Tuesday, September 27, 2022

More Steam Deck Game Suggestions

Steam Deck continues to be a fun way to get some game time in from my Steam back catalog, and I have a few more tested and reliable suggestions for those interested:


What it is: inventor of the boomer shooter along with Doom and Wolfenstein; only played in single player mode on the deck.

Why Play on Steam Deck: Super smooth framerate and the Steam Deck controls were made for FPS gaming, very responsive in the right way.

Possible Issues: I bet the multiplayer doesn't work properly. Will have to try it out.

The original Quake (well, its remastered version) seems to run fine on Steam Deck. My suspicion is its not currently rated for it due to online functionality issues, but if you play the offline campaign mode it feels great, extremely responsive. Indeed, the Steam Deck has become my favorite way to play boomer shooters, and Quake is the commander in chief of this genre (Doom being the....five star general?). I plan to test Quake II as soon as I finish with Quake. Last time I talked about the Steam Deck I also advised Prodeus as a good choice...that still holds, Prodeus feels very optimized for the Steam Deck, runs great and is fun to play on it.

The Moons of Madness

What it is: single player story-driven experience with light puzzle elements

Why Play on the Steam Deck: Immersive blend of SF and horror storytelling conveys well in a very personal way on the Steam Deck, this game got me through a weekend cold.

Possible Issues: I experienced one or two moments of framerate drop at odd moments, but I also ran this game for 11 hours straight from start to finish, so it may have taxed the program a bit. 

I had this game in my library for ages, and finally decided to plough through it. Turns out, Moons of Madness was a great experience on the Steam deck and a very interesting story-based walking sim with light puzzle elements, focused on a (SPOILERS) scifi take on the Lovecraftian mythos. I had no idea it was rooted in the mythos when I started playing, so discovering this organically was very satisfying. It took about 11 hours to complete.

The Ascent

What it is: isometric action RPG with cyberpunk/far future SF theme; multiplayer available but I only played single player.

Why Play on the Steam Deck: Extremely compelling gameplay makes this incredibly fun, and its graphics really shine on the Steam Deck without any framerate loss I detected.

Possible Issues: some real small text, but Steam Deck's magnify feature works with this.

This top-down isometric shooter with RPG elements is the most atmospheric Cyberpunk/SF experience you can get outside of playing the actual Cyberpunk 2077 game, but with the addition of a very satisfying gameplay experience meshed with a rather elaborate story about a distant arcology/station on an alien world suffering from a collapse in power, authority and resources and the scummy cyberpunks who try to profit from it. I had overlooked this game, and glad I discovered it at last, well worth playing through. You can play multiplayer and its green lighted for the Steam Deck, too. About the only issue is there can be some small text on screen, so keep that in mind. 

Tales of Arise

What it is: action RPG anime style; single player only (so far as I can tell)

Why Play on Steam Deck: If you want a good looking JRPG to play on the Deck with a compelling story, the Steam Deck provides the right level of interpersonal immersion on-the-go. But seriously, get this game even if you don't have a Steam Deck.

Possible Issues: none so far. 

I'm in the middle of this one and unexpectedly enjoying it. After caving on this one with a recent sale, I was a bit concerned it would be yet another bog-standard JRPG with arcane mechanical contrivances to attract veterans to the combat system, but simultaneously becoming out of reach for more traditional or newer gamers. In fact I played the demo and came away worried it wouldn't be that fun....but I was completely wrong, and the game's much better and more organic actual introduction/tutorial region (cleverly disguised such that you won't even notice it is a tutorial) does a great job introducing you to the mechanics and how combat works, and its a lot more traditional than I expected while still being a compelling quasi-action RPG style meshed with a really fascinating story, world and characters. A+++ and plays great on the Steam Deck. 

Important to note! If you are like me and tired of most JRPGs starting with a gang of teenage or subteen protagonists, you'll love this one, as the average character is at least in their twenties or older (so practically geriatric by anime standards!) and the storyline is presented in a keenly intelligent manner with excellent voice acting.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Square-Enix Announces shutdown of Babylon's Fall - The Folly of Games-as-a-Service

 You can read about it on Steam's website, and enjoy the discussion groups (the ones not suspended) here. This one impacts me, surprisingly...I bought Babylon's Fall when it came out back in February of this year, along with a handful of other new games on Playstation 5, just happy to see some actual new content. Other games I nabbed included Final Fantasy Origins (another Square-Enix game) and Tokyo: Ghostwire (from Bethesda). 

