Wowed by Unavowed

unavowed2

Unavowed is Wadjet Eye adventure game meets oldschool Bioware party companion interactions.

The bonus about reading a bunch of bloggers is that I caught wind of this game’s launch really quickly, courtesy of xyzzysqrl’s glowing review.

After having played through all five episodes of the Blackwell series, Technobabylon and The Shivah (and made some game attempts at Gemini Rue, Shardlight, Resonance and Primordia), suffice to say that anything Wadjet Eye makes and releases is, for me, an auto-instant buy.

unavowed4

Even if you’re less convinced by adventure games, for fear of puzzles or pixel-hunting or just not enjoying the genre… if you do like a side of supernatural urban fantasy, a good story with choices (ethical dilemmas almost) that -matter-, character tales from Bioware-style chatting with party members, you might want to take a second look at Unavowed.

Developed by a tiny company of 3 employees (so says Wikipedia) and a bunch of outside talent contracting, Unavowed has 3 character origins * 2 genders, and 4 (+1, one comes as a pair) NPC party members, of which you can pick two to help you solve a number of mysterious supernatural cases.

There are multiple solutions to various puzzles, some of which are reliant on the party members you bring with you. There seem to be 4 main endings that I’ve seen.

Can anyone say, branching storylines, ahoy?

unavowed1

Even the title screen changes as your party increases or decreases.

I’m glossing over the story because even the opening is impressive in how it situates you into the story with the choices you make right off the bat. You can be male or female, a bartender, an actor or a police officer.

Unavowed is set in the same world as the Blackwell series, but where Blackwell deals with a family saga of a spirit medium (called Bestowers in this world, you’ll find out why if you play those games), Unavowed zooms back the camera lens to show off other supernaturals in the setting.

You get in the thick of things fast, with a supernatural team (the Unavowed) hot on the heels of a case of demonic possession. Where there are demons, there is usually quite a bit of chaos to go along, and your companions and you get to pick up the pieces and puzzle out satisfactory (or not) resolutions to all the various affairs.

unavowed3

Your companions, like oldschool Bioware NPCs, provide some verisimilitude by seguing into little animated conversations with you and each other. The voice acting is great. Learning more about your companions and their histories is definitely a good 50% or more of the main gameplay highlights of Unavowed.

Another quiet innovation is turning the ubiquitous “Look At / Examine” adventure game command into a simple text mouse over. It saves time, adds additional detail and character voice into the beautifully hand drawn scenes.

In any case, you should stop reading and go play it.

If you’re not convinced, check out a stream or two to see if it tickles your fancy.

Then buy it and play it.

If you get it directly from Wadjet Eye’s website, you get a Steam key, the game’s soundtrack, and it’s 10% off for the next 2 days.

Failing which, if you read this later, you can wait for a discount and then get it. Or get it full price. Whatever. But you should get it and play it.

(Or at least watch someone else play it. It’s that nifty. You might wind up wanting to play it too.)

Blaugust Day 17: The Blackwell Adventure Game Series (Legacy, Unbound, Convergence, etc.)

If there’s one game genre that I find it almost impossible to explain why I would recommend a particular game highly, it’s the adventure game genre.

Whatever you try to explain, you can’t shake off the uneasy feeling that you might be dropping a whole bunch of spoilers on someone, and it’s too easy to end up with a series of stock clichés. It’s good? It had a solid story? Interesting characters?

Part of the adventure game’s appeal is that sense of discovery and exploration, of finding out secrets and mysteries and what’s going on. Me providing a Wikipedia synopsis would ruin that desire to piece it all together.

Couple that with the doubt that what makes a story good is all too subjective – I might be too much of a romantic, content to accept formulaic plots that would find plenty of homes on the TV Tropes website, simply because it falls into one of my favorite settings (urban fantasy, in this case) or find an easy, comfortable, familiarity with such a formula, while someone else pans it for being too predictable – and it becomes very difficult to describe why a particular adventure game would appeal.

I guess for me, it’s part atmospherics – the setting, the sense of mood (bonus points if it’s noir or cyberpunk), music that sets the tone, suitable sounds that evoke a place and ‘fit’ with the world.

