Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Top 10 Best Games I've Played the Last 5 Years (Part 2)

And here is part 2 of my Top 10 list that you probably thought I had forgotten about by now! You can find the first part here.

5. Planescape Torment
Although I am a big fan of old CRPGs I often find that while they hold up storywise, they don't always gameplaywise. Because of that I can often be quite wary when trying them out, knowing that I am going to need a fair amount of patience (and sometimes googling) for the initial couple of hours to get acquainted with the somewhat outdated and sometimes unintuitive systems.

Those late 90's graphics *heart*

I barely even remember if that was an issue with Planescape Torment. Sure I had some minor gripes with some design choices - the fact that you had to rest to be able to gain back your spells for instance - but they all drowned out in the experience that was the Planescape. As "The Nameless One", aptly not only amnesiac but also immortal (which sounds like it would break the game, but it is very cleverly implemented), you wake up into a world that just barely makes sense to you, yet manages to keep you interested and invested throughout. You'll meet crazy and broken people along the way as you try to uncover more about yourself (sounds like The Witcher took a page from this). I hate the cliché "you have to experience it to understand it" but that is ultimately the kind of game Planescape Torment is. Words just don't do it justice and anything I could tell you about the stories or characters you encounter would spoil the experience. 

This game really has it all - great characters, great gameplay and a world you won't find anywhere else.

4. Deus Ex
Back when I was barely even playing PC games, my dad brought home a game for me and my brother he had received from a co-worker who had told him it was "really, really good". I took one look at the cover and decided it was not for me. It looked dark and kind of scary. Surely it would be too hard for me anyway.

The game was Deus Ex and years later I decided it was time to give this all-time classic a go. I was hooked from the very first mission. As JC Denton (who I keep misremembering as Fenton in my head) I absolutely loved to sneak, shoot and blast my way through the levels. I was amazed at the possibility to try out different solutions, allowing me to avoid danger or go in guns-a-blazing as it suited me. My jaw completely dropped to the floor when I was able to completely avoid a boss-fight by choosing the appropriate dialogue options. To me, this game was pure genius.

More beautiful graphics

It hardly made matters worse that the story was interesting but the amazing gameplay is what I would return for. I didn't love every level, I remember being quite creeped out by the huge water stage (I don't like swimming in water in games, don't ask me why) but I loved how clever this game made me feel (this is something in common with a lot of other entries on this list). The level design is nothing but brilliant and manages to make you feel like a master puzzle-solver without any big signboards displaying how and where you should do something. The game smartly leads you to find alternative routes if you are interested in looking for them and to give you the feeling you have outsmarted the game and its inhabitants. Few games adapt themselves as much to the player as Deus Ex and I think no two players will play it the same way.

3. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
I can hardly say much more about this game than hasn't already been said. It not only started a genre, the Metroidvanias, but is probably without argument the best entry in said genre. I knew of this game long before I ever decided to play it, and it wasn't even my first foray into the Castlevania series (see Circle of the Moon in my previous post).

I think my only real reason it took me so long to get around to playing SotN, other than it being quite tricky for me to get hold of without having to live off bread and water for a month, was that I had heard so many good things about it that it started to intimidate me. I wasn't even really worried that I'd be disappointed with the game, I sort of knew that it was going to rock my world just like it had pretty much everyone elses, but I knew that once I had played it that was it. You only get one first playthrough of a game, and I wanted it to be special. I wanted to be able to get it all the attention it deserved, so I bided my time.

Maybe awesome graphics is what all the games have in common?

Then, it was finally time. I played it through (and recorded it here)* and yes - it is amazing. The gameplay, the setting, the MUSIC! I wasn't disappointed for a second (not even the clunky handling of items could sour my gleeful mood). Even the voice acting has become a classic. Not only was it a game so full of new ideas convened into an amazing package, it also showed game designers high on 3D graphics that pixel art and 2D games were nowhere near done being awesome and that some games needed to be in 2D to be at their best.

What really makes Symphony of the Night stand out from other games on this list is that I don't think you have to enjoy this genre to enjoy this game. It offers a more universal type of enjoyment and has a style that will always be unaffected by time, technological advances or changes in tastes.

