Friday, January 24, 2020

Let Me Shake Your Hand!

I've reached the end of the first chapter of Pathfinder: Kingmaker, which seems like a fine time to check in on my progress!

Speaking of time: As noted in my inaugural post, I'm mostly pleased with how the time system works in this game. There's a time limit of 90 days (I think) to complete the first chapter, and I accomplished the main task with 46 days remaining. So it's definitely on the generous side, while its mere existence solves the "problem" of just resting to full health after each and every fight. This was a decently completionist playthrough, too... I think I had visited every area accessible through the fog, and had cleared all but two maps, both of which had extremely high-level enemies.

I'll start out with a bunch of random petty complaints:

Speaking of those two maps: I strongly suspect that P:K will be a lot like BG in that it would be more enjoyable to replay than to play the first time. On the one hand, it's fun to explore new areas and not know what to expect; on the other hand, it's extremely un-fun to be ambushed by a bunch of invisible wererats and annihilated without being able to respond. These sorts of encounters can only be solved with meta-knowledge that you, not your character, possess: that this one particular map, unlike all the other maps around it, is an especially high-level challenge and you need to come back later. As a player, all you can do is reload a previous save game and leave; as a character, all you can do is die.

I really enjoy the idea behind camping and cooking, making its own system with resources and trade-offs, but there are tons of mechanical and lore aspects of it that irritate me. For starters, camping is by far the biggest time-sink in the game, with most of that coming from hunting. Which... if I'm cooking a recipe that's consuming a slab of beef AND a bag of flour AND a bag of rice, why am I also hunting deer for 20 hours? I'd expect to either hunt (more time but less resources) or use recipe ingredients (more resources and less time), not both.

Instead, if you want to skip the huge time devoted to hunting, you need to use camping supplies. These are ridiculously heavy! For a while I was carrying one for each party member, and it was more than half of the total weight carried by my party, at a whopping ten pounds per person. I think that I finally get the purpose of this - it's so you can rest while inside a dungeon, without returning to the overworld map for hunting - but ye gods, the weight is absolutely terrible. I finally stopped carrying the supplies and am glad I did, they aren't remotely worth the encumbrance.

In general, I'd like to be able to:
  1. Store all my cooking supplies in my shared storage back at base.
  2. Look at my known recipes.
  3. Decide what dish(es) I'm going to make.
  4. Take those ingredients with me.
  5. Leave everything else back at base.
Except... as far as I can tell, there's no way for you to view your recipes unless you're actively camping. And you can't bring up the camping UI while you're in your base. So, you don't know what food items you need to bring with you. And so you end up lugging around a bunch of heavy food that's useless because you don't know any recipes that require it. (I think this will get better once I have enough recipes and raw supplies to, say, just bring along 15x meat and potatoes and flour to bake a bunch of shepherds' pies; but in the current game, where I know about six recipes and have 3-4 each of like 15 different ingredients, I don't have that luxury.)

And speaking of weight: I'm a little baffled why the game has a whole system around using Lore (Nature) to skin wild animals for their pelts, when those pelts turn out to be totally useless. They aren't used in anything or for anything, and are only valuable to sell; but their price-per-pound ratio is some of the worst in the entire game.  Likewise you can pick up bottles of wine and mead and stuff that seem like they must be useful, but nope: They're just practically-worthless vendor trash.

The user interface definitely isn't the worst I've used, but also isn't the most helpful. I didn't realize until reaching Level 3 that my PC's cantrips weren't appearing on my quick-bar to cast. It took me an embarassingly long time to figure out how to assign them. Likewise, I didn't realize until even later that my mage had more memorization slots after leveling up that she hadn't yet filled: new spells are automatically memorized into slots, while newer slots for older levels just hide way back in your Spellcasting screen until you go hunting for them. Anyways, it's all fine once you know where things are, but it doesn't seem super-learnable in-game, compared to other RPGs I've played that have more detailed tutorials or friendly-nag prompts.

Economy-wise, I'm experiencing my standard generalized paralysis of whether stuff is worth buying or whether I should be hoarding my gold; I'm now up to around 10,000 gold pieces and haven't bought anything interesting. There's, like, a +2 belt of Strength for 2,000 gold; that sounds good, but will I be seeing +4 belts in Chapter 2? Will I find more free belts while questing? I just don't know!

Finally: it's a tiny interface thing, but I really with that you could use your numpad to select dialogue responses, instead of needing to use the mouse or the top row of number keys. I've gotten used to driving conversations through the numpad in the Shadowrun games, and Divinity games, and the Dragon Age games, and pretty much every other PC RPG with branching dialogue, and it feels weird to be playing a game without it.

Okay, with random pettiness out of the way, let's move on to random compliments!

In my first post I'd noted that the maps in this game feel small. I'd wondered if that was an engine limitation, but nope, I see now that they're capable of being very large, indeed! Old Sycamore is probably my favorite area in the game so far and has great design. Each individual level is big and varied and filled of interesting stuff and routes; and the system as a whole is cool and nicely interconnected. It reminded me slightly of the Nashkel Mines, for giving me the sense of venturing into a proper dungeon for the first time after wandering the surface for weeks. At the same time, after experiencing Old Sycamore I'm glad that most other maps are on the small side. In my opinion, the density is what's important, having interesting and worthwhile stuff accessible, and there doesn't seem to be much useless padding in this game. A typical map might have one big fight against a tough opponent, a treasure cache, and a hidden secret with some more treasure, and that's it. You don't need to wander for long to confirm that you're done before moving on.

