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May. 20th, 2009

Elven Nationalism Ideology

There are five games in the Fantasy Wars series and I have already covered the first one - Fantasy Wars. This time I am going to review the Fantasy Wars successor, Elven Legacy.

Elven Legacy - There Will Be Blood

Fantasy Wars established itself as a very intelligent wargame with a memorable story and lovable heroes. Elven Legacy continues the tradition, but brings exiting innovations and is quite different from the original. One thing found its way to the sequel unaltered - the game mechanics which made the game so amiable in the first place.

As can be derived from the title, the game story pivots around the Elf folk. The noble Elves were introduced back in Fantasy Wars as one of the playable races of the Alliance Campaign. Instead of having a full-blown army of mighty Elves, we were served only a few Elven units and had to rely on a Dwarven-Elven-Human vinaigrette overall. This time around it's going to be Elves exclusively, new types of units come into play.

Elven army can't boast with heavily armored units ready to charge in and meet an enemy face to face, it rather depends on light soldiers to move fast and deliver deadly strikes from the cover of a forest. Almost every unit has its stats increased when positioned in the forest. The biggest highlight of the Elven army is the airforce. The airships, after gaining some experience and reaching new levels, can be taught one of the most powerful abilities seen in the whole game - an areal bombing attack of an immerse power. Overall, Elven army is incredibly mighty, it can move fast, withstand the most overwhelming attacks and smite their enemies with almost no effort at all. No other race can stand up to such power, but a lot will try. This brings us to the story of blood, murder and intrigues.

First of all, the storytelling device has been given a delicate facelift - the game became nonlinear. While advancing through the story, you will face several bifurcations and will have to pick one of the suggested paths. There are always no more than two choices, two different levels to select from. For example, you can decide to sneak your army though a forest or march on a plain. There are only three occurrences of a story fork, and no matter which route you take, major events will not be affected in any way. In general, this feature increases the replay value of the game, if only a bit. Nonlinearity doesn't end there though.

Elven Legacy also boasts with two various endings. Sadly, the decisions made prior to the final level do not affect the story outcome. Instead, it is possible to lean towards one ending or another two turns before completing the game. Peeking ahead, only one turn of events is supported by the story told in the forthcoming games. Developers could have came up with separate storylines in the future, each following one of the finales (actually, they will even use the literally device suitable for the purpose for one of the add-ons). A great idea, but too bothersome to implement, no doubt, seeing as the Fantasy Wars saga is enormous and several independent scripts co-existing in all the future games could have led to a mess.

Another new feature is how side stories are treated. There is only a single campaign, wholly devoted to the Elves, but still, it's possible to lay the Elven army aside and play Dwarves (leading Dwarnrock), Humans (assuming the role of two different commanders, Magister Brennock and King Victor, a level for each) and Orcs (returning to the lovable Ugraum). We've already seen such a storytelling technique in Fantasy Wars when, during the course of the Alliance Campaign, we got to lead Ugraum, the unbreakable leader of the Orcs. Back then it was a mandatory level, while now every secondary story is treated as a Bonus. Such levels can be completely ignored, their only purpose is to cover the story in depth or to just let you take a break from a pointy-eared folk.

And finally, lets take a peek at the story itself. It introduces two new heroes, Gylven, a powerful sorceress of the Order of Watchers, and Lord Sagittel, a legendary warrior, skilled with a bow and sword, the protector of Quendaylon's forests. After the events of Fantasy Wars, Teya has ordered Gylven to watch over the Sumgan stronghold and the lands surrounding it. A wise precaution. One evening Gylven reports to her mistress that a Human mage was able to sneak into Sumgan and used a powerful sorcery to escape afterwards. Without knowing what secrets the intruder was able to steal, Teya decides to send Sagittel to aid Gylven. Together they have to chase the escapee. The mage must be stopped at all cost. The Elven knowledge he stole can't fall into the wrong hands!

On the whole, the featured story is enjoyable. It's not something you haven't heard somewhere before, but is far from boring. In the end, I found it solid with the exception of one moment. The following paragraph might be regarded as a spoiler, so you can chose to skip it.