2. System Shock 2
If there was one thing I would like to change about mysef, it's being such a scaredy-cat. Sure, I am quite capable at social situations but I am like a child when it comes to darkness and scary things like horror movies and games. One of the creepiest things I know is an illustration from Edgar Allan Poes "Masque of the Red Death" that I stupidly read as a child (if you click that link, don't say I didn't warn you).

So I scare easily and probably the most when playing games. I tend to get very invested and immersed and that doesn't help in the slighest when you think (or know) some ghoul is breathing down your neck. Unlike a movie I can't make it better by closing my eyes. Unfortunately this has kept me from fully enjoying otherwise brilliant games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill.

I am trying to change this about myself though, and one way to do it is to challenge myself to playing games that are just creepy enough to keep me on edge but not keeping me from playing. It doesn't hurt if the game is also really, really fun. System Shock 2 is definitely such a game.

Cyborg Assassin, probably the most annoying enemy in the game.

Firstly, it's not scary because it makes you feel too vulnerable or because the enemies you encounter are that freaky (compared to a game like Amnesia: The Dark Descent for instance) but because of the weird mood and atmosphere it sets. In this way System Shock 2 and the first entry on my list have a lot in common and you might find me saying similar things about them. The tension doesn't rise so much from the fact that you're pretty sure you're going to die any second, but that you just don't know what is coming around the corner. In System Shock 2 you start out on a space station, but towards the end you're in some sort of body, jumping on teeth and stuff? I don't even know and that's part of the fun. The twisted people you meet who try to kill you even shout things like "Forgive me!" as they try to bludgeon you to death.

Like I said, it definitely doesn't hurt that it has excellent gameplay with fun role-playing elements that allow you to tackle situations differently from playthrough to playthrough (that being said I've only played it through once, but I have watched LP's of it since). Good level design means you're rarely confused as to what to do and where to go, at least not long enough to leave you frustrated, and Shodan is one of the best villains in video game history of you ask me (too bad she has a pretty lackluster boss fight). It will drown you in sinister and eerie, but always keep you curious and wanting more.


1. Thief: The Dark Project
So here it is, the game that has left the most scars memories and that I keep returning to in my head over and over - Thief: The Dark Project, that is the original and not the remake that came out a couple of years ago. I mentioned that it's similar to System Shock 2, and that goes most prominently for tone and atmosphere. Gameplay wise they're not overly similar, whereas SS2 allows you to be sneaky if you want to, there is also a lot of room for going around guns-a-blazing if that is your cup of tea. In Thief however, staying in the shadows is essential and I found this game very trial-and-error heavy. Never have I played a game that made trial-and-error so much fun though. Just timing going around a corner, sneaking into a room, shooting a moss-arrow at the right time - everything has to be perfect if you want Garrett to survive the harsh world of "The City". 

Sometimes you're not entirely sure what you're fighting.

The story is ominous, it starts out light-hearted enough with you getting a mission to steal some nicknacks, but soon you find yourself trying to avoid zombies and monsters. There are factions to ally yourself with and demons to destroy. It all sounds convoluted, but Thief has some of the slickest level-designs and densest feeling worlds I've experienced. Every second is a delight and I can't ever remember feeling frustrated or cheated - every failure was my own. 

In fact the game weighed so heavy on me that it was almost like running a marathon every time I sat down to play it. I really had to mentally prepare myself for the all the concentrating and quick thinking I was going to do, to me this was far from a game you can play around in leisurely. There is a reason I have been very hesitant about getting started on the second game even though I enjoyed the first one so much. But it was all worth it because of the overwhelmingly rewarding feeling you got when you got through a mission. 

This game is pure brilliance, even though it (just like SS2) gets very weird towards the end. Overall though, it's a must-experience game in my book.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Quick Thoughts on Star Trek Discovery Ep 9

Into the Forest I Go
And as usual, spoilers.