The maps are pretty, and good, though in my opinion a notable step down from Divinity: Original Sin 2. The first thing I notice is much less verticality: the terrain is three-dimensional, with rolling hills and occasional cliffs and chasms, but that's really just important for pathing and choke-points, there isn't an advantage to being on higher ground. That isn't necessarily a problem in this game; I loved the combat in DOS2 but the arenas did feel contrived sometimes ("Here's another ladder climbing 50 feet up into a tree!"). Where DOS2 combat was very tactical and focused on fine positioning and sequencing of actions, P:K combat feels more strategic: it's about resources and focused targets, is very forgiving about line-of-sight and positioning. One of the best examples might be how sneak attacks are handled: other RPGs will require you to move a rogue into a spot directly behind a foe and unleash a melee attack with a specialized weapon in order to get a sneak attack bonus. P:K's requirements are far simpler: if you have the sneak attack skill, and are "flanking" an opponent, you get the bonus. All that is required to "flank" an opponent is for at least two party members to be in melee range of the target. This makes good intuitive sense: if a foe is distracted by the big scary tank in front of them, you'll have an opening to slip a shiv through their armor. But it also opens up some really interesting scenarios: now you can sneak attack with projectiles, or even spells, letting you build proper rogues that don't need to directly expose their bodies.

Speaking of rogues: I'm planning on resetting at least a couple of my party members, and rogues are the main reason why. One thing I didn't fully grok until recently is that thief and rogue are two pretty distinct roles in this game. You do need a thief, someone who can pick locks and disarm traps. But that person does not need to be a rogue! Your rogue class is all about your combat skills, the sneak attacks and so forth. Your thief role is all about your Trickery ability, which is open to every class; it is improved by your DEX, so there is synergy with Rogue, but it's definitely not necessary. I do like this trend in RPGs of separating out combat and non-combat skills to different progressions, somewhat like the Inquisition Perks in DAI or like skills in Pillars Of Eternity, though the ability system in P:K makes more sense to me than the skill system in PoE did.

At a high level, I'm really digging the party composition so far. I'm guessing the order of recruitment varies depending on the initial choices you make during the prologue, but in my game, the first three companions after the prologue were all women, and five of the first six recruits were as well. This has been a really nice change of pace from DAI and PoE, which were both 2/3 male. There's some fun subversion of stereotypes here, too: your tank and your heavy hitters are women, while the first (and so far the only) healer is a man. You have a ton of flexibility in how you grow your party, which I think helps you pick companions at least somewhat based on their personality and then level them up to fit your party: you're stuck with their alignment and initial stat choices, but otherwise can choose any legal class each time they level and have total control over their skill progression. There are three free respecs, and more respecs at a cost after, so once I'm confident I've recruited most of my party and have a handle on combat synergies I think I'll go back and redo a few of my favorite characters so there's less overlap and more capabilities in my party loadout.

Those characters themselves are good. The "Getting to know you" conversations with companions back at your base can feel a little wall-of-text-y, and tend to feel more like lore dumps of the world than personal anecdotes from a person. The dialogue usually sounds like "I'm X, I'm a citizen of nation Y, I come from city Z, I worship god A [APPROVE/DISAPPROVE?!], I belong to faction B", etc., etc. It's very exposition-focused and doesn't feel directly relevant to my immediate circumstances or quests, so I end up just kind of glazing over.

That said, the characters are a lot more fun pretty much everywhere else. They aren't super-chatty in most dialogue, but will occasionally jump in when you're facing a decision that they feel very invested in. As I noted before, they have wonderful banter in the camping interface whenever you rest. I've recently been pleased to see that they can also appear in the storybook segments (which I think is just flavor, but very welcome flavor!)

The voiceovers seem kind of inconsistent. Some companions are pretty much fully voiced, with all lines read out in full. Others aren't voiced at all, except for their fireside banters. Some (apparently) minor NPCs get voice acting, while (apparently) more important ones do not. The quality varies a bit from person to person, and in one or two cases it sounds like someone may not have great microphone equipment or technique, but everyone is pretty good, and I don't generally find myself skipping past spoken lines.

I'm starting to hit some of the very early romance content, and, well, I'm glad that this game has romance! So far it feels a bit on-the-nose, with both your dialogue prompts and your companions' responses sounding extremely flowery and over-the-top. But I shouldn't complain, I'm just happy for it to be here!

I don't have much plot stuff to share yet, but some minor characters to chat about, so let's visit


Speaking of romance: so far I'm flirting with Octavia. I kind of hope Amiri is a romance option, but haven't seen any clear openings there yet. It looks like Valerie is romanceable. The game acts like Valerie is the most beautiful creature to ever exist on the planet, and... I just don't get it? I mean, she's definitely fine, but her portrait, model and description don't seem drop-dead gorgeous. Of course, taste is unique, but the game wants to emphasize that everyone finds her extremely attractive and are instantly smitten by her beauty, and it's a weirdly hard sell.

I do dig her as a character, though. At least her personality, which, despite her being a Tower Shield Specialist, tends to sound very paladin-esque, befitting her Lawful Good alignment. Mechanically, she can be pretty challenging, mostly due to my biggest frustration in this game, weight. She has surprisingly low Strength, which in most games wouldn't be that big of a deal since her job is more to absorb damage than to deal it out; but because this game has both personal and party-wide encumbrance, and she's lugging around freaking heavy armor and a super-freaking-heavy shield, she's constantly under a malus that diminishes her effectiveness at everything. I've been mitigating that a little by giving her a STR-boosting belt and dropping all unnecessary equipment, but still, if I had rolled her stats I would have respecced her long ago.

