Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

A mini-slice of Far Cry open-world gameplay wrapped up in a glorious homage to 80s sci-fi action films.

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I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Ubisoft

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: May 1, 2013

Blood Dragon box art

There was a moment late in the game when Blood Dragon’s protagonist Sergeant Rex Power Colt (voiced by 80s/90s sci-fi action hero Michael Biehn) picks up the ultimate weapon called the Killstar and yells out the opening lyrics to Stan Bush’s “The Touch.” The ridiculousness of everything I’d experienced reached a heightened level of awesome, and I let myself get completely immersed in Blood Dragon’s loving embrace  of cheesy 80s sci-fi action films. It’s low-hanging fruit to be sure, but the music, writing, and plot effectively capture the nostalgic era that the developers clearly adore. I just wish its open-world gameplay and art design were as equally inspired and interesting.

I’d never played a single Far Cry game before, and thus didn’t really know what to expect out of this well-received stand-alone expansion to Far Cry 3. The 80s homage definitely appealed to me over the modern day jungles of the main series, and the much shorter run time helped motivate me to give Blood Dragon a shot.

The adventure starts off completely linear, forcing you into a humorous and very self-aware tutorial. A recurring problem throughout the game immediately surfaces this early: just because you make fun of something and mention how dumb it is, doesn’t give you a free pass to actually do the thing. In other words making fun of how tiresome super linear and simplified tutorials are and then giving you a super linear and simplified tutorial doesn’t make it all that much more fun to experience.

There are a few times where it eschews this common gaming-parody tendency (like the surprising lack of a final boss battle), but all too often Rex bitches about doing something and you still have to do it. Most of the side quests, for example, are seemingly interchangeable “go rescue this guy from this group of bad guys” or “go hunt down this creature.” Rex remarks “blah blah kill blah blah,” which is funny and on point, but is in fact what you end up doing.

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Other than the enjoyably cheesy dialogue cutscenes, presented in tiny retro-style comic panels, the opening and first few missions are incredibly linear and play too much like a mediocre shooter. Despite its retro sci-fi setting (2007 – the future!) Rex is still armed with your basic heavy pistol, sniper, assault rifle and shotgun. His one unique tool is the cybereye, which lets him zoom in and automatically mark any enemies he sees. This reveals them as thermographic images – critical for a stealthy approach.

I don’t play a lot of stealthy first-person shooters, but the ones I have played that give you the option, I often enjoy taking that route (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored). Blood Dragon encourages the stealthy approach to the many enemy strongholds that dot the island, at least to get far enough to shut off the alarm system. The alarms are clearly marked on your map and if an enemy gets to it after spotting you, a huge contingent of forces spawns in and runs at you, making your job extremely difficult. Rex also can’t take a whole lot of hits, despite being a super-powered cyborg soldier, and can only carry a limited number of healing items. This combined with a lack of mid-mission saving definitely led to some frustrating woes before I got a handle on the stealth systems.

Thankfully I enjoyed the stealth gameplay, and the game mechancis make it fun. All enemies give off a red glowing aura, the cybereye lets you mark and track them, and stealth takedowns are incredibly fun, easy, and can potentially take down multiple foes together in a chain. You also get access to the bow early on, an ideal long-range stealth weapon. The only thing you can’t do is move bodies, so once you start killing you need to move quickly.

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The world opens up after you take your first stronghold, with the help of the titular blood dragons. These giant glowing laser-shooting lizard-dinosaur things roam the world with impunity, often getting into random battles with creatures and other cyber-soldiers. Each stronghold is protected by a dome that keeps them away, so a major strategy in taking down strongholds is to sneak in and disable the dome.

Looted cyber-hearts from enemies can be thrown and act as a lure for the giant creatures, resulting in a very satisfying and angry pet that be somewhat directed around. The blood dragons are a lot of fun, both as a useful tool and a fearsome foe, and when you finally have to take one down later in the story, it presents just the right amount of terror and awe.

Taking down strongholds is the main purpose of the open-world gameplay, as they lead to sidequests, provide fast travel opportunities, and give you a safe place to respawn. They’re also entirely optional, as are collecting the various collectibles dotted around the world (CRT TVs and VHS tapes, naturally).

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The sidequests can give a few mini-opportunities for stealth, but often I could just go in guns blazing and kill them faster than they could kill the hostage. Even with rewards doling out nice weapon attachments and upgrades, I mostly skipped them (that and two of my favorite weapons, the bow and mini-gun, had no attachments to earn).

The main story is only about half a dozen missions long and as the case with many open-world games there’s an awkward disconnect between continuing the story and just roaming around doing your own thing. Frankly the art design and level design of the world just weren’t interesting enough to make me want to explore the world, and given the retro sci-fi setting that is a hugely wasted opportunity. The mundane island dotted with the occasional enemy fort doesn’t contain a whole lot of secrets, and while there are a few variety of enemies, they all basically look and behave the same, save for the inevitable zombie-types that crop up later on. The blood dragons do add a unique twist to exploring the island but unlike say, Skyrim’s dragons, there’s no real incentive to fighting them.

