Do not play Defender of Texel.
At first when I downloaded the game, everything seemed great. The game mechanics were nothing special, but the creatures you could get were neat, the battles were addictive and the aesthetic was overall petty pleasant to look at. The battlesystem has it’s quirks, and admittedly I really do not like how I have to rely on my creatures to select who to attack – often using a rulesystem that is illogical and impractical to select their targets – it is infinitely better to destroy an enemy on the field with a sliver of health left than to do minimal damage to an enemy with full health, but your units don’t seem to see it that way. Outside of this, however, it was still fun. Even the roulette style nature of obtaining creatures was exciting, if at times frustratingly disappointing.
But then PVP events started occurring.
DOT balances how much you can get ahead in PVP by limiting how many battles you perform (battle points) and how much you can move ahead (energy). You can only perform as many battles with bosses and players as battle points you have, and you can only move ahead in a dungeon and encounter more players by using energy to move. You can replenish these with items (Nux and Bitters respectively).
However, PVP is broken.
Some of these items, like the weaker Energy refill (Aja leaves) are limited to 10 per day. That way, a player can really only advance so far in a day through the use of items. This makes sense, right? But the full refills are NOT limited, and what’s more, they’re purchasable for real world money. If you continue paying money, you can keep going up in the leaderboards because other people, who aren’t paying real money, cannot battle or move ahead until their Energy and Battle points refill over time.
What ends up happening is that some players have been quite literally paying their way to the top of the leaderboards. If you don’t get a high enough spot on the leaderboard, you net no rewards for the day’s PvP bracket.
Now, DOT and its players can pretend all they like that PVP is optional and that you don’t have to play, but that is simply untrue. PVP in DOT is pervasive; there is no way to escape or avoid a PVP encounter outside of exiting each encounter, and then the encounters stay pending on your home screen along with your OTHER pending tasks. As a game designer, I can tell you this is an abuse of the player’s Clearing instinct, a sensation that a player needs to complete a suggested task because “the check is still unchecked”. This sensation *cannot* be ignored, and furthermore, you get *push notifications* every time a player advances past you on the leaderboard. Don’t try to tell me you can turn push notifications off – the point is Mobage INTENDED this to be the design. The fact that you are reminded of your pending battles every time you return to your home screen is the very definition of Not Designed To be Optional.
Given this, the game ultimately feels frustrating and unrewarding by putting you in battles against players who far outmatch you in points on every single leaderboard, making it nigh impossible to move past Echelon/Rank 3 without spending real world cash. I’ve watched my husband play this game dedicatedly, at every opportunity he has in order to never let Battle Points and Energy go to waste, and his points accumulated on the leaderboards at the end of the day are pitiful compared to the points earned by those people who simply paid for their victory.
In conclusion, the game mechanics, sound and visuals made this a solid experience on iOS, but this game is horribly, horribly broken. PVP is a Pay to Win system in the grossest and most pervasive sense. I became so utterly discouraged and disappointed in trying to match up with players who’s wallet depths seems to be a nonissue that I uninstalled the game.
I understand Mobage wants to make money, and creating a successful microtransaction market is a part of that strategy, but this game is just vile, vile, vile in its design; it is meant to harass the player with PVP leaderboards they cannot succeed at without paying in. I cannot recommend this game to anyone unless they have no object at all to putting down hundreds of dollars towards Nux and Bitters.
Another out-of-the-blue UI update! Still working out a few bugs, but it should be stabilized very, very soon.
So, do you RIIIIKE ITTTT?
Okay. So I got into the Final Fantasy XIV Beta. As a disclaimer, there are certainly things that could have changed from when I played until release. But let’s face it: release is, what, tomorrow? After the chaos that was betaregistration, the idea that Square Enix know what they are doing is laughable. There is only so much Square Enix could have changed about the game between beta and launch. And most of the game is horribly, horribly wrong.
Let’s begin with the good things.
Final Fantasy XIV’s character creation system is miles ahead of XI’s, and even ahead of World of Warcraft’s and Everquest 2′s. I never played Aion, so I can’t be sure of how it compares – let’s say it’s a step up from Monster Hunter’s character creation, which, in my book, is a pretty good place to be. It certainly doesn’t have the freedom of Brink and All Points Bulletin, but those are less parts of games as they are software in and of themselves. I was overall impressed by the improvements Square Enix made to their system and, despite being unable to find a hairstyle I liked (as is all too often the case for me in MMOs), I felt comfortable with my character – I felt ownership over him, like he was my creation. I played with the editor to try to make the most hideous character possible and discovered that it is actually very difficult to do so. It’s the opposite extreme to games like Demon’s Souls, where the tiniest nudge the wrong way will cause your character to flat out burst into flames of ugliness.
