Monday, July 22, 2019

Is It Really "Original" If It Is A Sequel?

One of the more enjoyable traditions of recent years has been receiving a birthday RPG gift from my younger brother. At this stage in my life RPGs have become guilty pleasures: I'm acutely aware of how much time I spend to play through one, and am reluctant to accrue more; but once I have one, I really enjoy the excuse to dive into it.

This year's gift is Divinity: Original Sin 2. I've been interested in this for some time, having enjoyed (albeit never completing) the original original sin, hearing great things about the sequel, and noticing its appearance on lists of RPGs featuring romances. All of which would be more than enough to pique my interest, but that's been accelerated in recent weeks thanks to the fantastic announcement that Larian Studios is working on Baldur's Gate 3! Soooo, I can almost convince myself that playing this game is a research project, vetting the developer's credentials to continue my favorite series of all time.

DOS1 had a really interesting chargen system, where you rolled two player characters. One of my favorite parts of that system was how it encouraged me to develop distinct personalities for each character, which was a nice nudge out of the "It's Nice To Be Good" tendency I have in lots of games: I could designate one character to be selfish or catty without feeling like it was reflective of who I was as a person. And of course there are good mechanical implications to work through as well, as you can select skills that complement each other or balance the others' strengths and weaknesses.

The flip side of that, though, was that the companions felt a bit lacking. At least as far as I got in the game (which was pretty far!), there were only a couple of potential party members. You can control all of their skills after they join, but as with most RPGs they come to you pre-built, and won't necessarily fit into the strategy you initially had in mind while building your player characters.

I think DOS1 was well-regarded for its character creation system, so it's interesting that Larian completely revamped it in the sequel. You are now creating a single player character, with a wrinkle: you can select one of six "origin" characters, or roll your own PC from scratch. The origin characters are somewhat like the concept in Dragon Age: Origins or Dragon Age Inquisition. You have a predefined race, gender, and name, but otherwise have total latitude over your build: you can select a starting class, and have the same sorts of options as in DOS1 for cosmetic customization, including selecting a hairstyle, skin tone (these have fantastic names like "Wheat", "Mahogany", and "Copper"), hair style, etc. One of the more intriguing options is to make your character undead.

I was bummed that I couldn't override my character name, which was "Lohse". After getting further into the game, though, it totally makes sense: the dialogue is fully voiced, and by selecting an origin character, you'll encounter other people who will recognize you and greet you by name. I'm already intrigued by my particular personal story and it's providing a great hook alongside the main plot to continue.

What's more unusual and innovative, though, is that the other origin character options are also potential party members within the game itself. And each of them has their own personal plot and origin story. You can play through those stories as well by having them in your party; ultimately, you're essentially choosing to hear one origin story in the first-person, and up to three other origin stories in the third-person. It's a bit like if in DA:O you could play as a Dalish Elf Warden and make a party with a Dwarf Commoner Warden, a Human Noble Warden, and an Elf Mage Warden, and have personal interactions with Prince Bhelen, Arl Howe, and Jowan during your quest.

Continuing the theme of flexibility, you can also re-roll each character on recruiting. Everyone has a canonical role, which you can guess from the game's loading screen (Fane is a mage, Sebille a rogue, etc.), and you can opt to keep that or swap to another one. In my case, I was playing as Lohse who is designed as a mage, but decided to make her a rogue instead. I was initially bummed that Sebille joined as a dagger rogue when I wanted to make her an archer/huntswoman... but since people join at a relatively low level and you have total control over their advancement, it doesn't end up making a huge difference.

From some light Googling, it looks like you gain access to infinite respec opportunities after you finish the first major zone, so I'll be able to remake Sebille the way I want to... but by that point, I might just keep the Scoundrel ranks she already has, since the extra movement, Pawn and Adrenaline are all very useful to her as an archer. (I'm definitely reassigning that Dual Weapon point, though!) As I'm playing through this, I'm coming to really appreciate having respecs available but not until a later point in the game: I'm adjusting as I play, figuring out what works, exploring different skills, and also coming up with a mental checklist for how I want to realign people once I have the chance. If I could respec from the start I'd probably be doing that almost constantly, and I think this approach helps me keep a consistent focus that ultimately will help me plan through what I want to do.

It's early in the game yet - well, early in terms of how long it will ultimately take - but here are some initial and early reactions.

