Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Whale Hammer Games || Overall: 6.5

Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire is a small spin on the world of tactical turn-based strategy games.  Through its unique art style, story takes the forefront with gameplay taking a bit of a backseat.  While the gameplay itself can be engaging at times, its mostly a slow and plodding chore **exasperated whinny.**

We follow the protagonist Tahira, a 20-something-year old who looks like she is in her early 60’s — she has white hair and wrinkles and wears an old lady’s robe.  Tahira, and her friend Iba, will encounter many-a-dangerous situation in the fallout from the destruction of their home of Avestan by an invading army.  Iba, who could be Mr. Ed’s progenitor (or possibly evolved ancestor), is an overly-expressive horse, who apparently loves olives **excited whinny** and won’t let genocide or his friends being murdered keep him from enjoying those damn olives **not-so-remorseful whinny.**  While Iba isn’t a playable character, he makes his appearances occasionally during the story sequences as a minor character.

Tahira: EotAE tells the story of the first night of a war between what is old and what is new.  In a post-apocalyptic (kinda sci-fi) medieval setting, a large army rallies around the idea of the foregone Astral Empire, a once star-spanning empire humans created.  The new Astral Empire decides to invade all other kingdoms/city-states, taking no prisoners in their brutal imperialism.  Tahira, a princess of the city-state Avestan, and daughter of one of the important figures of this planet’s history, must re-assume her role as her father disappears without a trace due to the invasion.  And so unfolds the scenario.

The game will teach you, slowly, about the tactics and abilities of the characters you’ll be using.  Every battle is in advance of the plot and has something new to teach you, so it keeps the levels from being too samey and you’ll never play “extra” missions either.  During battles, turn cycles are interesting as your units are “grouped” together and will take alternating turns with the enemy’s groups.  Since all of the battles are of very large scale, you’ll be taking on 10 to 20 enemies in one battle, and more will keep coming in sequential phases of the same battle.  You will have control over approximately the same amount of characters as well but, other than the Heroes, your ranks will be filled with generic solider-types that mimic the hero unit.  Using the unit groups strategically is important to minimizing your losses, and most of your units are a bit overpowered compared to your enemies.  It becomes necessary to quickly chew through as many enemies as possible to mitigate any future losses.

The tactics aren’t too out of the ordinary or even that complex when it comes to your strategy, but there are some interesting aspects.  Health pools are split into “Health” and “Guard;”  Health is not regenerative, but Guard is and can be recovered by special tiles on the map or by using a special action.  Special actions are limited by a resource called “Will.”  Characters regain Will by killing enemies, and can use powerful abilities to vanquish foes with skills that use Will.  Different unit types have different special abilities and they all mix in to your repertoire of strategy to fell your foes.  Some units are able to string together kills, hit multiple characters in a straight line, stun, do knockbacks, and more.  Possibly the most unique mechanic is Ambush.  Ambush can be used to disrupt your enemy’s plans by popping out your units from an Ambush point and killing the enemy at opportune times.  These are considered “stealth” turns by the game and happen outside of the planned turn cycle.

It can be a challenge to enjoy actually playing Tahira: EotAE, as it primarily tells its story through a cinematic approach and leaves the gameplay elements to the wayside in helping the story along.  The story basically pauses itself for pesky gameplay and you almost feel like you are wasting your time until you get through the battle at hand.  An example of a good mix of gameplay and story to move a game’s narrative along is X-COM: Enemy Unknown — the base-building and gameplay progression actually feeds into the game’s story along the way.  Unfortunately, a missed opportunity comes as there is no overall progression in Tahira: EotAE; no overlying gameplay system that rewards you when you defeat enemies or battles is present.  Your only impetus to do well is to minimize your losses in the beginning phases of a battle so the later phases can have more units, at which point you can more easily continue on with the story.  You feel like you are playing a new game of Chess each battle, and nothing you’ve done as a whole will help you in the future.  Nor is there any sort of talent system for Tahira herself to at least feel like you are taking a part in her gaining power.  Of course, you could just say “fuck it” and literally skip all of the combat by opening the menu and clicking the option to do so — yes, this is actually in the game.

At a few points you’ll enter an “exploration” mode where it becomes a bit of a normal RPG, talking to recurring characters and seeing the finer details of what is going on.  There is also a lot of opportunity for witty banter and interesting story bits, but there’s not a whole lot of different places where this occurs or anything “hidden” to find as far as I could tell.  There are also dialogue trees that seem to have little to no effect on the way the story ends in this episode.  By the way, it is clear to see that the game is meant to be an episodic series with the way the story ends.  There is no final resolution to any of the conflicts set up, and we are left with more questions than answers about what we experience.  All in all, the game will last around 10 to 15 hours depending on how well you do during the fights and what challenge level you decide to play on.  Or it can last about 30 minutes and you can skip all of the battles and just read through the story.