I was less pleased with the class system (What, there’s no class that wields a two handed claymore? Seriously?) but when the game started I felt I was off to an okay start.
That’s when everything went downhill.
My immediate disapproval arose when I was thrust into in a tutorial space where no actual tutorial took place. There are no actual players in this small private instance; instead, you’re given basic instructions on how to walk and look and talk, and are free to talk with a handful of NPCs of different persuasions. Despite the fact that I spoke to every NPC in the area, however, I got no hints on other aspects of the game, no special instructions – not even a decent bit of exposition about the world around me. I tried to leave the instance only to have the game warn me “Are you sure you want to leave this instance? You won’t be able to come back here if you do”, which immediately made me paranoid that I would miss something important; hence, I went back around and talked to everyone again, searching every nook and cranny for any valuable scraps I might have regretted missing later on.
But There Was Nothing! The game was warning me that I was leaving nothing behind! Why the hell was I here, if there’s nothing to do? To practice moving forward? Is that really the extent of this map – a map to teach me how to walk? And then you warn me that I might never see this “walk map” ever again? Good riddance with the walk map! It’s as boring as sin and you just made me waste ten to fifteen minutes on it, running back and forth like an idiot!
Fast forward a little and I’ve watched the first few cinematics in the game that include your character walking around and being featured in the overarching story of Final Fantasy XIV. Some people are thrilled with this new addition. After seeing what Bioware has been doing in The Old Republic, however, I’m not nearly as impressed; your character stumbles around in predetermined patterns like a drunken mute, and you have no control over his/her reactions to situations. It throws any preconceived notions about who you are as a character completely out the window, and what’s worse: the grand majority of the time, it seems your character plays a walk-on role in the majority of the story, with other more epic, more recognizable characters whoring attention like some horrible reenactment of a childhood musical where you play the tree while some other kid dances and sings with a cane and a bowler hat on center stage.
I understand if your character is a complete nobody at first and then slowly grows to become a powerful, notable individual. I am fine with the rags-to-riches/humble-beginnings story. It’s evident in almost every MMO out there. However, the odd thing about FFXIV is that the way the exposition is presented, it really doesn’t feel like a story about my character. It feels like you’re watching the cinematics of a Final Fantasy play out, with a plot and a story and drama and memorable characters and some dark evil force trying to destroy crystals and whatnot, only when the cinematics end, instead of getting into the main character’s shoes and moving them around, getting into fights and equipping legendary weapons, you gain control of your MMO character, who was standing around in the background the whole time like some weird stalker.
This really kills the magic of the MMO – MMOs are about the self – that’s why the key aspects of an MMO (achieving, exploring, socializing, killing other players) are so self-satisfying. The elements of the game should emphasize that player experience as one of the player experiencing the MMO world through a character. Instead, Square Enix seemed to awkwardly present the MMO experience through other characters, and merely using the player’s character as a set of eyes fairly unconnected to the events occurring in the game.
This problem can be noticed in the environments, as well. Don’t get me wrong, Final Fantasy XIV looks beautiful. But it suffers from the same design problems that plague other [insert stereotypical "Asian" country here] games. The world, as beautiful as it looks, appears dead and uninteresting. I look up at the beautiful sky and feel nothing, because I know that my potential to explore that glorious landscape is pretty much zero. Japanese games have this thing about them where they just don’t want you interacting with the environment – it’s only there to appear stunning, not to serve any purpose. It’s like they just threw up a beautiful matte painting for a background but didn’t supply the cast with enough props and stage pieces to make the illusion convincing. It really doesn’t make it feel like an experience.
Now let’s talk game design, because that’s the real meat of any game.
For those of you new to the boat, “game design” refers to the “mechanics” of a game – the gears that make it function, the elements that determine whether it is “intuitive and fun”. And Final Fantasy XIV is far from intuitive and fun.
Horrendously complex menus that are never properly explained aside, Final Fantasy XIV’s interface is not too complex, but makes up for it in simply not behaving in the way you would expect an interface to behave. I can’t really explain what I mean other than it feels like half the time the interface is suggesting I should attack whatever I’m looking at – whether it be an enemy, a chest, a questgiver, a door, a party member. Maybe it’s just that the PC version plays like crap. The combat plays like a mix of Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy XIII with none of the good elements of either – which is remarkable, as they had very clear and obvious positives which Square Enix seemed to deliberately ignore.
