Spelat: Undertale

Undertale

En god vän gav mig Undertale i julklapp. Inte sedan Portal har jag hört talas om ett så kritikerrosat spel – Yahtzee Croshaw, en spelkritiker som gjort sig känd genom att besinningslöst slakta även spel han tycker om, gjorde sin recension i fem ord: “Undertale is a good game.” Självklart var jag tvungen att spela det. Ganska lätt avklarat förvisso, det här är inget hundratimmars-epos som tar över ens liv, hela spelet går att plöja igenom på en eftermiddag eller två. Istället är det berättelsen och de många okonventionella inslagen som får det att stå ut från mängden. Jag har gjort mitt bästa för att inte avslöja något kritiskt, men du som är spoilerkänslig bör läsa försiktigt, eller inte alls – Undertale blir faktiskt bättre ju mindre man vet om det i förväg.

Undertale is an interesting game. Not because it offers particularly good gameplay, graphics, or because it’s challenging – but the simple exterior hides a surprisingly engaging and complex story, told in a way that defies convention and makes Undertale stand out from the endless brown goo of mediocrity that the Steam store occasionally resembles. It styles itself like a JRPG but it really isn’t one, taking every opportunity to subvert existing tropes and play with the format.

Unfortunately, the brilliant writing makes the lacklustre gameplay stand out all the more, because it quickly becomes a chore that you must plow through in order to get to the next parcel of story. And then again, because the game withholds some (story-critical) content unless you go through it at least twice, or manage to hit all the critical flags on the first run – probably impossible without a walkthrough.

Undertale prides itself on being a game where nobody has to die – which is represented in each battle by the option to “spare” the monster. This option only becomes available after certain actions are taken, and so is a mini-puzzle in itself, but the solutions are often obvious and so most battles can be resolved in seconds, especially if the same monster has been encountered before. When attacked, you are faced with a short “bullet hell” minigame, where you must dodge incoming projectiles of various sizes and shapes. There are enough variations on the formula that this doesn’t immediately become tedious, and some of the later battles can be quite challenging.

The graphics, as I’ve mentioned, vary from simply bad to acceptable; the game is presented in faux 8-bit – that is, blocky graphics in variously low resolutions, but with high resolution effects. There are a number of art shifts throughout, which are used sparingly but effectively, typically in expectation of a major event. The excellent soundtrack also contributes greatly to the ambience and helps set the tone of each encounter.

Apart from the story, what I think makes Undertale stand out is how it plays with itself as a medium. Actions such as saving, loading and even exiting to the desktop are woven into the story in a way that few games have ever even tried. Restoring a save file to try something different, you may find that NPCs still remember your actions from before, although this mostly affects dialogue.

While I still don’t feel that Undertale quite lives up to the hype, I’ve come to overlook its faults and appreciate it much more after seeing the whole story through to the end. It delivers a unique experience and a story that manages to be emotionally engaging while still delivering a lot of laughs. And you’ll be filled with determination.

Mitt betyg: 8/10.

Spelat: Valkyria Chronicles och Banished

Det är speldags igen så här i mellandagarna och förutom att shoppa loss i den årliga vinter-rean på Steam har jag ägnat min tid åt att spela igenom en riktig pärla – Valkyria Chronicles, ett strategispel i anime-utförande som jag rescencerar här nedan. Passar även på att skriva några rader om ett spel som kanske inte sticker ut lika mycket, men som med sina indie-vibbar och lugna tempo kan ge många timmars skön speltid för den som gillar att bygga städer och hantera resurser: Banished.

Valkyria Chronicles

Valkyria Chronicles

Valkyria Chronicles är en skildring av en omfattande konflikt i en fiktiv värld som i mångt och mycket liknar Europa under andra världskriget. Vi följer en hemvärnspluton i landet Gallia, som trots sin neutrala hållning i konflikten mellan stormakterna dras in i kriget och tvingas kämpa för sin överlevnad. Till spelstilen är Valkyria Chronicles väldigt likt X-Com: Enemy Unknown men med ett mycket starkare fokus på story. Valkyria Chronicles är inget nytt spel – det kom redan 2008 på Playstation 3, men sedan ett drygt år tillbaka finns det på Steam, med uppfräschad grafik och allt tidigare släppt extrainnehåll med på köpet.

