Monday, 11 June 2012

Crusader Kings 2 - PC

I've long admired the strategy genre - even though it's a corner of the world of videogames which can be unnecessarily obtuse and bogged down in complex play mechanics. I've tried many over the years, and have run screaming from my keyboard on numerous occasions - usually because of real-time strategy titles, a genre I generally can't get into no matter how hard I try.

Turn-based games are different and I've poured many hours into titles such as Civilization, Disgaea, King's Bounty and Advance Wars on the GBA. I still get flustered, but learning the intricacies is all part of the fun.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to the Gamers With Jobs podcast, where they were chatting about Crusader Kings 2. They made this latest game from Paradox Interactive sound incredibly interesting and, inspired by their discussion, I decided to take the plunge and I'm glad I did, as this game is without question one of the best games I've played all year.

Crusader Kings 2 is a grand strategy game set across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The timeline kicks off in 1066 and plays out for a maximum of 400 years. Unlike other turn-based games I've played, there are no set end-game targets to hit. Instead, Crusader Kings 2 puts you in the silk slippers of either an Earl, a Count, a Duke or a King, and you are free to go about your business in any way you want.

The only real goal is to keep your bloodline going for the full 400 years - not easy - after which the player is given a score based on how well they performed throughout the centuries. It's how you get there which is the interesting part.

You could, for example, rule an entire kingdom with an iron fist, mustering huge armies and threatening to wage war across the map. You could be a brutal dictator and tax your subjects to the hilt and quell any rebellion with brute force. On the flip side, you can start off in a tiny independent county and concentrate on simply forging strong friendships with your neighbours or attempting to unite a country through diplomatic endeavors.

All the action takes place on one huge map - think of it like a giant board game - and as the years slip by, familiar lands will change name, while you can zoom in and watch wars and battles play out.

Although skirmishes and all-out wars are part of the game - even if you want no part in violence, trouble flares in other far off lands or, terrifyingly, on your own borders - the main themes of Crusader Kings 2 are many and varied.

Everything revolves around diplomacy, marriage, dynasty, heirs, subterfuge and rebellion, while each member of your court - vassals, wife, children etc - have traits which govern how they act towards your character and it's here where things get interesting.

Here's an example:

In my first game, my Count was married and had three sons. So far so good. However, the man under my charge turned out to be a lecherous old bugger and took a fancy to a 16-year-old girl from his court. He ended up in the sack with her and fell in love. His bastard child was born and although the Count's lover was delighted, his wife's opinion of me plummeted, which had an adverse reaction on my Count's stats. To make matters worse, I legitamised the child at court, which made my closest advisers and other family members distrust me.

While this was going on, I noticed my 13-year-old son had a couple of nasty traits which suggested there could be trouble further down the line. In this situation, a few options are available to boost his opinion of me - for example, I could have granted him a title which would slightly improve relations. However, just to be safe, I had him executed - a messy move which didn't end well and caused several of my court to flee to another county to escape my tyrannical rule.

In my second game, I chose a small corner of western Scotland. But while I was minding my own business, the Norwegian army were spotted tramping around the country. They were off to sort out the Earl of Atholl - why, I really don't know. But it was at this point things started to get interesting.

The Earl of Atholl didn't have a strong army and would have been overrun by the Norwegians. However, the Earl's brother was none other than King Malcolm III of Scotland, which meant any attack on Atholl would bring the King's armies into the fray and war declared on Norway.

I watched this drama unfold from the relative safety of the isles - although I knew if it all kicked off, the King would come calling, insisting I contributed most of my peasants and farmers to the war effort.

However, my Count had his own problems to deal with: He was married to a 39-year-old French woman who, after two years of marriage, had yet to produce a child. This is particularly bad, as if your character dies without an heir to the bloodline, it's game over.

But there were some upbeat happenings around my court while Norway ransacked small communities. My spymaster and mayor - who both disliked me intensely because of my slothful ways - popped their clogs. The spymaster died from syphilis, while my mayor had been in a coma for three months before finally deciding to shuffle his mortal coil. I was planning on murdering him but his untimely demise saved me the bother - so that raised a smile.

