Thursday, September 22, 2016

Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham (Mignola, M., 2001)

I've always liked DC's Elseworlds stories, especially about Batman. Despite they all are not necessarily ace material, they do very often offer an interesting peek on how Batman would work on different kinds of cross overs, like what if Batman would fight the Dracula or movie monsters like Alien or Predator, or how he'd work on an entirely different era. The Doom That Came to Gotham doesn't take Batman only to a different era, in this case in the early 20th century, but it also pits him again the Lovecraftian terrors from beyond this world. 

The story begins from Antarctic. Bruce Wayne is looking for Cobblepot expedition, only to find their ship stranded and the crew dead. Cobblepot himself has gone insane, finding solace and home with penguins. The only other member the Wayne expedition manages to find is also insane, chipping off ice around a tentacled monstrosity. Him they take with, as Cobblepot they don't manage to capture.

After the party gets back to Gotham, we learn that the old families, the founders of the city, made dealings with dark forces ages past. Now, as Bruce Wayne finally returns home, the payback time is closing in and those who lurk between the worlds are finally ready to enter our world.

During this tale of cosmic horror we'll meet other familiar faces besides Bruce. There's commissioner Gordon, Oliver Queen, Ra's Al Ghul, Dick Grayson and Jason Todd to mention a few that is thrown in the mix. They all have take a role a bit different, yet familiar in the tale: the Robins still are trustees of Bruce Wayne, as is Alfred, and Ra's still is evil. but this time he's an ancient magician who had a hand in writing a tome that would help opening the portals between the worlds.

Despite The Doom That Came to Gotham does take heavy influences from Lovecraft, I wouldn't call it very Lovecraftian in style. Mignola's style of writing is more matter of fact rather than the dwelling insanity that was Lovecraft trade mark with his own tales of cosmic horror. It's not a bad thing though, as the way Mignola has written the tale feels more fitting for Batman, as he's always been a rational character, even when dealing with otherworldly foes.

The Doom That Came to Gotham isn't necessarily the greatest Elseworld Batman story ever made, but it's pretty solid one. In many places it feels like it should have been much longer than it's now, as it does have a feeling of being rushed about it. Originally it was released as a 3 part mini series, so it never was a long story to begin with. It could have easily benefited from at least 1 or better yet 2 additional parts, but alas that wasn't the case. It is a fun story though, so I do recommend grabbing it, especially if you like alternative Batman stories.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Batman: A Death in the Family (Starlin, Aparo, 1988-89)

I think A Death in the Family was my first "serious" Batman comic.  Sure, I had read some of the murkier stories that had been made in the 1980's before it, but A Death in the Family was the first for me that brought in really dark tones, at least for me. Now, that I read it again, I couldn't help but to feel that it's also a story that is trying too hard. And I didn't think it's actually even very well written. Sure, it still is dark story, but in a bit like a blunt instrument pretending to be a scalpel kind of a fashion.

From the get go Starlin is hammering down, that this is an edgy Batman story: Batman and Robin are just about to bust a child porn operation. Not any two bit thugs, but one of the most despised crimes someone can do in western society, so you know this is edgy.  Not that any bigger reflection is given to the heinous nature of the crime operated, as the whole thing is just a quick mention before it turns into a scene of Batman and Robing beating up a gang of generic thugs.

Bats is worried about Robin, Jason Todd, who's been rash and stubborn lately, not a sport like Dick Grayson always was. He's so worried about Jason's behaviour, that he ends up grounding him from being Robin for a while. Good for Bruce becming a sound minded guardian for a moment, as it probably wasn't a smart move in the first place to get a kid beating up criminals in the first place.

What's eating up Jason is, obviously, dead parents. He ends up wandering the streets to his old neighbourhood, where by a strike of luck, he gets his hand on old papers belonging to his parents. From them he realizes that his mother might actually be alive, as the name on the birth certificate is begins with a wrong letter, so off to search he goes.