Of the three, Babylon's Fall is the one I've played the most of so far, but not without reservations. First, it's important to understand that the game is reminiscent of a lot of older Playstation titles from long ago, especially the many weird JRPG dungeon crawlers which appeared on the PSP and PS2. It has an archaic quality to it that will appeal to the niche of a niche of gamers who liked those sorts of action RPGs with lots of fiddly management. Unfortunately it's welded--ham-fistdedly--to a games-as-a-service model of design which takes what should be a party-based single player game and turns it into an always-online experience with battle passes and a marketplace....all of which is now gone. You can't play this game without being online.

The game's appeal was also limited due to being released on the next gen consoles despite clearly being a last-gen title in design. It's use of a faux antique watercolor/oil painting effect for cutscenes and much of the in-game art design just doesn't look "right" to most people, and the further I got in to the game the more I found this approach annoying (initially I was forgiving; now after two-thirds of the way through I grew mostly just irritated). 

If this were a budget title single-player offline experience that could just be available in perpetuity no one would care, and it would languish with so many other forgettable games as something fun to play if you're into the very specific style of game it is (and make no mistake, the game's combat is fun....though like the art style, it starts to feel repetitive about 2/3rd of the way through). But nope, it's a GaaS and as a result it's getting shut down....the cost of maintaining a skeleton crew and servers to support the game is too costly for Square-Enix to even bother.

On the one hand, I am annoyed; I'd be interested in a refund if it were possible, though I made the mistake of buying it through Playstation's digital store, which famously have provided refunds for nothing save the mess that was Cyberpunk 2077 in similar situations where a publisher fail has imposed upon the consumer. Most likely I think Square-Enix figured they could do this because the game probably sold copies in the thousands, maybe a few tens of thousands at the most....so to them it looks like weathering a bit of negative publicity, but at least they're not screwing millions of purchasers over, right? Right???

On the plus side, this proves that their games-as-a-service experiment failed. Maybe, just maybe, Square-Enix will avoid doing this anytime in the near future, or if they do maybe they will divest more time, energy and effort to the studio tasked with making such an abomination.

I thought about just giving up on them as a personal statement....but so many good games that are also offline single player experiences do come from Square-Enix and its studios, and I own a nontrivial percentage of them already anyway. So maybe the better lesson to learn here is: if I see that the game is a GaaS model that still expects a retail purchase to play, maybe just turn the other way and run.

In the meantime, assuming I can't convince Sony's CSR goons to give me a refund, I guess I better finish that last 1/3 of the game I have left to complete so I can add this to the list of other games that failed and evaporated from existence in similar fashion.....

RIP Tabula Rasa, Evolve, City of Heroes, Wildstar, and now Babylon's Fall. 

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Pathfinder 2E - On Risk and Mortality in Games (vs. D&D 5th and Cypher System)

 Brief thoughts here....I've looked at the playtest material released for One D&D so far. It doesn't look too bad, although the whole "monsters don't crit" is a deal breaker for me. It feels like a way to offset level 1-2 player deaths but in the process create a bigger problem for challenges later on. I could be wrong, but the D&D math after level 4-5 favors the players pretty consistently, so losing crits removes a fun element for the DM and reduces the threatening value of monsters overall. On the other hand, like many games, D&D is less about "survival of your PC" these days and more about just telling stories and having some occasional conflict for fun, but I think the notion of player character mortality is something that runs counter to the general direction of the game and its audience these days.

I was doing a session zero with the game group on Saturday for Cypher System, another game which essentially is not about character mortality as a serious risk. You can die in Cypher but it takes a mutual level of determination by the GM and utter ineptitude by the player; you have to really, really want the PC dead and the player has to really burn through their resources astoundingly fast to get to the point where death is inevitable. I think its happened or almost happened only twice in the time I've run Cypher System.