My current party loadout looks like this:
  1. Valerie takes point in our flying "V" formation, usually drawing threat on new engagements. She's single-classed as a Tower Shield Specialist, with very few active skills but some passives that boost her survivability and support other melee fighters.
  2. Jaethal is single-classed into Inquisitor. I've started loading up on Teamwork feats for her since she can proc them herself, but that's leading me to put those feats on Valerie and Amiri as well. I'm still using her scythe. She'll bless the party before a fight, and can hit damn hard. She's surprisingly survivable, probably thanks to her decent armor and Valerie's threat acquisition.
  3. Amiri is my glass cannon. I gave her one rank in Vivisectionist, which gives her Sneak Attack (any time she's flanking, which is always) and a once-per-day mutagen that boosts her STR and AC. Everything else goes into Barbarian. I think she should get some durability buffs at higher levels, which will help a ton, because she's by far my most vulnerable companion at the moment. I need to micromanage her a little so she doesn't rush ahead of Valerie and get slaughtered. During more complex fights, I like to have Amiri juke to the side while Valerie and Jaethan meet the front line, then have Amiri rush to the enemies' back line and destroy the casters and archers there. 
  4. Guchok, my PC, is a single-class Bard. I'll often open up fights by having Guchok summon a monster next to my foes, which will cause them to burn abilities and a round of actions targeting it, while my party can do real damage to them and close ranks before they respond. Once the fight is joined, Guchok usually just attacks with her light crossbow from the rear. After it's done she'll help heal wounds incurred. She has a set of utility spells that are situationally useful.
  5. Linzi is another Bard! I gave her one rank in Thug, which gave her Sneak Attack and some other goodies. She's usually the one singing morale for the party, though on very long adventuring stretches between rests she'll eventually run out and Guchok will take over. Otherwise she's mostly overlapping Guchok, but with a slightly different spell loadout.
  6. Finally, Octavia, who seems like a great party member but I can't quite decide how to build her. She has fantastic thief abilities and is my go-to for out-of-combat thievery. In combat, I mostly use her as a mage, focusing on direct damage spells (which can land sneak attacks!).
I really like the mix of personalities in that group, but there's a weird mish-mash of arcane and roguish stuff going on between Guchok, Linzi and Octavia, so I think I'm going to eventually respec them into more discrete roles.

In terms of story: Guchok is Lawful Neutral, and I've been trying to follow that, but do definitely find myself veering towards the Lawful Good side fairly often. Like a lot of D&D-inspired games, it can be really hard to make a compelling "Evil" side, which pulls the whole center of gravity towards the "Good" side of the scales. I am digging how the game handles alignment stuff. You get ample opportunities through dialogue to take actions that will shift your alignment, and those are clearly marked. And, more rarely, your alignment will unlock specific outcomes: by being Neutral, I could negotiate an armistice with two warring factions at Old Sycamore, for example. I do like this, as it feels like cases where your reputation would realistically open up a certain possibility that might not be available to someone else.

I don't feel like there have been many proper, big-picture choices so far. It sounds like there was a chance to capture Tartuccio alive, but if so I didn't have the opportunity to do so. I'd wondered if you could persuade the Stag Lord to stand down, but it doesn't seem like that can be done, either. There are plenty of smaller choices along the way, though. As noted above, I avoided fighting either the Kobolds or the Mites, and ended up re-establishing peace between the two; I'm not sure yet if that will have any longer-term consequences.


Yup! This is A Game. I think I'm going to start getting into the Kingdom Management side of things soon, which is very exciting. I've always loved stronghold-management stuff in RPGs, and kingdom decision-making since the old Castles game, and am really looking forward to seeing whatever Kingdom stuff is in store for me.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Trailblazer: Queenmaker

Another year, another massive RPG! Thanks to the annual generosity of my brother, I have yet another meaty game to sink my teeth into. I've started playing Pathfinder: Kingmaker and am really enjoying it so far. I'm only a short way into the game, having recently reached Level 3, but I can tell that this will be a massive journey, so I figured it's worth a short post up front to cover my initial impressions.

First, as is clear from the title, this game uses the Pathfinder system and is set in the Pathfinder universe. I was slightly leery about this: as I've whined about before, I've spent much of my life bouncing between various fantasy worlds, re-learning their magic systems, their political systems, their terminology and mythology. I've never played the pen-and-paper Pathfinder and was dreading learning all this stuff all over again. But, as I quickly and happily came to learn, it is extremely similar to the D&D systems that I already know, particularly the Neverwinter Nights incarnation. This makes perfect sense; as I had previously heard, Pathfinder spun off from the "open-sourced" 3.5 edition of D&D, but for some reason I had assumed that they had changed the core rules to differentiate themselves. Instead, I've been pleased to see that the various terms I've learned over the years (flat-footed, flanked, proficiency, combat maneuver, etc.) are still around and mean pretty much the same thing. That's given me a lot more confidence in plunging into a rules-heavy game like this.

As I texted my brother shortly after starting, "I can tell that this is going to be a great RPG because Steam says I've played for 100 minutes, and all I've done so far is roll a character." I am playing as Guchok, a Lawful Neutral half-orc bard. I'm still getting a handle on her personality, but I'm thinking of playing her as a cast-against-type charismatic orc with ambitions of empire. She uses her ferocity (+2 on Intimidate Persuasion checks!) to encourage people to fall in line behind her. She wants to show that half-orcs aren't the violent barbarians that "civilized" people assume they are, and she wants to do that by building a civilization that's better than anyone else's. And if she uses some of her orcish toughness to get that civilization built, well, so much the better.

I mostly selected the bard class because I wanted to build a CHA-heavy character to maximize my Persuasion skill, and Bard and Sorcerer are the two CHA-primary classes. I almost never choose an arcane caster for my first playthrough of a game since the magic system is usually the most complex part of an RPG and it's harder to plan a build; I also had fond thoughts of my very first playthrough of the Baldur's Gate series with a bard and thought it would be fun to take a similar path this time around.

I pretty quickly figured out that this probably wasn't the optimal choice to make. Outside of the very first dialogues, when you are the only person in your party, skill checks are automatically performed by whoever in your party has the highest skill rank; there doesn't seem to be a particular advantage in having your primary character be the face of the party as opposed to someone else. (Other than roleplaying reasons, which are perfectly fine!) And secondly, the very first person to join your party is, yes, another Bard. She seems likely to be the most constant companion of the game, the one character who is guaranteed to always get resurrected.

It definitely isn't disastrous. Pathfinder's class system is similar to the NWN one, but even more flexible. Every time you level up you can choose to advance one of your existing classes or take the first level in a new class. There aren't any dual-classing penalties or skill losses, just the standard warnings against casting arcane spells while wearing heavy armor. All that to say, while Linzi starts as a bard, her stats (decent DEX and INT) give her some flexibility; Guchok's raw CHA is higher, so she may remain focused as the party's primary Bard, while Linzi may become a ranged Eldritch Knight or something, slinging spells and arrows from the back line. It looks like the game does have respec options (at an increasing price), so once I have a better handle on builds I may just get rid of her Bard level altogether.