I put off playing this game for quite some time despite it being recommended to me over and over. Something about it being a console port and ‘Yet another game set during WW2’ put me off. I was deeply mistaken. This is one of the best strategy games I’ve played, as far as the style of play goes it is very similar to X-Com: EU but the story and characters resonated deeply with me and I played it more for the story than for the battles themselves (which are nonetheless great). Only a few minor things give away that this was originally a game for the PS3, the port is very well done although I know some people dislike the controls. The graphics have aged well; the watercolor style which permeates the game is beautiful and the higher resolutions that modern PCs are capable of do it great justice. The game also runs without stutter on my weaker non-gaming laptop.

Interestingly, while I would normally never consider watching anime in anything but its original language I found the English script of this game to be superior to the Japanese, the latter is quite dry at times and I feel the English voice actors are actually a better fit for their respective characters. And the story and characters are really what make this game stand out. Games that go out of their way to elicit strong emotional responses never make an impression on me, but this one did. As we follow the story along, the characters are occasionally thrust into situations where they must do battle for one reason or another, this using a delightful combination of strategic top-down and tactical first-person gameplay that few other games have tried. While not especially realistic, it works well and you feel very in control of your soldiers’ actions.

In the broader perspective however, Valkyria Chronicles’ depiction of a large 1900s military conflict from a squad’s point of view is very realistic and includes a number of scenarios that ring familiar to anyone used to games set during WW2 – the dramatic beach landing, an assault on an unassailable fortress, a liberation of a small town, a sneak through the forest to avoid detection, and so forth. The considerable variation in battles keeps the game interesting and it never felt like a grind to me. Eventually, supernatural elements (the titular Valkyria) are introduced and the story kicks it up a notch into epic territory. Few games these days become so noticeably better the more you play them.

As for negatives, I don’t think the game is very enjoyable if you focus on getting the highest possible ranking from every encounter, as this rewards speed over all else. A few battles are nearly impossible to win on the first try without prior knowledge about what challenges await you once the mission starts, meaning you may find yourself having to start over with a different strategy. The game lets you save both between and during battles, however, so this can usually be alleviated by simply backing up a few turns. There are fairly few achievements and they range from trivial to almost impossible; a few more in the middle range wouldn’t have hurt. I also dislike the fact that you have to play through the game twice to access some content.

Summing it up, this game is fantastic. It combines all the elements of a good anime and a good turn-based strategy game, with enough of its own flavor to be unique and spectacularly enjoyable. My main problem with it is that it only took me about 45 hours to complete and I fear the next game I play won’t be nearly as good.

Mitt betyg: 10/10

Banished

Banished

Banished är ett strategiskt stadsbyggarspel där du styr en grupp människor som blivit exilerade från sin by, någon gång under järnåldern. För att överleva måste de samla svampar, fiska, hugga ved och bruka jorden på sin nya boplats, vilket kan vara lättare sagt än gjort när man inte fått varken frön eller varma kläder med sig hemifrån och vintern nalkas med stormsteg. När de grundläggande behoven väl är tillfredsställda gäller det att bygga skolor åt barnen, gravplatser till de som lämnat jordelivet bakom sig och gruvor för att få upp malm ur jorden – allt för att skapa ett nytt samhälle. Spelet är stundvis utmanande men samtidigt avkopplande i sina vackra, skogklädda miljöer som förändras över säsongerna.

Banished is a city builder for the thinking gamer with a lot of time on his or her hands. Starting out with essentially nothing, you scramble to scavenge logs, stones and food from the forests and streams around your wagon, desperately trying to keep your families fed and warm during the coming winter (always coming, that winter is). Because most critical resources are finite until you find a way to replenish them (e.g., replanting forests), you must provide for your population’s critical needs while ensuring there is enough set aside for future investments. Depending on your starting conditions, this can be a formidable and very enjoyable challenge.

Once you get past this stage, however, the game’s pace slows considerably as you move from trying to stay alive to simply growing your settlement and securing the means to support that growth from renewable sources. Watching your increasing population go about its business, slowly but intently, is strangely addictive and everything you see matters. It is unfortunate that after spending some time in the growth phase, the game pretty much runs out of content and all you’re left with is a perpetual but not very challenging game of resource management.