That got me back to thinking about Pathfinder 2E. This system, although I have had my ups and downs with it (and have many issues with its approach to skills and overly structured probabilities), is undeniably not like the other two I mentioned: character mortality is possible at any point in a PC's career, and the idea that level-appropriate encounters are laden with mortal risk is part of the game by design. Pathfinder 2E also leans in to letting players make bad choices if they want with their actions during combat, pushing success past the point of likelihood and risking greater failure as a result. As a consequence of this, the one campaign I ran from level 1 to 20 in PF2E demonstrated that the system had managed to find a decent balance at high level which felt consistent with lower levels; the odds of failure remained even late in the game, an intriguing notion. 

By contrast, with D&D 5E there comes a point where the game can prove challenging, sometimes in unexpected ways, such as how gangs of lower CR monsters are usually more effective that a single CR-equivalent or higher monster which can go down quickly if its not a boss with legendary actions. D&D 5E has been pretty consistent in this regard; you can get a sense of challenge out of a session but the potential for real risk is generally not on the cards unless the DM goes out of their way to try for it. 

Likewise, with Cypher System, you don't really build scenarios in Cypher with the idea of player mortality in combat being a likely thing;* you aim for complications, events, encounters and discovery for sure, but it is best (in my experience) to treat Cypher Characters like the protagonists in a book; they have a certain amount of plot immunity for the most part, and it takes a real monumental cluster of unfortunate events to take them out.

But Pathfinder 2E does not have this problem....and while it does have a slightly different issue (that in which especially low level and especially high level encounters relative to the group are too trivial or too lethal to even consider), it does manage to handle that sweet spot of keeping the group on its toes quite nicely....which is something I like, on occasion.

 Which is all a long winded way of saying I need to look at it more closely again. PF2E, much like PF1E, might end up being the bastion for those who find themselves once more dissatisfied with the current or impending edition of the Big Dog. 

One other item of note....the revision to character races in the proposed One D&D playtest shines a light on how the Pathfinder 2E ancestries, while more elaborate in their design requirements, already accomplish a range of flexibility that D&D 5E appears to be trying to mirror. They are obviously toying a bit with some sacred cows such as proscribed ability modifiers, but if you go back far enough D&D in its roots didn't have ability modifiers to begin with, so whatever. But picking an ancestry in PF2E gives you feats and interesting stuff, as well as choices, that don't stop with level 1....its just a better approach to the concept overall.

Post-Script - all said though, a conversation with one of my players does hammer home the big problem with even considering Pathfinder 2E over, say, D&D 5E: the fact that I am not the only one who does not find the player side of the experience fun or rewarding. That, alone, kind of negates any positives I as GM might see with the system; what's the point of a smooth GM-side experience if the player-side of the system doesn't offer an enjoyable of fulfilling experience? 

*Cypher players may take a long time to figure this out, though; it's easy to invoke a sense of risk and mortality, particularly in tiers 1-3, surprisingly, probably because the way a player has to think about running their character in terms of their "risk pools" invokes that sense more easily; but numerically they definitely have the advantage...most of the time. The GM at least has a ton of flexibility in design, so its always possible in Cypher to just design something which cruelly knocks them down to near death if you really want to and the rules fully support it; much harder to do that in D&D 5E, and PF2E can do it but requires a bit of structure and effort to do so. 

Friday, September 9, 2022

Dungeons & Dragons Premium 3.5 Edition Books are now POD

 Amazingly, Drivethrurpg now lists the 3.5 premium Player's Handbook and the 3.5 premium Dungeon Master's Guide as being available in both softcover and hardcover in print on demand....fingers crossed the Monster Manual will follow soon! This is pretty amazing....as time has gone by my appreciation for this edition has been enhanced over the years as the one that ended up being closest to the "sweet spot" of what I enjoyed most about D&D (even with its many foibles, warts and grappling rules). 

Though I enjoy D&D 5th edition, it is supremely nice to also be able to go back to an edition --and era-- when the game was considerably less politicized on social media, and still intrinsically meant to be played as-is with physical rulebooks. 

I have the original premium edition reprints, but this will give me an excuse to pick up new copies I can use and abuse as table copies.