Friday, September 27, 2013

MadCap's Game Reviews - "The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - Knights of the Nine" Nine Divines.  Powerful and absolute deities reigning benevolently over the man and mer of Tamriel.  Akatosh, Mara, Stendarr, Julianos, Dibella, Kynareth, Arkay, Zenithar, and Talos. 

 Together, their pantheon is the official pantheon of the Empire.  Are they real? Well, most seem to think so, though their acts are not as prolific as those of the Daedra. 

I mean, except for that real big one at the end of the main Questline of Oblivion…but, er…never mind that…

Once, long ago, the Eight (as they were known before the ascension of Talos) saw their need of a champion against a vicious elven sorcerer who threatened to become much as they were themselves.  Thus, they gifted a lone individual with the garments befitting a Knight...a…Knight of the Eight, if you will.  And thus, Pelinal Whitestrake slayed the dread Umaril…but did not finish the job.  Umaril’s spirit remained intact and waited for the day that he would return...and return he has, for some reason using Dwemer runes to mark his return upon the altars of the Nine, in the blood of their very priests.

Apparently Umaril is royally pissed about something.

Luckily, the player character who may or may not be the Champion of Cyrodiil by this point (as well as the Master of the Fighters’ Guild, Gray Fox of the Thieves’ Guild, Listener of the Dark Brotherhood, and the Archmage of the Mages’ Guild) can speak to a crazy old man living outside the chapel in Anvil, who will set him upon the path to becoming the Avatar…I mean, the Divine Crusader, the only being worthy to recover the Relics of the Knights of the Nine and defeat Umaril once and for all.

This, during the first bits of your quest, means you’re going to traverse the length and breadth of Cyrodiil looking for the wayshrines of the Nine scattered about the wilderness in order to receive the status of Pilgrim within the Church of the Nine Divines.  This, once completed, will purify your character.  Or, in game terms, will see that all your points of Infamy you have gathered from working for the Thieves’ Guild or the Dark Brotherhood (or all around just running around killing people…it happens more often than you think) will be reset to zero, giving you a clean slate.

Of course, once you’ve become the Divine Crusader, you pretty much have to tow the line and be a good boy (or girl) or you will be unable to use the Relics and will have to go through the Pilgrimage all over again.  And trust me, anything worth doing once is making sure you only have to do once.  Hence, top tip, if you’re planning on going the Dark Brotherhood or Thieves’ Guild routes, go right ahead and do it before you take on the mantel of the Divine.  Thus, you get all the perks of those without any of the dirtied hands.  Fun fun.
The map given to you by the Prophet.

KoTN actually adds in a fair amount of new content and expounds on a few areas that already existed within the game.  It has its own storyline which, albeit short is pretty good for an expansion.  Most of your time is going to be spent in going from place to place, because nobody save those who take the long-running joke about the Elder Scrolls being nothing but a hiking sim and have literally traversed the entire length and breadth of the map will be able to fast-travel anywhere near some of the locations.  That being said, the suit of armor and weapons you receive of the Crusaders set is very nice and there’s even a nice rack (stop laughing!) you can set everything in to bring it up to your level if you got it at a lower level, as well as instantly repair and reload all the magical charges in the sword and mace.  Fantastic!
This is the skin of a paladin, Bella!
That being said, really, my only criticisms for it (besides those that come with vanilla Oblivion) is that it’s just rather short when you take out all the padding from the travel.  But I can’t really complain too much about that, since what we get is fairly good for what we are promised by it.  Unlike, say, being promised we could fly around on dragons and getting a merry go round that shoots fireballs instead.

But alas, even now, our journey back to the earlier half of the 2000s is not done yet.  Next time, we’re going to take a trip to somewhere in the neighborhood of crazy. Pack your straitjackets, folks, we’re off for the Shivering Isles…

Knights of the Nine is available for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC from Bethesda Softworks.

Friday, September 20, 2013

MadCap's Game Reviews - "The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion"
Now, I’ve made it no secret that I am a major fan of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series.  I’ve given praise to both the third entry into it, Morrowind (which I still hold up as my favorite game of all time), and the fifth entry into it, Skyrim.  However, I haven’t really given its fourth installment, Oblivion, so much attention as I have the others.  And I figured that with the release of the Elder Scrolls anthology as of about ten days after this review (never let it be said that I'm not timely!), it was a good time to talk about one of the more...tolerated games.