Gylven and Lord Sagittel set off on their chase after the thieving mage. Sagittel is not only a skilled fighter, but also a sage. He lived long enough to see the rise and fall of his race, but remained strong thanks to his sturdy beliefs. Sagacious Elf cares a great deal about the future of his kind, but doesn't acknowledge violence as the way to establish that future. He turns to arms only if there is no other way to be found. That's why his men are following him, they wholly rely on their leader and admire him. Gylven is a different case. She is devious and will stoop to anything in order to have everything play in her favor. It's a well known fact that in almost every relationship there is a master and a slave. Between Gylven and Sagittel, we clearly see the latter is the slave. The sorceress tells beautiful lies to her companion, turning him into a toy short of will power. She draws a wonderful future where Elves regain their former glory. Sagittel, fast to forget about his owner principles, blindly follows Gylven, killing everyone on their path. A touching story and a believable one if only it wasn't to the events of the final battle. Without an apparent reason, Lord Sagittel starts having doubts so very late. He already passed the Rubicon long time ago, and one could only wonder how is it even possible for him to reconsider. You, together with Sagittel, have to decide to either carry on helping Gylven or turn against her. This sudden change of heart after the massacre which was Sagittel's adventure, is barely plausible. What is even worse is that, even though an option, helping Gylven is not treated as the right solution. The history tells how Sagittel turned against his own long-time companion and prevented the appearance of yet another evil. He became a wanted outcast in the end nonetheless, but still, who cares?

Regardless the unconceivable moment in the story (someone might think differently of it), Elven Legacy is a unique game, dare I say, a masterpiece. The storytelling technique is fresh, the gameplay is undoubtedly perfect, the heroes and almost every single unit are graphic. I consider this title to be even greater than its predecessor. Remember that it's a stand-alone expansion, and the original game is not required to play it. You sure would miss on a story though.

Apr. 15th, 2009

Sidetracked to a Fantasy World

I was planning to devote myself to playing AGS games for at least a month, but got sidetracked.

While browsing for games to buy, I stumbled upon the Gold Edition of Fantasy Wars. I was aware that the title was well-received by both, the press and players, but never had a chance to play it. I was greatly enthused over the find and thought it would be the perfect specimen for my vast video game collection. Unfortunately, I decided to install and run the game, just to check if it was as exciting as everyone else thought it to be.

The game sucked me right in and didn't let go for three long evenings. After completing it (only the original Fantasy Wars), I felt horribly tired. Not only I barely got to sleep, but also struggled to have a single normal meal during the hours I spent playing. So captivated I was.

Quick Reference

Fantasy Wars was developed by Ino-Co, a Russian video game development company, a subsidiary of one of the biggest (if not the biggest) Russian video game publishing companies - 1C. It is a turn-based tactical wargame boasting with a fairly deep story set in a fantasy world.

Up to this moment there have been five Fantasy Wars titles released, but only two of them were translated to English - Fantasy Wars and Elven Legacy. Gold Edition includes all five games in their original language (Russian).

Following is the list of all the games in the series.

Full length games:

* Fantasy Wars (original title: Кодекс войны) - Russian release: August 31, 2007. EU release: November 7, 2007.

* Elven Legacy (original title: Кодекс войны: Высшая раса) - Russian release: December 21, 2007. US release: April 7, 2009. EU release: April 9, 2009. This is a stand-alone expansion (doesn't require the original game).

Small add-ons (all of these require either Fantasy Wars or Elven Legacy CD to play):

* Кодекс войны: Рейнджеры (no official English title, translated as Fantasy Wars: Rangers) - Russian release: March 14, 2008.

* Кодекс войны: Осада (no official English title, translated as Fantasy Wars: Siege) - Russian release: June 20, 2008.

* Кодекс войны: Магия (no official English title, translated as Fantasy Wars: Magic) - Russian release: December 26, 2008.

Fantasy Wars - Welcome to the World of Illis

In the original game there are three campaigns: Human Campaign, Orc Campaign and Elf Campaign (actually, it's called the Alliance Campaign). The latter one is unlocked upon completing the first two, no matter the order.

The story is not particularly original, but is interesting and detailed well enough to keep you captivated. There are two distinct conflicts: Humans versus Orcs and Alliance versus the ultimate evil (represented by the demon Farrakh). Orc and Human campaigns occur within the same time frame with most battles taking place at the same areas. Even so, the fights are never identical because Ugraum Grableg and Derrick Pfeil, the Orc and Human commanders, never got to clash with each other on the battlefield. After uniting the independent Orc tribes, Ugraum leads his enormous army to conquer Humans. Derrick is following the Orc leader's path of destruction, trying to regain control of the land.