Blood Dragon makes up for its lackluster open world gameplay with its fantastic story and main missions. In fact, I would recommend anyone taking on Blood Dragon to mostly stick with the main story. The comic-style cutscenes are extremely well done and often laugh out lout funny, and the missions throw a lot of unique curveballs at you that keep them fresh and interesting. Stealthily planting bombs on a dam early on goes awry, and ends with Rex taking down dozens of soldiers, helicopters, and jeeps with the newly acquired Terror 4000 (the awesome mini-gun). Holding down the fire button on the mini-gun results in Rex screaming and yelling incoherently while you fire; if that doesn’t endear you to his personality than this game probably isn’t for you.

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The story has Rex fighting back against insane rogue army general Dr. Sloan, a classic hyper-conservative, war-mongering villain that looks and sounds like General Treister from The Venture Bros. Rex is aided by Sloan’s former research scientist Dr. Darling, and she sends you on missions to undermine his control. Many of them involve large underground facilities, often with several big rooms of soldiers where a stealth approach comes off like a tactical appraisal, not unlike the Batman Arkham games.

There are a lot of fun scripted moments, like using a flamethrower to take out blood dragon eggs a la Aliens, hang-gliding your way through enemy blockades, avoiding cyber-sharks in the water, and eventually riding your own weapon-mounted blood dragon for the on-rails finale. The adventure ends much, much stronger than it started, and I found myself fist-pumping and giggling along with the game.

In giving you a smaller slice of Far Cry’s open-world gameplay Blood Dragon is mediocre at best, with a boring world and bland art style. The real treat comes from the excellent story and soundtrack by Power Glove, though I presume many of the references and nostalgic enjoyment are lost if you didn’t grow up with and adore 80s sci-fi action films like Terminator, Aliens, and Robocop. Stick to the main story and immerse yourself in an impressive and well-scripted 80s-tastic adventure.

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Pros

  • Well-realized story that hits all the right notes for 80’s sci-fi action genre
  • The blood dragons are scary, powerful, and awesome additions to any situation
  • Large open-world island with tons of strongholds and side quests
  • Fantastic synth-heavy soundtrack by Power Glove

Cons

  • Bland art and level design
  • No mid-mission saving
  • Forgettable and recycled side quests
  • Mostly boring, conventional weapons
  • First-person vehicle driving is a nightmare

Final Say: A mini-slice of Far Cry open-world gameplay wrapped up in a glorious homage to 80s sci-fi action films.

 

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Retro City Rampage

Despite a lot of frustrations with the difficulty and combat, the open-world city and 80s theming were pure joy to explore.

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: VBlank Entertainment

Publisher: VBlank Entertainment

Release Date: October 9, 2012

My generation seems especially infatuated with their nostalgic childhood. The 80s had an explosion of cartoons, kid-centered commercials and advertisements, action figures, brands, and movies. And of course, the birth of the modern video game industry.

Retro City Rampage squeezes every last drop of 80s pop culture into an 8-bit, top-down Grand Theft Auto-style city. The player character, named “Player,” looks exactly like the coiffed, leather jacket-clad silent protagonist from Grand Theft Auto III. After a fun and zany bank robbery tutorial, you happen upon the phone booth time machine from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, then meet up with Doc Choc driving the DeLorean while fleeing from the T-Team and a familiar group of green-skinned turtles emerging from the sewers wielding ninja weapons.

Retro City Rampage is brazenly unafraid of assaulting you with every reference you can imagine from that era. You do a chain of missions for the Go-Go Busters, a clean-up crew that deals in slime and goo from…er…human bodies. Shops are called “Pizza Gaiden,” “Skate ‘N Buy,” and “Toadstool Tatoo.” The local anchorwoman looks like Chun-Li. There’s a series of missions involving Bayshore High, working for Principal Balding and dealing with a familiar group of high school students. It’s a rapid fire assault with a razor sharp focus on wink wink, nudge nudge style comedy, and it permeates everything from the dialogue and situations to the gameplay and background artwork. Your love and familiarity with the 80s will directly affect your appreciation of the entire game.

The actual gameplay is very reminiscent of the old Grand Theft Auto games (that would be the first two, before they evolved 3D open world gameplay forever with Grand Theft Auto III). The city is alive with cars and pedestrians, and you’re free to assault random people, jack their cars, and run them over. Police response is fast and quite deadly if you’re on foot (they always go for the roadkill) but a handy mechanic that results in them dropping cloaking coins upon death gives a huge incentive to fight back, then run away – a concept that I would love to see in every actual GTA game.

