Thursday, May 14, 2015

Year One

As it turns out, today is the blog's birthday, aside form a two month break for heath reasons. I've been writing reviews for this thing for a full year.

With that in mind, and my own birthday next week. I'll be taking a few weeks off to deal with a few things, play some games I want to get to but can't review, stuff like that. I still have about three more reviews to do on my Steam curator list, after which I should have some more freedom in what games I tackle next.

I'd just like to thank anyone who's taken the time to read this stupid thing. I know I'm not one of the bigger names out there, but I'm happy with what I have and I look forward to another year of writing reviews.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

One massive roguelike - Tales of Maj'Eyal

NOTICE: The version of the game reviewed is the paid version, including the Ashes of Urh'Rok DLC, your experience with the base game may vary.

Tales of Maj'Eyal, Which I'll be calling TOME from now on, is interesting in that it's both a very young game, and a very old one. It started life in the 90s as a variant of the game Angband called  Pernband, based of the Pern series of books. Now, the Pern series is know for having a somewhat strained relation with it's fans at times, so it's no surprise that Pernband got slapped with a cease and desist letter. In the face of this, the game was reborn as Tales of Middle Earth, throwing out Pern and replacing it with things form Tolkien's writings, and was developed as this for years.

This actually continued up until 2010, when the game was recreated again, this time as Tales of Maj'Eyal, which is what I'm reviewing here. The developer did this for two reasons: First, it removed any possibility of the game getting a second cease and desist letter thrown at it and second, it allowed for parts of the game that didn't quite mesh with the Middle Earth setting, such as time magic and Psionic powers to make a lot more sense.

TOME is a roguelike that takes place on the continent of Maj’Eyal, currently in a time of relative peace after hundreds of years of war. Surprisingly, for a genre that's usually pretty light on story, there's actually a lot of it here, mostly told in letters and scrolls you find on your travels. There's actually a lot if information with each area of the game having it's own lore snippets to find and Despite spending several hours with this game, I've barely seen what it has to offer story-wise, there's that much info to take in.
Each dungeon in the game has several lore snippets, like this one here.
At it's core, TOME is roguelike dungeon crawler, complete with permadeath, interesting, the game has a few departures from typical roguelikes. The first is that the game has no consumables, there's no potions or scrolls. Instead you have infusions which you an equip and use. They work a lot like potions in other roguelikes, doing things like restoring hit points or decreasing damage for several turns, except instead of being used up, they go on cooldown for several turns after use. It's actually a pretty nifty system, as you never have to worry being cheated on potions, but you can't just spam your infusions when in trouble. In fact, to further discourage that, using an infusion grants a temporary debuff that increases the cooldown of other infusions.

On top of that, there's also the dungeons, instead of a single dungeon to get to the bottom of, TOME has several dungeons, with an overworld to connect them all. The dungeons are quite varied, from woods to a giant labyrinth. Some even have unusual gimmicks, like an underwater dungeon where you have to watch your air levels, or a den of sandworms where you need to rely on the worms that live there to dig new paths for you and if you're not quick enough, they'll collapse behind you.
Dungeons are varied not only in appearance, but enemies and floor layout/
The game also has a lot of race and class options. Not only are there typical classes like berserk or rogues, but there's also a lot of unique ones. One of the classes I tried was called the cursed, a fighter who's surrounded by a cloud of gloom, powered by raw hate, that debuffs enemies who get too close to you. There's also alchemists, who have a golem to help protect them and can make powerful explosives out of gems found in dungeons.

While you start with a few options available, You also have to unlock races and classes by doing various things, which range from the simple, such as killing 1,000 humanoids across all of your games, to the very difficult, One race in the Ashes of Urh'Rok DLC requires killing three very tough optional bosses in the same game.

The game also comes with several difficulty settings, the most unique of which is the permadeath setting. Alongside traditional permadeath and an exploration mode that gives you unlimited lives, There's also an adventure mode. Adventure mode is a sort of compromise between exploration and roguelike modes, you are given extra lives as you level up, but once you run out, the next death is permanent so there's a lot of options available to either turn the difficulty down for newcomers, or crank it up if your looking for an extra challenge.
TOME has a lot of character options to chose form. Also shown: proper dwarven naming.
The games graphics are pretty good. The game is tile based and the tiles are nice and detailed, with plenty of tile sets for the game's varied areas, there's even some nice splash images for loading screens and the occasional background image. There is however a small problem in that nothing is animated, all the tiles are static. Though the game does make up for this with spell and ability effects, providing some nice particle effects to give some extra oomph to your spells and abilities.