At the same time Joker has escaped from Arkham again. This time he has the edgiest crime in mind: selling a nuclear warhead to some Arab terrorists. As luck has it both Bruce and Jason end up in Beirut, where Jason has followed mom candidate #1 and Bruce Joker., so together they manage to stop the maniac despite he does manage to escape and the candidate #1 isn't mom at all, so bummer that.

Mom #2 is secretly training terrorists, so it was all good fortune, that she wasn't mom dearest, as that would have sucked balls, so after the 3rd and last candidate to Africa, where she works as a relief program,

Mom #3 is the ticket, but oh noes, Joker is there, blackmailing drugs from her, as she also has a secret past, that could end up costing her job, so succumbs to Joker's plans. Shit hits the fan, when Batman hurries to save lives of hundreds of people before they're subjected to uncle Joker's laughing gas. Robin on the other hand tries to get her mother out of Joker's clutches only to end up betrayed by her when she leads him to Joker, who beats him up with a crowbar. And now we get to the point from where A Death in the Family has gained it's reputation; Robin dies. Sorry for the spoilers, but this is the story, where the readers had a vote and they voted that the sniveling brat that was Jason Todd should be offed.

The finale of the story gets just plain silly in its attempt to up the ante. Joker is hired by Ajatollah Khomeini himself to be Iran's UN ambassador, thus granting him diplomatic immunity, which doesn't sit well with old Bat's, who's half assedly looking for a revenge. In the end Joker, obviously, tries to kill everyone in the UN, but Superman inhales all the toxic gasses, while Batman goes after the Joker, as his diplomatic immunity has just been provoked.

Batman and the Joker end up in a helicopter full of terrorists and after one of them decides that a helicopter is the best place to shoot with an assault rifle, the chopper ends up exploding, with Joker inside. The body is never found, so it won't come as a surprise that he didn't die.

A Death in the Family tries hard. It tries so hard, that it doesn't know when to stop for its own good. It tries to be edgy and it tries to root the narrative on real world and real world problems, but doesn't really manage to do any of that well. I mean, I can see why a young me would have been sold on it, but now a bit older I can't really get past how clumsy it feels with how it handles things. As I said earlier, it's sharp as a hammer.

If you're looking for darker Batman stories, there's lot better stories out there, written before and after A Death in the Family. I think that the only reason why it's remembered at all these days it's the fact that Joker manages to kill off Robin in it, but as a whole it's just not very well done story at all. In my humble opinion, it really is a story you can fully miss. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Police Quest II: Vengeance

When I was a kid I thought, that Police Quest II was vastly superior to the first game: it didn't have driving, you could actually use guns in it and examining the crime scenes in higher resolution graphics felt just more awesome. Some times things that were cool as a kid don't translate well for adults.

The story of PQII starts some time after the first game. Sonny Bonds is now a homicide detective, working with a partner Keith. He's also romancing Marie Wilkans, his former sweet heart who turned into a lady of the night in the first game, but has now left her former life behind thanks to Sonny. Things start to unroll, when Jessie Baines, the death angel from the first game, escapes prison and starts offing people who put him behind bars. From this starts a story filled with a shit load of cop show cliches. Not that the first game was very novel in what came to plot, but in there the story always felt like an after thought where as the "police procedure" was the actual game. That's not so much how it feels in the sequel.

This is very much because of how the games are structured. In the original game you start as a beat cop. You drive along the city of Lytton and answer to dispatch calls. There's fragments of a bigger story here and there, but at first you're just a cop doing cop things, by the book. In PQII how ever,  the story is set right from the start. Baines escapes and seeks revenge. This time around all the crimes you investigate are clearly tied to Baines. There's no random stuff like arresting drunk drivers, just straight cut manhunt for Baines.

Sonny at Lytton PD with his new "sensible" car.
Now this by itself would be fine, but the thing is that the story itself is tied around cliches which culminate in a shoot out in sewers of all places. And I still haven't mentioned the plane trip to the city of Steelton, during which Arab hijackers try take over the plane. You even need to disarm a bomb during the scene. Funnily enough the whole ordeal isn't mentioned in the end credits. Sure, they acknowledge that Sonny has shot Baines, but you'd think that him shooting two terrorists would have gotten there as well, all things considering.