Not to say that Oblivion is bad, because it by no means is…but it has…problems that neither its predecessor nor its descendent did.  That being said, Oblivion also had things unique to it that neither Morrowind nor Skyrim had.  What did they bring to the table for Oblivion? What did they lose and what did they gain by not following the example of Morrowind? And what was lost in the transition to Skyrim? I’ll leave you all to debate that, but I will go through the features of the game and will occasionally exposit on where they changed something from Morrowind or changed something else for Skyrim and whether or not I think this is a good or bad thing.

We begin in a prison cell in the Imperial City in the province of Tamriel.  After you find yourself heckled by a Dunmer in the cell across from you, Captain Picard and a few of his bodyguards make their way into your cell, where the commander of the good ship Enterprise begins to hit on you.  In reality, he speaks of your destiny in order to combat a coming darkness.  And because Picard is making an escape through your cell, you get a get out of jail free card. It’s often a running joke in the Elder Scrolls series for the player character to start out in prison.  As of the time of this review, I believe that only Daggerfall has not started in such a manner.  However, unlike in Skyrim, there’s no real implication of just why you’ve found yourself in the predicament you’re in.

Although, personally, in Oblivion I think I was thrown in prison for asking Bethesda to make a better ending to the game.
No phallic imagery here whatsoever...

But the Emperor says it truly doesn’t matter what you have been placed in prison for, because you will truly be remembered for saving the world from total destruction.  Or, if you don’t care to follow the Main Quest, something else (Because, really, who follows the Main Quest anyway?).

Nevertheless, you follow Picard and his posse out of the cell and into the sewers beneath the Imperial City, where you get your first tastes of the antagonists of the Main Quest – the Mythic Dawn.  They fall pretty easily to the Emperor’s elite bodyguards, though they do manage to take out one of them because plot, and you get separated for a time to go through a starter dungeon that just so happens to contain starting equipment for a first level character of almost every sort.

Huh, what a world, right?

While we’re on the subject of my endless and flawless references to the real greatest commanding officer of the Enterprise (not the best Starfleet captain, but that’s a discussion for another time), I remember being really impressed that they’d gotten Patrick Stewart to voice one of their main characters. I remember thinking that it would be great to have him in the game as a mentor figure leading me through how I might defeat the oncoming forces of darkness.  Thus, you could imagine my sheer disappointment when he was killed off at the end of the tutorial by…the plot.

And from there, you pick your class and Shawshank Redemption your way out of the prisons, entering the province of Cyrodiil proper and…well, it’s mostly forest with some swamps to the far south east and mountains to the north.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely impressive (it is a Bethesda game, after all) but after the truly alien and unique environments we saw in Morrowind, it almost feels like a step back in terms of environment.  Now, that’s not to say that Morrowind always had nice, clean and pretty environments.  I remember the Ashlands as much as the next person who trekked across the island continent of Vvardenfell, but the fact is that they just didn’t look like the standard western fantasy setting. Very alien and different, so Oblivion loses a few points on falling back on what’s familiar to RPG players instead of giving us something unique.

But hey, you can fast travel through it now and completely ignore your standard western fantasy setting, so who am I to wag a finger?

However, I will give them a few points for the depiction of Mehrunes Dagon’s realm of Oblivion.  It is a hellish wasteland, riddled with fire and ash that normally is not accessible to mere mortals such as the player character (in vanilla Oblivion, anyway).  However, thanks to the death of Captain Picard, Mehrunes Dagon is able to have his man and mer followers open Oblivion Gates, great towering gates of obsidian stone that release the Daedra hordes under Dagon’s command upon the hapless people of Tamriel, all the while dissolving the walls between his realm and Tamriel.

Never fear, however, as you discover on the Main Quest that the Emperor had a secret son who was hidden away for just such an occasion.  Martin, a priest of Akatosh voiced by Sean Bean.  And from the actor alone, we really should have seen what was coming.  However, when you return to the Grandmaster of the Blades with him (ironically, also hiding out as a monk), you find that the mystical McGuffin known as the Amulet of Kings has been stolen by the Mythic Dawn.  Thus, you must not only prevent an invasion from Oblivion, but find a way to recover the Amulet of Kings.

And thus, we have the plotline of the main quest.  It pretty much goes as one might expect.  You travel to the various towns and close Oblivion gates that open up near them in order to get their aid for a climatic final battle to recover a Great Sigil Stone for a ritual to pursue the leader of the Mythic Dawn.  Also, kudos to Bethesda for completely and shameless ripping off Aragorn’s speech from the Battle at the Black Gate from Return of the King.  Class act, guys.  Class act.