Was this the mid-season finale? I'm not sure how those things go since I don't watch many TV-series. In either case, it was quite a good one albeit with some stupid things. But to be fair, if I were to nitpick every other episode of Star Trek I'd end up with about the same amount of stupid, in the end it's about whether it comes together as something with a Star Trek feeling or not. I think this episode did.

Where to start? Well, last episode basically left us in the middle of a shit-pickle. The Pahvo'ans had just invited the Klingons to their coordinates and Federation want Discovery nowhere near that mess. No one on the Discovery wants to leave the Pahvo'ans to their demise so Lorca decides to disobey the order and just do the opposite of what he is asked, as usual. That anyone expects him to do anything he is told anymore suprises me. And the Vulcan admiral, or whatever he is, that he talks to seems so annoyed that Lorca won't just do what he says. How absolutely un-Vulcan.

A much better Vulcan.

Lorca thinks it's a better idea to try to solve the Klingon cloaking device issue in an arbitrary three hours, which is interesting considering the entire Federation science force has presumably tried to do this since the start of the war and failed. But they don't have Michael Burnham, so of course they succeed.

It's not an easy feat though, they basically need to plant sensors on board the Klingon ship, aptly named the Ship of Death or something like it, and then perform exactly 133 spore-jumps to get enough data to crack the cloaking device. The sensors can only be planted by beaming someone over there to put them there. Sounds like a great plan that can't fail.

This is also when Lorca, and Stamets boyfriend the Doctor, find out during a medical check-up that the spore-jumps are messing up Stamets' brain. The Doctor (who actually has a name, I just forget because he's unfortunately the most underdeveloped doctor in the Star Trek universe) strongly advices against it but since "trillions of lives", as Lorca puts it, hang in the balance Stamets doesn't really have a choice. You'd think Stamets would have regular full-body check-ups anyway, considering what he is doing, but apparently not.

Why can't someone else just do the jumping? Did they establish somewhere that Stamets is uniquely qualified? Granted, it might be difficult to persuade someone else to do it given the side-effects it's had on Stamets, but considering the circumstances probably not. Speaking of side-effects, Tilly of course blabs that she knew about it all along and that makes for an awkward moment between Stamets and the Doctor.

The best Doctor.

I also wonder why Discovery is still the only ship with the spore-drive? Did I miss when they explained why this can't be copied onto other ships, especially considering how insanely, awesomely useful it is? One explanation could be that Lorca hasn't given the Federation the chance to go through the Discovery enough to replicate the spore-drive, but still.

Speaking of something else though, at this point I really like that they've established Lorca as having such dubious morale, because in every scene he is in and every conversation he has you question whether he has an ulterior motive. It really makes him a very interesting character and give some otherwise ordinary scenes an extra layer.

Michael and Tyler are sent over to the Klingon ship who has de-cloaked to be able to fire on the Discovery. Apparently they also lowered their shields because I thought you couldn't beam through shields? I think that is something that is a bit on-again off-again in the ST Universe.

Either way, Michael and Tyler make it over without any issues. Then they start planting the sensors and they are big, noisy and shiny. Really? Just about the most useless sensors ever if you want them hidden. Let's go with the explanation that they weren't designed to be hidden and there was no time to even turn off the annoying bright, blue lights or beeping they do. Of course they need to beep, or they don't work.

While on the ship they find another human life sign (don't worry, they've masked their own) and who could that be? That's right, Admiral Cornwell isn't dead. To get into the room she's in, Tyler does some nifty "removing of panel and cutting wires" that seems to work in every movie and series. Star Wars had it right, you need an R2D2 to hack into stuff, just breaking it won't work. Although they employ that as well on occasion, anyway, I digress. Tyler says he's been imprisoned long enough to know these things, but unless they're how he got out (and we know it wasn't) there is no reason he would know that.

In essence, Star Trek needs more robots.

In the room where Klingons apparently throw corpses, they find Cornwell alive but not so well, and also L'Rell who has been a bit beaten but not killed. Why was she left there exactly? If they didn't kill her, why not imprison her? They left her with the dead people because they were going to come back and kill her later?