It's loads of good fun to first hear about Orc invasion (it's better to start with the Human Campaign, however not mandatory), but then actually get to lead the unstoppable Orc army and relive the stories. At the end of the Orc Campaign you see a glimpse of things to come in the Alliance Campaign and are introduced to the evil force thirsty for power.

The Alliance Campaign is a different breed as it is not related to the Orc-Human conflict. The Alliance story starts with a group of Elves going on a quest to find a magic relic, and ends up with Human-Elven-Dwarven conjunction saving the world from an ancient force of evil. To add even more spice, someplace in the middle of the campaign you get to play Orcs again. This way the fate of Ugraum Grableg after the final events of the Orc Campaign is revealed - not a written message, not a cut scene, but a whole playable level. This is how the things roll in Fantasy Wars.

No matter which campaign, you start with only a few units under control. As the game progresses, the army grows bigger. Every unit surviving one battle, can be deployed in the next one. It is possible to buy new units or upgrade the existing ones using the money acquired during the conquest. The further in campaign, the more unit types are unlocked. All of the unit types have their own specific weaknesses and strengths. Some are good at defending city streets, others are more deadly when under cover of a forest. The variety is shocking - Humans, for example, have two various types of archers (not including the upgraded versions of them two). The crossbow archers are good at taking on the heavily armored units, and the longbow archers are priceless against the light units. The game pushes you to analyze the environment and learn the units' strong sides. There is no place for brute straight-forward approach, with the smart planning your army can beat a force three times bigger.

Every campaign offers about ten levels, still it can take a vast amount of time to complete one, even on the easiest difficulty setting. While fighting, units cumulate experience and eventually gain a new level. With every new level not only unit's primary attributes are increased, they are also granted a variety of selectable perks. Some of the perks can dramatically change the unit's fighting abilities. If experienced units are defeated due to a bad tactical decision, the chances are the next battle will be lost. Leveling up a new unit demands a lot of time, and without the experience it can't offer much of an assistance on later stages. The game seriously punishes you for losing experienced units and suggests to replay tough situations in order to keep everyone alive.

Each level has a set of goals. Some of them are considered as primary while others - secondary. Upon finishing all the primary goals, the level is complete. In addition to the primary and secondary goals, there are also awards for performance. Most of the time, the performance is judged by how many turns it takes to finish a level (sometimes it is also required to complete some of the secondary objectives). There are three types of awards: Gold, Silver and Bronze. Depending on the award, you are prized by either money, free units or an artifact. Most of the time the Gold Award has it all.

Artifacts can be collected while exploring a level and visiting the places of interest (most of the time it is not mandatory and sidetracks you from the primary objectives) or by receiving either of the awards. Every unit can be equipped with any kind of artifact. Hero units have three artifact slots, while regular units - only one. Artifacts are really important as they bring delicious bonuses.

I finished the Human Campaign on the highest level of difficulty while always gaining the Gold Award (I just had to). It took a vast amount of time. Every time I was losing a single unit or two, I had to revert to an earlier save game and think of a disparate tactics. Sometimes even start the level anew (I think I did it only once though). I was confident the reason behind the heavy time consumption was the high level of difficulty, so, by the time of the Orc Campaign, I grew confident it would be a healthier idea to switch to the lowest difficulty. At first I was relieved as the game appeared much easier. Somewhere in the middle of the campaign I switched to the toughest difficulty again (possible to select before any level), just to compare. To my great surprise, things didn't get that much different. At this point I can't really say there is a world of contrast between the easiest and the hardest levels of difficulty. Just to make it clear, the only difference between the three possible difficulty settings is the level of enemy units. The higher the difficulty level, the higher the level of (only some) enemies.

I spent one whole night playing the Alliance Campaign from start to finish. There were eight levels and it took me about eight hours to finish them. I wasn't checking how long did it take me to beat a particular level, but most of the Alliance Campaign levels are a cake thanks to their non-linear design - almost every time it is possible to uncover a safe route, to stealth your way to the key points while avoiding most of the fights. What got to me was the last level of the campaign. I was trying hard to get the Gold Award, but couldn't even come close to achieving that goal. An interesting thing about the last level is that you can select participating units not only from the pool of Elven/Dwarven army gathered at the start of the campaign, but also the units left after the end of the Human Campaign, with all their original attributes. I really couldn't see that coming and played the final level of the Human Campaign rather carelessly without caring to lose even the best of the best, so sure I was the battle for Humans is over for good. I had plenty of good units still, but found it impossible to succeed in the last level of the Alliance Campaign without completing the secondary objective first. I can't wrap my mind around it - if it is considered a secondary objective, it means it could be possible to leave it out. While in fact it was implausible. And with the secondary objective in the way, there is not enough time to receive the Gold Award.

