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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Stars Without Number: Swan Song

I’ve always liked tabletop roleplaying, but also always ran into the geographical problem. There’s simply not enough people I can find in physical proximity to get a game going, especially living somewhere in  freakin’ Asia, a continent or two away from where more people have heard of the concept.

Now there’s digital tabletop roleplaying – assuming you have a webcam, a microphone and a tabletop roleplaying program – but eh, I already find trying to keep to regular MMO raid times a headache, to say nothing of trying to schedule the SAME 4-5 busy working adults across weeks and months for long enough to have a decent story going.

Then there’s the effort of GMing – isn’t it always funny how the one with the most interest ends up taking on most of the work – and I end up concluding that trying to run a game in reality fits under the ‘very low priority desire’ category.

Instead, just like one realizes that one doesn’t have the time to play all the MOBAs in the world and just idly watches professional streams now and then, I’ve taken to watching someone else roleplay for me.

Or a whole bunch of someone elses.

JP McDaniel aka “itmeJP” on Youtube, runs a roleplaying games channel where his friends and him play through a broad range of game systems. He’s also had some very special guest stars joining in – Totalbiscuit on Dark Heresy, Jesse Cox on Numenera, and so on.

One of the more recent and fascinating game series that I would recommend is their current play through with the “Stars Without Number” RPG system (a free edition available through DriveThruRPG here.)

If you like science fiction, and/or are a fan of Firefly, where a gang of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells fly around on a spaceship visiting different planets and getting into interesting scrapes, you might like Swan Song.

This is Part 2 of the first episode, which gets right into the introduction of the characters, then the story portion.

(Part 1 is the character creation and involves lots of dice rolling and numbers and system talk, which may only interest a smaller subset of you.)

One notable player to look out for is Steven Lumpkin, who also happens to be the lead level designer for the Warhammer 40k: Eternal Crusade MMO. He’s more often in the GM role, but as it turns out, he’s also a very entertaining and artfully imaginative player.

The entire playlist is here.

As these “Rollplay” episodes are almost essentially audio plays, unless you really want to track every last nuance of their faces and dice rolls, I’ve found that they make good watching alongside a relaxing farming session in an MMO, where one can indulge in repetitive meditative motions while keeping the rest of the brain occupied elsewhere.

Now level 63 in Path of Exile, thanks to lots of Fellshrine Ruins farming and Swan Song!

(The item drops on Merciless do seem to be a lot more attractive, I’m accruing currency and skill gems at a decent enough rate.)

Path of Exile: First Impressions

Shiny! Such shiny! As shiny as it gets in shadowy Path of Exile...

I’m finding it nigh impossible to blog about Path of Exile.

Every time, I start the game going “Ok, today is the day I will take some screenshots and, during gameplay, try to formulate some coherent thoughts with which to begin a blog post…”

…I end up surfacing nearly three hours later with nary a thought in my head beyond having played inventory tetris, trying to figure out the complex barter/vendor system currency to determine if I should identify items before selling or sell them unidentified, plotting the next target skill I want for my character after having explored the next tiny offshoot of PoE’s crazy skill tree, desperately trying to stop myself from the “just one more map, one more quest, one more waypoint” compulsion because it’s way past midnight already.

And barely any screenshots either, because there was just too much action going on.

Really now, be honest, would you stop to screenshot, or would the first thing on your mind be to check out all that shiny loot?

Really now, be honest, would you stop to screenshot, or would the first thing on your mind be to check out all that shiny loot?

Also, Path of Exile is dark.

As in, the aesthetic is grim n’ gritty, grimdark, shadowy dark, and downright gloomy.

It is as filled with black and mud brown and shades of putrescent green and grey as Wildstar explodes with cartoon rainbow laser light show effects.

This is a stated preference by the devs, so it is what it is.

Neither aesthetic is a problem for me, but it might be for you.

And it certainly doesn’t make the game very screenshot friendly.

It sort of reminds me of the period where I played a Dark/Dark defender in City of Heroes

It sort of reminds me of the period where I primarily played a Dark/Dark defender in City of Heroes and through all my spell effects, became a connoisseur of all things dark: darkity dark, dark tinged with green, dark tinged with purple, black tinged with purple, dark lightened with grey, absolute black, and abyss.

My very first few battle encounters in Path of Exile were mostly of the “I can’t see shit, or what I’m hitting, or IF I’m hitting at all” variety.

During my graphics tweaking for performance, I turned off shadows and think it’s a much better visual improvement to not have even more monster-shaped patches of black moving about obscuring the action.