The shining aspect of Tahira: EotAE comes with its atmospheric music and wonderful art and animation.  The art has a very unique look to it and the animation of the units are fluidly motion captured.  The hand-drawn style of the game is a great look that makes it look more like a storybook and in turn more like fantasy.  Character designs are also interesting, more or less.  While voice acting isn’t really needed in every game, I can’t help but feel that since the idea was for the game to be cinematic that it should have paired some voice acting to the characters to get more of an attachment to their emotions.  Also, don’t be surprised when you see a couple of random F-bomb-equivalent words dropped in the dialogue.  They were “intriguing” when they did happen, but just end up sort of being needless since it only happens a few times.  I’m not one to complain about cursing usually, but they shouldn’t have restrained themselves if they were going to jump over that hurdle.  The main character definitely should have screamed “FUUUUUUCCKKKKKK!!!!” at some point.  Why the fuck not?

Tahira: EotAE is probably not going to impress seasoned strategy gamers just on its gameplay alone.  While some interesting aspects are introduced in the gameplay, they are not enough to help you stay engaged in wanting to complete the game “the long way.”  Because the battles are so long and there are so many enemies, you’ll feel like the game is very slow.  With no way to progress your troops, there will be very little reason to put up with any of it.  If a series of games is the plan, we’ll probably get an interesting story but not much else.

 

 

Branching Paths (2016) Review

branchingpaths

Branching Paths (2016), directed by Anne Ferrero

Production Company: Assemblage | Length: 83 min || Rating: 9/10

Branching Paths is a documentary that follows the director’s in-depth examination of the Japanese indie game scene.  Throughout the documentary, which spans over the course of 2013 to 2015, you’ll see just how diverse it really is; all sorts of different people are introduced in Branching Paths.  Of course most are of Japanese nationality, but there is a swath of internationalism that makes its way into the documentary, with westerners creating a foothold in Japan and becoming part of the diverse fabric that makes up the Japanese indie game scene.

The director takes a low-key narrating role when needed.  Much of the narrative is pushed by the interviews and text that pops up on the screen saying what event we are at and what the purpose of it is.  A series of indie game events occur in Japan during the time span of the documentary, and we revisit the same events in different years, which shows the subtle changes, recurring faces and recurring games to see their progress.  Games we are introduced to pop-up throughout the different events: Million Onion Hotel, Downwell, and TorqueL among others.

Much of the interviews focus on the culture and market of Japan as a whole and how North America is the biggest market for their indie games despite developing them in Japan.  Because the PC game market in Japan is so small, it is important for developers to make their games available on mobile or consoles, whereas to appeal to the North American market they almost always need to be on PC.  Many games are crowdsourced or find their success in the North American market before being able to become successful in Japan.  We also see the progression of the promotion of indie games by big publishers such as Sony and Microsoft, carving out spaces at the Tokyo Game Show, and creating an event just for indies in the form of BitSummit.

Interviews with higher profile Japanese indie developers such as Keiji Inafune of Mighty No. 9, Lucas Pope of Papers Please, Dylan Cuthbert of Pixel Junk (Q-Games), and IGA of Castlevania fame also make their way into the documentary.  It is interesting to learn a little bit about the similarities between indie developers no matter their origins.  There are many other lesser-known/locally known people who add to the composition of the documentary.  A segment of the documentary also explores the blurring of the lines between traditional “doujin” (self-published) media like comic books and the indie game market.

We don’t really get to know much about the director herself other than she was born in France, and grew up on Japanese games.  It would have been nice to learn a little more about the director during the first part of the movie, but it was obvious they didn’t want to lose focus from what the actual subject of the documentary was.  The director is possibly on screen one or two times but her personal journey feels more like a disembodied journey as a result.  She narrates two or three times and the last part of the documentary she doesn’t make any other narrations.  The quality of the cinematography is quite good, and I was only frazzled by a couple of weird shots they kept re-using, such as focusing in on a person’s top half of their head and not seeing their mouth, or people’s fingers.  B-roll like this probably could have been better replaced by more video about that developer’s game or something.

Another thing to note about Branching Paths, is that it is subtitled about 90% of the time.  The documentary is interestingly multilingual as you’ll see most interviews in Japanese, a few interviews in English, and the bits of narration done in French.  If you aren’t a fan of subtitles, it might not be for you, but you’d have to be gifted in language to enjoy this without subtitles.  It would have also been nice if the documentary spaced out interviews a bit at times so as to not have to read subtitles while also having to read titling about events/dates.