Hm, let's do a quick initial run-down.

The Good

Tons of build options. They're pretty overwhelming at the moment, but also exciting. If I was the sort of person who replayed RPGs, I'd look forward to trying this game with radically different builds.

Maps. They're really gorgeous, and feel more alive than I think any other RPG I've played: not just green grass and rushing rivers, but also swarms of butterflies fluttering around flowers and rabbits hopping through grass and cats stalking through the bushes. Those are purely cosmetic but add immensely to the atmosphere.

Time limits. I have somewhat mixed feelings about this, but (not having failed one yet) it feels like a fantastic solution for the old "problem" of "Why don't I just rest back to full health after each fight?". There's now some incentive to keep pushing forward after you've taken some damage to health and spell supply. I also like that there's a system around resting, which keeps things interesting and has its own trade-offs. It's giving me warm memories of Iolo strumming his lute while Dupre and Shamino sit around the fire.

Storybook segments. These are exactly like the Meres from Torment: Tides of Numenara, and so far I like the ones in Kingmaker better. They aren't one-off dream sequences: instead, they're directly integrated into your storyline, and they can use the text-heavy format to depict scenarios that would be hard or boring to do with the in-game engine. Rushing through a fiery hall to find safety, or tracking a band of kobolds along a ravine, or whatever. Skillchecks are incorporated very well here, and make much more sense than the associated pools did in Torment.

Music. It's very memorable and pleasant, and I find the tunes running through my head as I go about my day.

Companions. It's still early on, I only recently got a full party (plus one), and I haven't gotten to know them too well yet; but I'm already intrigued, there seem to be some compelling personalities, a nice variety of builds and histories, and, best of all, banters over the fireplace.


The Fine

Player character portraits. They're good, but there are a lot fewer than I would expect. If you have a particular race+gender in mind, there are probably only 1-2 options that would work. But, I do really like how unique each one is, there's a ton of personality evoked from each one. I ended up back-designing my character based on a portrait I liked ("Who is she??"), which was a fun way to approach chargen.

Non-scaling enemies. I'll almost definitely promote this up to "The Good" later in the game, but it can be pretty frustrating at level 2, when a lot of the non-random enemies you encounter feel far overleveled. Unlike Divinity Original Sin, there don't seem to be particular "zones" oriented around levels, and you can easily waste a day of traveling only to find out that you can't do anything at your destination.

Maps and journals. The individual maps feel on the small size compared to other games, but maybe they get bigger. More worryingly, you can't add notes to either your map or your journal! This is a Big Problem for me, since I now need to fall back to old-fashioned pen-and-paper to keep track of which areas still have outstanding tasks that I can't yet tackle at my level. On the plus side, I really enjoy the first-person non-PC-narrated voice of the journal entries, it's been a while since I've seen a game do something innovative and fun with their quest tracking.

The Bad

Various UI glitches. In particular, the number 0 keeps showing up when it shouldn't (like, "You will gather 5 rations. It will take 0 to 0 hours.", which ends up taking 4-20 hours). Pretty surprising to see these after the game's been out for well over a year.

Inventory management. This is probably a lost cause at this point and I ought to stop complaining, but I shan't. It's 2020, who is actually having fun looking through each and every item they're carrying to figure out what they can safely drop in order to reduce their encumbrance? Other games have found creative solutions to this (designating followers to run back to town and sell your stuff while the rest of you keep adventuring, for example. Or just removing encumbrance altogether! Or getting rid of trash loot!), and it feels like such a step backwards to deal with it again.

Weaponry. I had issues with this in NWN and it feels at least as bad here. You have a very limited number of combat feats available, and if you want to specialize in a particular weapon, you need to choose from one of the 50 or so available. Are you going to invest in Estocs, or Sabers, or Scimitars, or Bardiches, or Falchions, or... At this point, I just have a handful of +1 enchanted weapons, and I'm frozen by choice paralysis: What if I take a Weapon Focus in Longsword, then immediately find a +2 Trident, or a Falcata with Freedom of Movement? I really, really miss the old-school BG approach of broad categories, like "Two-Handed Weapons" and "Ranged Weapons", that were still forms of specialization but didn't lock you in as severely.

The End (For Now)

Not much to report so far on the plot or major choices. I'm looking forward to the kingdom-management dimension of the game, but, well, I need to establish my kingdom first! Or queendom, or orcish dominion or whatever. Expect more posts in the future as Guchok's journey continues!

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Untitled Geese Games

I like games, but it's somewhat rare for me to feel much anticipation for a particular game. I usually try to block out pre-release hype as much as I can, both to cut down on spoilers and to avoid disappointment from underwhelming deliveries. For the rare games that I get hyped on (your Dragon Age, your Failbetter), I'll grab it at launch and start playing almost immediately. So I don't often have a long-simmering unfulfilled urge to play something.

That exception is: Untitled Goose Game! This charming, tiny game from an indie studio burst onto my radar after it launched last year. I avoided any gameplay videos or detailed reviews, but the squeals of glee filling my social media feed made me uncharacteristically excited to try my own hand (wing?) at being a terrible goose.

But: An obstacle! While UGG has been released on multiple platforms, on PC it launched as an Epic Games Store exclusive. For no particular reason other than my inherent orneriness, I've resisted buying any exclusive games on non-Steam platform. I actually have had the Epic Games Store installed for several months now, but just to claim the weekly free games on it, which I then swiftly never download nor play.

As is so often the case for scenarios where I want something but cannot justify purchasing it for myself, my salvation came at Christmastime, when my brother (no, my other brother) bought me the game. Conscience free, I commenced honking.