Your field of vision also drops as you lose health, so things can get claustrophobic in a hurry.

Your field of vision also drops as you lose health, so things can get claustrophobic in a hurry.

Despite the lack of photogenic appeal, Path of Exile has a powerful draw in other ways.

Its Diablo roots, for one.

The general gameplay of these types of games involves lots of clicking, lots of mobs that die in a few hits per encounter to make you feel powerful, and waterfalls of loot.

Which you then sift through, learning to ignore the lower tier items and leave them on the ground in short order, and being thrilled to make out like a bandit when you get a lucky desirable rare drop from RNG.

Growing steadily more powerful from leveling, picking up skills and loot with better stats, so you can go to harder areas and kill bosses, which usually have a much higher reservoir of health and more interesting attacks and patterns to learn and overcome.

Plus, the ‘trash’ mobs start their own ramp ups in power, skills used and start using various sorts of movement tactics, etc.

Unsoweiter, challenge and difficulty rising to unimaginable levels, and you eventually finding your way to a comfortable, profitable level of challenge and trying to push  it a little higher when you think you can.

Path of Exile does this very well.

I earlier criticized Neverwinter for being simplistic in its combat, because it mostly involved clicking (or clicking and holding) and waiting for mobs to die.

In Neverwinter, there was very little discernable difference in the pattern while killing kobolds, orcs, magical zombies, or human bandits. There were always little groups of minion health mobs which could be cleaved through using autoattacks or a wide aoe sweep skill.

Periodically one or two medium health melee mobs that would use a three-quarter AoE attack hitting front and sides (solution: dash through mob to get to its back, turn around, continue hitting.)

Periodically one or two medium health caster mobs that would use a targeted AoE attack, centered either around the player or itself (solution: dash out of the AoE field, continue hitting mob when safe to do so.)

Periodically a large slow attacking big telegraph ogre-like mob that would take eons to swing (solution: treat much like melee mob, dash around to its back and whack while it is stuck in a slow frontal attack animation.

The most complex thing I encountered in Neverwinter was attempting to solo the starting five-man dungeon The Cloak Tower with just a cleric hireling and me. This mostly enforced understanding of the above tactics as each mob had larger health bars and so took longer to whittle down.

The trickiest and main cause of initial repeated death was the first boss, who was a caster type who would summon two medium melee types when it got down to 3/4 health, creating overlapping zones of serious damage that became tricky to avoid.

Eventually, I powered through one melee mob using healing potions to get rid of the overlapping kill zone, and proceeded to learn in depth how to best avoid the caster boss – swing three times, completing one attack animation chain, start moving one quarter of a circle clockwise or anticlockwise to move out of the way of the AoE it would cast, swing three times, move again.

In Neverwinter, the skill tree mostly involves increasing percentage damage, or percentage defences. Lateral viable options are lacking, reducing depth.

I have an AoE skill? Well, use it when I have multiple mobs, and just keep spamming it for extra damage because it doesn’t cost me anything to use it regardless.

I have a skill that does damage and heals me for a bit of the damage done? Spam whenever off cooldown.

I have a skill that knocks an enemy prone? Oh. For once, I actually have to think about timing. Let’s use it on vulnerable mobs (aka non-bosses) when they’re starting their aoe telegraph attack so that I have more freecast attack time then! Still spammed whenever off cooldown.

In Path of Exile, you do click, or click and hold, and wait for mobs to die…

…but you probably would have done well to think about exactly how you were planing on getting them to die in the first place.

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It begins with the crazy looking skill tree – of which this is only a partial shot.

On character creation, you get to pick one of six different classes. (The seventh class, the Scion, unlocks after you’ve nearly played through the standard game once, I believe.)

Three classes are aligned with the major attributes Strength, Dexterity and Intelligence as pure representatives of that attribute. The Marauder is the Strength brute, bringing to mind something hard-hitting and very tanky and armor/resistance based. The Ranger is your Dexterity rep, conjuring images of something fast-hitting, nimble and evasive, possibly using bows or dual-wielding weapons. The Witch is the Intelligence based spellcaster.

Then you have the hybrid classes. A Strength-Intelligence hybrid, the Templar. A Strength-Dexerity hybrid, the duelist. And finally, the Dexterity-Intelligence Shadow.

Each class begins at a different position on the crazy skill tree, so they have easier access to certain traits over others for cheaper skill point cost.

The Scion, of course, sits at the very center, open to all possibilities, inviting massive theory-crafting for those who have finished the initial game and want something even more complex but flexible and high potential.