But once you’ve achieved this and are poised to put Martin on the throne, Mehrunes Dagon brings an all-out final assault and Martin ends up sacrificing himself for the greater good to forever seal the barrier between Dagon’s realms and Tamriel…except in Skyrim, he can totally still interact with Tamriel, but never mind that.  This ending is particularly irritating because of all the time and effort you’ve spent in keeping Martin safe all ends up being for not.  And unlike Harry Potter that followed him, the afterlife doesn’t give Martin a Mulligan, leaving the future of both the Empire and Tamriel as a whole uncertain…until Skyrim, at least.
Dragon, Dragon, rock the!

So what is your thanks? A crappy set of armor.  Yeah, thanks, Chancellor Ocato! Next time you need the world saved from an apocalypse, look somewhere else.  But really, the ending of Oblivion doesn’t have the feeling of closure that Morrowind’s main quest gave at its end, nor the kind of optimism that Skyrim’s did.  In Morrowind, the Nerevarine succeeded in stopping the return of Dagoth Ur to power, saving not only Morrowind but indeed the whole of Tamriel from either destruction or subjugation under the madman demigod’s power.  In Skyrim, the Dragonborn did not absorb Alduin’s soul after defeating him, but there was that hinting that one day he might return and if he did, the Dragonborn would be waiting to battle him once again.

But this? It’s basically Bethesda saying, “Oh, hey, thanks for saving Sean Bean all those times.  We’re just gonna kill him here, leave the entire Empire in arguably worse shape than it was before all this shit hit the fan.”  I’d almost call it mean spirited, because it really kind of is.  Granted, good guys don’t always survive their battle against evil (unless you’re in G.I. Joe, apparently), but really, this was just really disappointing after all the work you did to get Martin somewhere safe and protect him the few times you had to battle the forces of evil alongside him.
"What is the best Oblivion questline?" "This one, my Brother..."

As for the guild questlines, I really have to tip my hat at the Dark Brotherhood first and foremost.  Everything they didn’t do with Skyrim’s Brotherhood, they had done here.  They crafted NPCs that were some of the most likeable in the game.  When the Ritual of Purification came up, I was in shock.  Then again, Bethesda seems to enjoy pulling that card on me, so I don’t know why I’m overly surprised about it.  But all in all, especially the hunt for the true traitor to the Dark Brotherhood that wraps up the questline, the Dark Brotherhood questline was my favorite in the entire game, though I am admittedly a bit disappointed that when it wraps up you end up with a desk job within the organization.  Something here that Skyrim did better, just because I’m at the top doesn’t mean I don’t want to stick my knife in things (don’t read too hard into that).

Also of high note is the Thieves’ Guild questline.  They’re more disconnected than the guild in Morrowind and very finely spread out across the whole of Cyrodiil, but getting to a fence (and there are quite a few) will get any hot merchandise off your hands and you can even have any bounty on you removed for half-price by a Doyen (the quest-givers until the last few missions).  Though the earlier questlines take place more in the cities and towns of the province, later on you’ll be working directly for the Gray Fox, the Guildmaster, who will send you all over the map in search of very rare and precious artifacts for his own ends.

The Guild will require you to sell a certain amount of stolen goods in order to get a mission, which is a bit of a throwback to how you advanced in rank in the Guild back in Morrowind, but in a good way.  It actually requires you to be a thief rather than just blitzing through the ranks by completing mission objectives all willy-nilly.  This will tie into a criticism I have of the Elder Scrolls in general later on, but we’ll get to it when we get to it.
Modryn Oreyn, one of the few NPCs I find memorable

The Fighter’s Guild actually has a pretty decent plot.  Instead of a criminal organization secretly playing puppeteer for it, we are instead treated to the Guild having some competition in the form of the Blackwood Company.  They’re ruthless, efficient, and have many people questioning their motives.  So, naturally, you find out over the course of so many missions.  It’s a very fun ride and is actually very enjoyable, even if it’s probably the most predictable in terms of plot.  The Blackwood Company is mysterious and shadowy and doesn’t seem all that much on the up and up and it turns out…oh, they aren’t.  No real shocks, but not too bad as far as it goes.

And now, we come to the questline that I’ve rather been dreading.  The Mages’ Guild.  Now, there’s nothing really bad about it, per se.  See evil wizard, kill evil wizard, save the Mages’ Guild.  Pretty much what you would expect and not terrible in its simplicity.  And, for once, your Guildmaster is not a complete and utter douchebag, a la Morrowind.  No, the problem with the Mages’ Guild questline in its very beginning…when you have to go around to each and every Guild Hall getting a recommendation from each leader.  This really just becomes needless and tiresome busywork that opens up a whole mess of side quests in order to get said recommendations.  Another area where Morrowind and Skyrim are better, you can just join the Mages’ Guild.