Driving takes a bit to get used to, as all top down driving games have that same awkward driving scheme that orients your directional control to your car, regardless of which way your car is facing. I rarely had any problems driving and the camera thankfully shifts in whichever way you’re going, giving you plenty of room to adjust on all but the fastest vehicles. Standard cars like taxis and muscle cars are plentiful alongside a couple fun joke cars like the Yoshi-inspired Bikosaurus and covered wagon Dysentruck.

On foot the 8-bit game is given a nice modern day upgrade with lock-on capabilities and a cover system, neither of which I used much due to the fast-paced zaniness of most combat encounters. Dodging the little white bullets when there’s more than a few foes on screen becomes almost impossible, and often the best course of action is to simply dive into a horde of enemies using your Mario-inspired stomp attack. I suspect the developer realized how useful this simple ability was, as during the finale you get a super-powered upgrade that allows you to stomp down with explosive force.

There are a bunch of collectibles to grab: hidden packages, phone booths, and the rather funny discovery of all the invisible walls used throughout the adventure. Many of the shops can actually be entered and used to customize your little 8-bit avatar with different amazing 80s-inspired hair styles, hats, sunglasses, and tattoos. I rocked the sombrero for awhile before settling on the Last Action Hero mullet and bandanna look.

The biggest activity are the rampages. These should be recognizable for any GTA fans and operate in exactly that style: you’re given unlimited bullets to a certain gun and told to do as much damage as you can in a limited time. Some tasks get a bit inventive – there’s a rocket launcher challenge that only rewards air time from the blasts and a hover suit challenge (which looks exactly like the raccoon tail from Super Mario Bros. 3) that tracks all your stomp attacks. They’re a fun and slightly structured diversion from just free roaming chaos or completing the story missions.

Like GTA there is a main set of missions that take you through the story in addition to wrecking havoc around the city. Unfortunately any hope of getting a clever plot is wasted on a story that simply involves collecting all the various parts to the broken time machine. The missions themselves range from fun to frustrating and often open up additional side missions that can be completed, like working for the aforementioned Go-Go Busters (who’s electron proton pack gun is fan-freaking-tastic).

The final mission started out great – getting attacked by a horde of police forces with tanks and helicopters, then having to fight your way out of a sadistic murder-happy reality show. Its scope and grandeur is frustratingly misplaced once you reach the final castle area. The combat quickly gets repetitive and more difficult than fun. At one point an entire dungeon is reset with enemies armed with rocket launchers and I easily died a dozen times just trying to walk around. I did appreciate that VBlank shoved as many NES levels as they could into this lengthy finale – an underwater Super Mario Bros. section, a side scrolling Battletoads venture, a 3rd person driving finale a la Pole Position.

That driving bit at the end was just awful by the way. I never enjoyed those old racing games much as they come down to having to repeat and memorize sections, and Retro City Rampage combines that with a frustrating boss battle that fires missiles while you drive. It took me at least half an hour on this last section alone, and I was so over it by the time I was done that it really soured my entire experience.

Despite a lot of frustrations with the difficulty and combat, the open-world city and 80s theming were pure joy to explore. An open world game that doesn’t take itself seriously is nothing new to Saints Row fans, but embracing the spirit and attitude of the 80s so completely is an impressive feat nonetheless. It’s fun to grin and laugh over the classic Metal Gear translation errors. I loved hopping on a bike and playing through a Paperboy level. These nostalgic trickles work well because they’re short and sweet and hit all the right notes without being long enough to be frustrating.

 

Pros

  • 8-bit style looks and feels great
  • Brimming with 80s pop culture references and classic NES gameplay
  • Lots of collectibles and fun rampage-style challenges
  • Top down driving is fun and intuitive
  • Humorous writing that works more than it doesn’t

 

Cons

  • Main story is funny but forgettable
  • Combat with many enemies on screen becomes a chaotic mess
  • Too many story missions involve waves of foes, making combat repetitive and frustrating
  • One of the worst final boss fights I’ve ever experienced

 

Final Say: If you loved growing up in the 80s you’ll find a lot to like in this 8-bit GTA-style adventure.

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut

Shadowrun Dragonfall is the definitive Shadowrun cRPG experience with a meaty campaign and lots of crucial improvements.

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Harebrained Schemes

Publisher: Harebrained Holdings

Release Date: September 18, 2014 (Director’s Cut), February 27, 2014 (Original Expansion)

My first real brush with the Shadowrun universe occurred with 2013’s crowdfunded release of Shadowrun: Returns. I was mostly unfamiliar with the 80s cyberpunk-meets-urban-fantasy world having only briefly tried out either the old SNES or Genesis games. I grew increasingly interested in that world and gameplay during its Kickstarter campaign (which I didn’t back at the time) and ended up purchasing and playing Shadowrun Returns right when it released in the Summer of 2013. I also cheated a bit and added it onto my then-schedule of backlogged games for Rogue’s Adventures (you can read my Final Thoughts on the game here).