I've clearly waffled on for far too long here, but while Crusader Kings might not look like much, it is a fabulously engrossing and deep game. Some of the play mechanics are archaic and I had to trawl online for a few details which weren't properly explained in the rather flimsy tutorial. But, ultimately, it's a rather splendid game.

At the time of writing it's on sale via Steam and on Gamersgate. But even if you miss the sale, it's still well worth checking out if you are looking for a long-lasting and laid-back treat.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Tokyo Jungle - PS3

Tokyo Jungle was released in Japan last week and while I was tempted to import the retail version thanks to its amazing box art, I bought the downloadable version instead from the Japanese PSN as it was much more convenient. I've now put a few hours into the game so I thought I would share some of my initial thoughts and explain a wee bit about what is going on.

It's a weird and wonderful game where you initially control either the cover mascot - a Pomeranian dog - or a deer and make your way through the post-apocalyptic streets of Shibuya, trying to survive in the crumbling city.

Although there are three modes: Survival, Story and Multiplayer, most of my time over the last few days has been in Survival.

Here, you not only have to fend for yourself on the mean streets of Toyko - which are filled with dogs, cats, chickens, tigers, warthogs, rhinos and a large assortment of other wild animals - but you also have to keep an eye on your hunger meter, which is constantly draining.

Killing other animals and feasting on their remains keeps hunger at bay, although there are stretches of the wrecked city which are devoid of life, which creates panic as you desperately try and find something to eat. Of course, this only applies to carnivores - herbivores have to find plants to survive - not easy, as toxic clouds hang heavily over the land from time-to-time, poisoning you and the city's plant life.

No matter what animal you choose - there are 52, although 50 of them have to be unlocked - you can defend yourself with bites, kicks and swipes. There are plenty of peaceful enemies who will scamper away from you as you approach but it is possible to sneak up on them and take them down. Even if you find yourself chased by a vicious pack of wolves, you can hide in patches of long grass which pepper the city streets. These grassy areas are also useful for sneaking up on - or around -other animals.

The goal in Survival is to stay out of harm's way for as many years as possible but with so many creatures out to get you, death is inevitable. Thankfully, you can mate with a female member of your chosen species, which gives your bloodline a much better chance of survival. Die, and the next animal who loyally follows behind your character, takes over.

Finding a mate takes a bit of work, though. First you have to mark your territory which brings females into the area. But to impress them, you have to rank up to "boss" status before she'll have anything to do with you.

While you pad about the crumbling metropolis, you'll find a variety of objects and items to help you on your way. Medical supplies can be pilfered, while a mind-boggling assortment of clothes can be found and worn - each item giving your character stat boosts. Hats, jackets and shoes can be found but once you die, these items are gone forever.

You'll also find SD cards on your travels and snaffling these unlocks new chapters in the story mode. I've not put much time into the story but from what I've played, it's pretty simple stuff.

All the menus are in English, although the rest of the text is in Japanese. As a result, I'm still not sure how to unlock other animals but I'm sure I'll figure it out. That said, the gameplay is straightforward and the language barrier really doesn't pose much of a problem.

Tokyo Jungle has already thrown up some moments which made me laugh. Watching a pack of domestic cats attacking a bear was one highlight, as was the sight of a Godzilla-sized fish slumped against the side of a building in central Tokyo.

It's certainly not the best game I've played this year, although it is definitely the weirdest and I'm very much enjoying my time with it. With so much to unlock and the promise of dinosaurs prowling the streets in the future, I'll be putting plenty more time into Tokyo Jungle.

A Western release was confirmed at E3 last week, although no release date has been mentioned. Toyko Jungle costs 3900 yen from the PSN, while the retail version weighs in at around 4200 yen.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Ico: Castle in the Mist by Miyuki Miyabe

Last year's release of Ico & Shadow of the Colossus HD on PlayStation 3 turned the spotlight back on to Fumito Ueda's classic titles, illuminating them in glorious high definition and banishing the shadowy rough edges which marred the games upon their original release.