That being said, I don't consider the game to be difficult over the top, even on the highest level of difficulty. There is just a bit of a learning curve (to understand all the units' abilities) and plenty of try-fail-try-differently situations. There are cases when, even with the most attentive planning, things can go wrong.

Fantasy Wars also has very rich and colorful graphics, nice music and an intuitive interface. This game is as fine as the day is long, and I entirely recommend it to everyone. Keep one thing in mind though - it is HIGHLY addictive.

Some Technical Details

Fantasy Wars doesn't support 16:9 format one hundred percent. The only things which are not supported in widescreen format are the world map, the loading screens - these are stretched incorrectly to fit the screen - and all the in-game cinematics - they are always running in 4:3. Even though everything else is displayed correctly, I could only wonder why developers wouldn't spend just a bit more time and make the game completely compatible with both, 4:3 and 16:9.

Who Crippled Prince of Persia?

It looks like Blue Omega did. Just checked a couple of trailers for their upcoming video game called Damnation.

There are a bunch of videos dedicated to the game, all of them have one thing in common - they show a dull game with an unmemorable lead character and zero new ideas. And yeah, most of the videos feature lifeless zombie-like people who, one way or another, were involved in the production.

Just to have a point of reference, check this trailer out: Damnation, Verticality Trailer.

If a game features a commentary from the production team, I am used to very bright, interesting presentations. For example, all of Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning videos (with commentaries) were fun and exciting to watch. Tim Schafer is pure pleasure to listen to talking about his upcoming game, Brütal Legend. Well, there are plenty of examples.

The video I linked shows two emotionless guys, they don't look too excited about their game, nor do they say anything interesting about their game. They talk about the original take on the gameplay - Damnation takes things "vertical", meaning... well, meaning nothing. The guys on the video explain that there are a lot of places where the controllable character can climb down or up, saying that the it is not just about horizontal exploration. This in fact means that the game doesn't have any edge at all. There are dozens of other titles offering the same thing. Prince of Persia series for one.

Actually, the game does look like Prince of Persia, except it is set in the steampunk universe. The main character of Damnation repeats almost all of the Prince's moves, but he doesn't look like someone who should be able to perform them. He appears clumsy - he jumps like a bag of potatoes and climbs up the ledges as if he had both of his legs broken.

I understand that the game is "work in progress", but there is a month until release (the video is date September 28, 2008) and I don't think they will change a lot. Usually if the trailer is good, the game itself could be good. If the trailer is bad, the game is horrible. I really hope that Damnation is not the last case, only because I love steampunk a lot.

Undead in Japan

Ben Jordan Case 5: Land of the Rising Dead was the first game in the Ben Jordan series I played, it also was the first one I wrote about. Just to be true to the chronological order of the series, I played it again after finishing Ben Jordan Case 4: Horror at Number 50 and am going to re-write the original post a bit, moving it to a later date.

First off, lets take a look at the changes in the Ben Jordan's latest case compared to the previous games in the series. Ben Jordan's portrait has been updated, now it looks more realistic (Deluxe Edition of Ben Jordan Case 1: In Search of the Skunk-Ape featured the updated version as well). To tell the truth, I don't see it as an improvement and think that the original cartoony look of Ben's portrait was more adorable.

Simon Booth and Alice Wilkins, friends Ben made in his previous case, re-appear as the lead characters in this adventure. Simon, as well as Ben, received a new portrait. Once again, I find the original portrait much more appealing. Alice's portrait was very impressive in Horror at Number 50 and it made its way to Land of the Rising Dead unaltered. Her full-size character looks horrible though. Very unattractive, reminded me of a frog.

This is also the first Ben Jordan game that features the re-appearance of some secondary characters from the previous adventures (not counting a brief re-appearance of Percival Quentin Jones in Horror at Number 50). Of all places, Ben manages to meet the coffee shop employer from Ben Jordan Case 2: The Lost Galleon of the Salton Sea in Japan. The guy works as a desk clerk, first at the Yamamoto building and later on - at the TV station. One of several unbelievable details here - the guy doesn't speak any Japanese, but manages to find work as a desk clerk who has to sit in the lobby of a large corporation building. Hardly realistic. His portrait has been reworked as well, and once again I tend to like the original drawing much better, he looked cooler on it.

