Having now finished both halves of Trails in the Sky I feel it is a game that does very little new, but does almost everything incredibly well and with enough charm and character that it is consistently enjoyable to play and highly engaging. I have explained in previous articles how its escalation of scale from small personal problems to an ultimately nationwide threat is well-paced (over around 60-80 hours of gameplay across two games) and turned into a key piece of character development. What is more, the personal aspects (which are what make the game memorable) are very well-woven into the main plot; characters appear in sidequests and then become plot-significant, for example. In a game where a good amount of the story is about trying to work out from zero information what is going on, having the NPCs feel like they are people living lives and carrying out plans that intersect with the party’s travels is a good, immersive touch.
NB: This review touches on plot details from Trails in the Sky SC and FC, and discusses the game’s themes and storyline in some depth.
I have not played Games Workshop games for quite some time; the latest rules revisions of both Warhammer Fantasy Battle (now rebranded Age of Sigmar) and Warhammer 40,000 were not to my taste. It is fair to say my initial negativity towards Age of Sigmar has softened somewhat as subsequent updates and revisions have added more to it and addressed my initial complaints – however, while it has become a solid, basic wargame with a quite distinct aesthetic it remains a game I would not choose over the various competitors on the market (and I do question whether it being introduced as a wholesale replacement for the very different WHFB was the best course of action). Nevertheless, I have been following GW‘s shifting strategy as a company and I think they are going some way to improving; while their prices remain comparatively high, they are introducing bundles like the “Start Collecting” sets which seem sensibly put-together and represent a significant discount over buying things individually. Similarly a return to boxed games and the rumoured return of “Specialist Games” ranges like Blood Bowl seem to be reflective of what consumers have asked for, and so it is heartening to see a positive shift in direction.
Note: This article contains details of the ending and story of Trails in the Sky First Chapter, and should probably be read only by people who have played the game or do not mind knowing its story.
When I began playing Trails in the Sky FC I was impressed by its small scale and sense of unwilling, unusual escalation; it was a game that, I felt, very well justified its game mechanics of levelling up and gaining rewards through diligent searching for secondary objectives by framing the entire story as an extended examination. The two main characters were being tested, sent on a series of journeys to cities which as a quest was completely secondary to the main plot. A lot of games have their heroes put into the main plot by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or through a mission which changes parameters as the “real” villain shows themselves. In many ways, Sky does this, but does it in a subtle and charming way that, I feel, quite credibly justifies why the unlikely heroes continue being heroes.
One of the things I like most about the board game Archipelago is its hidden-identity mechanic; it feels distinct from other hidden-identity games in a way that only Dead of Winter comes close to. Each player has a unique game-end condition as well as a loyalty; one may or may not be a traitor, but each action must be weighed against the possibility that it will end the game. Each game-end condition is itself paired with a scoring condition – as the game is purely competitive, there is not purely a shared, known victory condition, but numerous ways to score of which only a few are known. Thus the uncertainty comes in knowing only a small proportion of the scoring conditions, and the remainder must be learned from reading how the other players act.
Red 7 is a compelling card game, a fast-playing skill-based numbers game that offers a number of variants in the box to bring it from a simple family game to something slightly more complex. It falls within the set of quick games that are not quite fillers or party games, but which nevertheless only take half an hour or so to play – games like Traders of Osaka, Splendor, The Game and Code of Nine which have enough complexity to satisfy experienced boardgamers, but simple enough rules and a short enough playtime to fit easily into an evening between games.
Traders of Osaka, a rethemed reissue of Traders of Carthage, is a comparatively light economic game with an enjoyable strategic depth behind concise and easily taught rules. It uses multiple purpose cards in several roles, minimising the array of components in a similar fashion to Glory to Rome, which is a design decision that can – as it does here – efficiently communicate a lot of information. If a card has multiple potential uses, any given draw will add that number of tactical options and so the market manipulation aspects of Traders are given complexity beyond chasing high value cards. The game also offers the potential for players to recover well from errors; unless a large number of mistakes are made in succession, a single setback is unlikely to completely put a player out of contention. Perhaps its greatest strength, though, is its use of open information to give players a lot of control over the game state and play strategically – while also making apparently hostile moves potentially profitable.
These are the next five games in my Top 15 of 2015; again, there is no weighted or ranked order given, these are merely the games which I most enjoyed playing and would most recommend.
Black Closet is an unusual game; it is a dice-based investigation game with a heavy resource management aspect and a hidden traitor mechanic that give it the overall feel of a board game like Dark Moon or Battlestar Galactica. The joy of those board games is the way in which hidden information and personal agendas turn routine resource-management in the face of an increasingly punishing deck of crises into an experience of memorable personal stories of betrayal and deception. Simulating this with an AI on its own would be dull, as there is no capacity to “read” people or utilise social aspects. What Black Closet does is add the aspects of game design that a computer game excels at – narrative. Each crisis in Black Closet is framed with flavour text and different “actions” met with in-character responses. In one case, the suspect may break at the first sign of pressure while in another they may remain defiant to the end. Similarly, the ways in which the player must find the traitor include moments of character interaction, inviting suspects for interviews under social guises. Although it is largely randomly generated, Black Closet has a lot of character to it and an engaging mixture of gamist elements (in the assignment of “workers” to “actions”) and narrativist elements (choosing friends, pursuing relationships, acting thematically). One could convert it easily to a board game – it wears its mechanics plainly on its sleeve, and one could generate a deck of crises the size of Battlestar‘s, and a deck of social challenges to rival Dead of Winter‘s Crossroads deck, but in many ways the substitution of social interaction with visual novel narrative makes it unique.