Also, the Big Bad is could almost count as an Anti-Climax boss, which really doesn't give it many points in its favor...
Behold! The Dark Lord, really?!

However, the ability to enchant weapons can only be found within the Mages’ Guild, again another misstep that Oblivion takes that both the game that came before it and the game that came after it did not.  I understand the reason why this is, given the current political situation and attitudes towards magic (namely Necromancy as you will be reminded excessively throughout any time at all you spend with the Mages), but from a gameplay stance it’s just rather irritating to have to go around as a hulking barbarian doing quests for mages in order to enchant your normal Iron Battleaxe into Wicked Battleaxe of Decapitation +20.  It breaks the immersion somewhat.

But that point brings me to one that I mentioned way back with the Thieves’ Guild.  Namely that…well, you really don’t have to have any skill to progress within the Guilds.  Certainly, the Thieves’ Guild has the fencing you have to do in order to get other missions, but you don’t have to actually be a thief.  You don’t have to improve any skills in order to progress, so it’s kind of awkward when the greatest thief and assassin in the world is only about sixth level.  The same goes with the Mages’ Guild, which I think really should be an outright requirement given the nature of Magic.  Even so, I do understand why they did this, even if (this time from a storyline standpoint) it makes next to no sense.

You could conceivably become the head of everything with just about any character class.  Sure, if you pick a combat class you’ll miss out on a lot of the free gear you get from completing the special requirements of the Dark Brotherhood questlines, but that’s really just about the only hindrance and that’s kind of an issue for me that does actually carry over into Skyrim.  You can be the head of every guild and organization and that’s just…well, that’s kind of too much for me.  Mixing it up can have people booing and shunning you with your efforts in the Dark Brotherhood, and yet on the other end of the spectrum being cheered on by the populace for preventing the end of the world as we know it. And to be honest, I don’t feel fine…about that.

Morrowind had some restrictions that actually made sense.  There were the politics between the Great Houses of Morrowind that prevented the player from joining more than one.  There were even politics between the Fighters and Thieves that made it nearly impossible to join both – I say nearly because people have found many a work around for that and always will.  But the point is, without going out of your way to learn how, the game was very selective about what you could do and made sure you knew your limits.  It made sure you had limits, which is always a way better thing than you think it is (ask any experienced D&D player).

As for the actual gameplay, it's pretty easy to summarize.  Slash enemies with your sword, beat them with your mace, or shoot them with your bows by pulling the right trigger.  Magic is literally a button click away. Leveling can only been done when you sleep, but luckily Oblivion doesn't go the same route as Morrowind and skip levels if you happen to level up again before you can rest.  And beyond that, well, I've covered just about everything short of the several side quests you can find scattered about the world.  And, of course, I could go on and on about how all the characters look absolutely terrible outside of the Argonians and the Khajiit, but everyone's already made those cracks long before now and - let's face the facts - that doesn't do much to ruin the game for me.  Though I will say in comparison to Skyrim, it's rather overall like looking at a matte painting versus a high definition, digitally restored matte painting (which is really ironic during a side quest in a painting...).

All in all, I do really like Oblivion, but it just doesn’t hold the place in my heart that Morrowind does.  Or even, to a lesser degree, the one that Skyrim does.  It’s good, but it lacks some features I enjoyed from Morrowind, adds some features that were completely unnecessary that Skyrim wisely left out, and overall has spots in plots that seem almost like they were afterthoughts or just kind of mean-spirited, such as the end of the Main Questline.  So, it’s not bad but I’d be very hesitant about giving a recommendation outside of just storyline junkies...even though there's a considerable disconnect between this and Skyrim.

As for the game itself, well, there are a few add-ons that I do actually want to give a little attention too, namely Knights of the Nine and The Shivering Isles.  So, everybody pack your swords and armor, practice your Restoration spells, and be ready to ask that age old question "What's a paladin?", because we're heading to do the good work of the Nine in Knights of the Nine.

"The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion" is available for Xbox, PC, and Xbox 360 from Bethesda Softworks, Bethesda Game Studios, and 2K Games.