Another familiar character is Mary Blaine. Even though Mary found her death in Ben Jordan Case 3: The Sorceress of Smailholm, she emerges in Ben's dreams. In those dreams two characters are talking about things worrying Ben. All this happens at Alice's gravestone. Spooky! Mary Blaine's portrait has been upgraded to great esthetic benefit - she looked pretty creepy in The Sorceress of Smailholm.

Graphically Land of the Rising Dead is on the level, the looks was never a problem of the series. Couldn't say the same about the story. Even though the plot seems thorough at a glance, after a while it begins to feel a tad hollow at moments. There are a lot of lines of text and things going on, but still the game story and its characters appear implausible at some extent.

For example, Ben Jordan, the main hero, he is a paranormal investigator by profession. He has several cases behind his belt, and still, even taking his profession and experience in consideration, it just looks so weird when he and his teammates are so fast to believe in the first theory or a proofless explanation they stumble upon. No traces left at the crime scenes - probably ghosts are killing people. Okay, lets find those ghosts. Oh, some guys is confident they were not ghosts, but zombies. Ben swallows the new version pretty fast and is now looking for zombies.

Ben doesn't seem to care what type of force he is against, tending to believe in just about anything without having any proof on his hands. After accepting some theory, he examines the crime scenes, follows what sometimes appears as totally unrelated leads (people dying in a nearby village, located in a different prefecture) and solves the mystery almost by chance. In the previous cases it was a bit different. Ben didn't look that confident if he is dealing with paranormal until he experienced it forehand. He always knew what he was looking for though. This time he is not even sure if something paranormal is involved and is way too open-minded. I bet if someone told him it was a mad toaster on a killing spree, he would have accepted that on the spot and went to investigate mysterious deaths at a factory.

There are plenty of small details which feel very wrong. Alice knows perfect Japanese - she says she learned it in high school. I don't know what high schools (excluding Japanese ones, of course) teach serious Japanese, what I know is that I took introduction Japanese course at the university. The introduction course was split into two semesters spawning over a year. Japanese language is very hard to master and this one year course was concentrated on studying the alphabets. Yes, we learned how to speak Japanese a bit and were able to understand some well articulated phrases, but not more. There were the follow-up courses, of course, but I decided that it would take way too much of my time to devote to learning such a hard language. Alice, on the other hand, gets complemented on how perfect her Japanese is. It would have been much more plausible and naturalistic if Alice knew only some Japanese (and studied it at the university, not high school too) and would only be able to communicate on a simpler level. Yes, that would have been a nice touch.

Flops are sticking out of the story like needles out of Scarecrow's head. Poor villager collecting rare swords (seems and expensive hobby), Ben being the only person who could have thought of fingerprinting a dead person (as he is told by the Inspector). In fact it is not true that Ben Jordan would be the only person to do such a thing, he was simply very lucky to get to the right place at the right time. Something just doesn't feel right about this.

Also, near the end of the game, Simon Booth presents Ben with an invention of his - DoorSucker 2000, a device which is able to unlock doors by sucking in or pushing out their doorknobs. Simon says he came up with it after the fiasco at Number 50. I mentioned this in my review to Ben Jordan Case 4: Horror at Number 50. There was a door which was too difficult to unlock, but Ben smashed open it with a pipe in the end. He smashed and broke a padlock - the only thing keeping the door locked. I can't trace the connection between DoorSucker 2000 operating on doorknobs exclusively and unlocking a padlock...

This only brings us to the biggest flop of all. There is a huge problem with one of the key plot mysteries. It seems like Francisco Gonzalez wanted to make it look smart, but failed to deliver. To be able to explain myself, I will have to reveal the mystery. Read on if you dare. The main idea behind the conspiracy, Ben and his friends found themselves involved in, is that someone creates zombies to use them to carry his will. Now pay attention. The evil guy uses tetrodotoxin to paralyze his victims, making them appear dead for some time. When they wake up, they are so confused that it becomes easy to manipulate them. That explanation is taken from the game. I don't know about you, but it made me uneasy. Let me tell you the story of how hoodoo priests of the Hispaniola island were turning people into zombies. The process consists of two very important steps. First, tetrodotoxin is used to put the victim into a deep death-like sleep - heart rate slows down and breath is hardly noticeable. I feel obligated to mention that most people do not survive the tetrodotoxin intake and die for real, because everyone could react to the same dose in a totally different manner. If the person survives, second step should be followed in order to complete the process. The priests used another remedy - Datura stramonium. This remedy wakes the "corpse" up, but blocks the part of the cerebral cortex responsible for free will. Without the second step there is no zombie. It seems like Francisco wasn't educated enough on the subject and thought tetrodotoxin alone was enough. (A bit of a reality check. Explanation for the zombie ritual could be the following. Tetrodotoxin paralyzes the body for a short period of time, making someone appear dead. After a short while a person "returns to life". Datura stramonium is a strong hallucinogen, it could help the victim of the ritual to believe that he has been turned to zombie.)

