Saturday, 22 April 2017

Stories Untold - Review

Developer: No Code
Publisher: Devolver Digital 
Platforms: PC 

A quick glance at the game’s cover and you’ll already know what Stories Untold is going for. You’ve watched Stranger Things, right? Well, if not, go watch it.

Stories Untold is divided up into four interconnected short tales. Genre-wise they fit into that weird cross-over of part sci-fi, part horror and part something else entirely. There’s hints of Lovecraft, a dash of John Carpenter, and a host of other major and minor elements that run throughout the overarching story that glues together each tale.

The game itself is actually expanded from an original, shorter concept. “A House Abandoned” was initially a stand-alone text adventure but now, with some enhancements, serves as the opening episode of No Code’s mini quadrilogy.

It might go some way to explaining why “A House Abandoned” is still the strongest episode here. Concept wise it’s a typical haunted house fare, coupled together with some retro-inspired touches as you play a text-adventure game on your computer whilst sat at a desk.

There’s some spooky atmospherics; lights flicker and go out, the phone rings, you open a door within the game, only to find a door ominously creak open behind you. All the while you’re just stuck at the desk, unable to move. There’s a wonderfully unsettling feeling about playing a character that’s playing a game, or even just someone operating a computer. Go play Her Story if you haven’t, to know what I mean. Maybe it’s the sense of vulnerability that it creates for the player, I’m not sure, but Stories Untold uses that sense of fear to full effect in its first episode.

And the episode knows not to overstay its welcome, either. It creeps along at a strong pace, steadily building up the tension until it’s about to burst. It works because of its simplicity, and by sticking to nothing but a desk, TV and keyboard the game manages to do far more to unsettle the player simply because it’s not trying to juggle too many plates.

The subsequent two episodes, “The Lab Conduct” and “The Station Process”, add on additional elements to the basic text adventure, whilst also delving into other genres. “The Lab Conduct” is the sci-fi horror of the group, with you playing as some nameless test operator at some nondescript lab. I won’t spoil too much in terms of the actually story as it’s the best part here, alongside the first episode.

One of the advantages of video game horror is creating scares and unease through mundanity. You can’t really do this all that well in film, we’re always watching someone act; they’re do something. It doesn’t work all that well in a book either, and whenever either medium attempts to do this kind of horror it always risks genuinely boring the audience/reader rather than terrifying them.

Video games, however, don’t suffer from this problem, and Stories Untold uses that to its full advantage. The opening half of “The Lab Conduct” is doing nothing but tinkering with lab equipment as you conduct some bizarre experiment. It’s unsettling precisely because nothing is happening, but there’s always that eerie threat of what you’re working on, and what could happen. Like with “A House Abandoned”, “The Lab Conduct” cranks up its tension inch by inch, having you turn a dial at one point to boost a frequency to literally crank up the tension, as the machine slowly begins to whine louder and louder. You know something bad is going to happen, and No Code know it too, so they’re going to wring as much out of that basic scenario as possible.

It’s a shame then, that the end of the episode starts to hint at the cracks in Stories Untold structure, and by half way through “The Station Process”, it’s clear that in an effort to expand a simple concept, the game begins to slowly lose its way.

“The Station Process” continues with the mundane horror through its use of obscure puzzles. Radio chatter from your workstation is sometimes unsettling, and you’re left to decode messages whilst someone, or something, would appear to be stalking outside in the blizzard. The episode is not without its highlights but by the end, when the game takes a bizarre left turn into a walking simulator, (and not a particularly good walking simulator at that), it’s hard not to feel like the game has lost what was its primary charm by no longer welding you to one fixed location.

The final episode, “The Last Session” sees the entire game brought full circle. It’s hard to talk about this episode at all without spoilers, but suffice to say the biggest problem is that the game tries too hard to tie its four episodes together into a neat little bow. The ending twist isn’t so much a shock as it is “that’s it?”, with the twist itself being predicted long before the game tries to deliver it with an emotional punch.

The issue here is that by the end of the game, it’s lost all of its weirdness. Operating on some strange throbbing heart in a lab, or exploring an ominous abandoned house whilst also playing a video game are creepy precisely because they’re weird and because there’s not really and context to why you’re doing it. That lack of context is what makes it unsettling. By tying everything together so neatly, too neatly, the game undermines what makes its opening half work so effectively.

There’s other issues here, too, it must be said. Whilst the game tries its hardest to emulate the awkwardness and clunkiness of early text adventure games, it’s sometimes too clunky and obscure even by ‘80s standards. The game rarely seems to grasp synonyms, meaning sequences can grind to a halt as you type multiple different word combinations, waiting for the right to work. And nothing quite kills fear like boredom.