Friday, September 13, 2013

MadCap's Game Reviews - "Yu-Gi-Oh! The Sacred Cards"

Let me go ahead and preface this review by quoting a great man:


And by Mega Ultra Chicken does it ever!  Now, let’s wind the clocks back to the early years of the 2000s.  Everyone remembers the Yu-Gi-Oh! Craze, right? I remember it, you remember it, everyone.  And, of course, with a massive anime cash cow comes merchandising! But even the almighty Yogurt himself would facepalm at the sheer and utterly ridiculousness that is “Yu-Gi-Oh! The Sacred Cards”.  Brought up by the hands of Konami and Nintendo from some deep pit of the Hells, you would think that this would be an utterly harmless adaptation of children’s card games.

You would be wrong.  So very, very wrong.!_-_The_Sacred_Cards_(U)(Venom)-2-thumb.png
Now, Yugi, your precious screen time is mine!
The game picks up at the beginning of the Battle City arc from the anime (I’ve not read the manga, though as I understand it, the same thing applies).  You are the not at all looking like a Pokémon trainer friend of Yugi Muto and Joey Wheeler and you are set to compete in the Battle City tournament and…yeah, it’s a self-insert fanfic of Season 2.  Really, in just a completely unashamed way. Stand aside Yugi Muto, it is now [Insert Player Name here] who will battle the forces of darkness and save the world from complete and utter destruction!

This is kind of just wrong within an established media, as it basically sees the main characters reduced to background as they parade around in your wake singing your praises. And while that might work just fine in some original IP, playing this game with any knowledge of the “Yu-Gi-Oh!” franchise just makes you feel a bit too much like a Mary Sue…or at least it would if you were actually on par with the characters in the anime.

I’ve heard people complain that this game is far too easy, and to an extent I agree.  However, that’s only if you’re willing to play into the two major mechanics that the game forces upon you – Deck Capacity and Attribute Rock-Paper-Scissors.

Now, in a standard game of Yu-Gi-Oh! (or in this case, it’s in-universe equivalent “Duel Monsters”), if two monsters battle, the one with the highest attack points wins (baring effects or other cards getting involved).  And while that might be the case in Sacred Cards, the uninitiated are going to be very, very pissed when their “Meteor Black Dragon” is defeated in a single blow by a “The Unhappy Maiden”.

Why? Attributes.

As I stated above, this game actually brings attributes into play.  While some of them, I admit, do make sense – such as light being defeated by Shadow – some of them make absolutely no sense and are completely and utterly arbitrary – such as Forest defeating Wind – and the whole system is really completely ridiculous for this game.  No one, literally no one, who bought this game would think it runs any differently than the actual trading card game.  And while there have been other ones that follow a similar system (“Forbidden Memories” on the Playstation One comes to mind), it was incredibly stupid and pointless there too.

Top tip for dealing with this problem, diversify your deck.  I’ve heard other people talk about stacking your deck with certain monsters before every battle, but there are some points in the plot where you can’t do that and are immediately thrown into your next fight with no prep time in between – such as your battle against Ishizu for Obelisk, followed immediately by a battle with Seto Kaiba who challenges you for it as well, this of course creating a massive plot hole as in the anime Kaiba already had Obelisk before the tournament started.
Who are you again?
Then again, this game is no stranger to plot holes.  You battle not only the minor characters from Season One that Joey battles to get into the Battle City finals, but also Strings (making one wonder how Yugi ends up obtaining Slifer) and Bonz (making one wonder how Bakura gets into the finals).  But hey, plot holes! Who cares? Self-insert fanfic!

But back to my original point, you diversify your deck and make sure that you’ve got at least something that can roll through your opponent.  This does, however, lead to a massive problem with grinding.  And this, in turn, brings me to Deck Capacity and Duelist Level.  Yet another completely arbitrary thing that the developers put in that is completely unnecessary and that I don’t think has been in another other Yu-Gi-Oh game to date (exempting this game’s sequel, I believe).

Basically, to be less than kind, you start out the game with complete and utter crap.  The game assigns a number to each card, higher for higher attack monsters and easier to summon ones, and if your Duelist Level is too low, then you can’t use that card in your deck.  How do you raise your Duelist Level? Why, by dueling, of course!  So you get the higher duelist level and you can finally use that card, but then you notice the “Duel Capacity” number at the top of the screen going red, which means you’ve got too many points in your deck and thus have to start over again.  Likewise, your Duel Capacity is increased by dueling.
His voice gives you super strength...only not...
I really don’t understand why this mechanic exists.  To get anything decent, you have to grind incessantly.  Top tip:  if you’re looking to do this, hit up Bonz in the graveyard after you defeat him the first time.  Sure, you’ll have more Zombie cards then you will ever actually care to have, but he increases your Deck Capacity by ten every time you duel, which is much better than grinding against Tristan (who, for some creepy reason, is hanging around outside your house) and gives only five points a pop.