What sets Splatoon apart from almost every other multiplayer arena shooter is its ability to follow through on inoffensiveness. It is worth noting that for the longest time the defence of shooter games against accusations of normalising violence was they they were clearly simulated and distanced from real conflict, their lack of realism and their competitive, sporting nature what made them incomparable with real war. This is not easy to rationalise with a movement in gaming towards ever more realistic weaponry, locales and political focus. The stories being told and the medium of the telling were unrealistic, but the visual trappings were realistic which, in my mind, undermines the claims that it is fantastical. And, indeed, if one is to believe that playing a game of war is harmless sporting competition, and that sporting competition wears the visuals of real conflict, there is an alarming association. By contrast, Splatoon offered nothing but play and sport. It at no point framed itself in real weaponry, or real violence, or even the real world. It was creatures playing with toys in friendly, pain-free rivalry. Its settings were sporting arenas and civilian places not bombed out and wartorn but put aside for sport. It did not need technobabble to explain why real bullets and missiles could be fired and the people respawn, it simply said that its focus was on paintballing. One may still argue that the very act of combat games is the product of a militarised society, but everything else about Splatoon suggests that it is prepared to follow through on the claims that shooter games do not depict real war.
N++ is an abstract, pure game of geometric shapes, basic hazards and reflex tests. It is entirely skill-based, predictable and based on the mastery of its systems. As a result it is best described as the distillation of the platform game genre, and possibly even an ur-video game. What, I feel, these archetypal, pared-down games do is offer one extreme of why video games excel as a form of entertainment. Something like Steins;Gate is pure story, something to be immersed in. Something like N++ is pure skill, a reaction test and patience test. In some ways playing it is like work – it does not even have the theme and character of top-tier skill test Bloodborne, it is purely minimalist action. But at the same time it is rewarding in its abstraction. Card games are abstract – they are purely numerical and statistical exercises that do not try to tell a story. Perhaps titles like N++ – which are pure games yet not efforts to recreate physical games or sport-like activities in digital forms – fill that same niche as something like cribbage or whist do for board games?
Tales from the Borderlands
Telltale Games’ library of licensed adventure games, which offer limited interaction yet a strong focus on characters and choices which gives the illusion of far greater choice, can be seen perhaps as a Western analogue to the more popularly Japanese visual novel. They add aspects of first- and third-person action games as well as traditional point-and-click adventures, with reflex-based combat sequences and more freeform exploration, and the whole package is highly entertaining. Tales from the Borderlands is a good example – a spinoff of the comedy shooter series Borderlands, which takes what is arguably its most interesting aspect (the comedy and setting) and puts it into a form that needs a different skill-set to a loot-based FPS. Such reinventions are interesting – there is something of a tension between the heavily skill-based genres of game and the narrativist movement of the medium, and something that expands a series across boundaries is to be praised. What is particularly to Tales‘ credit is how funny it is, and how it does something interesting with the setting; by removing the shooting aspect, it is able to have a protagonist who is ill-suited to the violence inherent to the setting and so much of the comedy is about him trying to avoid conflict.
Yoshi’s Woolly World
Yoshi’s Woolly World is an excellent update of the classic Yoshi’s Island, an entertaining platform game which in its time was notable for its unique hand-drawn art style. Woolly World goes one further, with a hand-crafted aesthetic of everything knitted or sewn, and puzzles and mechanics based around this. Secrets are hidden by loose threads or knots to be untied, the trademark egg is replaced by a ball of wool, and secret items include more balls of wool which allow new characters to be woven. As a platform game it is not necessarily the most innovative, for even its methods of combining aesthetics and mechanics generally fall back on genre staples, but it is exceptionally well-crafted and enjoyable to play – surely enough of an asset. It is one of those games which tightly combines looks, sound and level design to make something which is consistently entertaining and high-quality. If anything, it makes clear the importance of aesthetics in making a game something more than a mere test of pressing buttons with good reflexes; N++ may be the epitome of skill tests, but Yoshi is a very nice piece of visual art.
As 2015 reaches its end, it is time for the annual list feature; fifteen video games I enjoyed playing. These are not in any particular order, because it is impossible to objectively say which I liked more than any other – these are simply the fifteen games I played that were released this year that I would without hesitation recommend. There are several probably conspicuous absences – I have not played high-profile titles like Undertale, Fallout 4, Witcher 3 or Her Story. I am sure if I had played them they may have placed.
The science-fiction author John Scalzi is currently highly regarded and popular within the science-fiction community, and, from reading his novel The Last Colony I can see why. I did not particularly rate The Last Colony myself, for reasons I will try to set out in this review, but at the same time it is by no means a bad book and as a piece of science-fiction I would not hesitate to recommend it to a fan of the genre. Scalzi is a science-fiction writer for science-fiction fans, if this novel is anything to go by; literate within the genre, aware of the pitfalls of writing science-fiction and generally able to avoid them, he writes with an enthusiastic and quite readable prose style that feels like a modern equivalent to the brisk, at times methodical prose of science-fiction greats. The Last Colony is, perhaps, as a result the epitome of the science-fiction novel – and yet as a result hard to recommend to anyone other than diehard fans looking for more solid, unremarkable science-fiction.