What I learned from playing Journey

Journey is a wonderful little PS3 game from thatgamecompany (the same people responsible for flOw and Flower). It’s got breathtaking visuals, immersive gameplay, and a unique story. Basically a platformer puzzle game, what really makes it come alive is the interaction with the world’s… inhabitants, and one’s interpretation of what the journey actually means. What’s at the end? Enlightenment? Apotheosis? Heaven? Hell? Personally, I think the end doesn’t matter. It’s the journey that matters, and it’s taught me some very important life lessons.

1) Go with the flow. This is common to all exploration games, that there’s always something to see, and if you think you’re stuck there’s always a way out. But here it was taken up to eleven. Heading for the nearest landmark (or the Mountain itself) was always the right answer—or, in a couple of scenes, following the cloth creatures. Bottom line: always head towards whatever looks interesting.

2) Be thankful. I have no idea how sapient the cloth creatures are supposed to be, but I like to think they helped me along purely out of affection and generosity. When I sang and the little ones swarmed in, giving me a boost, I always made sure to thank them. Because you never journey alone.

3) Have fun. A life-changing spiritual journey is no excuse to not cut loose and relax. Stop and smell the flowers. Or slide down massive sandy slopes with your newfound kite creature friends, jumping and floating and running through stony arches.

4) Don’t give up. Again, adventure / puzzle game. But not all such games have the character struggling up a gigantic mountain, freezing to death in a blizzard. I was so immersed in the game that it never occurred to me to go back down, and when he finally collapsed, I just sat there in shock until the Ancients came. Bottom line: push yourself to your limit, even if there are no benevolent astral beings waiting for you there.

Game Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum

I’d heard the hype about this game, and eventually got to play the first few chapters at a friend’s place. I was so hooked that I decided to rent a disc and console so I could play it for myself. Everything about it is excellent, from the graphics to the gameplay to the story. Everything.

That was absolutely awesome.

I’d heard the hype about this game, and eventually got to play the first few chapters at a friend’s place. I was so hooked that I decided to rent a disc and console so I could play it for myself. Everything about it is excellent, from the graphics to the gameplay to the story. Everything.

For one, the voice acting is first-rate: Batman, Joker and Harley Quinn are played by the same excellent actors as in the 90’s Batman animated series (oh, how I missed Mark Hamill’s demented giggles, and Arleen Sorkin cooing “Pudd’n”!). The other voices—Bane, Scarecrow, Riddler, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, Commissioner Gordon, Oracle—are also all great. Hell, even the generic batarang-fodder henchmen sell their lines pretty well.

The visuals are beautifully done, from the brooding asylum grounds, to the oppressive Victorian architecture, to the crumbling sewers, and every environment is full of little details that add to the gloomy Gothic atmosphere. Batman’s hi-tech armor and toys looked very nice too.

The game controls are quite complex, and there’s no tutorial as such. That’s okay, though: the game introduces elements gradually enough—moving, looking around, fighting, etc…—that before you know it you’ll be tossing out Twin Batarangs with the best of them. All you have to do is remember which button does what. As for the upgrade system, it’s pretty cool, but I didn’t find that it gave you a lot of room to customise: in the end you’ll have pretty much all available skills, it’s just a question of which to get first. (hint: “Inverted Takedown” is the shiznit.)

Replay value? I’ve only gone through the game one and a half times so I can’t say for sure, but I could probably play it a couple more times, if only to see what the “Hard” difficulty level is all about. Also, I could try out some of the more advanced fighting techniques, and see how much of the bonus material I could get my hands on. On my one complete playthrough I only discovered about half the trophies and unlockable extras, including just under half of Arkham’s Chronicles.

Which brings me to the story. On the surface, it’s pretty simple: Joker and Harley Quinn have taken control of the asylum, and Batman must save staff and other innocents, all the while figuring out the Clown Prince of Crime’s true intentions. It’s an engaging story, bringing together many characters from the Batman universe. The writers’ love for the mythos is evident in the little details, like the iconic clatter of pearls when Batman, hallucinating on Scarecrow’s fear gas, is forced to relive his parents’ murder. And Harley Quinn telling a captive Jim Gordon, “Mama spank!”. Plus, nods to sillier villains like Scarface and Calendar Man.