Nevertheless, it becomes a vicious cycle.  You get a card and find that you can’t use it because your Deck Capacity isn’t high enough.  Then you duel and duel and duel and eventually you win a card that you really want to use, but find that you can’t because your Duelist Level isn’t high enough.  So you duel and duel and duel even more and you and find you can’t put it in your deck because your Deck Capacity isn’t high enough.  But don’t worry, dear readers, this process has all joy and satisfaction of your standard MMO.

…oh, yes, I can just tell you’re overjoyed at the prospect.

There’s also more of a focus on monsters than on magic and traps.  In your starter deck, you end up with only two Magic cards and a Trap card.  And until around the mid-point of the game, your opponents don’t even really use Magic cards or Traps outside of “Mooyan Curry”, so you kind of wonder why they even bothered at all.  The monster focus is good, though, because it makes the best strategy apparent, especially for later on in the storyline:  Complete annihilation.

Your opponent summons a monster, you destroy it immediately while summoning another to attack them directly, and repeat the process until you leave them without lifepoints and their rarest card.  And that’s it, so this is really a strategy I can get behind.  Another bizarre thing is that effect monsters can only use their effects on the turn they are summoned, which creates a bit of confusion.  But it also keeps away the fear of cards like “Man-Eater Bug” that have Flip Effects in the standard game but are otherwise useless here.
Yep...this is nothing like Pokémon at all...
As I said, the plot has enough holes for me to drive a motorcycle through (whilst playing card games, no less).  It’s basically Battle City, but with some changes.  For one, Yugi Muto is not the hero of destiny who ends up battling Marik Ishtar’s Yami version, you are.  After defeating the minor villain characters that Joey defeated in the actual show (Weevil Underwood, Espa Roba, Mako Tsunami, et al.) and some of Yugi’s (Arkana, Strings, et al.), as well as even some of Bakura’s fair (the aforementioned Bonz), you take the place of Ishizu in the finals after defeating her, and then Kaiba (which brings into question how he would still be in the Tournament).

Long story short, the final duels end up being you against Yugi and Kaiba against Marik.  Unsurprisingly, you defeat Yugi and then go on to duel, of all people, Marik (who would have guessed?)! By this time, however, you have both Obelisk and Slifer, so this duel should be a piece of cake, right?


Now, don’t get me wrong, if you follow the strategy as listed above, you should be fine. Do not, for any reason, allow Marik to get three monsters on the field or he will summon the Winged Dragon of Ra.  And thanks to the giant God Chicken’s ability, it’s an OTK every time.

But nonetheless, you defeat Marik and break destiny into a million tiny little pieces…and then Ishizu asks you to give back the Egyptian God cards so she can seal them away again.


She didn’t make Yugi do it in Season 2, why would she do it to me? Oh, because I’m not the mystical Pharaoh of Legend and thus can’t handle their combined strength? Oh, please!  If you’re putting this up as a self-insert fanfic bonanza, you really shouldn’t avert the trope now!  At the ending of all places!

But in the end, this game really isn’t worth it.  Grinding for a few hours and then pummeling your enemies into submission does not show skill, it shows OCD.  It’s easy, yes, but only if you’re willing to go the World of Warcraft route and level up to use cards, thereby getting new cards and leveling up to use those cards, and so on and so forth until you can pretty much just walk through everyone.

You’re either bored by how easy it is or burned out by all the grinding, and either way I’m pretty sure that this game is not good.  And I’m especially sure you’d get more enjoyment by setting the game cartridge on fire.

"Yu-Gi-Oh! The Sacred Cards" is available from Konami for the Nintendo Game Boy Advance.

Friday, September 6, 2013

MadCap's Game Reviews - "Neverwinter Nights 2"

I swear, I don’t know how it is that fate sees me writing up reviews on so many sequels rather than the first entry into a game series.  Dead Space 2, Fable III, Dragon Age II...I mean, by this point, it’s almost a running joke – especially since I’ve reviewed NONE of the predecessors of any of those three in particular.  So, let’s chuck another onto the pile, shall we?