It’s an iron-age Sim City, to put it simply.  There’s no combat, no conflict at all, just growing your town while managing your workforce. If that’s your thing then you will find Banished enjoyable for hours upon hours, as I have. Considering it is available for less than €5 whenever there’s a Steam sale I see very little reason not to pick it up if you enjoy city builders. Somewhat compensating for the scarcity of late-game content is the huge amount of fan-made mods that have been created. For an indie title, the excellent sountrack and graphics deserve special mention.

Mitt betyg: 7,5/10

Spelat: Metro 2033 Redux och FTL: Faster Than Light

Mitt spelintresse går upp och ned över tid, inte helt oväntat ligger det på en hög nivå så här i semestertider och då inte minst när Steam har en av sina årliga massor-av-spel-löjligt-billigt-kampanjer. Så här kommer två recensioner till i serien! Det högst oavsiktliga temat denna gång är invasioner…

Metro 2033 Redux

Metro 2033 Redux

Metro 2033 är ett förstapersons actionspel med mycket smygande genom mörka tunnlar. Miljön är Moskvas tunnelbana och året är 2033, efter ett tredje världskrig där mänskligheten till större delen utplånats och de enda överlevande (i Moskva, åtminstone) tvingas leva i resterna av tunnelbanenätet eftersom jordytan är förgiftad och dessutom befolkad av hungriga demoner. Spelet baserar sig på en bok med samma namn och följer en hyggligt linjär story där spelarens karaktär, Artyom, måste ta sig igenom systemet för att varna sina polare om det förestående hotet från en demoninvasion.

Dark and atmospheric, this graphically intensive but slow-paced shooter is a perfect way to spend a dozen hours. It’s an immersive sci-fi horror story set in post-apocalyptic Moscow that keeps a steady rhythm and doesn’t rely on artificial boss battles for ramping up the challenge. The “Redux” version brings the graphics up to speed, the original having been released five years ago.

This version also offers a choice of “Spartan” vs “Survival” modes, the latter supposedly more difficult in terms of access to items and ammo, but in Survival mode on Normal difficulty I very rarely ran low on supplies. Experienced FPS players may wish to select a higher setting from the outset. Unfortunately the linearity of the story greatly reduces the enjoyment to be had from replaying the campaign.

While not usually a fan of sneaking around, I found the stealth elements to be well thought out and it’s certainly possible to get through the levels with a minimum of bloodshed if one so desires. Most importantly however, they are almost entirely optional, and if you prefer a more action-oriented play style it’s there for the taking.

Unfortunately the level design is this game’s weakest point, the underground levels are typically quite linear while the surface levels sometimes left me feeling unsure where to go next. If you get lost and end up running low on filters for your gas mask your only real recourse is loading up a save game, which reflects poor design.

In summary, Metro 2033 Redux is a thrilling experience well worth your time and money, especially if you can get it on sale.

Mitt betyg: 7,5/10

FTL

FTL: Faster Than Light är ett strategispel i ett universum där du och ditt rymdskepp utgör “federationens” sista hopp mot de ondskefulla rebellerna. Dessa är i full färd att genomföra en omfattande invasion och du måste ta dig fram, genom fientliga utomjordingars domäner och förbi mycket bättre utrustade motståndare, till federationens hemplanet för att varna dem. Spelet har ett rejält inslag av slumpen, hög inlärningströskel och ökar snabbt i utmaning vilket gör det mycket svårt att vinna, eller ens överleva mer än 30-45 minuter, om man har riktig otur och/eller är nybörjare. Det går inte att spara spelet; varje gång man dör får man börja om från noll.

Let’s get this out of the way first: this game would be an easy 10/10 for me if it just came with a standard save game feature, and less random store contents. I love the random encounters, the ways you can improve and customize your ship to try different playstyles, the constant pressure to keep moving forward, the soundtrack, even the somewhat simplistic graphics – but it’s all for naught when you’ve died for the umpteenth time just because of bad luck.

We’ve learned from excellent games like X-Com that it’s entirely possible to combine random elements and permanent death with a save game system without ruining the enjoyment for those people who want the full rogue-like experience, so why the developers chose to leave out this standard feature is beyond me.