Seeing L'Rell puts Tyler into full PTSD mode and he becomes a blabbering heap of uselessness, leaving Michael to do the rest. He has been hiding that issue pretty well! The rest involves getting onto the actual bridge and planting the last sensor there. I love how the Klingon bridge just conveniently allows someone to sneak in and sit behind a corner and plant sensors. Sounds like a pretty big design flaw to me and it would've been impossible on the Discovery. We don't actually see how Michael gets onto the bridge (unless I blinked in that moment) but she's there and that sensor is even more noisy than the rest. Not that anyone notices, maybe the Klingon are hard of hearing and that would explain why they shout so much.

Best hard-of-hearing character

With the planting of the last sensor, the Discovery starts doing its 133 jumps and Stamets is not doing well at all. Long before they're done however, the Klingons decide to leave so Michael decides to reveal herself and fight Kol to stall them. It does mean the humans in the death-hold get discovered though and fighting ensues. Cornwell basically tells Tyler to get his act together, and he does enough to shoot a Klingon that dies with a sound effect that sounds ripped straight from Dungeon Keeper.

Eventually the Discovery is done jumping and Michael is saved from Kol as he goes to kill her. At the same time L'Rell jumps and grabs onto Tyler just as he is beamed out, allowing her to leave the ship with the others. Then Lorca orders them to destroy the Klingon ship and they do. Kol is presumably dead and now we don't know who will take over to lead the Klingon war-effort.

Back on the Discovery, they've been ordered to return to base. Tyler reveals to Michael that he was a sexual abuse victim to L'Rell, beside also being tortured by her for seven months. It also seems L'Rell still has some sort of Stockholm Syndrome power over Tyler, because he runs to her in her prison confinement and acts weird.

Meanwhile Stamets agrees to do "one last jump" to get everyone back to base safely. The fact that the jumps already almost fried his brain is apparently not so important. Of course this can only go one way - Stamets promises to take the Doctor to the operas if he allows him to do one last jump, because gay people like the opera-cliché - they kiss and then Stamets' fate is of course sealed, Hollywood-style. To no ones surprise Stamets fries his brain in the jump, which means the jump fails and sends Discovery into "where-the-heck-are-we?", basically doing a Voyager. The only thing they see are a load of derelict Klingon ships, which can mean basically anything. Are they in Sto-Vo-Kor?

Stamets demise would've been sadder if it hadn't been so obvious and also kind of unecessary. If he had had his brain fried during the 133 jumps that would've been more powerful, even though that is also kind of expected. But like this it is so extremely sign-posted and also feels a bit forced. Stamets deserved better.

Overall though a good episode with some nice and intense scenes. The ending is exactly what I wanted to make me look forward to the next episode. It looks again like they're moving away a bit from the war-story and at least allowing for the possibility for some mysterious episodes, the kind that make Voyager my favorite Star Trek series.

What do I think of Star Trek Discovery so far as a whole? In short, it's alright. I definitely didn't dislike it but I think I need to see how it all comes together before I can give a verdict on the first 9 episodes. On their own they swayed from mildly interesting to pretty entertaining but they have the potential to be part of a greater whole. Fingers crossed that'll happen.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Quick Thoughts on Star Trek Discovery Ep 8

Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum
I have no idea what that means.
Yes, there are spoilers.

We have yet another decent episode this week, and a return of the Klingons. This time the Klingons screen presence wasn't as boring and I am starting to like Voq's second hand L'Rell who gets some character development here.

It all starts out when the Discovery jumps into battle to save some fellow Federation ships, but fails pretty miserably when it turns out that more and more of the Klingon fleet have stealth technology. This makes Lorca angry and he demands a solution right now. As he speaks to different characters on the bridge around him, I realize that we know nothing about them except for their first names. I have never been so uninformed about a bridge crew in Star Trek ever.

Somehow they find an item that can help them on a planet somewhere. I must've missed where this information came from, but my immediate thought was that whatever it is, it can't work very well since they have no nifty anti-cloaking device in the later instalments of Star Trek. Yet again they are introducing something they will need to un-explain by the end of the show, very much like the spore-drive.