If you can close your eyes on the forementioned weak plot elements, my bet is you will enjoy the adventure. It is somewhat trashy and resembles that of an old cheap horror movie. Evil genius with an idea of domination , that sort of thing. This is hardly a minus as it makes the game more fun. The game, much like the previous one, offers just a few puzzles and revolves around conversations, but this time it's not that boring.

Furthermore, Land of the Rising Dead is the second title in the series to feature alternative routes. But this time it's much less satisfying. If in The Sorceress of Smailholm the routes featured a bunch of different locations and various endings. Both routes in Land of the Rising Dead lead to one possible ending. The only difference between the routes is the level of difficulty. One is very easy, another is... also easy, but pushes the player to think just a bit.

Ben Jordan Case 3: The Sorceress of Smailholm still remains my favorite game in the series. With a bit more effort Ben Jordan's fifth case could have been a real gem. There were no publishers breathing down the developer's neck, no time limits, so, I guess he thought the game was perfect as it is.

I'd like to point out that I enjoyed playing this game, but found myself shuddering at the thought of plot having several unconvincing moments, which could have been avoided with ease. All in all, Ben Jordan Case 5: Land of the Rising Dead is surely the game to check out. It boasts with a decent length, very funny game show, which Ben has to participate in, and a memorable story with a couple of sudden twists.

Apr. 9th, 2009

It's Haunted, All Right

It's time to write about another Ben Jordan adventure, Ben Jordan Case 4: Horror at Number 50. This case leads Ben to a haunted house where he, together with his brothers-in-arms - people in the paranormal investigation business, - gets a chance to come face to face with an evil spirit. In the end, the evil is perished and Ben finds good friends.

The plot of Horror at Number 50 is relatively good, even if not that original. Still, I wouldn't say that this is the best of Ben Jordan cases. The problem with the game is that it features an extremely dull gameplay.

Most of the time Ben will have to venture into the same rooms and talk to the same people over and over again. I have nothing against extensive conversation, heck, The Moment of Silence is one of my favorite games only because it boasts with long conversations. Sadly, Ben's fourth case consists of almost nothing but conversations, and they are not good enough to keep things fresh and interesting. Other than talking, there is jack shit to do - no exploration (we get to see the most of the house from the start) and just a few inventory puzzles.

On another matter, the plot has a few inaccuracies and unbelievable moments. For example, the events take place in London, England and Ben is hired by an Englishman. In UK, like in a lot of other European countries, the bottom floor of the building is called the "ground floor" most of the times. And still, Ben's employer refers to the top floor of the four-storey building as the "fourth floor". I can't imagine this happening really. A normal Englishman would have called it the "third floor", because the first floor only comes after the ground floor. In North America though, this is totally different, and the bottom floor is in fact called the first. Francisco Gonzalez, the developer of the game, is American, so he didn't think of this matter. This is sad, cause such small details can make the game more believable.

As for the other weak points, the most unbelievable thing is probably that Ben Jordan manages to break a padlock with a piece of pipe (sorry, but this is hardly a spoiler, the game is really easy). Mr. Miggs, the owner of the house, told that he summoned locksmiths on several occasions, but they were unable to pick that lock. And here comes Ben - why pick the lock if you can break it with a metal pipe? Yeah, locksmiths were too dumb to try that, they only thought of lockpicking. Details, details, everything is in those tiny details. Get them wrong and the whole opinion of the game could be spoiled.

The game still manages (barely) to keep it interesting enough to suffer through the repetitive gameplay to see it to the end. Not the title I would be too fast to recommend, but a nice addition to the series, nonetheless.

There is one very positive thing about the Horror at Number 50 - the interface has been finally re-designed. Everything in the game looks harmonic now.

Look at Them Float!

