Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Silent Age

A common problem with time travel stories is, that when you start to think about them, they rarely make much sense. There's always something in the plot, that makes me wonder "what?", "that made little sense" or "how's that possible then". Not the technicality of time travel, mind you as for me sleeping or being in a come to the future is just as good as some time machine doohickey, but the cause and the effects of the story.  And that is the exact problem that The Silent Age has. While it is a pretty well adventure game, the time travel plot of it doesn't really work, expect on when you use time travel as a method of puzzle solving.

Puzzles really are the strong point of the Silent Age. Those and the minimalistic art style, which make the game as a whole really stand out. As it is a point and click adventure game, you do collect items and use them on screen in order to progress, but a lot of times you need to swap between the present and the future in order to get certain items or get past obstacles on your way. This system works very well and adds an extra layer of depth on puzzles which otherwise could be classified as simple, especially if you've played adventure games before.

The atmosphere of the Silent Age is strong as well. While the game itself isn't long, it's bit under 3 hour experience as a whole, it is engaging thanks to nice graphical style, good music and sound effects. The voice acting is also pretty good, which is always a pleasant surprise when it comes to modern adventures, which often are budget affairs (which is true with this as well). There's isn't much talking in the game, which probably has helped the devs in getting small, yet solid cast.

As I said in the opening though, the plot doesn't really work that well, especially when you start thinking about it. There's things which clash a bit even during the gameplay itself, when you pick up an inconsistency or two.  That's a pretty common problem with time traveling stories, especially when the story is, like this one is, strongly about jumping back and forth in time. I did like the overall idea of it, but as a whole, the plot is what it is, to the predictable end.

The Silent Age isn't a bad game though. Far from it. In fact I'd say it's one of the better adventure games I've played recently. It is short, so if you're one of those people who think all games should be +10 hours, it's not necessarily a game for you, but if you're looking for an atmospheric, story driven game, it just might be.

If you want it, it's in Steam. Also for mobile devices.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The nature of the beast

When it comes to crowdfunding it seems that the nature of the beast is, that almost every project is delayed. I'm fine with that, as in general if people are poor at something, they're in estimating how long making something takes. Time is like that, hard to evaluate. If you think something will take an hour it might take considerably more or less time, as things tend to happen. Or not and everything goes smoothly. But usually things happen.

Sometimes those things are technical. There's issues in manufacturing or there's problems in code or chosen game engine. At times there might be difficulties with the people working the project, especially in the smaller projects where a sickness of one person might mean a grinding halt for the whole project. As I said, things happen. That's just the nature of the beast.

But how big of a delay is too much?

I mean I do get that a project might get a bit more complex, if it gets more funding than planned and the scope of the project gets expanded. If you're making an RPG for an example and end up creating a whole new set of classes, characters or even locations, then sure, the game will get delays, as the system gets more complex every time you add more variables in it, as you also need to make sure that the things you add will blend in what you originally had in mind.

So again, how much of a delay is too much? And when is a delay an acceptable one?

It's not really a straight cut answer. There's cases when a development of a crowdsourced game or thing-a-ma-pop has started, but ended up in a stand still. There's projects where the development hasn't even properly begun despite the project has been funded for a good while. But on those both cases it all depends on why the delay happens: sickness, other personal matter or sheer incompetence.

There's two cases, when the delay is, in my opinion fully acceptable. The first is, when the scope of the original project gets more ambitious, especially if the project gets more funding. The other is, especially with smaller teams, if core members of the project get sick or otherwise detained by real life matters.  Here's the thing though, there has to be a certain amount of transparency about it all. If a project is delayed because of the matters the team itself knows, they need to tell about it. And I don't mean details about peoples private matters, like their health or other stuff. Just a general acknowledgment, that states that due to matters out of their hands, i.e. sickness or other matters, the project will be delayed because one of the key members is effected by it. People will understand that.
But only if the project creators tell about it as soon as they figure out it will have an effect, not on a proposed project release date a year later.

"Yeah, about that release. We haven't been working on this project for a couple of months now, as our key coder is sick. Sorry about that."

I know it's terrifying to tell people that your schedule has gone all wrong, but it's better to be upfront about it sooner rather than later. If the matter causing the delay is resolved sooner than you think, it's only a positive thing, if it causes more delay, then at least the backers are well prepared for it and will be more understanding about it.