The fact that battles are real-time while movements are not, and the ability to pause the game at any time, allows for a combination of thoughtful and tactical gameplay that is just as enjoyable here as in Transistor. While you can get away with leaving everything on auto in the beginning, eventually you will find yourself intensively micromanaging your weapons, systems and crew, which can get overwhelming fast if things turn sour.

All this having been said, I find FTL strangely addictive and keep coming back for more punishment. Because a full playthrough rarely takes more than an hour or two, it’s well-suited for the occasional break. All in all, it’s a very well-designed game that is unfortunately brought down by some very specific issues, hopefully to be resolved in a sequel.

Mitt betyg: 6/10 (tidigare 7/10, jag skrev ner betyget för att vara mer konsekvent i jämförelse med andra spel jag har testat)

Spelat: Transistor och Divinity: Dragon Commander

Det är semestertider och jag har varit hemmabunden på grund av något slags elakartad halsinfektion, så jag har passat på att avverka ett par spel ur den väldigt stora högen jag impulsköpt på Steam när det varit rea. Normalt växer spelkön fortare än jag hinner spela, så att ta två spel på en helg kändes bra – särskilt som båda två visade sig vara sådana jag kan rekommendera till andra.

Recensionerna är ursprungligen skrivna för att publiceras på Steam, så de är på engelska. Där presenteras recensionen också tillsammans med lite bakgrundsinfo om själva spelet, så jag börjar här med att sammanfatta varje spel kortfattat på svenska och ger ett sammanfattande betyg mellan 1-10.

Transistor

Transistor (Supergiant Games)

Transistor är ett actionrollspel (tänk Diablo) med sci-fi-tema och kraftiga influenser av koncept och terminologi från programmering. Spelarens karaktär är “Red” och hon, liksom alla andra karaktärer i spelet, existerar som ett slags abstrakta avatarer i en värld där både personligheter och den fysiska verkligheten kan definieras om, nätverkas och programmeras som i något slags mer eller mindre utopisk cyberpunk-framtid. När spelet börjar har Reds pojkvän precis blivit dödad och hans personlighet överförd till ett svärd, Transistor. Samtidigt håller hela staden på att förvandlas till ett grått intet på grund av ett virus. Med svärdet i hand söker Red hämnd för sin pojkvän och att fixa det som hotar upplösa verkligheten.

This game is artistically perfect, well worth playing for the story, art and soundtrack alone. I also enjoyed the innovative combat system. Being able to combine any attack with any other and being rewarded for it is excellent design and encourages you to continuously change your playstyle. Being able to plan your moves in advance means it’s not just about quick reflexes. This kept combat from becoming repetitive, like hack’n’slashers usually do, in the 8 hrs it took me to complete the main story. I’m likely to go back and do the rerun to explore the additional combos I didn’t unlock.

Reading some of the negative reviews it’s clear many of them simply didn’t understand how to play the game, so perhaps a better/longer introduction would have been useful. You do pretty much crash into things without a clue at first, but I picked it up having read a few reviews first that explained the gameplay. And the lack of early, long-winded exposition is good, too – the reading you have to do to get all the details of the story are very evenly spread out with the action.

If I were to point out a negative, the “tests” felt kind of redundant and weren’t very fun although I felt compelled to do them in order to gain extra levels. In the end it wasn’t necessary. I only did about five tests, never used more than one limiter and still only died twice in my first playthrough. So the game wasn’t very challenging for me. Not a problem though as I was playing for the story first and foremost.

Mitt betyg: 9/10

Divinity Dragon Commander

Divinity: Dragon Commander (Larian Studios)

Divinity: Dragon Commander är ett strategispel som kombinerar element av realtids- och turbaserad strategi. Större delen av spelet utspelas på en strategisk översiktskarta där dina enheter repesenteras av spelpjäser som du kan flytta mellan olika länder (som i RISK). När du kommer i konflikt med en motspelare så kan du välja att själv delta i striden, som då utspelas som ett konventionellt RTS, med symmetriska sidor och enkel resurshantering. Du kan också själv delta i striden genom att förvandla dig till en eldsprutande drake, vilket är effektivt mot fiendens enheter men ger dig sämre kontroll över dina egna. Mellan striderna kan du också ägna dig åt politik för att de olika raser som bebor ditt imperium ska komma överens och ge stöd åt din sida i kriget, som går ut på att ta över hela den kända världen.