But there’s more. A lot of the extra world building was clearly inspired by the graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean in 1989. It’s the kind of deliciously trippy mind-fuck only Morrison can deliver, delving deep into Lewis Carroll, Jung, Crowleyian magic and other esoteric themes, yet (at least to me) never crossing the line into random pseudo-profound mystical babble. In this story, Batman is presented as hardly more sane than the Joker and other inmates, and Arkham as a cursed house, fed and made strong by the constant flow of violently insane souls.

The “chronicles” hidden throughout the game are each short chapters in the journal of Amadeus Arkham, founder of the Asylum. From what I’ve seen (ie: the first half) it’s not too different from the original Morrison story—toned down, because this is an action-adventure game, and players don’t want to spend too much time hearing about Crowley and the Tarot and whatnot—but still pretty darn creepy and disturbing. And though they only show up in Scarecrow-induced hallucinations, the game does drop a few nice hints that Batman has, shall we say, issues.

I wish I’d found all of Arkham’s chronicles, though, because I want to see how this version of the story ends. Forget defeating the Joker, I want to know about the Asylum’s history!

So, to recap: fantastic game. It’s fun, challenging, full of atmosphere and details that show deep love for the Batman mythos. Definitely a keeper. And hey, they’re making a sequel!

Dungeons & Dragons

I discovered The Order of the Stick about a month ago (with this episode, to be precise), and was immediately hooked. It’s got great plots, character development, action and adventure and tons of humour. Half of that is the hilarious metagaming dialog which spoke to right to my geek heart.

I discovered The Order of the Stick about a month ago (with this episode, to be precise), and was immediately hooked. It’s got great plots, character development, action and adventure and tons of humour. Half of that is the hilarious metagaming dialog which spoke to right to my geek heart. All this talk of hit points and +5 modifiers and levels by the characters themselves took me back to those long-ago gaming Dungeons & Dragons™ sessions I played with my brother M and a few friends. Ah, memories: the rattle of the dice, the scribbling on character sheets, the memorizing of monster stats, pretending we were wizards or paladins or thieves… Good times, good times.

We started playing around age 8, even before the (1st Edition) Advanced D&D came along. I remember our first couple of games, on our grandfather’s dining room table. Good old module B2! We played with our older brother and dad—who’d introduced us to the game and bought the module and dice. He never wanted to play himself, and bowed out as soon as we found gaming groups of our own. M and I played for more than a decade (and two editions), up until our early twenties when the last of the old gang moved away. I didn’t mind not RPGing anymore, since by then I’d come out of the closet and finally had a bit more of a life. Still, it was fun while it lasted, and I got to flex a lot of my creative muscles. Plus, let’s face it: there aren’t that many social outlets for awkward teens with hyperactive imaginations, and I’m grateful to our parents for, first, introducing us to the game, and second, ignoring the fundie-driven “D&D is Satanism” hysteria that flared up in the 80’s.

But though I haven’t felt like playing since, I do get nostalgic. Now, we used to read Dragon™ magazine for most of our gaming life. Dragon had excellent articles on many RPGs (not just D&D), art, modules, short stories… and comics in the back pages. After devouring the OOTS archives, I suddenly had a hankering for those long-ago comics.

What’s New? with Phil & Dixie lasted only a few years, delighting readers with its hilarious commentaries on games and the gaming world. The creator, Phil Foglio, has been keeping busy: check out the terrific steampunk adventure Girl Genius.

Yamara started in the late 80’s and apparently kept going for a bit after we let our Dragon subscription lapse in ’93-94. It was also chock-full of metagaming dialog, with this strip being the best example. And yeah, we totally did that too. Or would have, if our DM’s had introduced this kind of mystery monster.

And Wormy. A beautiful, intricately drawn story about a cranky cigar-smoking dragon, that ended abruptly in the late 80’s. Gremorly the wizard and Solomoriah the winged demon cat kicked all kinds of ass; I believe the July ’81 strip was my introduction to the story—and what a strip it was!

No trip down memory lane would be complete without a nod to Dungeons & Dragons, the TV show. Actually, more than a nod. I recently got my hands on the entire show on DVD, and I’m happily making my way through all the eps. I loved the show when it came out, and it still holds up pretty well. The voice talent is only so-so, the dialog was kind of clunky and (this being an 80’s kids’ show) full of “morally uplifting” messages, but that’s okay because the visuals are what I signed up for, then and now. Venger on his nightmare is still an awesome sight, as is Tiamat and pretty much all the various creatures and places the children see. The animators did a top-notch job of adapting to the screen the fantasy monsters I was already familiar with, and I can tell they had a lot of respect for the source material. Which is more than I can say for the losers responsible for that similarly-named abomination. Bleah.