Unfortunately I only had time to play the main campaign. Even at release they were new user-made adventures and runs being developed but I’ve yet to dive into any of them. Harebrained Schemes released an official expansion, Dragonfall in early 2014 that fixed a lot of Returns’ issues and added an all new, lengthier, and more satisfying campaign. It was free to those that already owned Shadowrun Returns (being part of their Kickstarter fulfillment). Later that year they released the Director’s Cut version as a stand-alone game that further added new content as well as iterating on the interface and other improvements.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut is the definitive Shadowrun experience. Aside from the actual tabletop role-playing version, Dragonfall presents the best form of playing through the wonderfully diverse and exciting world of Shadowrun.

Dragonfall utilizes the same Unity isometric engine found in many of the most popular modern cRPGs, including Wasteland 2 and the recently released Pillars of Eternity, but it’s also the most limiting and weakest implementation of those games. While a slight step up from Returns, Dragonfall continues to present mostly static maps (everyone stands around waiting for you to talk to them) and only a very specific amount of scripted objects that can be interacted with. Most of the puzzles are limited to finding passwords for a computer, with nearly every scenario and situation involving heavy amounts of combat.

Thankfully the combat is where Shadowrun Dragonfall really shines. Like its predecessor it operates on a turn-based action point system, though its scope is also limited compared to its contemporaries (Wasteland 2, Divinity: Original Sin). With 2-3 points per character the action is more akin to XCOM where you can choose to move, take cover and fire off your weapon. Since it’s Shadowrun you get a ton of fun stuff to do, like flinging spells (both offensive and supportive), activating cybergear buffs and abilities, channeling Adept powers, summoning spirits, controlling drones, and hacking into the matrix. With a ton of varied abilities and an impressively clever AI that takes cover, moves to flank your team, and fires grenades when you bunch up, the combat remained fresh and fun throughout the lengthy 35hr+ campaign.

The single biggest improvement Dragonfall made was in your team structure and dynamic. Shadowrun Returns mostly told a personal story about your customized runner. A few story-based NPCs would occasionally join you, but mostly you hired from a pool of pre-generated runners for a fee. While it was fun to try out different combinations and set-ups, it never really felt like a team.

Dragonfall fixes all that and brings back the concept of an actual shadowrun team from the tabletop game. They’re featured heavily in the promotional artwork, consisting of Eiger the troll ex-military, no nonsense weapons specialist, Dietrich the ex-punk rocker tatooed shaman, Glory the heavily cyber-modified medic with a mysterious and dark past, and later Blitz the hot shot decker/rigger.

After the exciting opening mission, which begins with the classic run gone wrong, you’re given the leadership position of this ragtag crew that I quickly grew to love. Harebrained definitely takes a page out of other great RPG writers Bioware and Obsidian. Your crew has their own little base of operations and you’re free to walk around and talk to them learning more about their backgrounds and their hopes and fears a la every modern Bioware title.

You’re still free to hire additional runners to change the make-up of your team, but your own crew is free to take with you and they’re nicely balanced that I almost never felt the need to hire other random crew members. They also have their own skill trees where you can choose to improve from two different paths after every major mission, giving you further control and lending even more satisfying familiarity with your team.

Harebrained really does an amazing job with your team, and eventually they open up some interesting side missions that just involve them and your character. Blitz needs to score a big hit to pay off a big debt while Glory dives headfirst into her hellishly abusive past to hunt down the cult that twisted her. These character missions are some of the best in the game, focusing on particularly amazing story-telling and sequences.

Dragonfall commits the Baldur’s Gate II feaux pas of throwing up a large speed bump right when the main story is getting interesting. At an early avenue you’re forced to make money in order to continue on with the main story of a possibly resurrecting dragon. This middle section of going on missions to make money takes up the majority of game time, and while fun and very Shadowrun-appropriate, I still felt a major disconnect with the main story for much of the game.

Most runs have fun elements and quirks that make them memorable, from a powerful cyber-zombie that temporarily joins your team to investigating an abandoned research facility. Towards the end I was definitely antsy to get on with the main story, which teased the return of Firewing, a great dragon that was shot down years ago but who’s clues were mysteriously leading to her return.

The climactic final mission was all kinds of amazing, consisting of several huge areas, new tilesets and enemies and one of my favorite parts of any RPG – the chance to talk down the main villain using an extended dialogue session. It was incredibly satisfying and fun, and is much better integrated than Shadowrun Returns’ off the rails bug spirit finale.