Other puzzles suffer from needlessly obscure elements as well. Part of why “The Station Process” isn’t as good as the previous two episodes is that so much of it involves reading text that’s far to blurry, even when you’ve zoomed into it. There’s a sense it’s deliberately like that just to make these sequences more challenging, except it doesn’t, it just makes them more annoying.

Lastly, whilst I appreciate the nods to Stranger Things and classic ‘80s weirdness, it all feels rather tacked on here. Bar the obvious ‘80s text adventure format, (which the game becomes less and less reliant upon as it progresses), there’s not a whole lot of reason as to why it has that style, other than as a gimmick. With an opening that plays out with a bloopy synth score, it’s clear what the developers were aiming for, but I can’t help but shrug my shoulders and go “so what?”. Stranger Things works because the time and setting are intrinsic to the story being told. By contrast, Stories Untold's nods to ‘80s culture are more like a flavour, a coat of paint, that’s rather inconsequential to the story that it ultimately decides to tell.

It’s hard to actively dislike Stories Untold, primarily because that first episode is so effective and so damn good. It’s hard to dislike the rest of it, too, because there’s some great ideas amidst all the chaff. Stories Untold is a case of a simple concept losing that simplicity as it expands and not being as effective as a result, and no amount of nostalgia pandering is going to cover that up.

At the very least, play through “The House Abandon”. Just prepare for disappointment if you dare to venture any further.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Eternal Card Game - Beta Impressions

I wrote an “impressions” piece last year on Dire Wolf Digital’s Elder Scrolls Legends when it entered open beta. However, it’s not been their only recent attempt at a digital card game. Eternal is just about to leave open beta at the time I write this, so I figured it's a decent time to take a look.

It only takes a quick glance to grasp what Dire Wolf are attempting with Eternal. It’s Magic: The Gathering, with a Hearthstone interface. Ever since its release, Hearthstone has resulted in numerous (usually bad) imitators and copy-cats, hoping to cash in on the free-to-play deck building craze.

Whilst a lot of these games are simply an attempt to make a quick buck on the back of a popular trend, there’s something more to be said about the number of developers working on similar games. Whilst Hearthstone is enjoyable to play, it’s not without a myriad of flaws, and already games like Elder Scrolls Legends, Duelyst and the imminent release of Gwent suggest that, whilst Blizzard might have been the vanguard for the digital card game format, they’ll not be left alone for much longer.

Eternal seeks to copy Hearthstone on the surface. Indeed, its board and overall look and feel smack of a mid-weight clone rather than a serious contender. The hokey fantasy/steampunk art style and bland monsters aren’t really much to get excited about. Visual style can go a long way to setting your game apart (look at Duelyst) and it’s something that Eternal really lacks.

It’s in the card mechanics that things get interesting though. It immediately betrays the fact that it was co-developed by several Magic: The Gathering pros, with  the card pool divided into five colours, or factions in this case. Creatures meanwhile, don’t attack one another, instead only dealing damage to the opposing player, just like in Magic, only fighting each other when the defending player declares which of their creatures is blocking what.

It’s the biggest fundamental change between Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering. Hearthstone is a game of snow-balling an ever-growing advantage, and the abundance of momentum-changing board-sweepers and dramatic swings from one player to another are in part a way to prevent one player from simply accumulating an ever-growing advantage. Magic is a game of inches by comparison, where one play for value, such as playing a combat trick on a creature, can pull the game in your favour. Eternal definitely aims for this subtler, less bombastic approach.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Eternal, coming from a Magic background, is how the developers play with the colour wheel. Time (Yellow), Justice (Green), Shadow (Purple), Primal (Blue) and Fire (Red) each have particular mechanics and overlapping strategies with the other factions, and whilst its easy to look at the five factions and see them as carbon copies of Magic’s system, it’s interesting to note where the developers have made changes.

For instance, Time is the faction of big spells and colour-fixing, allowing you to play more late-game spells as well as dip into other colours for better versatility. Shadow meanwhile, is focused on aggression, with an abundance of its creatures have the Quickdraw mechanic, allowing them to attack before any defenders.

Each of the five factions also has two “official” allied factions (again, a lot like Magic) which make up a number of additional multi-coloured cards. This is arguably where Eternal comes into its own, not necessarily because of the multi-coloured cards themselves, but because a number of the cross-faction mechanics are unique to digital card games.