Dancin’ Fool

Went to a little Dance Dance Revolution party last night, and it was a blast. I’d never played DDR before or, really, given it much thought; the few times I’ve been in arcades since it came out I much preferred to shoot at zombies or terrorists, or revisit the old-school games I grew up with (you know, back when arcade games only cost 25¢ each).

Went to a little Dance Dance Revolution party last night, and it was a blast. I’d never played DDR before or, really, given it much thought; the few times I’ve been in arcades since it came out I much preferred to shoot at zombies or terrorists, or revisit the old-school games I grew up with (you know, back when arcade games only cost 25¢ each). And if I wanted to dance, I’d actually go out and dance, right? Then again, it does get kids off their butts and exercising a bit, so there you go.

But it turns out this pretend dancing is a lot of fun too. And, after a bit of practice, I actually got pretty good—consistently better than almost everybody else there. I don’t know if it’s because I was used to worrying about footwork from Taijiquan practice, or just that we homosexuals have natural rhythm (we do, right?). Although when the night was over my legs were more tired than I expected, way more than they should have been from dancing in brief two-minute bursts separated by long breaks. But then DDR consists only of very short, quick movements, probably using different muscles than real dancing. I guess nothing can prepare you for it except… playing DDR.

Afterwards some of us watched the South Park episode You Got F’d in the A (from the newly-released Season 8 DVD set), the one with the dance-off and Butters horribly killing lots of people. Man, that was a great ep.

Game Review: Homeworld 2

I just finished playing Homeworld 2. All in all, it was a hell of a game, just as engaging as its predecessors Homeworld and Homeworld: Cataclysm. Not perfect, mind you, but still pretty damn amazing.

I just finished playing Homeworld 2. All in all, it was a hell of a game, just as engaging as its predecessors Homeworld and Homeworld: Cataclysm. Not perfect, mind you, but still pretty damn amazing.

The Good:

The game, to nobody’s surprise, looks absolutely awesome. The grand starscapes of the first and second games are still there, of course. Ship design is top notch: Hiigaran ships are similar to their Homeworld counterparts, but far more advanced, and look amazing, from the sharp-edged Interceptor to the exquisitely sleek and deadly Battlecruiser. This was a far cry from the Cataclysm ships. The command ship in that game—a self-sufficient mining vessel called the Kuun-Lan—wasn’t exactly stylish or pretty, and neither were its auxiliary ships; however, they did share a very solid, very functional design, of which I thoroughly approve. But honestly, when all’s said and done, sleek and deadly’s the way to go if you’re playing a space-battle game. Vaygr ships are interesting; some have an odd asymmetrical look that was a bit startling the first I saw it, but have now decided is very cool. As are the Progenitor ships, blocky and deceptively rough-looking. The Bentusi Mothership looks quite nice, though I have to question its very existence. More on that later.

The soundtrack also earns my love. While Homeworld’s music was very atmospheric and New-Age-y, and Cataclysm’s was more punchy and action-oriented, Homeworld 2 brings us a beautiful soundtrack with a variety of rousing ethnic rhythms that kicks large amounts of ass. Truly the best of both worlds. The voice of Fleet Command is back, and boy have I missed her. The most emotional part of Homeworld, for me, took place at the very beginning, when Fleet Command ran through her startup checklist in her cool, emotionless voice, ending with “The Mothership has cleared the scaffold. We are away.” They repeated these lines almost word for word in Homeworld 2, but I’m sorry to say it didn’t have the same punch. In the first game, the Hiigarans were about to set off on their greatest adventure, the search for their ancestral home. In Homeworld 2, we’re just running away from a Vaygr attack. Blah. Although I have to admit, the shutdown checklist at the end of Mission 14, as Fleet Command left the Mothership and prepared to transfer to Sajuuk, was a very nice touch, and quite affecting.

(Don’t get me wrong. The voices of Ship Tactical and Ship Command in Homeworld: Cataclysm were very good. Tactical seemed older, experienced, a veteran of many space battles and a total pro. She never once lost her cool, no matter how bad things seemed. Command, however, seemed younger and more nervous, probably recently took command of the Kuun-Lan and never expected to do more with it than, well, mine a lot of asteroids—which was its function, after all. And, granted, things are a bit tense for most of the game, since the Kuun-Lan accidentally unleashed a horrible sentient biomechanical plague that threatens all life in the galaxy and against which they have—at first—no serious defense. But really, is that any reason to panic?)