But: An obstacle! The Epic Games Store is also a launcher, like Steam; but unlike Steam, it doesn't really offer any in-game features or overlay. Most critically, it does not include a screenshot key. And UGG itself does not have an in-game screenshot key. How was I ever going to write a blog post about something if I couldn't take any screenshots of it?! 0/10 game store, would not recommend.

I'd last tangled with this issue while playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, another non-Steam game  lacking screenshot capabilities. In that case I ended up jury-rigging a ridiculous flow where I would launch from Steam into Origin, then from Origin into SWTOR, then use the Steam overlay for screenshots. The alternative I wanted to use was the NVIDIA GeForce Experience, which includes a variety of useful utilities including, yes, a screenshot button. But: An obstacle! For several years now, NVIDIA has bafflingly insisted on creating an account with them before downloading or using their software. It isn't enough to pay hundreds of dollars for their hardware, they want to track our usage data and provide marketing information and store everything in a database that will inevitably get hacked and leaked. I've grimly held the line on creating this dumb account, which means no GeForce Experience, which means no screenshots, which means unhappy Chris.

Yet again, though, I found an excuse to overcome my orneriness and do the thing I wanted to all along. As of January 1st of this year, California's Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) has gone into effect. This gives California residents (including me!) a wide array of rights over how their personal data is collected, stored and used, somewhat analogous to what EU citizens currently enjoy with their GDPR.

So: I made my account, and I play to issue monthly demands for NVIDIA to report all the data it has on me, then to issue monthly demands for it to stop sharing all the data it has on me, then to issue monthly demands for it to delete all the data it has on me. My petty hope is that the cost of compliance gets to be so expensive and painful that NVIDIA throws up their hands and says "This is dumb" and just lets us use their software THAT WE PAID HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS FOR without creating yet another worthless hackable account.

On to the game!

I ran into a game-breaking bug at almost the very start. There's a tutorial-ish section where you learn how to do various goosey things: run around, honk, flap your wings, grab things with your beak. You then move into the first main area, a garden, and encounter the main dynamic of the game: a mischievous sort of "to-do" list that states your goals. This included various tasks like "Enter the Garden", "Steal the Gardener's Keys", "Make the Gardener Hit His Thumb," etc. And... I couldn't do any of them. I could see the garden, locked up tight. I ran around, looking for other entrances; tried to pile up objects into a ramp leading over the wall; honked my little lungs out. Nothing.

I was determined to get through the game without consulting any walkthroughs or FAQs, but after thirty minutes of fruitless endeavor I finally admitted defeat and went online. And found that there was supposed to be a gardener character, who was just entirely missing from my game. Further investigation pointed me to an FAQ on the developer's page advising to choose the "Reset" option to put things back in their right place. Which I did, and the gardener did show up, and the rest of the game was fine. But still, that was an unfortunate start to the game. I have to wonder how many people never even got to really play the game because they ran into that bug at the very start.

Once I could actually play the game, though, it was wonderful! It's one of the most purely fun things I've played recently, joyful and silly and clever. It's a simple game, but all of its elements pull together perfectly. The art style reminds me of my beloved Katamari Damacy, with slightly cartoony people, living in an environment of bold and pastel colors. The "dialogue" is also reminiscent of Katamari Damacy, with characters delivering lines like "?", "!" and "..."; their desires are shown in thought balloons, a la The Sims. The music is subtle and perfect: little piano figures that play to highlight pratfalls and confusion, making you feel like the star of a vaudeville play.

I swapped around the controls partway through the game, initially playing with mouse-and-keyboard and finishing with an xbox controller. Both are perfectly fine. The controller felt slightly better for most tasks, while I think the KBM makes it a little easier for the rare cases where you need to nudge a large round object with your beak. (I don't think the game supports rumble vibration, or at least I don't recall ever feeling that type of feedback.)

The heart of the game is its puzzles, those "To-Dos" of causing chaos. These are extremely clever and well-done. I highly recommend avoiding any walkthroughs and puzzling through them on your own, partly because it's more fun and satisfying to figure them out, but also because the actual game short already, and if you blow through the puzzles it may feel unsatisfyingly brief.

Each individual puzzle is well-crafted. Even though each goal is just a few words long ("Rake in the Lake"), it is also clear. Often the goal will be opposed by a human being who will attempt to thwart you, grabbing things away from you or chasing you off. There are usually several different ways to accomplish a goal: you might create a distraction in another area to lure away the person, or use stealthy movement to avoid being noticed, or rely on speed to outpace them and narrow openings to thwart their movement.

The high-level design is excellent, too. The whole game is one big map, but it's divided into a series of contiguous zones. A given zone may have, say, eight tasks. These tasks will gradually make its inhabitants more and more frustrated. Once you have accomplished seven tasks, they will start taking  anti-goose measures. This will then unlock a ninth task. Completing that ninth task will unblock the egress and allow access to the following zone. What's brilliant about this is that you don't need to 100% each area, so if there's one particular puzzle that's too confusing or that you don't have the dexterity for, it won't block your overall progress through the game. It also means that at any given time you probably have at least two challenges to work on, so if one thing you're trying to do gets too frustrating you can give it a rest and work on something else.

There's... not a whole lot more to write about, honestly, even in spoilerville. This game was really charming and fun, swiftly wiping away the various minor annoyances that preceded it. It was gone quickly, but provided tons of joy during its duration, and it's something I'll think of fondly for a long time to come.

Friday, January 03, 2020


The Enhanced Editions of the Infinity Engine games continue to impress. I recently completed my second playthrough of the seminal RPG Planescape: Torment, this time with Beamdog's Enhanced Edition interpretation of the game. Unlike the Baldur's Gate series, which I've previously played with heavily-modded non-EE editions, my only prior experience with PST was the completely unmodded (but patched) original Black Isle release.

The EE works great out of the box, and I think I'll recommend new players to stick with it. As with the BG EE versions, it has widescreen support, better UI controls, and tons of small quality-of-life improvements. It is unfortunately missing a couple of the current improvements from Siege Of Dragonspear-era EE games; the one I missed much was icons on the character portraits that show each characters' currently queued action, which is extremely helpful for keeping track of spellcasting and ammunition. I suspect this is because the PST UI has always been so unique and custom, and it's probably hard to keep that compelling visual look and feel while also streamlining and improving its functionality.

