Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep on PC (8/10)

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A Borderlands 2 stand alone expansion that is more of the same from this franchise. In this one, you are playing a game within a game as Tiny Tina DM’s a table top RPG filled with dragons, wizards, and other fantasy archetypes. There is very little to distinguish it from the other games in the series other than the grenades now act as missile-style spells. You are still collecting randomly generated guns and pairing weapon types with various enemy types. The main reason for playing this is to get the usual doses of comedic stories and characters. Claptrap is searching for his wizard beard, Torgue is a jock looking to gain nerd-cred, etc. A worthy expansion if you like the series.

Skald: Against the Black Priory on PC (8/10)

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Skald was one of handful of Kickstarter projects that I have backed. It is a throwback tribute to 80s role playing games like Ultima or Phantasie with a heavy emphasis on pen-and-paper dice mechanics. Watching the game’s development has been pretty interesting. Early builds of the game look very much like the PC version of Ultima V. As the months (and years) went by that art style became much more detailed and modern stuff like weather and lighting effects were added. The final product is an incredibly detailed pixelized world to explore.

So much care has gone into every single map tile. There is an overwhelmingly brown and gray tone to the art. I think this is trying to be reminiscent of the Commodore 64 palette but at times, especially during nighttime battles, it became difficult to discern friend from foe from foliage. The art style extends into several lovely “cutscene” graphics and various dialogue screens. There are even fanciful medieval drop-cap letters in the text display.

All of this is in service of a Lovecraftian tale of dark fantasy in which various old creatures are emerging back into the world and corrupting the minds of men. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t much emergent gameplay. The story is pretty linear despite the initial open-world feel of the map. I am playing this just coming off of re-playing the first two Fallout games and perhaps I expect a bit more player choice in the narrative. But, to be fair, the Ultima games were basically adventure games with role-playing mechanics thrown on top.

The role-playing here is mostly about building the skills you can use in combat and navigating the world map. Many tasks in the game will require a stats checks and Skald literally shows dice rolling as it checks for success. As experience is gained and characters level up, the player can assign points to stats trees that differ based on class. Spells are gained, new attacks are learned, and various combat skills become unlocked.

Skald is at its best during combat. It recreates the turn-based strategy of the early Ultimas in which you control the actions of every character in order of initiative. It isn’t quite as tactical as the Wasteland sequels but there is a fair amount of positioning, spellcasting, ability management. Keeping everyone alive is a challenge and those battles that end with just a couple of party members still standing are exhilarating.

Skald falls short of greatness in that it does not quite live up to the potential of a next-gen 2-D RPG. Hopefully the engine will continue to be developed to add more environmental interactivity, a better dialogue system, and a more expansive and explorable over-world. During the Kickstarter there was walk of releasing development tools. I’d love to see what the modding community can come up with using this system.

Fallout 2 on PC (9/10)

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I couldn’t resist the pull of Fallout after a recent playthrough of Fallout 1. This is the second time I have played Fallout 2 but I have little to no memory of the game other than the opening temple and the Reno levels.

The game may not look much different than its predecessor, but there are massive improvements. The world is much more vast and there’s more variety in the overworld encounters and towns. Your followers now have a combat settings in which you can granularly control their actions. You can even tell them not to burst fire you to death! Inventory management is slightly better. They’ve added a “Take All” button to the interface. There’s a car that you can use for fast travel. Also the tile sprites are more detailed and you can tell characters to move if they are blocking a doorway. In other words, if you’re wanting to try out a vintage Fallout game, this is the one to play.

My biggest negative about the game is that the main quest line is nowhere near as good as the first game. It makes up for it in the sheer number of side missions and character dialogs to distract the player from the ho-hum threat of The Enclave. And at least there is no water-chip timer ticking to push you along.

My final thought is that much of what we think of when we think of Fallout really comes from the 3-D sequels. The retro-fifties aesthetic mostly exists in the manuals and marketing of these old Interplay games. That actual feel of the 2-D world is way more Mad Max than Leave it to Beaver.

Fallout on PC (9/10)

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I just finished watching the pretty good T.V. adaptation of the game and was inspired to start up a new game of the original. Fallout was the first thing I ever bought on eBay back in ’98. The box smelled like cigar smoke, but the game didn’t stink at all.

In retrospect, it’s not quite as good as I remembered. There are just a few to many fiddly “puzzles” where you are supposed to try using random objects on the environment to get past obstacles. There are no clues. You just have to know to “use radio on computer” or whatever.

Otherwise, everything else is great. I love the turn-based combat, the skills, and character interactions. The game is relatively short, especially when compared with the 3-D open-world sequels. We need more digestible length games these days.

I played a modded version of the game using a patch called Fallout Fixt. Most of the enhancements were not noticeable to me, but there were a couple things that I later realized weren’t in the original game. Most importantly you can tell your followers to move out of the way if they are blocking a doorway. This doesn’t work on recruited help from the Brotherhood and can end up making the game unwinnable. This is because the mod allows the Brotherhood knights to join you inside the mutant military base, which wasn’t designed for companions to fit alongside you.