If the project gets delayed because the scope gets bigger, I believe most people will understand that. Not everyone, mind you. Some people will never understand that creating something bigger than originally visioned will take more time. But a lot of people will get that: things don't just create themselves out of thin air. Like Broken Age for an example. A lot of people still like to bad mouth it because it was delayed and still don't get it why it took so much time to make, especially because it's not the longest game. But then again, they don't really understand that the artwork and the animation itself of it was a time consuming thing. It really is very much like playing an animated movie.

The reason I'm jabbering about all this is again a bit of a disappointment in crowdfunded projects communication. The project in question, SpaceVenture, which has been delayed for a couple of years now and which had a current projected released due to end of 2016. That didn't happen.  And it's all due to personal matters, of which you can find info if you google, but which I'm not going to repeat here.

As I've said, I do understand if sickness or what ever other personal matter makes people unable to work in the project. It can have a devastating effect for a small team, especially if 1/3 of the core team can't participate. Nothing against that. I get it. But what I don't get is deliberate poor communication.

After the first long delay, that took most part of the year it was updated after the fact that there had been issues. But during that hiatus the project kept updating and insisting that all was going more or less normally. And then they dropped the bomb, that the last half of the game had been pretty much untouched a good while, because of personal reasons. At the same time they stated, that these issues are behind of them now and that the work continues as usual and they have a completion time in mind.

Then they dropped an another update, not long before the closing release date, which said sorry, not going to happen. Not that it came as a surprise for me, as I've long since adjusted my mindset with them, that while not out right dishonest, they are far too optimistic in their updates. And that they aren't very good at scheduling. With SpaceVenture I've come to understand how important a task master like Ken Williams must have been at Sierra. And how much a well built pipeline like Sierra had helped the developers. From the looks of things, Murphy and Crowe aren't the only former Sierra developers who have noticed the same thing.

It's the nature of the beast, that projects are delayed. Hell, they get delayed even outside crowdfunding circles and with projects with seasoned project managers. That happens all the time. But crowdfunded projects are more public and with them communication is important. I've said it before, but I do think it's important to underline it again. Speak with people sooner rather than later. In the end a lot of people are pretty understanding.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Did you know, that Luc Besson, director behind couple of my favorite movies of all time, Leon and the 5th Element, has been tinkering with Valerian movie, based on a French comic book series. This series, now days dubbed Valerian and Laureline, was and still is, a ground breaking sci-fi tale, which has influenced a lot of other sci-fi stuff, like Star Wars for an example.

But anyway, we now have a trailer for the movie, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Here it is, take a look:

Personally I think that looks pretty sweet and I do hope Besson will manage to deliver something like the 5th Element is. What I hope is an adventurous sci-fi flick, that isn't afraid of joking now and then. And a one, that isn't taking itself far too seriously all the time.

So let's keep fingers crossed, that this is the good Besson, not the bad one.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Elite Dangerous: The Guardians update

A little while ago new 2.2 and 1.7 updates dropped on Elite Dangerous. 1.7 is specifically for the base game, where as the 2.2 is for the Horizon expansion. The amount of new content and fixes is pretty huge, so feast your eyes on the official change logs if you want to see them all.

Among the more interesting things for all the audiences is the new mission type, which finally gives you a reason to purchase the Beluga line passenger ships, as from now on you can ferry people all across the galaxy, be it taking them on a scientific exploration, work assignment on a foreign system or any other reason like a simple holiday trip or escaping the strong arm of the law. Then there's the refined station interiors with more detail, added planetary details for Horizon owners and so on. In a word, this has been a much needed content update, which also brings in new missions and even a new vocation in the form of galactic bus driver (or a luxury yacht, however you want it).

What I'm personally surprisingly exited about are the passenger missions, as they actually give a new boost for exploration as well. See, while I liked flying aimlessly in the huge galaxy, it did get a bit boring quite fast. But now, especially if you take passengers with scientific missions in mind, you have a good reason to travel vast distances and really plan the voyage. Previously I just took a random spot and went as far as I could muster interest, now I can have a very specific location in mind and go there with a renewed determination, especially because the long range missions pay quite well.