There are buttons at the bottom right of the screen which for a long time I just wasn’t sure what they did other than one made me attack things and the other opened my items. Little indicators would pop up at the top of the screen and I had no idea what they meant or what they were doing. I got killed by a mole rat (at least it wasn’t a damn rabbit) and I could not figure out how to resurrect for a full three minutes because the damn game didn’t think to give me a hint as to where to find the unintuitive command (As if a menu item labeled “Return” is really going to scream “come back to life”). And quests! What quests? I had one quest, and when I was in the middle of it, the game crashed, and on logging in I found that my quest had disappeared and I had no idea what to do. I ran around talking to random NPCs but none of them had anything important to say, and there were no indicators on anyone as to whether they had a quest for me or not!
The game was torture to play. I uninstalled it shortly after getting booting it up for the first time and I don’t plan to buy it or so much as look at another Square Enix game again (which is a lie, because Birth By Sleep is loaded on my PSP right now and I’m thinking of writing a critique of that as well). Honestly, I think Square Enix just hasn’t been the same since the merger, and all of Square’s great storytelling and excellent ideas have simply evaporated without a trace. I truly have no idea what they were thinking when it comes to this new MMO, other than perhaps they were trying to appeal to an audience of players that is honestly not looking to play an MMO for the sake of playing an MMO but rather because they want it to be a Final Fantasy.
I think FF7, along with other Final Fantasies (and basically any Square Enix game nowadays) have always had a bit of a disconnect when it comes to certain features of the game commuting with the rest of it. I dearly love Final Fantasy 7, but I recognize I was only able to thoroughly enjoy it because I had the patience to learn and master the Materia system, to the point where Cloud would strike an enemy for 9999 three separate times every time he attacked, and then would counterattack when he was struck and deal 9999 three times again, and then would jump in the way of attacks directed at his allies, which would cause him to counterattack and, again, strike for 9999 three separate times.
I mean, that’s just awesome.
But you really need to learn the system, and unfortunately the Japanese (and Southeast Coastal Asian, generally) culture has this design philosophy about making games un-intuitive for players, and expecting them to fight tooth and claw to figure out the nuances, then share the information freely with everyone else struggling with the same. It is a very “communitive” (not real word) experience, and unfortunately it clashes horribly with the Western individualistic ideal. In the West, we want to figure these things out for ourselves, and if we can’t figure it out quickly and get our bearings – the Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master philosophy – then we assume the game is badly made and therefore is lacking in quality. And Final Fantasy XIV, as unintuitive as it is, was built to be a grueling experience built for an Asian a specific audience.
Unfortunately, in this case, FFXIV really was badly built. It really was. My blessings go to those who’ve decided to play. May you have more fun than I did.
I am quite busy doing things other than writing scathing articles, so please forgive the pause.
In the meantime, some Alex and Squall comic strips!
The prototype for the project I have been slaving over for the past few months is done. I am now relatively free until we begin development! Which means – that’s right – site and portfolio makeover! What, you didn’t actually think I would write about games, did you?
Actually, I might delay the site redesign until I think up something that looks good. So you may see me being productive yet. And of course, I’ll let you know when a playable build of the game is out.
Also, I bought a Cintiq. Be on the lookout for some of THAT.
Andres, what are you doing? Where’s that promised video critique?
I haven’t even begun filming it. An unexpected opportunity came up and I am now actually working on a game for a change. I’m very excited.
Can’t give away any details, but hopefully once pre-production slows down I should be able to find a slow period to either write or record.
This isn’t one of those “I forgot / I was lazy / I didn’t know what to write” circumstances. I am genuinely busy. Trust me. I’ll provide proof someday.
I went ahead and removed the It May Even Be In Our Time. I was sad to see it go, but it was time to move on. And it broke UI every time I switched between menu items.
It’s better this way.
While I enjoy the written word very much, my dry wit does not seem to be conveying very well and my long-winded explanations about why games are my favorite thing in the world are losing people’s interest. Hence, I’m tempted to try something slightly different: camerablogging.
I’m going to do an experiment and see how well my wit and analysis translate to video. I may be putting a video critique up on YouTube sometime within the next couple of months (it will be embedded in here – you do not need to leave my abode for your viewing comfort) and hopefully it will be interesting, entertaining, funny and far less daunting than my usual six-to-eight paragraphs of large words.
However, to do this, I will need a rather high quality webcam. I am currently looking at this one. It is affordable, really nice and if I don’t end up being good on video then I can always use it for recording home-made pornography and selling it to media companies (I jest, I jest, please, no outrage!).