Some of the gameplay has been improved. I appreciate how the Build, Research and Launch Managers only take up about a quarter of the screen, and are slightly transparent to boot, allowing me to manage my fleet with no break in the action. The concept of ship upgrades, introduced in Cataclysm, has been taken to a whole new level. It’s now possible to target individual subsystems on capital ships and Motherships (engines for all; ion turrets on Battlecruisers; resourcing and production facilities on Carriers. And so on). Two major differences between Cataclysm and Homeworld 2: research costs resources as well as time; but on the bright side, strike craft don’t need to dock to get upgraded.

The single-player missions are really, really hard. Which I like. Why did some reviewers complain about that? Come on, don’t you want to be challenged?

The Not So Good:

So, what, I can’t pick my ship colours for the single-player game? That was the best part! Okay, not really, but it’s still a bit annoying. Yes, you can pick colours for the multi-player battles (and not just your colours, but your fleet badge, which I thought was a lovely touch. If you ever wanted to wear the emblems of Kiith Nabal or Kiith Manaan, or some of the other Kiithid we saw in Cataclysm, now you can.) But for the single-player missions, we’re stuck with the default blue, white and grey colour scheme. Which is fine, really, no big complaints, but I just wish I had a choice.

And we’re back to unit caps? Sigh. One of the best innovations of Homeworld: Cataclysm was the concept of Support Units. Though it restricted you to a very small fleet at first, later on gave you a lot of flexibility. You weren’t bound by arbitrary limits of, let’s say, 14 fighter squadrons, 12 corvette squadrons and 20 frigates. If you wanted to focus more on fighters and less on frigates, then you were plum out of luck. 14 squadrons was all you could build, no matter how few frigates were on the field.

A few aspects of the gameplay are somewhat questionable. The taskbar is vastly expanded and shows all commands (moving, attacking, even specialized functions). Was this really necessary, or even useful? How many people will try to click on these icons instead of using the keyboard shortcuts? Also, each mission ends as soon as all objectives are complete. You don’t have the option of hanging around and rebuilding your fleet before moving on. All resources are collected automatically, but as soon as one mission’s done, you’re outa there. I’m not sure if this counts as a positive or negative. On the one hand, it does make the game faster-paced and more challenging, and clearly it’s not such a huge handicap if I still got to the end. On the other hand, it’s a pretty radical and unexpected deviation from the first two games. So, I’m torn. Intellectually I know I shouldn’t mind, but emotionally I don’t like it.

Now, let’s look at the story. To be blunt, it makes no fucking sense. The story in Homeworld was fairly straightforward: the Hiigarans discover that their planet is in fact not their home; genetic analysis proves they are unrelated to most other life around them, and the discovery of an ancient millenia-old starship (containing an ancient starmap that seems to point to a planet of origin) clinches it. The Hiigarans decide to reverse-engineer the old hulk and build a massive mothership, designed to carry a large fraction of their population, and look for home. And immediately run into their old enemies the Taiidani, who exiled them from their homeworld so long ago. The Hiigarans have to fight every step of the way to reclaim their home and heritage, and learn their forgotten history. Simple, yet epic. Me like.

Homeworld: Cataclysm’s story was a bit more twisted, but the setting and initial premises flowed from the events in Homeworld. Fifteen years after reclaiming Hiigara, things aren’t exactly rosy for the former exiles. They face serious political and social problems at home and abroad, including near-constant warfare with some remnants of the Taiidan Empire, who—quite correctly—blame the Hiigarans for killing their rightful emperor and breaking their hold on the galaxy, upsetting thousands of years of political stability all in the name of looking for home. Though to be fair, many if not most Taiidani were quite happy losing the aggressive, oppressive lunatic on the throne. (It’s all in how you look at it, I guess.) A few missions in we’re introduced to the Beast—a biomechanical virus with a strange collective intelligence, which can take over both machines and people—and the main plot gets underway. Yet even here, the story grows logically, step by step. In between fighting Beast-infected fleets and Taiidani Imperial forces, the Kuun-Lan uncovers the origin of the Beast and how to eradicate it, and—shockingly—learn that it has allied with Taiidani Imperials, so full of hate and resentment that they’re willing to jeapordize their future for just one more shot at Hiigara. It’s a paranoid little story, where friend becomes foe, bitter people choose revenge over survival, losing means a fate worse than death, and the good guys are very much alone. All that, and extremely challenging missions. What’s not to love?