The game also has a good soundtrack, leaning towards an epic orchestral score. Each area has it's own theme, and while I encountered some minor issues with songs not quite looping properly - there was a small pause when the track restarts - Everything fits the game and is nice to listen to. The sound design is also decent, with some areas having some atmospheric sounds and a decent number of effects for various spells and abilities, though in my experience the game focuses more on visual than audio cues, which is fine as this is a turn based game, so you have all the time you need to take note of things.

The overworld connects the various dungeons together.
The game is pretty solid and I didn't encounter any real bugs. The only major flaw I can think of is that the game is massive, and that's great that there's so much content but it's also perhaps a bit too big for it's own good. While the dungeons I entered were fairly short, usually only about three floors each, there's a lot of them and unless you're playing with exploration mode on, you have some form of permadeath to deal with. I know roguelikes are supposed to be difficult and that's fine, but trying to beat a game this big on one life, or even several in adventure mode, feels like it might be a bit too tall an order. For those used to games like Dungeons of Dredmor or Sword of the Stars: The Pit? You've got a long, hard trek ahead of you and it'll take a good bit of effort to start seeing mid and late game areas.

Also, I should take a moment to talk about payment, since the game's payment system is a little odd. The base game is actually free and open source, you can however, donate to the game to help development and keep the servers running. Paying also gets you some minor perks such as access to the exploration mode mentioned above, and the stone Warden class. Finally, you can buy DLC such as the Ashes of Urh'Rok DLC. You can find more information on this on the game's donate page here. Note that buying the game off Steam or GoG gives the same benefits as donating, as well as giving you access to the game through those platforms.

Overall this is a very big, complex roguelike that's a definite must play for fans of the genre. There is a lot of content here, so much that I actually feel a bit under prepared for reviewing it. Though I could likely spend a hundred hours on this and still feel the same way. Not only that, but the game is still in active development, so there's new content being released and/or old content being updated all the time. This is a game you could readily spend hundreds if not thousands of hours on. Lifetimes could be lost to this thing and with the base game being free, there's little excuse not to try it at least once.

Tales of Maj'Eyal developed and published by DarkGod. It is available on Steam, GoG, Desura and Gamersgate. It's homepage, which includes a direct purchasing option is available here.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A spanner in the works - Drox Operative

NOTICE: This review used a copy of the game that includes the Invasion of the Ancients expansion, your experience with the base game many vary.

Soldak Entertainment, who's previous games I've covered here and here has made something of a name for themselves over the years, by taking action RPGs along the lines of Diablo or Torchlight, and turning them on their head, Depths of Peril had you managing a covenant of barbarians to take control of a town through war and diplomacy against other covenants. Din's Curse pitted you against a living dungeon full of dangers that grew worse if left unchecked. Now, we have Drox Operative. Bringing it's own twist to the formula, starting with the fact that you're in space.

Drox Operative sees you as the captain of a starship flying under the banner of a Drox Operative Guild. Your job is to cruise a galaxy full of warring alien races as a sort of mercenary-for-hire, handling their problems and fighting their battles for a fee. Your ultimate goals are to make as much money as possible, expand the power of the Drox guild and perhaps most importantly, make sure that whatever happens between these warring empires, you're on the winning side.
In space, no one can hear you loot.
One of the first differences in Drox operative is when making a character. You're given a decently sized list of races to pick from. as well as a handful of options for extra challenges like hardcore mode. Unfortunately The only difference between races is some stat bonuses, as well as extra equipment slots for things like shields or missiles. Picking your race, while still important isn't as big a choice as picking a class in similar games.

Interestingly, Drox Operative does not have skill trees. Instead abilities are decided by your current equipment. This allows for a lot of flexibility since you can use whatever you like, assuming you can purchase it from a vendor or find it off a random enemy. There's a decent number of options to play with, including missiles, lasers and mine droppers. You can even install multiples of the same thing and their stats will add up. Want a lot of shields? Just install extra shield components. The only other restrictions you have are your power load, which you can get things like power plants to improve, and your component slots, which are divided into slight, medium and heavy components, and you can unlock more of these by raising your command stat.

