously trapped, he'll do it, and if he has to deal with the gods themselves, he'll do even that.

In some ways this is a pretty ahead of its time book, but in other ways it does jar a little bit.  Unusually for the time period, it’s got some strong female characters, some of which are helpful to Sam, and some of which are actually primary antagonists.  Its portrayal of same-sex attraction is pretty unfortunate, though.  It was the 60s, and the typical portrayal in SF was characters like the depraved Baron Harkonnen at the time, so even that isn’t as bad as it could be (although the suggestion that lesbians would really prefer to incarnate in musclebound male bodies is pretty silly to a modern reader).

This is also a book that rewards re-reading, since so much of it is in flashbacks and reminiscences.  The first time I read it I was enthralled, and on each subsequent reading I’ve picked up on something that I’d missed previously, and it will probably still be part of the SF canon after many of its contemporaries are not.