For instance, Time/Primal, by far the most fun combination, has a number of cards with the ability Echo. When cards with Echo are drawn, you get an additional copy. On the surface this doesn’t look like much, but the number of combinations and tricks you can pull off in a game, repeatedly putting a card back on the top of your deck to get another two copies, is insanely fun. It rewards players for thinking creatively, is powerful (you’re drawing an additional card) and it’s something that only a digital card game can do.

The other notable ability is War Cry, the Fire/Justice crossover mechanic. Cards with War Cry buff the top card of your deck whenever they attack, creating a steady snow-balling advantage that can quickly run away with games if the opponent can’t stem the assault. Again it's a mechanic that is easy to understand, and can only exist thanks to the game's digital nature.

Some of the other abilities are decent but far less notable. Primal and Shadow get Infiltrate, where creatures receive various bonuses provided they’ve hit the opposing player once. Aegis is perhaps the most unbalanced mechanic right about now. It functions similar to Hearthstone’s Divine Shield mechanic, but rather than nullify damage, nullifies the first spell that targets the creature. At the moment it leads to what I’d easily say are the least fun moments in Eternal, creating non-interactive game states where one player suits up a creature with Aegis, sticking buffs and power-ups onto it, only to send it hurtling at the opposing player turn after turn whilst they're helpless to stop it.

Whilst on the topic of non-interactivity, it’s worth touching on the game’s resource system. For some bizarre reason, Eternal has saw fit to emulate Magic’s weakest mechanic here. Decks are made up of 75 cards (Magic would seem to have some copyright claim on 60 card decks), and almost a third of that deck will be made up of sigils of various colours.

Anyone that’s played a game of Magic knows that the worst thing in the world is being land screwed/flooded. And there’s a good reason why it’s so bad; it means you don’t get to play the game. Say all you like about unbalanced, boring or over-complicated rules and cards, they at least let you still play something. Being locked out of even playing a game due to the whims of random chance is frustrating, and the added complexity of having to craft an effective mana base, assessing the correct ratio of colours, number of sigils and so on, don’t outweigh the negatives that come with it.

Eternal is plagued by bouts of non-games, where one player basically doesn’t get to do anything for the first four turns because they get stuck on two sigils and can’t play anything. It’s miserable, and is made worse by the larger deck sizes and, more importantly, due to the games current focus on aggressive, creature-oriented play.

Right now Eternal is a fast game, very fast. Fire, Shadow, Primal and Justice all have abilities that reward attacking, be it War Cry, Infiltrate or Quickdraw. Many games are decided by who can get stick an early threat and either snowball it with War Cry triggers, or tempo the opponent out with cheap removal and evasive threats.

This isn’t a problem in itself. It’s clear from Eternal’s design that it wants games to play out fast and straight to the point. However, when combined with the dated resource system, it can make for some rather frustrating scenarios as one player is left steam-rolled as their opponent tramples them with threats and they don’t get to play anything.

One thing that Eternal does get right however, is the play modes. It’s a generous game. Even after only a handful of hours playing I had six or seven legendaries crafted, and the ability to grind away against the AI for rewards means that players who aren’t satisfied with the daily quests still have something they can do to accrue more cards.

The big addition here, alongside the Forge, which is Eternal’s version of Arena play, is the addition of draft. The game does its best to simulate drafting with other players, with the “packs” you open being packs generated from other players, even though you’re picking cards asynchronously.

This is by far the deepest and most rewarded aspect of Eternal’s gameplay. Drafting is always incredibly fun because, much like a good rogue-like game, it forces players to create strategies out of a degree of randomness. You don’t know what cards you’re going to be passed, so the best player is usually the one with an eye for smart synergies and good card value.

There’s a slight problem at the moment in that only half of the ten potential colour combinations are supported. This means that, whilst Primal/Justice is a feasible combo, it’s going to lack the powerful multi-faction cards of a Fire/Shadow or Primal/Time deck. That being said, draft is great, and one of the game elements that sets Eternal apart from the abundant competition.

Overall, in its current shape, Eternal is solid. It lacks a degree of personality, and that’s largely in part due to its bland interface and generic fantasy art. As many more digital card games inevitably get released in the future, I think this is going to be one of the areas that needs to be focused on. A game with a fun art style and unique/creative visuals goes a long way, and currently Eternal just looks forgettable. I'll say it once more, just go look at Duelyst. 

In terms of the gameplay, it certainly scratches that card game itch, and does so without feeling as chaotic and prescribed as Hearthstone frequently does. More importantly, Eternal tries its damn hardest to do something interesting with the fact that it’s a digital card game, building its mechanics around the fact that it’s played on a computer or tablet, rather than with paper cards. Better yet, it does this without sticking the word “random” on every other piece of game text.

So at the very least it's got that going for it.