I continue expressing my opinion on Ben Jordan adventure game series. Just to sum up a bit. Case 1: In Search of the Skunk-Ape (both, original and the Deluxe Edition) was a complete atrocity. Case 2: The Lost Galleon of the Salton Sea was pretty good, but a bit boring.

This time I am going to write about Ben Jordan Case 3: The Sorceress of Smailholm. Well, without further introduction, I would like to say that this game is the best of all the Ben Jordan games I've played so far. It tells a story about a Witch Cult and a story of love. It's definitely not The Lost Crown: A Ghost-Hunting Adventure, but is extremely good and deeply satisfying!

The Sorceress of Smailholm has it all: good graphics, logical puzzles and a swift storyline. There is almost nothing to dislike about this title, but still there are at least two things I found disappointing (if only a bit).

First of all, the game is extremely easy. As it came out in the end, there are two different endings, lets call them the "complete ending" and the "incomplete ending". The first time I played I managed to get the top score and see the "complete ending".

When the game is completed, there is a question Ben asks himself, the question which remained unanswered. The game suggests that player can chose a different path and see a different turn of events. Let me remind you, this happens if you score the maximum points and get the "complete ending".

Lucky for me, I had several saved games and I pretty much guesses where it is possible to take another route. I played the game to the end again, scoring much less points, just to see that Ben has even more questions.

So, no matter what ending you reach, one question goes unanswered. The question, which I really wanted to know the answer to. It's safe to say that this is the most important question in the game. I kinda felt cheated after being told that alternative turn of events could give additional answers. There are in fact no additional questions answered if Ben takes another route and comes to the "incomplete ending". I am not going to articulate this question, as it will spoil all the fun you would have playing the game. If you already did so, you probably know what I am mumbling about. Well, Francisco Gonzalez promises that the question will be answered in Ben's last case. This detail adds a nice touch to the series, creating anticipation.

Once again, I totally recommend Ben Jordan Case 3: The Sorceress of Smailholm to any adventure game lover.

Apr. 8th, 2009

Cure for Madness

It is really surprising how Francisco Gonzalez managed to recover from the piece of shit that was Ben Jordan Case 1: In Search for the Skunk-Ape with the follow-up title in the series, Ben Jordan Case 2: The Lost Galleon of the Salton Sea. The game is funny and the plot, even though a bit boring, lacks the stupidity of the predecessor.

Case 2 looks exactly like the original release of the Case 1. It has the same ugly thick gray frames around all the dialogue messages (I don't understand why the frames used for character portraits were not utilized for dialogues as well, they look very neat) and the same horrible blue game menu which is not harmonic with the rest of the game looks. Nonetheless, the game is visually appealing, but what is most important, the story is tenable.

The sad part is that the length of Ben Jordan's second case is only moderate at best. Without a doubt, it is much longer than that of the Skunk-Ape case, but still is very humble, considering all the game puzzles to be extremely easy. I haven't found a single puzzle which I didn't know how to solve right away. This also brings me to another matter.

This title, like all the games in the series, makes use of the scoring system. Depending on the puzzle, it is possible to get from 2 up to 8 points, if I am not mistaken (not including the final puzzle, which gives 20 points). What makes me wonder is how exactly were the puzzles appraised. They all extremely easy to solve and I couldn't say some solution was harder to come up with than the other. In my opinion it would have been much realistic to give every action advancing the plot a single point instead of assigning, what looked like, random values.

If I wouldn't recommend Ben Jordan's first adventure to anyone, Ben Jordan Case 2: The Lost Galleon of the Salton Sea is a game that every adventure game lover would probably enjoy. Even though you will have to spend almost half of the game making moonshine vodka, the game still introduces a pretty solid plot and even can provide you with a couple of good laughs. There is a reference to Sean Connery (well, his character in the Medicine Man movie), a mockery of the Starbucks chain and some other funny stuff.

Apr. 7th, 2009

Storytelling at Its Worst

Adventure Game Studio freeware game engine created the perfect opportunity for people who can draw even a little bit to create great adventure games. There are plenty of games using that engine which are truly wonderful and exciting. Not surprisingly though - with an easy to use, flexible tools at the disposal there is no limits but imagination. There are, of course, plenty of terrible games as well. What is astounding, at least for me, is that some of not so good AGS games are highly praised by the community.