It’s a little insane to try and grok it all the moment you begin, so I decided not to make the attempt and just settle on focusing on learning about the tiny area my character started out at, and had more immediate access to.

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I picked The Shadow, which is something a little uncharacteristic of me. I tend to like the tanky melee Strength type classes, but thought it might be interesting to see how the other two attributes would fare, as a hybrid.

Turns out, bloody well.

Even in the immediate area, there are options. You could choose to go the intelligence path and bump up stats, or the intelligence route and increase spellcasting attack speed or elemental damage percentage (implying you’re a more caster type of Shadow), or you could go the dexterity route and increase projectile damage (implying shooty Shadow) or one-handed melee weapons (the more up-close-and-personal type) or straight dexterity increases.

From there again, casters could branch into lightning, cold or fire type of improvements to their spells. Melee folk could choose increased one-handed melee weapon physical damage (which also  applies if you’re dual-wielding two one-handed weapons) or dual wielding bonuses.

And nothing whatsoever stops you from going up or downward the tree to pick up some life and mana bonuses, and grab that caster or melee portion, even if you started on the other path to begin with.

On and on, making stuff very complex indeed.

Since I was just beginning and playing on the easiest normal difficulty, I opted to bother less with learning most optimal theorycrafting and just went the “pick what sounds fun” route. The first character can always be ruined in the name of learning the system, after all.

I generally just looked for the nearest big circles and decided what I wanted more of, and aimed to plot the best course towards those desirables.

In this case, I went a stabby style rogue dual-wielding weapons, attacking fast and trying to crit a lot.

I initially left it open in case I wanted to switch from daggers to swords or claws or whatnot, but as luck would have it, I got some rather decent dagger drops and I’m seriously considering specializing now and leaving the other weapons for another character on another playthrough.

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Adding to the delightful case of options are the skills.

You pick them up via gems, they’re not automatically given to you when choosing a class or going down the skill tree.

Socketing them into your gear allows them to be used and assigned to various buttons, and again, there appears to be a limit for the number of skills you can have in play at one time – similar to nearly all newer MMOs of the TSW, GW2, Wildstar ilk so that you pick and choose those that best synergize and work for your desired playstyle.

There are additional support gems that can be connected to the skill gems, to give things like increased critical damage or more projectiles, and so on.

Each requires things like having the correct color socket, or connecting sockets, so a whole minigame of using orbs to alter sockets (and stats) as desired is formed to complement inventory tetris.

In this case, Reave became my bread-and-butter mind-blowing attack skill.

As a dual-wielding dagger rogue-alike, I can crit ordinary minion-type mobs for a heavy amount. This skill turns my single target attack into an AoE. That increases in size with  each hit.

A good chain with an onrush of hordes of small mobs becomes a delicious spectacle of mobs exploding in unison.

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Some, pretty far away from where I was standing, even. (My reave has stacked up to 8 times, as indicated in the upper left corner.)

Naturally, I need mana to feed these, so it was natural to start exploring up the skill tree for stuff that gave back mana on kill.

And I started looking for gear that gave back life on hit or kill, because I’m lazy to quaff potions on a regular basis and would rather save them for PANIC situations.

Did I just ruin the game? Did I turn it into a mess of simple clicking to kill things?

Hell, no.

The next couple maps I went through started introducing mobs that leap onto you (necessitating evasive movement through clicking to avoid the leap)

…mobs that shot arrows and moved back when you tried to melee them (separating themselves from aoe attack damage)

…mobs that fired magical projectiles at you (kinda hard to melee kill things if you’ve just caught 10 frost bolts to the face trying to get close)

…mobs that raised a ton of minions (necessitating search and destroy, though the minions were easy enough to carve through with reave) and my favorite…

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Exploding mobs.

I highlight this one because it neatly countered the strategies I had developed.

I’d taken to raising minions like zombies and skeletons, because I found it fun and they were handy temporary tanks to shift aggro to, while I ran about and amok in their midst stabbing and killing stuff. (I hear minions are much less viable in the late game, or at higher difficulties, but eh, I’m a ways from that yet.)

Well, exploding mobs blow up minions.

If I go and attack them by myself, they explode, and their explosion takes out other mobs that explode, or my AoE reave explodes them all at once, and guess what… surprise surprise, -I- explode.

This one totally forced a strategy change by learning to -not- attack on sight and let them run close, triggering their explosion animation, which one then quickly ran away from and let them explode by themselves, hopefully taking out all nearby exploders as well.