While the Beluga Liner is the dedicated passenger ship with a cool, luxurious design it's not the only ship that can carry passengers. You can fit passenger cabins to other ships as well, so if you already have a big enough ship, you can sacrifice, say, cargo space for passenger space. You can choose from three cabin types, economy, business and first class. Obviously not all passengers are willing to travel economy, so there's a reason to opt for a bit more luxurious cabin.

Beluga near a tourist beacon. (pic from Elite: dangerous wiki)
I must admit, that before these new updates I've had a bit longer pause from the world of Elite, but this gave me a new spark. Not only does it add to the amount of playable content and missions types, it also adds to the feeling that the space is really populated, as there's new faces popping out in the mission screens. There's still a lot more stuff coming to the world of Elite, like the commander creator and what not and perhaps even the possibility to walk around your ship, stations or even planets. Yeah, those are still a long way off, but still, piece by piece, Elite is getting better.

I know I didn't say a lot about the other stuff, but the reality of the matter is, that the first thing I wanted to try was the passenger missions and at the moment I'm 1000 LY away from the human settled space, ferrying people to their destination. It's a living, I guess, but a good deal for my Explorer status and bank account.

If you already own the base game, 1.7 update should give you some new stuff to do. If you have Horizons, 2.2 is the one for you. But either way, it's again nice to be a freelancers in space.

Monday, October 24, 2016

My retake on Moebius: Empire Rising

I have special tags on Steam and GOG, which are reserved for games I think aren't very good. Or if I'm more blunt, they are reserved for games I think are pure garbage. The tag is simply just "shit". On Steam I currently have 49 and in GOG 8 games that have made me feel like tagging them as such. Jane Jensen's Moebius: Empire Rising is one of them, as I simply loathed it when I played it the first time. I backed it back in the day in Kickstarter and after the work started on the project I begun to have a bad feeling about the game, so I started to prepare myself for a disappointment. After the release I found out that it was worse than just disappointing, it was pure shit.

Now, in the spirit of seeing if my initial bad response towards the game was just because of expecting too much while not really expecting anything good at all, I decided that I should give it an another go now that it has been a couple of  years since I played it. So here's my retake on Moebius.

Malachi Rector is an antiques super genius. His line of work is to evaluate expensive, rare items, rooting out the forgeries from the real things. Nothing escapes his eyes, as he's Sherlock Holmes of detecting at least what comes to old items. By a glance he can spot the smallest of details. One day Malachi is hired by Amble Dexter of FITA organization to look into people, despite that's not really his things. Mr. Dexter doesn't explain much, but Rector's missions is to look into a death of a young woman and see, if he can tie the woman into some historical figure. As the money is good, Rector decides to do it, despite he has no idea what Dexter is hoping to achieve with such a task. From here begins a tale that is messy and makes very little sense in the end.

Malachi Rector and the mystery of a low poly wheelchair handle. I mean if you know you're going to use a real time 3D object in a close up you should at least put some effort into making that said object.
The main plot device, the Moebiuis theory, is the main cause to this. According to the story all history happens in loops: things re-create themselves and historical figures re-appear time after time and can be identified by looking at currently living people and comparing their personal histories to those of the historical figures. FITA is trying to find all the right key people to fill the key roles of USA in order to relaunch a new golden era of politics and economics, but as it goes, there's other people with different ideas of what, or whom, that means. Rector's missions really is just to find those people before anyone can eliminate them in order to prevent something or cause something else to happen.

When I played Moebius the first time I thought it was an ugly mess. That hasn't changed a bit, despite there's been a couple years between the playthroughs. The animation is mostly pretty amateurish, with poorly done walkcycles and horrible facial animations. The character models themselves are poorly done and strangely proportioned. Malachi himself looks like he's suffering from severe back deformation. The background art could have looked nice, but instead of trying to push the pre-rendered 3D images to their fullest, the art is at times badly painted over and at worst just filtered with some Photoshop filters. All in all, the game is visually a mix of bad 3D models and blurry, unfinished looking backgrounds, laced with amateurish animation, which looks even more delightfully tacky during cutscenes.