Dragonfall doesn’t fix all of the underlying limitations that were present in Returns. It’s still incredibly annoying that you can’t manage your allies’ inventory (picking up items either goes to your inventory or your stash) and I mentioned before about the almost complete lack of puzzles and interactive objects (especially compared to the likes of other cRPGs). Dragonfall does make improvements where it can – now there are options to use your decker or your muscle in situations where your character lacks the needed skill but you brought someone that covers it. The interface is much improved and lets you see both your currently equipped weapons and your spells, items, cybergear etc with lots of nice keyboard shortcuts. Oh and you can also save anywhere now – a huge problem with the original game.

If you’re only going to play one Shadowrun turn-based RPG, definitely play the Director’s Cut of Shadowrun: Dragonfall. The meaty campaign is wonderful and the varied runs and core party members create a satisfying experience that echoes the tabletop adventure. The Shadowrun games are the perfect example of great indie games that I wish could be given more funding and time to create a truly stellar experience.

Based on my time with Dragonfall I quickly backed Harebrained Schemes’ second Kickstarter, Shadowrun: Hong Kong, which just wrapped up a few weeks ago. I’m thrilled that we keep getting these amazing little tactical RPGs, and the Shadowrun universe has become one of my absolute favorites in fiction.

 

Pros

  • Excellent and well balanced turn-based tactical combat
  • New core party members are a vast improvement over randomly hired runners
  • Fun and varied missions
  • Exciting and satisfying beginning and ending
  • Wonderfully thematic music and art style – Shadowrun world is fantastic
  • Top notch evocative writing, both dialogue and descriptive

 

Cons

  • Main Quest takes a backseat through the entire middle half of the game
  • Non-combat mechanics are still very limited
  • Still can’t adjust your party’s inventory mid-mission

 

Final Say: Shadowrun Dragonfall is the definitive Shadowrun cRPG experience with a meaty campaign and lots of crucial improvements.

Making Characters in Pillars of Eternity

Steam says I’ve already logged about three hours in the game, and I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I’ve barely made it out of the character creator.

Pillars of Eternity released yesterday after two and a half years of development. I was a Kickstarter backer from back in 2012 and have very much been looking forward to this spiritual successor to the wonderful isometric ‘Infinity Engine’ games of the late 90s and early 2000s (Read my Final Thoughts on Baldur’s Gate II).

Steam says I’ve already logged about three hours in the game, and I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I’ve barely made it out of the character creator. It’s so much fun making characters! Six races with 2-4 subraces each, 11 classes, half a dozen cultural backgrounds and dozens of portraits. I fell into the trap of finding an excellent file containing more excellent fantasy portraits, so now my options number in the hundreds!

I’ve purposefully kept myself mostly in the dark about the game, so I’ve also been looking up some basic information about class structure. I’m familiar with standard Dungeons and Dragons classes and archetypes, but Pillars of Eternity offers some new twists and concepts. Chanters are like song-twisting bards from Everquest (my favorite bard implementation ever), Ciphers manipulate souls in an intriguing psychic warrior way and Druids can shapeshift into monstrous were-beasts and still cast spells.

I still haven’t narrowed down whom I’ll be playing first, but thankfully Obsidian included the ability to hire your own party members (in addition to the story-based companions) so more than likely I’ll see them all at some point in a single playthrough.

Here’s Isabella, a Savannah Human Rogue hailing from the Deadfire Archipelago. She’s a sassy, hedonistic pirate and obviously based on the character from Dragon Age II. I’ve heard there’s no rogue companion in Pillars of Eternity so I could definitely see myself hiring her if I don’t pick her.

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Aumaua are the large, orc/viking/nordic folk that are all about the sea. They look kinda like the Na’vi from Avatar, and I love the exotic combination of blue skin and dreadlocks. I couldn’t find a decent male picture but the standard female Aumauan portrait is fantastic. Nuala is proud and serious, but in combat she becomes enters a terrifying rage-filled frenzy.

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The godlike race are like the aasamir and tieflings from D&D, only these are more tied to elementals instead of good/evil (like the gensai from later editions). They are a mixed bag in the character creator – the actual figure looks amazing with super unique head ornamentations, but the character portraits are horribly sparse. You can fudge a little bit and use a human portrait for an elf, but you really can’t replicate the crazy glowing blue hair and horns of the moon-gods or the insanely creepy eyeless masks of the death-gods.

Anyway, this female nature-godlike’s portrait is easily the best, and it fits a druid perfectly. Godlikes can actually be any race so I went with Orlan for a short and spunky look. She’s a nature-loving hippie that occasionally morphs into a giant were-stag for some hands-on action.

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In general the female portraits look much better than the males. Maybe it’s just because most of the men look like boring old fighters. I did find one fun concept – a pale elf chanter from the frozen ‘White that Wends.’ Definitely going with a death/undead theme as many of the cool chanter songs involve summoning skeletons and exploding corpses. Maybe he’s into death metal?