Any suggestions, opinions, or cries of outrage are welcome!
Over the past couple of months I have purchased an insane number of games off Steam because they were on sale I needed to get a broader scope of interesting game mechanics to look at aside from just “the most recent PS3 titles,” which all look like the same game anyway (God of War IV: Dante Alighieri Goes To Hell). One of the games I got my hands on was the little-known indie title The Void, a spectacular little gem by Ice-Pick Lodge, the Russian developer who did Pathologic prior to that, a very notable title in the Adventure Game world that was Game of the Year in Russia about five years ago.
The Void takes place in a universe between Life and absolute Death: a place of tranquility floating above the nothingness of the end of existence, called the Nightmare. And Nightmare it is: an atheist’s nightmare, where the pleasant promises of the Judeo-Christian Paradise have been avoided and instead the game opts to plunge you straight into a metaphysical Purgatory, where all is dead and your own death creeps steadily towards you, threatening to consume you and pull you into the pits of absolute nothing. Sounds pretty much like Hell to me.
While in this ravaged – yet strangely breathtaking, beautiful and dark – landscape called the Void (where our title hails from), you attempt to keep your soul alive by feeding it scraps of Color, a kind of mystical essence that you can pull out of plants and other curious sources with a bit of struggle.
In the Void (and The Void), Color is life. Color is all. Color is your life; you must feed it into your heart in order to stay alive, and enemies assailing you with cause the Color to bleed from it. Color is your stats; when filling your heart (or hearts, if you begin to acquire more) with Color, depending on the Color you fill yourself with, you’ll become tougher, attack stronger, be more impressive, make things grow easier. Color is your time; when traveling outside the smaller chambers that make up the Void, your color drains from your heart at a steady rate. Color is your power; as Color passes through your heart while in the Void, it filters from your heart into usable Color called “Nerva” – this Color is basically your mana, used to cast spells to fight, to protect yourself, and to manipulate the world around you. Color is your currency; Nerva can also be used to make things grow and feed other barely surviving things in The Void, causing them to over time bloom and produce more Color for the collecting.
If at any point your heart becomes empty of Color, you die, and your soul falls to the Nightmare, the nothingness.
The Void is, at its core, an unending struggle to find Color and keep your soul alive, while frantically avoiding wasting the precious drops.
While the story became very engaging later on, it began terribly slow at first. As a player, you thirst for knowledge, for experimentation, for knowing what the rules of the game are – and they are explained, along with the story, in due time, as you complete each task set before you. Your eagerness must quickly subdued into begrudging patience, awaiting to be rewarded with more information or power only until you’ve completed each task, or you’ll become increasingly agitated with the slow pace of the game and the time it takes for things to grow. I suppose this is to ease the player into the idea that, in the Void, they must take, measure and use every moment, since they cannot waste a second. You must use your time wisely, for you have precious little of it. The Void encourages you to build, to move, to use every second efficiently. The game rewards you for going forward – but it also punishes you for it.
As you learn more of this Purgatory that slowly seems to be dying from some kind of apathy, you are introduced to the central struggle that has caused this world to slowly collapse – a battle between spirits called the Sisters – beautiful young women with very different personalities, most of them eager to see you succeed and feed them the Color they die for – and spirits called the Brothers – monstrous, hulking demon creatures, protectors of the Sisters, supposedly ascended from Nightmare, and therefore, quite possibly from Hell itself, and many all too happy to kill you. The playing field shifts through the game – Sisters become your puppetmasters, Brothers your rivals – then you are the puppetmaster, taking from the Sisters what you need, killing off Brothers one by one. And all throughout, there are hints throughout the story, special chambers, things that make you question exactly what it is you are experiencing, along with vague and fleeting mentions of your living self, and the possibility of breaking free of the Void and returning to life. It is a long and grisly battle, segmented by “cycles,” with each new cycle sprouting new Color into the Void. There are 35 cycles made up of 99 seconds each, and at the end of the 35 cycles, your soul cannot continue, and you die.
The Void is a horror game. But it is not like other horror games you have played; no other horror game I have played so far has tried to do what The Void has done. Since, you see, in no other horror game has my mortality been so palpable. There is always a sense of fear that may grip a player when fighting enemies in any game, but it’s always under the premise that, it’s okay, you’re not really in danger anyway – it’s a game, and you can go look for some health packs in a minute, or re-load your saved game. The Void did not give me that luxury. While traversing the Void, you are always aware of just how little Color you have, of how it’s slowly draining, of how your life is dwindling. When you are forced to use Color to combat, you wince as you apply more and more Nerva to a blow, trying to break your enemy quickly, using as little of your precious Color as possible. If is the fear of starvation, of your dwindling candle, that possesses you throughout the whole game. The name of the first Chapter of your Chronicles is “Famine.” You hunger for Color, and fear the absolute death that comes for your soul if no more sprouts in time.