It’s part writing – how the characters come across, if they come across as believable, the flow of the dialogue, the strength of the voice-acting, if any, or fun, humorous vignettes that follow in the style of the classic Sierra or Lucasfilm/LucasArts greats.

Puzzles are very much a secondary concern for me. I prefer them easy and not to get in the way of the story being told, as opposed to so hard or obscure that I end up forever blocked or forced to use a walkthrough to progress. after having endured a heavy dose of frustration that made me forget the story while trying to deal with the requirements of the game.

Adventure games are very much mostly about the story for me, how I feel about the characters, if I can immerse into the world believably for the space of those couple of hours and live out the plot the writer wanted to tell me.

That said, the Blackwell series from Wadjet Eye Games would come highly recommended by moi.

2015-08-17_00001

The Blackwell Legacy is the first game in the series.

I put it on my list at the beginning of the month, meaning to finally give it a go and evaluate if the rest were worth playing…

…Well, in under two nights, I’ve gone right through Blackwell games 1-3 and am chomping at the bit to finish 4 and 5… which I don’t yet own, leading to an interesting dilemma of if I should go against my usual miserly nature and pay full price for said games, or exercise just that little bit of patience to pick them up when one of the ubiquitous Steam sales roll around.

2015-08-17_00003

The main character of the Blackwell Legacy is Rosangela (Rosa) Blackwell, who returns home from her aunt’s funeral to discover the family legacy… a ghost named Joey that is now bound to her side, and the powers of a medium… which yes, lets her see ghosts and talk to them. Turns out that she now has a new mission in life, to find restless ghosts and help them accept their deaths and find peace.

It’s not a terribly new trope – TV shows have done it before, like in the supernatural series Ghost Whisperer; there are a ton of urban fantasy books that cover similar ground, though they may call their special women ‘witches’ instead of ‘medium’ or (one of my favorites being Kelley Armstrong’s Jaime Vegas) ‘necromancer.’

But you know, that lack of newness just makes the premise understandable, and dare I say, a little fun as well. Now -you- get to play the ghost detective that you’ve read or watched before.

The character writing in the Blackwell series is fairly solid, courtesy of designer/writer Dave Gilbert, providing a cast that is both diverse and colorful.

The voice-acting of the series is excellent. One of its critical pillars, I would say, as the voice actors really help to bring out extra facets of each characters’ personalities over what the text conveys.

2015-08-17_00001

Blackwell Unbound is the second game,  and if you think the main character looks rather different from the first game’s intro, you’d be right.

We move backwards in time several decades to play Rosangela’s aunt – Lauren Blackwell – when it was her turn as the psychic detective.

2015-08-17_00002

There’s a lot more noir influence in this one. Lauren is as hardbitten a medium as Rosa was reluctant. The woman chain-smokes like a chimney, and has an ashtray for every location of the house, plus a couple more.

As they go around solving ghost cases, little plot threads start springing up and winding their way through the past/future of the first game, and harkening and foreshadowing the subsequent games. It leaves for some mysteries and unanswered questions, if you try to play any of the games as a standalone (I wouldn’t advise it,) but I’m a right sucker for episodic story arcs so it’s completely up my alley.

2015-08-17_00001

Blackwell Convergence brings us back to Rosa, a little older and more mature, having blossomed into a fairly competent, fast-talking ghostbuster.

2015-08-17_00004

The third game offers more attractive graphics, and looks and feels like Dave Gilbert has found his stride with regards to who these characters are, and where we are going with them.

There’s plenty of wit in this one, with characters that are now both comfortable and familiar to the audience, and makes for an entertaining ride.

2015-08-17_00005

I’m still waiting to play the fourth and fifth games, but from reports, things only get better from here and the whole series winds up in a satisfactory and fitting (if possibly poignant or bittersweet – which usually means the writer nailed it emotionally) fashion.

Definitely worth a play. (Or at least watching or reading somebody else’s Let’s Play of it.)

This post was brought to you by the letters B for Belghast and Blaugust and Blackwell, and the number 17.

PC: Blindside(d)

A chance comments discussion over at Syl’s Raging Monkeys about the importance of other senses besides sight in games finally pushed me over the fence and encouraged me to pick up Groupee’s Bundle of the Damned.