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As you can tell I’m more interested in character concepts and ideas rather than specifically min/maxing my stats. I plan on playing on Normal which should give me some breathing room in that regard, letting me play the character/race combo I want to rather than the one I need to. What kind of character will you play?

 

My Favorite Dragon Age Inquisition Companions

As much as I loved its insane amount of content, Dragon Age is still very much a BioWare RPG, and a large part of the experience lies in the well-written and interesting companions.

You can also read this post over on my Game Informer blog

Four Months and 75 hours later and I finally saw the credits roll on Dragon Age: Inquisition. I knew it was going to be a long one but releasing in November had the horrible side effect of trying to keep up with a sprawling RPG during the busy holiday season. Dear developers: Please release all 50 hour+ games in the Summer!

I’ve previously written on the problems of super long games but to be fair Dragon Age Inquisition is about as long as you want it to be. Felt like 70% of my time was spent just blissfully exploring the incredible amount of content that was offered, and I loved that I always had an overwhelming amount of areas to explore and quests to try. At some point I had to just force myself to get back on track with the main story (which I quickly outleveled) and ended up beating the game at level 20 with at least two areas barely explored (Hissing Wastes and Emerald Graves) and many more only half-finished.

As much as I loved the insane amount of content, Dragon Age is still very much a BioWare RPG, and a large part of the experience lies in the well-written and interesting companions. I thought I’d turn my thoughts on the game into a ranked list of all nine Dragon Age: Inquisition companions.

You can read more about my inquisitor and my predictions for the game here.

 

1) Cassandra

The very first companion you get is also the best, a concept that’s fairly common in RPGs. Your first friend and ally tends to be the most strongly written and the most directly tied into the main events of the story. As a former Seeker of Truth Cassandra embodies everything about a traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style Paladin, but her steadfast honesty and confident demeanor made me quickly fall in love with her. She’s also incredibly useful on the battlefield serving as your initial tank and becoming quite adept and handling mages and demons once she unlocks her templar abilities. Despite playing a warrior myself I almost never left Skyhold without her, and she was the first one I’d always go to check with in between outings. At the end of my game she became Divine, and I was proud and confident that she would lead the Chantry and the world into a prosperous era.

2) Varric

Oddly enough I rarely ended up using Varric in Dragon Age II. I enjoyed his personality but my Hawke was a Rogue and I loved using Isabella, so Varric rarely got to come with me. In Inquisition I played a warrior, and archery skills were just as powerful, if not more so than Dragon Age II. Certainly attacking from range afforded him a bit more survivability and I loved his artificer tree and those flashy grenades he threw. Personality wise Varric is the ultimate best bud – friendly, loyal and constantly cracking jokes even in the midst of terror and dread. He was my go-to Rogue for most of the adventure and I was always glad to have his good-natured insight and Bianca’s power.

3) Vivienne

Most RPG companions tend to be various forms of the rogueish archetype, but Vivienne is almost a polar opposite. She’s calm, elegant, and not afraid to flaunt her stature and power. She could be perceived as power-hungry but ultimately she wants what’s best for the world, which typically happens to align with her own desires. I loved the way she talked, layering in ‘darling’ and ‘my dear’ in a deliciously disarming fashion, and her high cheekbones and flawless skin added to her regal look. I could also gush about her usefulness on the battlefield – as an ice mage she’s useful in just about every situation, and her knight enchanter specialization is easily the best in the game, turning her into an off-tank or secondary DPS if you want to run up and whack things with spectral swords. The mages in the Dragon Age world have always had the best abilities and Vivienne gets the best of those.

4) Dorian


Dorian’s story is so analogous to many real people’s it’s almost painful. Running away from his life and responsibilities in his not-quite-evil empire of Tevinter because his father threatened to change his sexuality via blood magic instantly endeared him to me, and he was the first companion I befriended. Dorian was funny, cultured, sassy and a powerful fire mage. Fire can both burn and fear people, making Dorian almost unfair to use against humanoids, and his necromancer skill tree gave him the always fun ability of Walking Bomb. I give Vivienne the slight edge but I ended up trading off between the two for the majority of my adventuring.

5) Cole

Cole is definitely the most interesting and different of the companions. As a spirit inhabiting a dead mage he’s similar in concept to what BioWare did with Anders and Justice in Dragon Age II but the execution is far more fascinating here. Battling the red templars means I got a full blown mission that introduced him and his creepy and poetic way of talking, and his skills as a shadowy assassin fills his personality quite well. I also quite enjoyed his character mission when you find the templar responsible for his death. Unfortunately in creating the guard system for warriors BioWare really left rogues behind – especially those that eschew archery to get up and hurt people. Cole had lots of fun abilities but required a high level of micro management. Still, I used him when I could (he’s especially fun in the story mission where you enter the fade).