Speaking of, while the game has no skills it does still have stats that you can increase on level up. since this isn't a typical RPG, the usual strength and dexterity has been replaced with more fitting things like helm and computers. Each one gives a bonus to something like attack damage or defense, but are mainly used for equipment requirements, such as higher tactical allowing for better weapons. Interestingly,  the way equipment and stat requirements work means that rather than focusing on one or two stats like in most RPGs, here you'll want to spread your points out somewhat to make sure none of your equipment lags too far behind everything else.

Equipment gives your ship a lot of flexibility. Want to use a certain ability? Just equip something that grants it.
Once you've picked a race you'll be put into the middle of a randomly generated sector of space, and this is where the game get's unusual. The basic idea behind this game is that each sector is home to several different alien races. These races will be researching technology, colonizing plants, and fighting amongst each other. You're job in all of this can best be summed up as "spanner in the works", the aliens in each sector will offer you quests that can range from fighting off neutral space monsters or delivering supplies, to helping attack other races. you can even engage in diplomacy with these races to give them things like technologies and information on planets you've found. Your can even spread rumors or propaganda to mess with the races relations between each other. While you don't have much of a personal stake in what's going on, you've got a lot of options on how to influence things.

This leads up to Your goal in the game which is kind of complicated. you basically have three options: Ally yourself with one or more races and help them take over the sector, raise a certain amount of money for the Drox guild, mostly gained by completing quests, or raise your fear rating enough to please the Drox, mostly through fighting. There's actually a good bit of strategy to the game as working towards those win conditions means having to consider who you work for and what information you trade off.
The diplomacy screen from Depths of Peril makes it's return.
The game also has lose conditions, it mostly boils down to not being allies with the winning side when a sector is taken over, or somehow managing to make everyone hate you. The most interesting though is economic loss, which will cost you a sector if you loose the guild too much money. Most of that money is lost by getting killed (Clones are expensive!) so there's a larger incentive than normal to avoid dying. Fortunately, if you do achieve(?) a losing condition, you are given a grace period of about 10 minuets to fix things. So if a race took over the sector when you were just one or two reputation points away from becoming allies with them, you've still got a chance to fix that and make it a win.

While the game uses a similar engine to Soldak's previous works. The graphics actually look a bit better this time. ships recognizably look like ships, planets like planets, and the background includes plenty of distant galaxies and nebulae  to keep things interesting. It's still not a visually impressive game, but but it's a step forward at least.

The game's music is also decent, it's energetic and helps to set the tone of fighting out in space, and helps keep the game from getting too quiet. It's also seems a little larger than in previous Soldak games, with each race having their own music theme. Sound meanwhile is pretty effective, everything sounds like you'd expect, with plenty of explosions and buzzing sounds for lasers, along with a simple engine sound for ships in flight. One major improvement over previous games is some new warning sounds to let you know when you've lost shields or are running low on health, add in the usual sounds for notices and successful or failed quests. Overall, the game does a good job of getting your attention and making sure you don't miss anything important.
Races like the hive here, populate each sector of space.
Oveall, this is a big, complex game, and to be honest that's a bit of a problem. There's a lot of information to track to the point of being a bit too much in places. the win and lose conditions I detailed above are complex enough that there's separate win and lose condition screens you can check to see how your doing. Your ship actually has three health bars: Shield, armor and hull. and they don't all use the same healing items. On top of that you have an energy bar, and even the most basic of attacks uses up some energy, add in a harsh galaxy where too many deaths will trigger an economic loss and you've got a game that can be somewhat hard to get into.

However, if you can come to grips with how the game works and get past those rough early stages, you've got what's easily Soldak's best game as of this writing. A highly replayable action RPG, set in a living, changing galaxy that's radically different from anything else on the market. Worth a look if you already played and liked Depths of Peril or Din's Curse. Though if you're new to Soldak's games I might suggest starting with one of those first, as they're a bit easier to get into while still showing off some unique ideas.

Drox Operative was developed and published by Soldak Entertainment. It is available on Steam, GoG, Desura and Gamersgate. It's homepage, which includes a demo and direct purchase option is available here.