I am going to talk about the first game in the Ben Jordan adventure game series, Ben Jordan Case 1: In Search of the Skunk-Ape. There are two versions of the game available at the moment, the original one and the Deluxe Edition. There are plenty of differences between the two of them, so I played them both in a row. Without a doubt I can say that this title is total crap, deluxe or not.

To explain my opinion better, I will have to mention the key plot elements (I giggled when I wrote this), so, if you have any interest in playing the game, go do it now. It won't take you more than 30 minutes to finish any of the two versions of the game without using any hints.

I am willing to close my eyes on a lot of flops in the plot, but there are still things which bother me a lot. For example, lets believe that no authorities got interested in the brutal murders of quite a few people in the Florida Everglades, and the National Park decided to turn to the amateur paranormal investigator.

During his short investigation, Ben Jordan reveals the secret of the Skunk-Ape. Yes, it comes out that there is really such a beast in existence, and it really was killing people, mutilating their bodies and taking their liver out (I really didn't get the liver touch, but it doesn't matter). The story twist is that the mythical ape was not committing those acts of violence out of its own will. No-no. It was controlled by some crook, who was using the Skunk-Ape's lair to hide his cocaine stash!!!

In the original version of the game, that crook was using an electrical collar to be able to submit the beast to his will, in the Deluxe Edition it was not only the collar, but also drugs. Yes, the bad guy was feeding poor animal cocaine in order to bend its will.

I mean, common, this must be the worst plot ever created. Some guy is hiding cocaine in the Skunk-Ape's cave, killing everyone who comes close to the place using the beast. Five people - three park rangers and two tourists - slain in a short period of time, all that goes public... doesn't that contradict the whole point of hiding something? The guy lives in a small cabin in the middle of nowhere... hiding the stash in that house of his would have been a much saner idea.

Just to compare. I've played plenty of Russian adventure games, they are very famous for having weird and illogical plots. Guess what? Ben Jordan's first case beats the hell out of those games. In Search of the Skunk-Ape is simply moronic! Even if we consider the game to be a crazy-ass comedy, it's still stupid over the top.

And to finish with my bashing, I would like to bring up one of the changes made in the Deluxe Edition of the game.

When Ben Jordan confronts Jed Johnson, the bad guy who controls the ape, they have the following conversation.

In original version.

BEN: "How were you able to tame the Skunk-Ape?"
JED: "Oh, that part was easy. You'd be surprised how complacent a vicious beast becomes when you give him an electronic collar."

In Deluxe Edition, which is advertised to have an improved storyline.

BEN: "So you've been using the Skunk-Ape to guard your drugs? How?"
JED: "It's pretty simple, really. I go into the city and steal the drugs for myself off the ships in the port..."

I bet you've noticed something weird about that answer of Jed's. Sure, in the end he gives an answer to the question asked, but, well, why not tell the story of his life while at it?

Also, in the original version Jed was depicted as a drug trafficker. The "improved" version shows that he was storing the drugs for himself. Which makes even less sense. I think I should tell those kids I know are smoking weed to find some mutant hippo to guard their stash too.

There are quite a few of plot "improvements", not going to mention them all, at least for now. The Deluxe Edition's only benefit is better graphics, otherwise it brought only more bizarre plot elements which made the game even worse than it was originally. Don't get me wrong though, both versions of the game are horrible.

Apr. 2nd, 2009

The Perfect Evening

So, I am having the perfect evening. Watching a really fun and warm TV series called Being Erica and drinking whiskey.

This time it's Jameson 1780 12 Year Old Irish Whiskey. The stuff is pretty expensive with a price of around $30+ for a bottle, but it is extremely pleasant. I really wasn't expecting such a smooth taste and a memorable aftertaste. A couple of pipes of Peterson's tobacco on top of that... Mmmm.

To rate the things which could make your evening as enjoyable as mine:

* Being Erica - kind and simple TV series, perfect for a relaxing evening.
* Jameson 1780 12 Year Old Irish Whiskey - one of the best drinks I had so far.
* Peterson's tobacco - I am having Sweet Killarney today. Peterson is not my best choice, but it's also not the worst I had.

It's Free, But There's a Cost

Well, I've been away from the Internet for about three weeks now and had a chance to play a lot of freeware adventure games created using Adventure Game Studio game engine. At first, I was very excited about those games as they were very well done considering them being freeware and developed by a single person (mostly). Still, after thinking about it for a while, I decided that those games could have been much better.

In my following posts I am going to review several AGS games and will start with Ben Jordan series created by Francisco Gonzalez.

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