Saru, Michael and Tyler (which I swear they pronounce as Taylor) beam down to the planet which is not supposed to have any life forms. Instead it has... singing trees? Well, the trees turn out to be sentient in what can only be described as hilariously Star Trek. Honestly, this was so Star Trekky it made me smile.

Since the trees are somehow sentient Michael decides that they need their ok before they can use the anti-cloaking device, which is basically a huge crystal tree worthy of any JRPG (it is also purplish-blue like the rest of the trees). Meanwhile Saru is not feeling well from all the singing and Michael and Tyler do some more love-bonding but I just can't see those two together. But neither could I any other couple in other Star Trek series (except maybe Worf and Dax) and I know I talked a bit about this in my episode 7 post already.

Saru begins to try to learn to communicate with the sentient cloud-thing the trees emmanate, and has a scene where he tells Michael and Tyler he's barely made any progress learning their vocabulary, n the next sentence he has a long tirade of back-story on the Pahvans (or something like it) as the beings are called (named after the planet). For someone who just said he barely understood them he had already gathered a lot of information.

At least they're not Phylosians.

Back to the Klingons and things are getting very confusing. L'Rell hates the new Klingon leader Kol but offers to interrogate the prisoner because she needs him to accept her into his ranks. What prisoner? Well, Admiral Cornwell of course. Instead of doing that though, she tell Cornwell she wants to defect and they try to sneak to L'Rells ship together. So that's why she wanted to interrogate her! On their way there, Kol sees them and L'Rell kills Cornwell. Or does she? It is not very clear. Either way she returns to Kol and swears fealty to him, he awards her the face paint that they're all wearing and the second after he tells her he knows she is trying to deceive him and arrests her.

Ok, what just happened there? Was it really necessary to go through the whole kneeling and face painting and talking if he knew she was up to no good in the first place? And why let her be alone with their most useful and valuable human prisoner? And where is Voq in all this? Last time we saw him he was stranded on the destroyed ship of Giorgiu with L'Rell, they were talking about getting some sort of revenge and how does all of the stuff that just happened in this episode tie in with that? And how does the face painting work anyway? Do Klingons never shower or do they just re-apply afterwards?

They'd better explain a lot of the things that went down in this episode or it didn't make much sense.

On the Discovery it seems like Stamets is not feeling too well from all the spore-jumping anymore. So he's basically gone from being a really grumpy hater to a cheerful loving everyone kind of dude, back to a grumpy hater again. Tilly is worried and asks him about it. He tells her to sod off, when she doesn't move he just opens up to her, so he changed his mind pretty quickly. Nothing is explained however, he just confirms that the spore jumps are starting to make him confused.
On the planet Saru has been possessed by the tree-spirits while trying to understand them. They're basically all about harmony and peace and really made me think about the Mako lifestream from Final Fantasy VII. Saru becomes a bit creepy and won't let Michael or Tyler leave the planet. Overall Saru gets some character development here. Earlier on in the episode they "casually" mention that Saru's species the Kelpiens can run really fast. Guess if that is going to play a part later in the episode?

The Pahvans actually look a lot like this.

Tyler tricks Saru so that Michael can run off and fiddle with the anti-cloaking device, which is also a transmitter somehow? Saru figures it out because he can sense that Tyler is deceiving him with his "threat-ganglia", I really hate that name by the way. Saru gets really violent, almost tries to kill Tyler and then runs really fast to get to Michael and almost kills her too. My first thought was that all that talk about peace and harmony went away pretty quickly, but this is actually something Michael points out as well and Saru basically blames Michael for forcing his hand.

The tree-spirits interfere in the end when they turn up and Michael beg them to allow them to use the transmitter-anti-cloak-device to stop the war, since that will bring peace and harmony. The tree spirits agree but it turns out they're actually just stupid and have instead sent out an invitation to the Klingon fleet to come join the Discovery by the Pavan homeworld, presumably for negotiations.

And that is where the episode ends, so it's pretty much a two-parter because this episode didn't answer any questions but only raised them. Overall it was a pretty confusing episode that often had me feel like I missed a scene somewhere, but I like the idea of the sentient trees because it's just so silly.