Boss fight strategies are also different, due to the amount of health they have.

I usually end up stacking a DoT poison-like venom strike, along with ordinary attacking, and running around evasively and quaffing potions like there’s no tomorrow.

I’ve also tried an animate weapon strategy, where I bring in my zombie minions, raise skeletons, and prepare in advance weapons which get thrown onto the ground and turned into animated minions to add damage and deflect aggro.

(Animate weapon is an interesting skill as it sort of makes all the white throwaway loot on the ground relevant again. If it’s a melee weapon, and under the level of your gem, you can sacrifice it and turn it into a minion instead – but you lose the loot drop.)

I have also been dying to try my new situational skill out on a proper boss.

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This is a Vaal version of Summon Skeletons.

Vaal gems are corrupted forms of a skill gem, that are quite a bit more powerful than the normal version. They’re obtained via little side maps that have additional conditions (eg. increased size of mob spawns, shocking or frost patches on the ground, etc.) to make encounters harder.

For example, the normal Summon Skeletons conjures two skeleton warriors at a time, and limits me to 4 of them in play at once.

The Vaal version conjures an ARMY.

A whole bunch of warriors, a few archers and mages and a general that gives them buffs.

The catch is that Vaal gems require souls to work.

So essentially, you run around killing stuff on the map, building up soul power for your Vaal gem, charging it up for one glorious unveiling – hopefully at a good time.

Sort of like a situational elite.

On a big and populous enough map, you can do it more than once, of course. Just depends on souls… Death death murder kill nom more souls.

And the beauty of it is, not all Shadows need to play how I play.

If I chose differently, I could have been a bowcaster. Lots of shooty, maybe some AoE cold spells to help slow things down for more pewpew. Maybe I would still throw in minions as mobile tank pets.

Or I could have jumped down a sword and shield route and visited the strength and armor side a little more (though perhaps ignoring the intelligence portion may be less effective than beginning a str/dex class indeed, but I -could- do it if I chose.)

Or maybe a dual claw evasive life regen Shadow channeling Wolverine for all he’s worth.

Needless to say, this doesn’t even scratch the surface of the other five classes that I still haven’t played nor seen much of their skill gems or tree yet.

Frankly, the only negative thing I can think to say about Path of Exile is its connectivity issues.

On starting the launcher, it occasionally pops up with a “Connection Failure: Unable to connect to patching server message.” One has to repeatedly launch the game and -hope- that one will eventually contact the patching server at some point.

Strangely enough, I don’t really face disconnection issues once on a map (though some do, according to forum reports, and I’ve had it happen once in a blue moon), but more often face problems during the transition from one map to another.

Sometimes, the server(s) just seem to lose hold of my client and go, “Nope, not talking to you anymore” and I get dropped back to the login screen while changing zones.

This happens on both American and Australian server gateways, so I dunno… Seems like the game just gets temperamental sometimes.

Other times, I play with nary a hitch at all.

Your mileage may vary.

The good news is that the instance states save.

For around 8-15 minutes, even if you leave via portal to go to a town, or unexpectedly fall off the map via disconnecting, what you’ve already cleared stays cleared, so you can run around, travel and make progress with exploration without having to wade through unending hordes.

If you WANT the unending hordes, then ctrl+clicking and zoning in will renew the instance on demand.

Best of both worlds, really.

Payment model-wise, the damn thing is free.

Really. Honest. And the devs hold to what they call “ethical microtransactions” in their store.

Which generally means costuming and visual and vanity perks… like shiny wings and shiny armor.

They do also sell character slots and bank/stash space, but imo, this has been an acceptable ‘convenience’ microtransaction in play for a long time now in assorted games.

You are apparently also allowed to make multiple free accounts to ‘mule’ if you’re unwilling to drop any cash on the game, but I suspect by the time you find the need for that many characters and stash space, you’re committed enough to the game to give them $5-$15 for the peace of mind and convenience of not needing to juggle multiple accounts.

(Still, if you’re a broke and starving student or artist or unemployed, the option is there!)

Conclusion?

I will be playing Path of Exile.

I will be playing it a lot.

Sneaking in time between all the other games on my plate.

It will have a place enshrined in my list of games to play along with Torchlight (and if I ever got around to it, Torchlight 2) where Diablo III did not even get me to buy a copy.

And I suspect a couple months down the road or sooner, alt-holic me will be paying Grinding Gear Games for more character slots because two is never enough, and everyone will be happy…

…living happily ever after in the grimdark land of Wraeclast.