I ended up playing all the way through the game and got all the good endings except for killing the Khans off. I’m tempted to fire up Fallout 2 now, but I should probably hold off. Skald comes out in a month.

Legend of Grimrock 2 on PC (9/10)

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The second Legend of Grimrock takes the retro dungeon crawl mechanics that worked so well in the first game and expands them into an open world RPG experience. You are still confided to the grid, but now that grid is decorated with a variety of natural environments and dungeon types.

While much of the game remains the same, there is a greater emphasis on puzzles. I generally enjoyed the environmental challenges that relied on exploration and trial-and-error. There are, however, a number of riddle-based puzzles which I was not as keen on. Maybe I’m just a big dummy because found myself turning to the Internet to get past a few of these.

If you are not familiar with games like Dungeon Master, the combat can seem weird. You are constantly shuffling back-and-forth to avoid damage, but still clicking characters in a turn-based style to fire off attacks. Casting spells becomes a frantic race to draw symbols on the screen, move around, and maintain the health of your other characters. It’s weird, but I find it very satisfying and would highly recommend trying this series out.

Ion Fury: Aftershock on PC (8/10)

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Technically this is just an expansion pack for Ion Fury, but this is a full-game’s worth on content. The most notable additions are the new weapons, monster types, and a “rotorcycle” vehicle. The vehicle levels were the weakest part of the game for me. I’m just not a fan of the racing style combat. But everything else is pure 90s shooter fun that fits in nicely with this already excellent game.

Quake II: Remastered on PC (8/10)

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Decades ago I played through Quake II and I remember being quite impressed with the opening cinematic. Starship Troopers was still fresh in my conscienceless and that feeling of being part of a botched invasion and left alone on a hostile planet really struck a chord. With the fancy 3-D graphics, it all seemed so real… and brown. Seeing this new remastered version, despite its many improvements, reminded me of just how primitive this game is compared to what we have today.

Fortunately for Quake II, the actual mechanics of the game are what made it so great. This is the definitive (I loathe this term) Boomer Shooter. Fast motion, twitchy gunplay, barely any attempt at story. The main drawback of the game is its drab and repetitive level designs. This remaster includes a huge, newly created mission pack that proves that the engine is capable of some more creative and non-brown environments. This bonus pack is worth the cheap $10 price tag, but, if that wasn’t enough, you also get the N64 version and two other expansions. Admittedly, by the end of the last expansion, I had quite enough Quake II for this lifetime.

This remaster has widescreen support, better enemy A.I., better lighting effects, and, most importantly, an in-game “quest arrow” system to help you find your way to the exits.

Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) on PC (5/10)

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Are all indie games style over substance? I guess this game is okay if you are playing it as a school assignment to learn about the history Inuit peoples. It’s a step up from Oregon Trail. The game itself is an easy 2.5-D platformer with a little bit of puzzling as you switch between the two main characters. But for the most part it’s just run to the right and occasionally jump. Instead of cutscenes you can watch documentary footage of people explaining the folklore. Whoopie!

SiN Gold on PC (3/10)

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This game absolutely sucks. The graphics are just what you’d expect from a `1998 Quake engine game. The problem isn’t the visuals, it’s the sluggish, stilted game play. The weapons are painfully underpowered. You will spend several clips at point blank range to kill the most basic of grunt enemies.

This was a failed attempt at building an FPS around story and characters, The story feels like a Mountain Dew commercial and the characters excrete 90s extreme ‘tude. Somewhere in the process they forgot that video games are supposed to be fun. It includes such genius design quirks as being killed by closing locker doors and rats. The last third of the game starts with one of the worst water levels ever designed. I eventually just turned on an invincibility cheat and finished the game. Even that was tedious.

Broforce on PC (8/10)

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I didn’t immediately warm up to this platform shooter. For one thing, it’s very twitchy, chaotic, and brutally unfair at times. Broforce feels like it’s another, more-stylized version of Super Meat Boy. One wrong step and you are dead! You’re expected to try, try, try again. I was prepared to just rage quit this game but then a routine game patch intervened. The game just stopped working for me and I set it aside. (Citrix Workspace and the Unity Engine don’t play nice together)

Fast forward a year or two or ten and a new update to the game was released that fixed my problems and added half-a-dozen or so new bros. I thought it was time to revisit Broforce. In the interim, I had discovered that I like unrelenting bullet-hell shmups. I’m now team spaz-gaming! My attitude had been adjusted and I think I am a Broforce convert.

So, the game isn’t quite as perfection-based as I thought it was. There is a huge random element in terms of which of the twenty or so characters you are forced to play. Once you start to understand the abilities of each of the bros you begin to learn how to use their skills to combat the seemingly overwhelming odds against you. Certain characters are useless on some levels and you just have to die and try again. But when a particular character clicks, it’s invigorating!

The one thing that I loved about this game, even when I hated it, was the Randy “Machoman” Savage-inspired narration. There’s something about the screams of, “YOU CAN DO IT!!!” that tickles me every time. Also, the game has multiple endings based on how you approach the final task that are a direct descendant of Jordan Mechner’s Karateka. Well done and hilarious.