Homeworld 2’s story, by contrast, is very much standalone, introduces plot points out of nowhere and—even more frustratingly—contradicts what has gone before with no good reason. The initial cutscene and first couple of missions introduces the Vaygr—essentially an interstellar Mongol horde led by a religious fanatic, who have their eye on the Hiigaran system—and the concept of the Three Far Jumper Cores, ancient hyperspace technology that allow ships to cross vast interstellar distances in the blink of an eye. One such Core is in the possession of the Vaygr. The second was found by the Hiigarans in the derelict ship, and incorporated into the first Mothership for their journey home. A hundred years later a second Mothership has been built, also housing the Second Core.

This is the first problem: how is it that Fleet Command is still alive after a hundred years? Here’s the second problem: Why build a new Mothership? Was it in response to the Vaygr attacks? Third problem: there was never any previous hint that the Mothership’s hyperspace technology was in any way special. In fact, there was good reason to think it wasn’t: we learned in Homeworld that Hiigarans were exiled in a whole convoy of ships, only one of which eventually made planetfall. Were they all carrying Far Jumpers? Why would the Taiidani have let powerless, disgraced exiles get away with this unique technology? Absurd as it seemed, it was necessary to set up the main plot, to wit: a prophecy. It seems the Hiigarans are destined to reunite the Core Trinity. Whoever does this would apparently gain great power, power with which to reshape the galaxy and begin a whole new age. This prophecy is delivered by the Bentusi, an ancient star-faring race who were the Hiigarans’ only allies during their homeward journey, delivering crucial technology and advice. They appear here in a great-looking new ship, reminiscent of their old design but seriously jazzed up. As impressive as the visual was, this again seemed unnecessary.

So off the Hiigarans go, hunting down clues as to the Third Core’s location, all the while trying to stay ahead of the Vaygr who also seek to reunite the Cores. Eventually they go up against the Vaygr leader, destroy his command ship and take his Core. The Core Trinity is reunited inside Sajuuk, an ancient mythical ship created by the Progenitors, the mysterious race that first developed hyperspace technology and built the Cores. (It turns out that the third Core was housed in the Bentusi Mothership.) Under the control of Fleet Command, Sajuuk moves to eliminate the remaining Vaygr forces. The end? Not quite. In a surprise twist, just as Sajuuk and the rest of the good guys confront the Vaygr in orbit around Hiigara, a number of unknown ships appear out of hyperspace and start bombarding Hiigara. Who are they? Not Bentusi, not Hiigaran, not Taiidan, not Progenitor. Were they allied with the Vaygr? Who knows? Where did they come from? My guess is, the writers’ asses.

Now it’s the end. Time for that new era of peace and prosperity.

Okay, I’ll admit. This story had some good moments. The start of Mission 8, when the Hiigaran discovers the Gatekeeper of Sajuuk, a Dreadnought-class ship that had remained dormant for millenia. My thoughts during that cutscene ran more or less as follows: “Holy cow, this looks cool”—as the view swooped in towards the Gatekeeper’s berth—“Oh, shit, it’s still active!”—as lights blinked on on the ship’s surface and it slowly began to move—“Ohmigawd, this music is amazing.” There’s the transfer of Fleet Command to Sajuuk, which I’ve already mentioned. The closing cutscene and credits, nicely grand and cosmic. But those Big Cosmic Moments weren’t connected in any interesting way, and there were some moments that were… not so good, where it felt the writers were deliberately trying to recapture the magic of the first two games. For example, Fleet Command’s startup checklist in Mission 1 (already mentioned), and the Bentusi’s sacrifice in Mission 10 to destroy the Keepers, seemingly indestructible Progenitor ships. This felt too reminiscent of the scene in Homeworld: Cataclysm where another Bentusi ship blew itself up (and most of the attacking fleet) rather than become infected by the Beast.

Don’t let that stop you from enjoying Homeworld 2, though. I still highly recommend it, especially if you’ve enjoyed its predecesors. And if you can ignore the silly plot and enjoy the Big Moments, more power to you. When all’s said and done, Homeworld 2 is a truly superb game.