Around the same time as the double pack edged its way on to store shelves, Miyuki Miyabe's long-awaited book based on Ico finally arrived on Western shores. Although released in Japan seven years previously, the novel was translated into English by author Alexander O. Smith, giving Western readers their first opportunity to delve into this wonderful tale of rejection, hope, bravery and triumph.

Miyabe was given free reign by Ico's creators to interpret the story in her own way and she's done a fabulous job, making Castle in the Mist an essential companion to young Ico's heroic adventure.

The story focuses on Ico, a boy born with horns who is destined to be sacrificed to a dark queen who resides in a haunting castle as soon as he turns 13 years of age. Within moments of his imprisonment, Ico finds himself free of his shackles and soon discovers Yorda - a mysterious girl who has also been locked up in the castle.

Constantly stalked by shadowy creatures - who are intent on snatching Yorda and taking her back to their nocturnal world - the two make their way through stone-lined corridors, expansive courtyards and sun-drenched plateaus in the hope of eventually escaping the hulking stone citadel and its powerful queen.

Rather than solely focus on Ico and Yorda's plight from the game - which could have turned into a rather repetitive and stale yarn in novel form - Miyabe has given much of the book over to the pair's background stories, which manages to fit snuggly with the digital product.

Ico's young life in Toksa village makes up the opening segment of the book, with family and his best friend Toto playing important parts in his life before he is carted off to the castle by a masked priest.

Incidental details from the game - such as the tunic Ico wears - are given special meaning, with Miyabe delving deep into her imagination to bring to light fresh ideas and twists which will delight fans of Fumito Ueda's debut offering.

The book gets a little dry when explaining Ico's initial journey and subsequent imprisonment but just when you think Miyabe is playing it safe by sticking too closely to the familiar confines of the game, she allows her creativity to shine in the book's spellbinding third chapter.

Taking up almost a third of the 370 page novel, we get a wonderful insight into Yorda's troubled past, the tempestuous relationship with her mother, joyful memories of her father and details of the castle, its people and its landmarks. Brave knights come and go, handmaidens toil with daily duties, great warriors mysteriously disappear and an ever inquisitive Yorda begins to wonder why no one ever seems to leave the castle.

The queen plays a central part to the story and we see the devastating results of her fearsome power, which is only ever hinted at in the game. Whisps of darkness build and swirl out of control with tumultuous results as the queen’s hideous persona is unleashed. Just why she has done this and what she hopes to gain are detailed within the pages and her brooding evil intentions add another remarkable layer to what is already a gripping novel.

All of these experiences culminate and explain why Yorda - who was once a bright girl with a zest for life - becomes the melancholic waif-like figure young Ico finds on his travels.

It's beautifully written with Miyabe making delightful connections with the game which encourages the player to grab a controller and explore Ico with renewed curiosity.

Miyabe successfully manages to keep the game's haunting atmosphere intact, despite meandering away from the core subject matter, while Smith's translation is meticulous making for a real page turner.

Miyabe's passion for the videogame is clear but aside from the foundations laid out by Fumito Ueda and his team, it would appear she has taken influences from other sources to weave her fascinating tale. Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy springs to mind in the way she describes the stronghold's grandiose architecture, the rituals, and bustling life in the castle before the terrible events which left the citadel empty, save for Yorda, the queen and its shadowy inhabitants.

There are also nods to the work of C.S. Lewis here, particularly the Narnia novel The Magician's Nephew. There are direct parallels here with the desolate city of Charn from that book, where a malevolent queen has laid waste to a city and its people by turning them to stone.

Although the novel doesn't follow the game exactly, there are some minor spoilers woven into the text, so it's best to read Castle in the Mist after completing the game, while those looking for a link between Ico and Shadow of the Colossus might be disappointed to learn that a connection never materialises.

Ico: Castle in the Mist is a wonderful novel which avoids the traps that so many games-related books usually fall into. It's well written, entertaining, detailed and actually enhances the game by fleshing out the characters and the world they inhabit.

After tearing through the novel, you'll look upon Ico from a fresh new angle and gaze at the castle in the mist with new found wonder.