Here’s Neverwinter Nights 2, a game that runs on the 3.5 edition rules of Dungeons and Dragons (more or less), made by Obsidian Entertainment and published by Atari.  This is a fairly drastic change from the previous game, which was developed by BioWare, and went by the Third Edition Rule Set of D&D – again, more or less – a change that manifests itself in a number of ways.  And, for the record, this will not be a review of any of the expansions that have come out for the game (i.e. Mask of the Betrayer, Storm of Zehir, etc.) mostly because I don’t have them and I haven’t played them (and, y’know, fodder for the future as well).  Still, the game should be able to stand up on its own merits, after all…

I will say this for it, NN2 is actually very enjoyable all on its own, which is helped because the game only vague refers to the events of the first one.  You get some vague mentions of the Wailing Death and of the war with Luskan – neither of which seems to have affected Neverwinter that much, but we’ll get to that – and then mentions the a War with the “King of Shadows” that oddly wasn’t even mentioned in the previous game despite being some big event.

Seriously, I know that the switch between studios means things got shuffled around, but c’mon guys! Continuity!
Did Nasher think the symbol of the genocidal lizard lady was just that awesome?
Of course, you don’t actually start in the city of Neverwinter, but actually in the never-before-mentioned village of West Harbor in the Mere of Dead Men (which is an actual place in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, before you start laughing).  As a young man/woman in the care of an old elf ranger who is very Spock in his ways, you enjoy a tutorial level of a quaint little village fair…which is immediately juxtaposed when the Plot finds the village that night.  After saving the place – sort of – your foster father sends you into the swamps to dick around with some lizardmen and find a magic shard of unknown origin, telling you to take it to the city of Neverwinter.

Like pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons, you can choose between several different races.  These include your usually vanilla D&D stock of humans, elves, dwarves, half-elves, halfings, half-orcs, and gnomes; as well as several subraces for the non-humans of all kinds, including the plane-touched – which are basically humans that have either demon or celestial ancestry.  Each race has its own pros and cons to playing it.  Top tip, if you’re just starting out in the D&D world and have no idea what you’re doing – human fighter is not a bad race/class combination to go with.  They are generally the first one’s hit by newbies in pen and paper D&D and are about the easiest to play.
Behold and be transfixed by the variety!

Which brings us to classes.  Now, while the expansions add more base classes, NN2 only gives the basic allotment of Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Wizard, and Warlock…wait, what?  Yes, apparently, the game decided to throw in another basic character class that isn’t in the Player’s Handbook for 3.5 Edition.  Now, I’ve never played a Warlock in actual pen and paper D&D (mainly because I’ve never even seen a copy of “The Complete Arcane”), but as far as NN2 goes…they’re nothing to write home about.  Sure, they don’t have the limitations that wizards and clerics do about preparing spells and don’t have the limited number of spells that sorcerers and bards do, but they are easily outclassed by pretty much anyone else of an equal level.

I’m sure if you stat them out appropriately, they become pretty powerful, but who has the time to micromanage?

There’s also a variety of tasty Prestige classes, some of which are very easily gotten to (a fighter or barbarian can qualify for Frenzied Berserker almost right off the bat) and some not so much (5 ranks of Survival to play a HARPER AGENT?! THAT’S NOT EVEN A BARD SKILL!!!!).  But, as with the races, the classes all provide their own flavor and variety of pros and cons.

Not to be dissuaded by this, when I first played I had taken my own advice (after starting up a sorcerer and failing miserably far too often for my own enjoyment) and had started up a human fighter.  Thus, it only seemed fitting to bring back to life my noble warrior of Chaotic Good ali – oh, did I not mention alignments? In Dungeons & Dragons, for the uninitiated, you have alignments that determine how much of a goodie-good or how much of a complete asshole your character is.  

However, generally, PCs tend to be within the good or neutral alignments.


However, don’t pay too much mind to it, as it has next to no real impact on the game besides either people being utterly terrified of you/singing your praises and either giving you or not giving you things that you want or need.  I will say that chucking a few Skill points into your Diplomacy, Bluff, and Intimidate skills would not be bad regardless of whatever class you pick, as all of them are immensely useful in dialogue.  It’s actually really hilarious and I would almost recommend picking Chaotic Evil and picking every dialogue option that makes you out to be a supremely evil, uncaring jackass. It’s hilarious, especially later on when the game has to contrive a way to keep the plot going.

Anyway, as I said, my noble warrior with aspirations of knighthood once more came back into being.  He felt a bit incomplete, however, so I made the logical opposite – a Lawful Evil Tiefling Wizard/Pale Master.  In their parallel universes, the two set off on their journeys and its gone pretty well so far, so who am I to complain?

One might notice I haven’t gone too much into the actual gameplay mechanics and have instead talked for about seven paragraphs on just what has been adapted from the pen and paper D&D.  That’s mostly because…well, there’s not much to talk about.  If you’re a fighter, you click on a target and you’ll hit them repeatedly until they die.  Unless you’re playing a spellcaster class, combat becomes very quickly uninvolving, something that the first game also suffered from. You select your target and watch your character charge forth to deal out the pain, yawn-o-rama.
"Sarah Connor?"