Jim Walls never was a great writer nor a great game designer. While I've always have had an affinity towards the Police Quest games, I've also always seen the flaws in them. But now, playing PQII again, I can't help but to think that the game itself is not only flawed, it's not very good at all. The crime scene investigation is pretty fun and well made, as being a cop was Walls's biggest asset in that department, but the story itself and the game design is just bad.

This time around no driving around the map, just type in the wanted location and watch. 
This time around there's no need to walk around the car in order to see if you can drive it safely, but there's things like needing to push a traffic light button before crossing a street, dying if you fail to wear ear protection, badly designed escape scene in which you need to know exactly where to stand or you get driven over and perhaps the biggest, the sewers in the city of Steelton.

The Steelton part is already pretty poorly written and pretty short segment, but the sewer is god awful. It's filled with traps you need to die on before you know how to avoid. There's methane gas pockets, pipes bursting with water and narrow walk paths you need to navigate awkwardly with keyboard. And then there's the climax, the shoot out with Baines, in which you need in pixel perfect manner hide behind a pipe so he won't see you, but have enough space to shoot the bastard.

What comes to graphics, well... PQII has higher resolution going on that PQI. But it's not really a good looking game. It's actually pretty plain and in many ways boring. The original AGI version of PQ1 always felt more interesting to me and the VGA remake of it looks pretty decent, but PQII looks just amateurish and quickly cobbled up.

The magical sewers of Steelton. What a place for a climax.
Unlike the AGI version of PQI, Police Quest II has music this time around. The tunes are okay, but not the best of Sierra. It's also oddly silent game, just like Larry 2 was. the music is used sparsely and besides that there' very little other sound effects. MT32 is again the way to go, if you are willing to set that up.

Just like with many other Sierra games, Police Quest II expects you to die a lot. There's a lot of things in it that you can't know if you haven't experienced it before hand. It becomes like a meta game in itself, where you need to poke the game in order to know what to do before you restore the game and do all perfectly the second time around.

Yup, he's dead, the scumbag. Some times the second time is the charm.
Sure, gaming like that can be fun. But it also has to be tied on something that would be fun without it. And in the end Police Quest II just isn't that. It could have been, if the writing and the design had been good enough, but in the end it's not. Now we have a game that's not fun more than it's just annoying.

And that's a damn shame.

Police Quest II is a part of Police Quest Collection available trough GOG and Steam.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Agatha Christie - The ABC Murders

 I didn't expect much of the Micro├»ds published adventure game based on the well known detective mystery starring Hercule Poirot. And I do have to confess it was largely because I was put off by the horrendous looking cell shaded character art of the game. I'm glad I did get it in the end though, as it is all in all a pretty fun ride. Albeit very familiar and unsurprising one, especially if you are familiar with the story already.

As a story the ABC Murders doesn't try to re-invent the Poirot classic: It begins when Poirot gets a letter, where a murdered signing himself as ABC tells of his intentions of killing someone. From this begins a waiting game, as Poirot has no meas of stopping what is to come. Only thing he can do is to tell inspector Japp of the Scotland Yard, that something is going to happen in a near future. From this on, the game tramples the familiar paths of the original story as a story driven point and click adventure.

As you'd suspect, the puzzles revolve around Poirot checking out the crime locations as well as the locations of potential suspects. You need to gather evidence of which you'll have to draw conclusions by "making Poirot's grey cells to work". This means that you need to answer questions about the case in order to progress by connecting right statements and clues.

Then there's also some more typical adventure puzzles, like opening locked cabinets with combination locks, examining inventory objects and interacting with them to the surroundings and what not. But all this is fairly logical and the puzzles are, most of the time, very enjoyable, albeit not extremely challenging.