6) Iron Bull

Bull! Gotta love the big fun-loving brute character, which BioWare seems to love as well. I never used Vega in Mass Effect 3, a dumb meat-head that got in the way of the much more interesting aliens, but Iron Bull is all kinds of awesome. Every team needs an Iron Bull – heavy cursing, heavy drinking but incredibly loyal, fun and powerful. Unfortunately as a 2handed warrior myself I rarely had room in my party for Iron Bull. When he eventually gains enough skill points to max out his ravager tree he becomes a huge DPS asset with more survivability thanks to the guard system. He was my go-to for dragon fights and I loved talking to him in Skyhold, I just rarely used him in the field. His rapport with his own company of badasses was really fun, too.

7) Blackwall

Blackwall went through an odd rollercoaster for me. Initially I hated him; he was the stoic, boring warrior and skills-wise he was almost exactly like Cassandra, whom I loved. Thus Blackwall was almost never used until he got his champion specialization. Of course then I chose champion for my 2handed warrior and I’d rather take Cassandra for her personality and differing abilities. His character mission was fascinating, however, and my female warrior was trying to romance him as he was surprisingly sweet and reverent toward the Inquisitor. By the end his story fell flat for me, however. I freed him from prison fairly late in the game and barely had any special conversations or scenes with him afterward. Annoyingly it wouldn’t let me continue my romance with him despite doing all his quests. Blackwall is the perfect example of an interesting concept but a poor execution.

8) Solas

The above seven companions I generally enjoyed, but now we get to the ones that just fell flat for me. As a mage that specializes in the fade Solas is very useful on the battlefield, so my main beef with him is simply that I loved the other two mages much more. Solas is aloof, haughty and dare I say a bit boring. It’s irksome that he apparently is way more tied into the main plot than I realized (the end scene caught me completely off guard) as I rarely ever talked to him and never did his character quest. Sorry Solas but haughty elf that looks like The Mummy just isn’t going to do it for me.

9) Sera

I could easily describe Sera as the Borderlands character. She’s zany, irreverent, chaotic and rude. Now, I like Borderlands and the characters in that universe, but she just didn’t fit in my Inquisition at all. I appreciate that there’s a prankster style character but I enjoyed Cole’s enigmatic gags and scenes much more than Sera’s annoying hatred of everything noble or privileged. I role-played my Inquisitor as a fairly serious warrior and leader, and Sera rubbed her in all the wrong ways. I nearly parted ways with her after a particularly heated argument. Don’t get me wrong, I love that her kind of character was included, and it would be boring if the particular kind of character I role-played got along swimmingly with everyone. Power wise she was worse than Varric in every way, and I much preferred Varric’s specialization.

 

All of the pictures here I captured myself from my game, save Cole whom I forgot to take a picture of. How appropriate!

And there it is! Another BioWare game completed. I loved my time with Dragon Age: Inquisition but due to the length don’t see myself replaying it anytime soon. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with the game and companions in the comments below.

You can also read this post over on my Game Informer blog

New Article – Starbound Preview

Starbound is one of the most famous of these upcoming sandbox games. It’s available on Steam in an Early Access version. However, recent updates to the game have made it a title that families should definitely keep their eyes on.

Eric_Watson-Starbound_dreadwingMinecraft‘s runaway indie success has nearly single-handedly spawned an entire genre of games—commonly called “sandbox.” They’re all light on structure and story, instead emphasizing open-ended gameplay such as exploration, crafting, surviving, and building with friends.

Starbound is one of the most famous of these upcoming sandbox games. It’s available on Steam in an Early Access version. However, recent updates to the game have made it a title that families should definitely keep their eyes on.

 
Real the full article at Pixelkin >>

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Risk of Rain

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Hopoo Games

Publisher: Chucklefish

Release Date: November 8, 2013

Risk of Rain represents a bit of an anomaly amongst my backlogged games. I knew next to nothing about it when I purchased and subsequently put it on the schedule for Rogue’s Adventures. Two factors inspired my quick decision: a trustworthy friend played it and loved it, and it was published by Starbound developer Chucklefish. Say what you will about Starbound’s rocky development but I really love that company’s visual style, and they seem particularly attuned to 2D games that revel in retro-pixel art.

Risk of Rain is about as indie as you can get. It was developed by two college students and would go on to win the Best Student Game Award at the Independent Games Festival in 2014. A successful Kickstarter campaign in mid 2013 allowed them to expand gameplay features and most impressively, add an incredible soundtrack by Chris Christodoulou that absolutely blew me away with every track. Seriously I’m going to need to own this soundtrack.

When I started Risk of Rain I was completely lost. The intro clip shows a spaceship being taken over by a mysterious figure, and your character is unceremoniously dropped onto a hostile alien planet, armed only with the keyboard controls and your starting characters abilities. Note: I quickly switched to an Xbox 360 controller as the keyboard controls are inadequate are best.