PST's modding scene has always been significantly smaller than the BG series, likely because its story is so personal and it doesn't have the open world feeling of the Amnish portions of BG2, which gracefully incorporated vast quantities of user-created stories. That said, I did install a few mods for this playthrough. PST:EE fully supports the classic Weidu mod structure, and installation is easy: just download each mod and unzip it into the program folder (easily found on Steam by opening Properties for the game and selecting Browse Local Files), then double-click the mod EXE and follow the prompts.
  1. Unfinished Business. This is a bit smaller than the BG version but still has a lot of "new" quests. Most of these are are things that were written/programmed by Black Isle and shipped with the original PST release, but were inaccessible in the game due to bugs, being incomplete or being intentionally removed. The mod adds them back in, fixes any related bugs, and in some cases adds some original content to fill in any still-missing parts.
  2. Journal Portrait Conversations. PST actually has great, high-resolution images for almost all of the characters and monsters you encounter over the course of the game, but they're buried deep in the Bestiary, which many people never open and nobody views more than once. This mod updates the UI so you can see the portrait of the character you're speaking to instead of, uh, nothing. This makes it much more like the BG games and, in my opinion, adds a lot of atmosphere to the game.
  3. Auto Detect Traps. Fantastic little quality-of-life mod: whenever Annah isn't fighting or in stealth, she automatically starts looking for traps. Traps are one of the most persistent annoyances of the IE game, and this mod makes them a little more bearable.
  4. Banter Accelerator. Unlike the BG games, the banters in vanilla PST have unrealistically short timers; even in a 100% completionist playthrough, most players will only hear a tiny fraction of the available banters, and because they're generally delivered in the same order, even on multiple replays you'll re-hear the same few. Installing this mod (default settings are OK) gives you periodic banters that are still nicely spaced out and lets you hear fantastic voice acting from Jennifer Hale, Keith David, Dan Castellaneta, and the other great talent in your party.
  5. Generalized Biffing. This is very important to install if you are using Unfinished Business, the Tweak Pack or any mods that add or change content in the game (NPCs, items, etc.). There's a relatively new bug that was introduced in a newish EE version that causes previously-visited maps to be reset after visiting the Modron Maze, which can lead to duplicated characters, impassable doors or other game-breaking bugs. Existing PST:EE mod guides won't mention this unless they've been updated recently. It's important to install Generalized Biffing last after all other mods. You can re-install it multiple times if you add more mods afterwards. If you do run into the bug, you will need to install this mod and then reload a save before the Modron Maze.
None of these are essential for a first playthrough, but I think all of them are OK, nothing really spoils the game. The Banter Accelerator was especially nice. I increasingly think that semi-voiced text-heavy RPGs like this may be my favorite style of RPG. It really helps bring the characters to life, giving you a fantastic sense of their personality and style, while keeping the game quick to read and never annoying.

It's been... wow, 13 years since the last time I played this game. PS:T is both less and more replayable than most RPGs. It's notable for having a predefined protagonist: you can't select your gender or race or background, you are always The Nameless One and have the same history. But you have more agency than in most RPGs as you progress through the game, with a large number of choices that impact the evolution of the plot. And not just the plot; PS:T is interesting in that a lot of mechanical aspects of the game are driven by dialogue rather than interface. In Baldur's Gate games, you select your PC's alignment from a drop-down menu when rolling a new chararacter; in PS:T, your alignment is determined based on your actions during the game. In Baldur's Gate you choose a class at chargen and maybe select a dual-class in the Level Up menu; in PS:T, you must complete a series of quests to meet a trainer and decide in conversation with them whether to adopt a new profession.

My memory is understandably fuzzy, but I believe that I stayed a single-class Fighter for my entire original playthrough of PS:T. There are some good reasons for this. Unlike BG games, you can't change your party's formation order, so The Nameless One (henceforth TNO) will usually be in front when you meet enemies, so he will likely be the first party member attacked; he's also vastly more resilient at taking damage and recovering from death than your compatriots, all of which incentivizes you to toss him into the meat grinder with hand-to-hand combat.

This time, I focused on my Mage levels, kind of. This has more synergy with my desired stat allocations: to get the most story out of the game, you want to focus on your mental attributes of Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma, none of which are useful for fighters; your dump stats end up being Strength, Constitution and Dexterity, all of which are essential for fighters.

Some of your companions in PS:T are multiclass, which behave the same way as in the BG series: XP is evenly distributed between the two classes, leading to slightly slower leveling but more flexibility and utility. One companion is a Fighter/Mage multi, and another is a Thief/Fighter, giving you pretty much everything you need. TNO, though, behaves differently from either dual-classing or multi-classing in BG. After unlocking a new class, you can switch to it in dialogue at pretty much any time by talking with the right party member. You can switch back and forth without any penalty. While a given class, you can use all of that class's skills and none of the other class's. For example, you can only cast spells while you are a Mage, can only pick locks while you're a Thief, and can only wield a battleaxe while you're a Fighter. But, you keep all of the HP, THAC0, saving throws and weapon skills that you've earned in other classes, even after leaving that class.