Following in the vein of the Humble Bundle and Indie Royale lookalikes, this was some kind of pay-what-you-want game and music and stuff bundle with a scary Halloween theme. To be deadly honest, I have no interest in any of the music and couldn’t tell you if they were good or bad.

None of the games in the bundle are popular must-have great-deal games – on the contrary, none of the games were previously in my Steam games list of 600+ games. Given that I’m in the compulsive habit of collecting games that vaguely sound intriguing on Steam 75% off sales for over 5 years now, many are the Metacritic 55 score type of games that I couldn’t even bring myself to pay $2-5 for. (Maybe at $0-$1, I might try them some day, maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised, that kind of thing.)

… Except… Blindside.

The description of the game intrigued me a lot. It is ostensibly an audio-only adventure, best played with headphones to navigate a 3D environment made up of audio cues and can be played with your eyes closed to simulate “blindness.”

It’s available for the iPad and iPhone, as well as PC (Desura) and Mac.

I have to say, I’m now wondering if I should have gotten the iPad version instead. The gyroscope turning controls are apparently more natural to grasp.

Color me generally disappointed by the actual implementation of the game. On paper, it’s a very intriguing premise. In practice, if I have to hear “You have died. Reloading saved checkpoint” one more time, I might put a hole in my monitor, or maybe just rip the wires out of my headphones while tearing it off my head.

Is it just me? I know I’m very poor at auditory learning in general. I fall asleep in lectures, when people drone on for more than 30 minutes in meetings, and I tune out most nonfiction audio books that I optimistically borrow from the library after the first track or so. The only audio presentation I’ve ever managed to fully enjoy were the audio plays from SciFi.com, featuring Neil Gaiman’s Snow Glass Apples and Murder Mysteries.

Or is it the game?

I have no issues with the 3D environmental audio effect in Blindside. It is done quite well, and even I can hear that such-and-such sound is on my right, or on my left. (Telling apart if it’s forward or backward of me is a lot harder, though.)

Some may take issue with the slightly cheesy voice acting, which is distinctly on the slightly low budget side, but I’m ready to forgive it as it’s a low budget indie type of game.

My primary problem is trying to get a spatial sense of the ‘room’ exactly as the designers envisioned it (and thus placed audio cues to reflect their vision) plus navigate it with the given key controls according to that imaginary spatial picture.

Key controls are supposedly simple. Arrow keys to move forward, move backward, turn left and turn right.

Unfortunately, and it becomes very obvious very quickly, the question arises, just HOW MUCH forward movement, backward movement, left and right turning are we talking about here with one key press?

Perhaps this dates me, but I belong to the generation of adventure gamers (and MUDders) who envision things in terms of “rooms” and compass directions – a simplified navigation mechanic that lets you go in 4 directions, NSEW, or 8 directions if we throw in the diagonals (NW, SE, NE, SW), and 10 with up and down.

That was my initial spatial map, where I assumed one ‘forward’ would take me into room 1 – where room 1 might actually be part of a bedroom’s wall or some such, and to get to room 2, I would have to tap “turn left” then “go forward” once each. Room 3 would be ‘turn right’ then ‘go forward’, room 4 ‘go backward’ and room 5 ‘turn right, go forward, turn right, go forward’ and so on.

This sort of grid might be overlaid on top of an actual bedroom, say, where the TV might be at position 3, and the closet at position 3, the bed at position 5, and so on…

A little lost bumbling around in the dark later, and some squint eyed sneak peeking at the compass Blindside provides, it was clear, this was NOT how Blindside worked.

Back to the drawing board

In fact, the compass was very worrisome.

It had the eight cardinal directions, but if you notice in the picture above, both the north and northeast directions are highlighted to different degrees. One tap of the left or right key does not shift you to one of eight possible directions, there are MORE degrees of freedom than that. How much more, I haven’t counted, but if I’m ever bored, I might start counting the number of key presses it takes to shift from one fully highlighted arrow to the other.

Instead, in good faith, I tried to revise my mental spatial picture accordingly.

Let’s assume I’m in the center of a room. The narration says there’s stuff to my right and in front of me (that are creating distinctive noises) and so on. So far, so good. Just rotating in place, I can tell where they are in relation to myself.