Now, when you’re playing a spellcaster class – such as my wizard – the combat becomes…slightly more involving.  A neat little trick is that you can pause the game, survey the battlefield, and act accordingly.  However, there’s really no strategy involved.  Again, select target and wail on them until they die – necking health potions as needed.  That works for both melee and ranged attacks, oddly enough.  The pause feature is useful, too, for mages as it allows you to work out where best to cast your summon fiery apocalypse spell (okay, that’s not what it’s called, but it’s close to that).

But that’s so far as combat goes. Other characters in your party are controlled by the A.I., which you can set on your own – with sometimes hilarious results – and you can have up to three other people at a time without cheating.  Throughout Act II, you’ll get an additional member of the group, but apart from that you’ll be pretty much stuck with your three (again, unless you cheat).  Like any good D&D party, it’s best to have a well-balanced group.  Let’s say, a fighter, a mage, a cleric, and a rogue, or some variation thereupon.  Like any actual D&D party, you probably are going to have many situations where that won’t be the case.  Including some companion quests where you’ll be required to have one of them tag along and they’ll force their way into one of the party slots.

As for the characters who serve as your companions (replacing the apparently derogatory term ‘henchmen’ from the first NN), they all have their own personalities and backstories of one sort or another. Some of them were cut from the game for the sake of time, but several remain and a lot of them are worth getting into (like Khelgar’s) or are gotten through during the actual plot unless you’re just a complete dick (like Elanee’s).  They range from the psychotic to the bizarre, from the noblest of good to the most baby strangling varieties of evil, and it’s up to you to arrange and equip them as you see fit.
Seriously, Nasher, why did you pick this as your symbol? She tried to flash fry you all!

Which brings me to what is really my only gripe about the inventory system – why does everything take up the same amount of space?  You have four “pockets” in your pack, each of which can carry a multitude of items in slots.  My question is why does a shard of metal that’s barely bigger than my thumb take up the same amount of space as my greatsword of mass evisceration +7?  This isn’t like in the first game, when you actually had to do a fair amount of inventory Tetris to get your items to fit if you started picking up every little thing.

Oh, and there’s an influence system with companions too that I had forgotten to mention.  It’s basically in having to play within their alignments (which will almost assuredly have you lose influence with other members of your party of opposing alignments unless you have all of one type) with quest decisions and other choices to assure that they won’t turn on you in the final battle against the King of Shadows.

Which brings me to the actual storyline.  Like any really well-crafted D&D campaign, it has layers and layers of complexity and several different plotlines running together and apart all at once.  The player gets involved after the attack on West Harbor, getting a shard of a Githyanki silver sword that was once used to defeat the King of Shadows.  However, the Githyanki were heading the attack on the village because they want the sword back.  In the meantime, it is learned that Black Garius – a mage in Luskan – is gathering together several Shadows Priests, servants of the King of Shadows.  It’s revealed that the King of Shadows wasn’t defeated at the battle at West Harbor, but was only delayed in his return.  And on top of all this, the players has to contend with the crazed warlock Ammon Jerro, who was the one to defeat the King of Shadows before, trying to recover all the shards of the Silver Sword before they can.

And that’s just Act One.

When I say it takes up the length of a whole campaign, I can honestly say that it does.  I definitely enjoy the story and seeing how Neverwinter and the lands surrounding it have developed after the first NN game (though I’m wondering why Lord Nasher’s chief knights are using the symbol of Morag as their own now).  I’m not big on the combat, though the interface is about as simplistic as you can get, with handy quick slots allowing you to bookmark specific items, spells, and even skills and feats for use at literally the click of a button (and, as the game reminds you, there are 120 per character so don’t be stingy!).

The combat can drag on for a while, especially later on in the game against opponents with ludicrously high Armor Class and taking damage like you’re attacking them with a rusty spoon instead of a Sword of Complete and Utter Kick-Ass +5.  But, and this is nothing against the game really, but it lacks the vital component of D&D that’s just sitting down with a bunch of your friends and cracking jokes and kicking butt.  But, of course, if you get this game then that isn’t what you come to it for.  As a single player RPG, it’s great.  Stylistically different from its predecessor, Neverwinter Nights 2 shines brightly as a gem of the genre. My gripes about the combat and the inventory aside, I say give it a whirl if you're a fan.

Neverwinter Nights 2 is available for PC from Obsidian and Atari.