What's Good

Combat design. Like a lot of items on this list, it's something that was already really strong in DOS1 and feels even better here. There are almost no trash fights in the game: Each combat encounter is a bespoke encounter that's nicely challenging, has unique aspects and mechanics, and almost feels like a puzzle to solve. The closest game that comes to mind is Torment: Tides of Numenara; there is a lot more combat in DOS2, and you don't often have the pacifist options available in Torment, but that sense of each encounter being particularly meaningful endures.

Economy. I have some quibbles, see below; and it's still early in the game so I reserve the right to complain later; but right now it's hitting that sweet spot where money is useful, there's always something I want to buy, and I don't have enough money to buy everything I want. There is definitely a risk of finding loot that outclasses that sweet item you just bought, but one big advantage of a party-based RPG is that you can often hand-me-down your second-best gear to another character.

Map design. It is gorgeous, varied, detailed, interesting. Yeah, you have ominous torch-lit basements, but also white-sand beaches, and carnival tents, and fields of heather filled with blue butterflies. I think DOS2 has some of my favorite uses of verticality I've seen in any game, with natural slopes and man-made structures, and that makes the maps both a delight to explore and really fun to fight on.

Freedom. In some ways this series reminds me of my beloved Ultima, where you could wander pretty much anywhere so long as you could face the consequences. Skills like teleportation seem almost broken in the way that they allow access to areas you shouldn't be able to get to... but that becomes part of the fun of the game, and it's ultimately designed around it.

Deep world. Another way in which the game reminds me of Ultima: You can pick up or move most items in the map, damage doors and chests and random pieces of furniture, just pick up and carry around huge barrels full of poison because you feel like it. The physics and chemistry of DOS are notoriously great: cast Rain to fill a surface with water, then cast a lightning-based spell to electrocute everyone standing within, or an ice spell to freeze it over and make your foes slip and fall. Perhaps you deploy a poison cloud, then set it aflame, then douse it and leave an obscuring mist behind. It's logical and useful and a whole lot of fun.

What's Nice

Quest design. There's a sort of unique feel to the game's pace. You don't get as much story and stuff as in games like Dragon Age or The Witcher, but it ends up feeling really good, a bit lighter and simpler without seeming dumbed-down. Lots of quests are just a single conversation with a memorable character, others are much longer, a few offer an interesting choice or two.

Romance. It's still really early on, and I'm not sure yet if there are full-fledged romances or just light flirting, but there's already definitely more than DOS1 had. More importantly, the writing here is really good.

Skills. There are a lot, and it can feel overwhelming to select from the available options, but I do really like the depth of the system and the really cool synergies within it. I feel like the game is going for something like BG2 more than PoE, with a bigger emphasis on letting you mess around with systems and make unique characters than on being balanced.

Roleplaying. I think I'm spoiled on this front, and I should hold off on evaluating it until I get further into the game. I appreciate having choices, but the ones I've seen have been very binary, like "Do you want to free this creature from their eternal torment, or get some extra money?" Still, as noted above, I really like how you can roleplay multiple characters, and having some choices is better than having none.

On The Other Hand...

Full voiceover. The actual voice actors are quite good, much better than in, say, Wasteland 2, but it gets tedious to read and hear the lines at the same time. I've gotten in the habit of just clicking to advance once I finish reading a dialogue chunk instead of waiting for the speaking to stop, which is better but awkward in its own way. It kind of feels like the line-reading is on par with a AAA game like Dragon Age, but it doesn't have anything close to its cinematics, leaving the overall experience in a weird in-between state.

Inventory. I feel a little less overwhelmed than I did in DOS1, but I'm not sure yet if that's due to a better design or just me not being as far into the game. I do appreciate the fact that there's a deep crafting system and a lot of utility; again, it reminds me in a positive way of the Ultima games. But I do often feel like I'm spending just as long sorting through my inventory as I am playing the damn game, which is, uh, not great.

And... I think that's all I have for now! I'm having a blast. It's still early in the game and I don't totally have a bead on the big-picture plot yet, but the mechanics of this game are so solid and satisfying that I'd be tempted to play for those alone. There's definitely a chance that my experience with DOS1 will repeat itself and I'll bail before finishing, but based on my experiences so far I have a good feeling about this playthrough.

Monday, July 01, 2019

Burning Bright

Just wrapped up Pyre!

I enjoyed it a lot. Let's do a quick run-down.


The Good

The characters. I really loved how varied they were, how distinct their voices were, their relations with one another.  You naturally make favorites along the way, which adds to the tension of some choices you have to make, but all of them are appealing in their own way.