The problem arises when you have to walk towards them. Basically, turn in place to orientate the stuff to the right of you, turn in place to orientate the same stuff to the left of you, turn in place to approximate somewhere in the middle of that means it’s ahead of you, press forward for an unspecified amount of time and hope that you bump into it. If you do, yay.

If you don’t, then that’s -really- a problem. Because now you don’t know where you are. Pressing forward some more, the game is mysteriously silent and refuses to tell you that you’ve bumped into…say, a wall. You can’t feel anything in an audio-only game, unlike in say, real life.

Gamely, you rotate a bit and press forward some more, hoping to ram into something, anything. The game still says nothing.

More rotations and forward pressing later, you may indeed bump into something the game decided was worth describing to you, or you may end up “sliding” along something – except you don’t know how far and in what direction you’re sliding, and indeed, what you’re sliding against.

In a safe environment with no dangers, this turns into a frustrating guessing game of rotating randomly and charging forward, hoping to encounter the desired goal and move on to the next stage. Eventually, assuming you haven’t given up, you do hit upon the ‘magic spot’ and move on.

Alas, the next sequence was even more annoying. Some bad things happen, and one basically ends up facing Something Loud, Awful-Sounding, and Distinctly Death-Causing should you run into it.

You are very very sure where it is, and that you don’t want to go there.

Problem now is, you want to go back where you came from, where there is a stricken lady screaming a stock phrase which goes something like “help, I’m scared! come back to me please!” on repeat loop.

Alas,  she sounds very muffled compared to AWFUL SOUNDING HORROR NOISE and try as you might, she is essentially ambient audio with little direction as compared to the distinctly not-going-there noise.

As for the rest of the ‘room,’ it’s supposedly an apartment corridor with doors, or some such, and you gotta get back to yours, except you have no idea where it is in relation to where you are now.

Well, shit. Ten minutes later of getting continually eaten by the awful noise because that seemed to be the only way to go forward and actually encounter something (going backward just backed me into an apartment door that wasn’t mine) and some more random rotation hoping to maybe get to the apartment door that was mine, I somehow blundered past the horrible thing back to the girl who had really good lungs and no imagination.

(Suggestion for the future, try continual environmental noises as the cue, not a girl saying the same thing on repeat loop for as long as it takes someone really bad at navigating to get to the next checkpoint. Less immersion breaking that way.)

A little later, I encountered the situation that made me give up.

I believe real blind people get by crossing roads with a combination of asking for aid, tactile feedback in determining where the curb is, a dog guide, and so on. I might be wrong, I don’t have any experience besides what I read on websites. I certainly appreciate that it is an everyday challenge for them.

But I’m convinced that they certainly do NOT fling themselves into oncoming traffic just based on the sounds of the vehicle driving into the distance and hope to survive in between the cars until they get to the other side. That’s just… plain absurd.

And frustrating as a game scenario.

(I did try. I counted my footsteps, hoping to walk an equal amount of distance between safe non-speeding car spots and eventually get to the other side / goal that way, but somehow, after the 4th or 5th car sound, I still got bowled over and squished by an oncoming car. I ran into some poles or other by rotating randomly, and while trying to figure out how to move away from the pole, got ran down by a car. I ran forward and smacked into the thing in the middle which was blocking my path (whatever it was) and while trying to figure out how to slide around it, had a car ram into me. I charged heedlessly forward hoping to avoid the cars on pure faith and was let down.)

Which ultimately is the most damning thing I can say about Blindside. I wanted to like this game. But it’s just not fun to play.

It’s like one of those read-the-author’s-mind adventure game puzzles, made much worse because you can’t see shit. On purpose.

P.S. I’d love to hear what folks brave enough to try it out think. And if you’ve any suggestions on how to navigate properly or how the ‘rooms’ are laid out, which seems to be the bulk of my problem with the game, I just can’t create a picture in my head that matches what the developers think I should doing.

I’m at the point where I think I might have to try and map every coordinate point of the first room keypress by keypress  in order to begin to understand how the hell stuff is laid out. Or maybe I should just go play another game because this one ain’t worth my time.