So, my approach was to take Fighter levels first to beef up my HP and be more resilient, then switch to Mage to get powerful spells for the end-game. My leveling looked like this.
  1. I remained a Fighter up until Level 6. This gives 60+ HP and several weapon skill points. Unlock the Mage class during this time so you can switch out of Fighter at will.
  2. Work with a Trainer to spend your weapon skill points. Edged weapons are best since they can be used by mages; remember to keep enough points in reserve for higher-level trainers, but you can only train up to the third pip without specializing as a Fighter. Extra skills can probably go into Fists.
  3. Level as a Mage up to Level 7. This gives you the first Mage Specialization, which eventually leads to some great stat bonuses. Note that you'll only gain an extra +1 HP for the levels you've previously earned as a Fighter.
  4. It's worth briefly dipping into Thief; don't actually play the game as one, but you'll gain a couple of free levels and gain some XP that wouldn't otherwise be available by chatting with Annah while you're a thief and training with her. This gives a couple more HP.
  5. Switch back to a Fighter and continue leveling to Level 9. This gives you the most bang-for-your-buck HP wise; after level 9 the Fighter gets 3 HP per level instead of 10. A Mage still gets 4 HP at level 10, which is the one level where it out-earns the Fighter.
  6. Switch back to a Mage and play the rest of the game here. It may feel a little slow at first to catch up to your Fighter levels, but the XP scales significantly later in the game so you'll quickly surpass it.

Oh: Why all this focus on hitpoints? Well, because there's a lot of fighting in this game! PS:T has the reputation of an RPG where you can solve all your problems by talking instead of combat, at that's how I've remembered it for years, but that isn't actually how it works. Playing through this again, I thought that it actually felt a lot like Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. As in that game, the early parts of the game tend to be very talk-heavy and offer a variety of peaceful ways to resolve most (no all) quests, but the later parts of the game are very focused on fighting, so you can't ignore combat build and strategy. That said, fighting is also significantly easier than Baldur's Gate, so you definitely don't need to min-max. But those HP do come in handy.

In that first playthrough, I was Chaotic Good. I didn't have a particular alignment in mind for this game, and was Neutral Good from fairly early on. Maybe around the midpoint of the game, I decided that I wanted to become Lawful Good for mechanical reasons: there are a couple of powerful items that are only usable for characters of that alignment. From that point on, I exclusively chose Lawful options in dialogue: Making and keeping promises, vowing to do things, never lying, etc. This wasn't enough, and I remained Neutral Good through the remainder of the game. I am kind of curious if some of my non-dialogue actions gave me Chaotic points: I never pickpocketed during the whole game, but there were some times I would have Annah pickpocket and loot chests in unoccupied homes. Or maybe I was borderline Chaotic Good before I changed course and there just weren't enough Lawful points left in the second half of the game to get me back on track. It wasn't a huge deal, but was slightly disappointing.

Given the decade-plus between playthroughs, I probably shouldn't be as surprised as I am at just how much I've forgotten. These days, I usually try to do an initial playthrough of an RPG game with as little help as possible; on subsequent replays, I'm much more lenient about consulting walkthroughs and wikis and stuff. I'm a little ambivalent about that. It does feel good to know that I hit all the content that I wanted to see in the game and didn't miss anything interesting or fun, but I am constantly spoiling myself about what's going to happen next, which takes away some of the magic. Once I know the "right" or "best" way to do something, I'll always do it that way, which is mechanically the best but removes the messy drama from the game.

Even with occasional consultations of walkthroughs, there were vast swaths of the game that I have no recollection of at all. It is kind of curious what parts of the game I remember and what I don't. I have pretty strong memories of the Mortuary, and Talks-With-Trees, and the Brothel of Slaking Intellectual Lusts, and the conversation with Ravel, and the Lazy of Pain's mazes, and the Modron Maze; but everything related to Pharod and his bronze sphere felt 100% new to me, as did Trias's arc and Deionarra and the Godsmen and the Sensates.

I do remember being surprised at recruiting Nodrom and Vhailor and being mildly bummed at needing to abandon party members in other planes, so this time around I planned ahead and made a five-person party before heading to the Modron Maze and Curst. I left Ignis behind when picking up Nodrom; he had been in my party through to the end game in my first play-through, and with a TNO Mage and Dakkon I didn't feel like I needed yet another mage. Choosing who to ditch the second time was harder; I was actually tempted to just not recruit Vhailor at all, but ended up leaving Morte behind, planning to pick him back up; this is mostly because he had the most XP at the time of my departure and so would be the quickest to level back up after my return. That said... you gain SO MUCH XP during the Curst / Carceri sojourn that he ended up being completely eclipsed by even my lowest-experienced party members. But, again: this game is pretty easy! So I still swapped him back in for the endgame, just so I could get his dialogue this time around. I'm glad that I did. It turns out that Morte and Dakkon, the two members I had removed during my first playthrough, are probably the two with the most to say in the endgame.

I still have never set foot inside UnderSigil, the bonus dungeon you can reach from the Clerk's Ward. There aren't any plots leading you toward it, and from what I can tell it's mostly a monster-fighting zone, similar to the Modron Maze. I'd intended to include this in a more-completionist playthrough, but I was getting antsy for the endgame so I skipped it yet again. Perhaps next time! From what I've read it scales somewhat to your level, so it might be interesting to check it out both before and after Curst.

My "romance" memories were very fuzzy, but consulting my ancient blog post revealed that I had focused on Annah in my first game, so in this game I chose Fall-From-Grace instead. The romance "content" seemed scarce or missing, and I was curious if I had messed it up, but some cursory Googling indicates that there really is a disparity between the two: neither is as involved as the long arcs in Baldur's Gate 2, but Annah's does at least include a kiss, while FFG's is much more subtle. These relationships have always been pretty intriguing to me; my reaction to video game romance is usually "more, more, more!", but I think these stories and personalities are very evocative with less. Again, I think a lot of it comes down to having a predefined protagonist. One of the things that threw me off in this playthrough was a lot of dialogue indicating that Annah had strong feelings for me, even after I had made the "right" choices to pursue FFG (kissing Ravel while she was in FFG's form, declaring my feelings for her in the maze, etc.). I thought that something had gone "wrong"... but it hadn't, or at least not any more than things do in real life. Annah simply had unrequited feelings for me. I don't think I've seen something like that in the more modern RPG romances I've played: you may flirt with multiple people, but once you select an exclusive partner everyone else gets selective amnesia. Here, things strung out in a really interesting way, with Annah attracted to TNO, TNO pining from FFG, and FFG acknowledging his feelings but not fully reciprocating them. (There are a few lines near the very very end of the "good" ending where she seems to return the romance, but even these are ambiguous and uncertain.) Anyways, this was all interesting to play and makes me think yet again about what types of stories I want to tell. "Traditional" romances are the most satisfying to me, but complicated and incomplete ones can be more thought-provoking.