The game itself coaxes and taunts you as your Color dwindles; as you run low on Color (“Lympha”, it’s called, when it’s still in its raw state) and are forced to use your Nerva to fight, use magic or feed Sisters and plants, you start to hear whispers. “Drop by drop, you come closer to Death,” the game tells you. It’s chilling, and enhances the growing agitation you feel as you scour desperately for sources of Color. You must also beware of making mistakes with your Color, as well – painting a tree with color and not putting in enough means you will get back a minor amount of color, and you will unable to re-paint it until it has shed its leaves after several cycles. Not drawing the right symbols for the right spells will also cause you to lose some color in the process.
Additionally, The Brothers are not present in the Void at first, but appear suddenly near the beginning of the game and from then on make your existence in the Void all the more complicated. They are horrific, mutilated, generally towering over you, speaking in terrible voices, blind. Their very presence on the map inspires fear or apprehension, and God help you if you are forced to combat one of them early on.
I played The Void for about three to four hours straight, then came to a conclusion: Ice-Pick Lodge wants to break your soul, and they want you to give up playing video games forever. The game is maddeningly difficult, and it is quite literally impossible to save yourself from a bad choice earlier on in the game – you often have to load way back in the past, or begrudgingly begin a new game. After looking up a few tips on the Internet (The East and its look-for-help mentality!) I believe I may want to go back and give it another try, and actually complete the game this time around, but the apprehension of running low on Color, the frustration of watching it dwindle, knowing I’m out of luck next cycle and that I don’t know where to get my next batch of Lympha to survive, can be terribly overwhelming, not to mention the fear of angering the Brothers and having them come after you.
Still, its difficulty brings up the question: are they trying to break your soul? Or are they trying to show you just how resilient it is? What does the design say about the theme?
Supposedly, people are calling The Void an adventure game with resource management involved. I suppose it sort of is, but that’s also like saying that Harvest Moon is a farming simulation. There is more to it than that – more to see, more to speculate, more questions it brings about, more terror and stress that it causes. On a more introspective perspective, what is The Void? What does it symbolize? Through the difficulty, the mechanics chosen, the story, and the small things the Sisters would say, such as “Nobody cares about anything anymore. And nobody knows why nobody cares,” I’ve begun to believe that maybe The Void is a game about humankind’s struggle to keep the good things in life first… to not lose the flavor and richness of the world in the face of nightmares. To not lose its soul, and the deep apprehension one might feel as the joy of life, of the things around one, begins to fade. Hence, we must find new joy, and use what little joy we have to rework the world around us, make it bloom with things that will fill us with Color anew.
We must not let ourselves grow bone tired and weary of the lives we lead, unhappy, lacking in the love that we once held for them.
The murkiness of the setting in which the Void exists only further accentuates that, giving it a dreamlike, abstract quality: all these strange landscapes seem to have no connection to each other; up and down, in and out don’t really make sense and all doors lead to the same places.
The charm and and meaning I found to The Void was not echoed by everyone and was, of course, completely rejected by a few who felt the game had too many issues and not enough congruency. A good analysis that looks completely the other way from mine is Andrea Morstabilini’s analysis of The Void on Aventure Gamers, and it’s a good read if you have the time.
Myself, I was happy with the purchase, and I still remain fascinated by Ice-Pick Lodge’s amazing use of a single resource to define an entire game experience. Now, I’m going back to playing “the most recent PS3 titles” for a bit. I mean, it was just Christmas. I’ve got loot to enjoy.
I have put my Game Critiques in the body of the blog, just like a standard post, and have removed the stupid Game Criticism button from the top of the page. It was great for an older UI – in my newer one it’s not as effective, and with the presence of my Category list at the top right of the blog it is all too easy to find posts under the “Game Criticism” tag. So you can all just get used to it.
Plus, I was getting annoyed that comments were unavailable for pages, and that doesn’t make any sense to me. WordPress is free, though, so who’s gonna complain? I should try to fix the coding, but I’d have to do that for all my wonderful addons that Tweet my posts and the like, so best adapt to what everyone else is doing and make it work.
New critique being proofread as we speak. You won’t be expecting this one. It’s a kicker.
Happy New Year, by the way. Hope your holiday loot was nice – mine was so unbelievable I may never run out of games to play.