GW: The Villainy of Galrath, Then and Now

Continuing on our Wayfarer’s Reverie tour of Tyria, we have a representative image that never fails to send a little thrill of memory through me:

What? A swamp? Yep, along with the shrill neighs of Necrid Horsemen, and the ominous robed skeletal silhouettes of Zombie Warlocks and Damned Clerics.

You see, I’ve always thought of Villainy of Galrath as one of those oldschool fiendishly epic marathon quests. The problem stemmed from its introduction. You can get the quest in Lion’s Arch, the moment you arrive in town somewhere near the first third of the Prophecies chapter. You’re probably not even level 20 yet. Certainly not Ascended nor done with the main story yet.

And if you were as ignorant as I was, you’d never even heard of the Temple of the Ages – which is the best outpost to hit the Wizard’s Tower with.

No elaborate Guild Wars wiki to explain everything in those newbie days either.

And like a trusting fool, you assume that if you can get the quest, that means the game and MMO think you’re ready for the attempt. And so you collect your henchmen (heroes? what are those?) and follow the green arrow directly out of Lion’s Arch. (It’s where you got the quest from, after all.)

And it turns out that if you do it that way, you have to cross North Kryta Province, Nebo Terrace, Cursed Lands and the Black Curtain, before even hitting Kessex Peak where Galrath is.

With only five level 10 henchmen to assist you.

And in those days, your skill bar only had Core/Prophecies skills available to you, and probably only half of those since you hadn’t even gotten through the entire chapter or skill captured much yet. (There was the old way of skill capture too, where you had to wait for the mob to begin casting the spell you wanted, and then and only then hit the signet of capture.)

In other words, it was a grand adventure of epic proportions and much death penalty.

June 2005 – Ranger/monk with ridiculous random build, and henchies – doomed to fail

The pastoral countryside was never really much of a problem. Yeah, there were many accidental aggros of Tengu hordes since one never had the patience or the knowledge to wait for patrols to separate. There was the occasional whupping by fire imps (damn elementalist dps.) But one got through it.

It was in the swamps of Cursed Lands that things started getting hard. Crossing two zones was already quite marathon-y, and now one plunged into the slough of grim plague green despair. Trying to fight undead with levels all in the mid-teens with level 10 henchmen is not the easiest thing in the world. No such thing as flagging the party either, so one ran ahead and hoped for the best.

Many a time the attempt to reach Galrath died stillborn in those black marshes.

Gritting one’s teeth and steeling oneself, one would force oneself to run through the two precursor zones again, wondering when it would ever be possible to push through the fog of this swamp, and how many more zones it could be before reaching the tower?

I honestly don’t remember if I ever reached it that way.

I do remember once teaming up with another player or two and we got much much further into the Cursed Lands than I had ever gone by myself. At the time, it was an absolute thrill to be exploring virgin territory, so to speak. We may even have made it into the Black Curtain. Where I think we subsequently got lost, turned around and wiped. The group broke up shortly after, and I was back to hitting my head against the mud with too low level henchmen.

Several years down the road, after conquering Thunderhead Keep which I had stalled at, running through various chapters, I must have taken on Villainy of Galrath and succeeded. With heroes, better skill builds and knowledge, it was a non-event, I don’t even recall any specifics, just getting it done and marveling at the difference between then and the old beta days.

And then there is now.

Map to Temple of the Ages, load up on 7 heroes, tapdance through Black Curtain and jog through Kessex Peak, fondly remembering trying to pop Shadowy Essences off Fog Nightmares for Nicholas the Traveler.

This corner turn is etched into my memory. Too much farming, I’d say.

See the horde of red dots on the radar.

Shrug and charge like a madman into the whole morass shouting “There’s Nothing to Fear!” and “Save Yourselves!” while flinging Pain Inverter left and right and let the heroes do their thing. Normal mode, after all.

Their reaction? “!!!” (Thanks, Gwen.)

Then proceed to happily rotate 360 degrees on the hilltop like a National Geographic cameraman, wondering what the best angle would be and whether a panorama shot was possible. (Alas, it wasn’t. GW imposes some kind of perspective angle when looking up or down, making it impossible to overlap screenshots in its entirety. This and the featured image above will have to do.)