The most novel thing about the ABC Murders is the scoring systems, which rewards you every time you do things "just like Poirot would". This is achieved if you do vain things like check yourself from a mirror, clean up messes or if you just speak during conversations just like Poirot would, you'll receive more points. I, for an example, got 487 of possible 600 points during my play through, so not quite like Poirot, but pretty close.

As I stated in the opening, I'm not a huge fan of the art style of this particular incarnation of the ABC Murders. Cell shading is a nice style, so it's not that. The biggest culprit here is the character design, which feels like it was left a couple of passes away from arriving into a more well rounded cartoonish style. Now a lot of the characters have a bit unnerving propotions and Gollum like thing going on with far too big eyes. Also the animation isn't particularly convincing either. The locations do work pretty well though.

All in all though, the ABC Murders is a solid game and a nice addition to the detective adventure games out there, especially because it does try to make the puzzles be about the case itself. Sure, there's a moment or two, when  you wonder why everyone seems to be obsessed about locking their cabinets with overly complex puzzle mechanics, but every time you get to deducing or just drawing conclusions about the people you meet, it's easy to forgive some of the other things.

Agatha Christie - The ABC Murders can be bought through GOG or Steam and maybe some other platforms as well. It's a nice game if you're into detective stories, even if you're familiar with the original story itself. It doesn't try to re-invent the wheel, but then again, when the form works, why bother.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Subject 13 ain't thrilling nor very adventurous adventure

 Back in the day Paul Cuisset became famous after designing a little game called Flashback, which was a side scrolling action adventure platformer. He also did adventure games like Cruise for a Corpse and Future Wars as well as relatively well received racing game Moto Racer.

Like many other old game designers he used Kickstarter in order to return to his roots and the fruit of this particular labour was a little title called Subject 13. It would be nice to say that it was a triumphant return, but it wasn't. If anything Subject 13 is tired and uninspired attempt, which fells flat in both puzzle design as well as it does technically, considering how buggy the game is even a couple of years after its release.

The strongest aspect of Subject 13 is its premises: Franklin Fargo is about to drown, when suddenly he vanishes in a flash of light only to end up inside of a little chamber. A voice tells him, that he needs to use his brains in order to escape the abandoned facility he's in. So off he goes, examining environments in both 3rd person and 1st person views. Sadly enough what could have been a foundation to a solid little adventure, what we get in the end is a collection of logic puzzles, some environmental manipulation puzzles where you need to tinker with on screen objects as well as couple of puzzles which are nothing but brute force exercises. The worst offender in this is the final puzzle of the game, which is nothing else than a tedious variation of mine sweeper.

I must give this to Subject 13, it has an interesting opening.
If the puzzle design is more than a bit uninspiring, the technical execution is lacking as well. The worst thing is that some elements of the UI lock from time to time. This happened to me a couple of times with the back button, which prevented me pull back from an object I was examining, forcing me to quit the game, which remedied the issue. But as it did happen to me multiple times in a row it was annoying to say the least. The UI also has clearly been designed touch screens in mind, as at times you need to turn keys or handles by clicking them and doing a rotation movement with the mouse. This is all fine if you actually are playing on a touch screen device, as functions like that is more natural there, but with a mouse it's just awkward design. There's also some instances where the graphics start to flicker as well as they're drawn on screen surrounded with large black boxes.

Subject 13 also has an inbuilt hint system, if you need it. Funnily enough this hint system is pretty useless, as it very often just throws in things that are obvious, like "You should slide those tiles" or hints on things you've already done. Just like everything else in the game, even the hint system feels like no one really paid that much attention on it while it was designed just to check out a box from the to do-list.

The very first room and the place where the mandatory tutorial takes place.
And that's pretty much all I have to say about Subject 13. It's below average puzzle adventure, so if you are a fan of the genre, there's far better titles out there to try. As a game it doesn't do anything particularly well, nor does it really offer anything really unique to make it stand out despite its clunkiness. I can't really recommend it, but if you can get it cheap enough, it's on GOG and Steam. It should also be around for Android and iOS devices as well.