I’ve played a ton of roguelikes before. In fact, a roguelike has made my Top Ten Games of the Year lists in each of the last three years: Dungeon of the Endless in 2014, Rogue Legacy in 2013 and FTL and Spelunky in 2012. Risk of Rain would have been in close contention with that company thanks to a perfect balance of time and difficulty, multiple playable characters with different abilities and an addictive learning curve and reward system.

Although you start over every time you die, like many modern roguelikes you unlock new things with every playthrough, helping take the sting out of dying and allowing each run to give you some progress. Numerous challenges can be completed like killing foes or reaching a certain milestone that unlock additional random items and characters. Items can be purchased in random treasure chests or dropped from boss monsters, most giving an insanely wide range of passive effects, such as freezing foes that touch you, healing you if you stand still and the very crucial shield that adds an additional health bar.

Gameplay is as intuitive as any 2D platformer, with a few important features. You spawn into a world as a tiny pixelated commando. A timer in the upper right begins counting up and updates your difficulty every five minutes, beginning with ‘Very Easy,’ and enemies begin spawning in. In the beginning you’ll face simple lizard-people and crabs that can be swiftly dealt with, but soon hardier and trickier enemies appear, like the imps that teleport to you or the spitters that fire a cannon shot out of their mouths. Each stage has its own enemy types, though future stages do rely too much on simple color palette switches and bigger stats on the same enemies.

Instead of giving you loot to equip, every character class has four unique abilities based on cooldowns. The commando is fairly boring with three abilities that fire his gun in a slightly different way and a fourth move that lets him dodge and roll forward. I found the first hour or so of the game a bit of a slog as the commando just isn’t very interesting to play as you rely on the same four abilities the entire time (plus the occasional activated item you can loot, but you can only carry one of).

Each stage (which are sadly not randomly generated, unlike every single other roguelike I’ve played) contains a portal that must be activated. Turning it on summons a gigantic boss as well as 90 seconds of constantly spawning enemies, creating a fun and chaotic climax at the end of each stage. After four stages (usually taking at least 30 minutes total) you can choose to go to the final stage or go through each stage again at the harder difficulty in the hopes to gain more experience and items. The final level aboard the ship offers a welcome new aesthetic, and opening each door amounts to several climactic battles throughout the stage leading up to the final, multi-stage boss fight.

Once I began unlocking additional characters the game really started to mesh with me. The Enforcer is instantly much more fun with a combination shotgun and shield. Using his abilities you have to become very aware of your positioning with the enemy and effectively time your shots. I also had a lot of fun playing the rapid-fire Bandit and the sentry turret/mine-laying Engineer.

It’s with the Engineer that I was able to actually beat the game, though with the major caveat that I was playing cooperatively with a friend at the time. Like Dungeon of the Endless, Risk of Rain seamlessly incorporates cooperative multiplayer into the action. We weren’t quite sure if the difficulty scaled to the number of players, and the on-screen action gets so chaotic in the later stages that it can be tricky to decipher just what the hell is going on – even dropping my 60fps in half during some particularly insane moments, and impressive feat for a pixelated game made in Game Maker.

While every roguelike has a fairly steep learning curve (many of which, I suspect, keep some folks away from the genre altogether), Risk of Rain utilizes it to dole out awards at a steady pace. Unlocking items allows them to spawn into the world and there’s no limit to how many you can hold (the passive ones; you can still only hold one active item). By the end of my winning run I had over two dozen various effects, and it’s fun to go through that classic RPG evolution of weak as a paper sack to god-like superhero in the space of an hour.

That perfectly balanced difficulty is what kept me coming back. The beginning when that first boss spawns from the portal you’re in awe, and probably going to die. Stick with it, unlock some items and purchase them from random chests and you’ll soon persevere, only to die in the next world, and then the next. Getting a little farther each time is addictive; unlocking challenges, items and additional characters with vastly different abilities and skillsets helps make Risk of Rain one of the best roguelikes I’ve ever played, and all that works perfectly well cooperatively (if you have the patience to set up port forwarding on your router that is).

If you can get on board with the tiny pixels on screen and scale the initial learning curve (and get beyond the lame starting character) Risk of Rain is a fantastic experience, and highly recommended for fans of roguelikes and hardcore platformers. Do and try and bring a friend or two as well.

Pros

  • Perfectly balanced roguelike
  • Constantly unlocking items and characters is a rewarding treadmill
  • Multiple classes offer vastly different gameplay experiences
  • Cooperative multiplayer works beautifully
  • Amazing soundtrack

Cons

  • Art style makes it difficult to tell what’s going on during chaotic battles
  • Keyboard controls are atrocious – use a controller!
  • Starter character isn’t very fun

 

Final Say: A hardcore roguelike platformer that rewards persistence and skill as much as random luck. Play cooperatively for maximum fun.