A very nice effort from Larian which would have been even better if they’d just spent a bit more time on making the parts fit together. I love the blend of RTS/TBS with dragon combat and political chat’em’up. The RTS segments feel like a dumbed-down version of Supreme Commander – it looks like whoever has the most units wins at first, but it’s entirely possible to beat terrible odds using clever tactics and some units (Juggernauts) are massively overpowered, which lets you exploit the mechanics to great effect. Dragon combat is satisfying without being so effective as to completely dominate every battle. Unfortunately the AI is prone to abusing the cheap spellcaster units and there is no effective counter. I had to auto-resolve some battles where my army was superior on paper, because I could not win otherwise.

This brings me to the greatest single weakness of the game – the way battles are resolved on the strategy map. You can only personally manage one battle per turn, which is fair – that’s what your generals are for. But then, despite having four of them, you can only use one per turn. Are the rest of them drunk at the bar, or what? Furthermore, the effect of using a general is paying a flat fee for a slightly increased chance-to-win, nothing else. They don’t gain levels, their dialogue doesn’t change and there’s no risk of them dying if they fail. Essentially, all four generals could have been replaced, strategy-wise, with a once-per-turn bonus of 10-20%. A terrible waste of an otherwise very promising feature.

This would not have been so bad if auto-resolve (when neither you nor a general is available) was anywhere close to realistic, but it doesn’t take the actual map or unit composition into consideration at all. Units with NO anti-air capability will have a non-zero chance of defeating flyers, ships may greatly influence the outcome of auto-resolve whereas the actual map is laid out so that you can’t use ships offensively. In effect, auto-resolve ends up being used when you have no choice because you’re out of battles for that turn, or to get out of having to deal with broken mechanics (like mass spellcasters).

Continuing with the strategy part of the game, I love the board game setup with the cards to make things a bit more unpredictable, but it’s unfortunately *much* too easy. Playing on Normal (I shudder to think what Casual mode is like!) I was easily able to build up such a strong economy in chapter two that by the finale, I was maxed out on research and could simply buy enough units to steamroll the enemy throughout. The AI never attacks you where you don’t expect and will often willfully engage in battles it has <10% chance of winning, wasting units.

It must sound like I’m not recommending this game but I actually greatly enjoyed most of the RTS battles, the population mechanic (where you can only build so many units in a match) and the fixed building sites make for more dynamic and fast-paced gameplay than most RTS:es, turtling it out in your base is simply not an option although it may be a viable short-term strategy. The maps are well-designed and the visuals are good. Nice bright colors make your units stand out in the detailed terrain, and when zooming out the units are represented by simple icons (another thing that is brilliant, and reminds me of SupCom).

Adding to the enjoyment is the part in-between battles, where you manage the politics of your empire. The dialogues are humorous, the characters quirky and interesting – it’s always a treat to find out what they’re going to suggest. Weighing your personal views against what would be the most strategically sound decision for your empire makes for a different type of challenge – I am sure many players will already have a principled stand on an issue like women’s rights, but what do you do when giving both sexes the same pay will put a significant strain on your war economy? For the record, I ended up playing liberal/capitalist, meaning I sided with the elves and dwarves most of the time, made the feminists happy-ish and I still ended up with approval over 75% with everyone. So there you go.

You’ll notice I’ve spent almost none of this review talking about the story. That’s because there really isn’t one. You will see bits of one in barely-animated cutscenes and you can listen to some dreary exposition from Maxos the Wizard if you so desire, but it’s laid on paper-thin and has nothing to do with gameplay. In fact – it seems to have been written completely separate from the game itself! At one point, Maxos tells you in horror that the powerful demon he had been using to power your flagship has broken free. Yet the ship is still running just fine and the demon’s still down there, business as usual! Another time, you’re asked whether you want to start allowing women to serve in your army. But at that point you already have TWO female generals and some of your combat vehicles are very obviously piloted by women! Best to simply ignore the story completely unless you want to be bothered by contradictions.

In summary, I recommend this game if you are in the mood for heaps of casual RTS action with a sprinkle of very enjoyable dragon combat and some political intrigue to keep things interesting. If you prefer your RTS complex and your story deep, look elsewhere. For the 17 hours it took me to play through, I consider my money well spent.

Mitt betyg: 6/10