While Rector is popping pills all the time during the game, I'm sure he hasn't shown his back to a doctor.
But games are not just about graphics. There's been plenty of ugly games, which are actually good games. So is Moebius a good game, despite it isn't very good looking one?  The answer to that is no. Mainly because the design of it isn't very good either. The most interesting aspect of Moebius, reading people and objects, is a hit and miss element. With items it works reasonably well, when you're just picking up elements from history that line up. Not a difficult job, but it works. With people however you are just picking up superficial tidbits, which don't really seem to have any relevance towards anything, especially because most of the people are just pretty poorly written stereotypes of snobbish rich people or evil world domination types or just uninspired thugs.  At times the writing is almost embarrassingly bad during these scenes, when you need to pick out a correct line among three sentences of which two are so outrageous, that you immediately know neither is the right choice.

The puzzle design is most of the time pretty simple. At times all the needed items are on the screen or already on your possession, or in near vicinity, but at times you come across an item which you obviously need, as those 3D items do stand out pretty clearly from the messy backgrounds. But you can't pick the items up until Rector has arrived into a conclusion that he needs that said item. So this means that you need to travel back to where the item was, even when it doesn't make real life sense. These kinds of things stick out, especially when the game is trying to avoid some of the 90's adventure design tropes. And then there's the annoying "only one solution works" situations, where you can see a dozen of alternative solutions, but still need to find the object to solve a puzzle.

I take back what I said about the design trying to avoid 90's tropes. 90's tropes ARE the design. Oh and did I mention the game ends with the laziest adventure trope ever created, a maze.

While pondering puzzle solutions, I can come up with a couple of more sensible ones than the actual solution. Like using Malachi's cellphone as a light source. Or just opening that door wide open. But no, the real answer is to fetch a coat hangar and use that to pull the lamp cord. Because adventure games.
A good example of this is a simple bottle of Whiskey Rector needs to bring as a gift at one point of the game. He's in Washington, but at least if Moebius is to be believed, the capitol of USA is bone dry, so Rector needs to head back to New York to an only establishment of the country that sells alcohol. That's a bar next to Rector's own antiques shop. An no, you can't buy the whiskey beforehand, as you need to know first that you'll need it. Yeah, that makes adventure game sense, but for a game that is also trying to have a real narrative that is just idiotic design decision. The game is full of stuff like that.

The music is an odd mix in this one. Robert Holmes, Jensen's husband and the composer for her Gabriel Knight games, has made mostly pretty forgettable job. The oddness comes mainly from that there's this strange 80's TV-movie vibe about the music. Sure, it might be thematically appropriate, considering that the quality of the  plot as a whole resembles of a terribly written 80's TV-movie, but here the music just never really catches on and feels pretty plain most of the time.

This hostel clerk is clearly having issues
The thing is, Moebius as a whole feels very uninspired. It feels like a game Jane Jensen didn't really care for and that shines through. I do believe there's a hint of truth about that, as Moebius was done based on a poll Jensen held at her Kickstarter. She had a couple of drafts on game ideas, Moebius among them, but to me it read like a secondary idea. The idea she seemed to be the most enthusiastic about was Jane Austen themed murder mystery, but I think Moebius won as on paper it felt more like a Gabriel Knight kind of a tale and that was what majority of the backers wanted her to do. In the end I think it was a mistake from Jensen's part to hold the poll, but on the other hand, if she hadn't done so, she might not have gotten funded at all. Which on the hind sight would have been just as well.

So now, after my second playthrough, do I still hate Moebius? Yes and no. I mean, before I loathed it, now I just merely dislike it. Moebius is a poorly written game, where ambitions and skills of the development team don't meet hand in hand. It's obvious throughout the game, that Phoenix Online Studios were trying to create a cinematic adventure game, but that they really did lack the needed skills to do that. Also, it's small budget shines through, as a lot of the artwork feels like the final polishing pass is missing. The same goes for the animation and cinematics as well, especially the facial animation is almost painful to watch and would have needed far more spit and polish.

Again that same stare. It's making me think these women have issues with Rector. Okay, he's an ass and not even a likeable one. But still, she was like that even before Rector's misantrophy started to overflow.
As a game and a story Moebius: Empire Rising is the weakest of Jane Jensen's games. It also is among the worst games that I've had the pleasure of participating in the form of Crowdfunding. All in all a terrible experience I can't really recommend for anyone. There's certain amount of ambition about the game and as far I've understood the people at Phoenix Online are Jensen fans, so they did try. Sadly, trying hard isn't always the key for success. Good intentions and roads to hell and all that.

If you want, you can get Moebius from Steam and GOG, but I'd wait for a huge sale if I'd were you.