I'd initially called out PST for being one of the more macabre and gross games that I'd played. It didn't really strike me that way this time around, and I'm not sure whether that's due to me being more desensitized in general or just being mentally prepared for this game. There is a lot of literal viscera in this game: plucking your eyeball out of your socket, digging in your intestines for a key, grabbing a dismembered arm and swinging it like a club. But weirdly enough it doesn't really feel mean-spirited or sinister. It's gross, sure, but I think there are actually fewer scenes of, say, torture or sadism in PST than there are in either Baldur's Gate game.


That sense of viscera is one of a few things that has changed in my mind over the years. Much like how I mis-remember this as being a game without much combat, I also remember it as being a game with tons of choice and consequences. It feels like one, but isn't really, at least not in the sort of branching-storyline sense that we've had for the last decade or so. You do literally select tons of choices during the game, but they're almost always in dialogue; there are relatively few actions that have any sort of meaningful consequences outside of the quest in which they occur. There are many alignment shifts and rewards over the course of the game, but these almost never unlock alternate solutions. Gameplay-wise, the major mechanic is increasing your character stats (on level-up or, occasionally, as a reward for completing a quest a certain way), and then using your higher Intelligence or Wisdom or Charisma to get better solutions to future quests.

There's really just one road that you follow: while you're free to pursue early quests in Sigil in various orders, everything from Curst onward runs more or less on rails. Now that I think about it, there aren't even many of those "This is how I feel / why I'm doing this" dialogue choices that I've gotten used to in games like Dragon Age and Shadowrun. You can still say that, but it will be you the player, not your avatar. (And, again, this feels fine within the game, perhaps because TNO is a predefined character.) The story is still powerful, of course. I had vaguely remembered that late in the game there's a belated in-game explanation of why it actually isn't awesome that you resurrect each time you die. I was right: because you are immortal, every time you are supposed to die, someone else dies in your place. They turn into a shadow, and the shadows you encounter during the game are the shades of those who unwillingly died for you. In the Fortress of Regrets, there are a lot of shadows.

It's all pretty sad. After your party is separated, you see each of them killed off by The Transcendent One (henceforth TTO), and you must step across their corpses to reach your adversary. (I think I was subconsciously stealing from this dynamic in my initial ultra-dark plan for the finale to CalFree in Chains.) An answer is proffered for the game's infamous question: regret can change the nature of a man. (Which, as I've mulled over after finishing the game, feels right to me. Other potential answers like love and anger and hardship can change your behavior; but regret prompts introspection, a desire to change, and the willingness to make those changes). The big-picture story becomes clearer: Your wicked deeds had earned you an eternity in Hell, you wished to avoid your fate so you asked Ravel to remove your mortality, it worked but caused you to lose your memories, your mortality wished to remain separate so it actively sought to keep murdering you and keep you from regaining knowledge, and now at the end you are ready to reclaim or defeat your mortality and accept your fate, freeing the other souls you torment with your existence.

There's a fairly lengthy conversation with TTO, though not as long or complex as the encounter with Ravel. In my first playthrough I had selected the option to sacrifice myself. This time, I selected a dialogue option to resurrect one of my companions, opting for Falls-From-Grace. I hadn't realized that this would directly lead into the final battle. That fight was cool; you get a ridiculous amount of XP right before the endgame, particularly if you bring the Bronze Sphere with you, so I had jumped from, like, Level 16 prior to entering the Fortress to Level 25 before fighting TTO. That brought my spellcasting level all the way up from Sphere 6 to Sphere 9, unlocking the incredibly cool and powerful highest-level spells. These reminded me of the Summons from Final Fantasy games: each plays an FMV showing an elaborate otherworldly force unleashing a gigantic conflagration of pure energy that annihilates the battlefield, often dealing upwards of 10 HP of damage to TTO. The fight mostly consisted of TNO and FFG taking turns kiting TTO around the battlefield while the other casted spells (awesome powerful offensive attacks from TNO or buffs and debuffs from FFG). I'd worked my way all down to, like, Sphere 4 of my TNO spells, then jumped to Magic Missile and finally took down TTO.

I'd beaten the game, but was mildly disappointed with myself, as I'd missed the option to resolve the final confrontation in the dialogue. So I peeked one last time at a walkthrough, reloaded the last autosave and went through it again. There are apparently multiple ways to do this (one high CHA, one high INT, one high WIS); I think I followed the CHA path, first convincing TTO that I was willing to sacrifice myself, then convincing him that the Fortress was actually a prison, and finally compelling him to merge back with me.

This unlocks the "good" ending, which has the same very final video, but quite a bit more content before it: another FMV clip of the merging, and, more significantly, final conversations with all of your companions. This provides some really nice closure, particularly Dakkon's long-deferred freedom; it also includes the closest FFG ever gets to a romance, when she points out that a lifetime is less than forever and promises to find you on the Lower Planes. (I do really, really like the remaining ambiguity and mystery around FFG. You never do find out what she wrote in her diary, and all her statements about you are very carefully constructed.) It's very bittersweet but satisfying to free your companions from their bonds of torment to you and return them safely to Sigil, before you yourself enter the damnation of the endless Blood War.


I like games that make me feel something when they're over. Sometimes that feeling is "Yay, that was awesome!" Sometimes that feeling is wistfulness, or enthusiasm, or curiosity. Planescape: Torment gives me a feeling that's particularly strong and particularly hard to define. There's maybe a sense of awe, of humility, of... well, yeah, regret. I feel contemplative and quiet, with a lingering attachment that's less concerned with what happened than with what it meant. PS:T is a gross game, and also beautiful, violent and quiet, something that sticks in your brain like a steel key in your intestines. I'll wait for my memories to fade, and will play it again a decade from now.