Reactivity. It's really pretty astonishing how many permutations the game can go through, based on who stays and who leaves, and everything is coherent and makes sense. This is expressed in some really remarkable ways, too, with my favorite probably being how the lyrics of the final song that plays over the credits change to reflect what happened in your game.

Character creation. Unlike Bastion and Transistor, which had defined and detailed protagonists, Pyre lets you create your own Reader. You can select your gender, your background, your motivations. This is done in a really natural dialogue-driven way as the game unfolds, not on a standalone screen prior to the start. There aren't any visual changes associated with it, but the game honors your selections and it subtly affects the later dialogue.

Romance. Okay, "Romance" is way too strong a word for what this game has; "emotional connections" might be better. There's nothing near the depth or intensity you'd find in a BioWare game or similar. But the range of feelings and relations are really remarkable. As is my wont, I pursued a "Romance All The Things" path, clicking every dialogue option available to express interest in my fellow exiles. And... it's complicated! Jodariel acknowledges your interest and gently makes it clear that she does not reciprocate. Sandra becomes increasingly standoffish as you show interest, and in my case our relationship culminated in a really interesting state that kind of reminded me of my beloved Digital: A Love Story.

Music. I almost forgot to include this, just because I now take it for granted with a Supergiant game! It's really wonderful. As with Transistor, the vocals are especially well-done, both on their own terms and how they're presented in-game, with every voice tied to a specific character.

Art. Again, it's Supergiant so I'm not surprised that it's wonderful. It's a real treat to see how they change and evolve from game to game; the high tech Art Deco of Transistor looks nothing like the storybook cartoonish drawings here, except that they both look fantastic.

Environments. Particularly within the Blackwagon, I was amazed at the sheer quantity of interactable items that you automatically collect over the course of the game and how great they all looked together.

The Mixed

Non-failing defeat. The game really emphasizes that losing a match does not end the game, and that the story will continue, with different consequences, if you lose a regular or liberation Rite. I really appreciate all the work that must have gone into that, but I'm hard-wired to win all my battles in RPGs, so I would invariably reload as soon as my opponents won a match. That's on me! Not the game! But it still wasn't fun.

Themes. More specifically, my confusion over whether the game really has any themes; it probably does, but at the end of the game I was left uncertain whether we were meant to believe that the Rites were valuable, whether it was a noble tradition or not. There's constant talk of the enlightenment one receives from participating in them, and I'm not sure how to square that with the talk of injustice in exiling in the first place.

Talismans. On the one hand, they were really cool, with unique abilities that can drastically change your strategies, or just linearly boost your primary statistics. On the other hand, it felt incredibly limiting to just have a single slot, and I only used a tiny fraction of them over the game.

Economy. The gameplay is a basketball sports game, but everything else about it feels like an RPG, and that includes the frustrating economy. I found myself falling into the trap I do in every RPG: hoarding too many items, not spending money, saving consumables for "later" and never using them. That's on me, for the most part, but I have a particularly fierce love for the rare RPGs that get economies right, and this game didn't rise to that.

The Not-So-Great

Gameplay. I was kind of surprised at how much I was enjoying the Rites early on, but I became less enthusiastic as the game progressed. It's always frustrating when you're trying to do something and it isn't happening; in my case, that was usually me angling into my opponents' pyre from the side or behind, only to run past it and get banished before I could plunge in.

Difficulty. Closely linked to the above; I was playing the game on Normal and enjoying it a lot, and activating each Titan Star as it came online, but beyond a certain point I just stopped being able to do anything against my opponents, who can instantly pass and toss and move more quickly than I. I deactivated the stars, then dropped the difficulty to Normal. Again, this wasn't necessary - the game is designed to let you finish it if you don't win all the time - but I still selfishly resented not being great at the game.


I did have a lot of fun playing this, but I doubt I'll return; it does sound like there's a lot of replay potential with the different team configurations and choices you can make, and some really major choices at the end, but the actual matches ended up feeling more like chores to me so I'll likely pass. That said, Pyre does reinforce my impression of the many, many things Supergiant does well, and I'm looking forward to playing Hades and whatever other games they have in the future. To their credit, they dramatically change each game: completely new styles, new mechanics, new stories. It's inevitable that I'd end up enjoying some more than others. Transistor remains the first in my heart, but I'm sure there are many people who will find Pyre the superior of the two games.