Branching Paths is an interesting look into a niche market in the overall gaming industry.  A lot of focus has been put on indie gaming and mobile gaming in the past few years, and focusing on this area is a unique subject.  Most of what is learned in this documentary may be more interesting for people who aren’t particularly sensitive to the nuances of gaming culture/markets, but even I learned a few things from this documentary.  It held my interest throughout and didn’t really drag at any point.  Branching Paths is available on Steam for $9.99.

A trailer for the documentary can be seen below:

 

Squacklecast Episode 31 – “The Beach Sucks”

Wow its been like 3 or 4 months since the last one?  Well, here’s another SQUACKLECAST.

We talk about how much I hate having “fun” on the 4th of July weekend.

X-Men Apocalypse and Warcraft are the main topics otherwise.

Pixar’s Finding Dory is out, we haven’t seen it, but we talk about how hard it is for us to say which Pixar movies we actually really like for some reason.  Who actually asked for a sequel to Finding Nemo anyway?

Clifford the Big Red Dog is also coming to the big screen.

Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich come up.  We also talk about their careers.

We then talk about this Uno card game for the PS1, with this amazing opening movie.

 

I’m probably missing some things.  ANYWAY!  See ya next time!

 

Armello (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: League of Geeks || Overall: 9.0/10

The Kingdom of Armello is in peril.  The unifying King of the diverse clans has gone mad and peace is decaying into war.  How to deal with the King and counteract the instability is the issue at hand as the fate of your home allegiance rests with you.  This is the scenario that the tabletop card-based strategy game Armello presents.

A very appealing art style is the first thing I noticed.  Armello is a beautiful game with charming characters and world-building card art that gives you glimpses into the society that exists in the Kingdom of Armello.  In the fantasy setting, animals are the primary characters, representing races and clans that rally against one another in the impending breakdown of society.  The main characters of the game are represented by (male and female) wolves, rats, rabbits, and bears, each with their unique buffs.  The art of the cards you eventually begin to play with show other types of animals like badgers, weasels, dogs, and the like, with a lion being the king.  A great amount of care is put into the art, and the animation each card has gives the game a lot of life.  The Day and Night cycle of turns also makes the world feel lived-in.  The soundtrack is very delightful and fits in perfectly with the game.

After a light and fun Prologue, you learn a bit about each of the major clans and the stake they have in the conflict.  The Prologue primarily focuses on teaching you about fundamentals of the information you see on screen, most of which is actually very simple.  Where the complexity enters is when all of the aspects integrate together.

There is a lot of terminology to learn, and how each individual thing affects you.  Gold, Prestige, Magic, Rot, Wits, Body, Fight, Spirit, and Action Points are the primary values you’ll need to be aware of.  Each of these are manipulated in a multitude of ways by yourself and enemies alike, and each are used for specific purposes.  Most are used as resources to be able to play cards, while Fight, Spirit, and Rot give you dice to roll while attacking — each have multiple uses and can be very powerful depending on your overall goal.

You’ll draw cards that layer on to the complexity of Armello.  Like many other card games, the order in which you play them matters a great deal.  You can also burn cards you don’t want to use to assure certain dice rolls, and at the beginning of your next turn you can pull cards up to your maximum.  Your maximum cards held is dictated by your Wits stat.  An example of a card is spending three Magic to give yourself a +1 Action Point buff for two turns.

Starting from your Clan Grounds, you’ll move your hero across the board with objectives in mind.  If you encounter a town, you’ll gain one Gold per turn as long as it is held under your banner.  If you run across a Stone Circle, you will heal one Body (the health stat), while entering a Swamp removes one Body.  Dungeons offer a chance to gain one of many possible rewards or spawns a Bane, which is a creature born of the Rot corruption plaguing Armello.  Your overall objectives come in a few forms.  A personalized objective, given as a quest, offers permanent buffs to your stats and a chance at obtaining a piece of equipment or another useful buff.  Using the board to your advantage is required to be able to accomplish the game-winning objectives.  Deaths will also occur over and over, and you’ll respawn at your Clan Grounds if you die or are killed.

To win the game, you are able to do a number of different things that everyone is competing for.  A Prestige win is considered a political win; killing other Heroes gains one Prestige, as well as completing quests.  At the end of a turn, the Prestige Leader gets to choose a King’s Declaration which is a per-turn decision that affects the game’s flow.  As the Prestige Leader, you can choose the one that is most convenient to you or will help you keep your Prestige Leader status.  Dying or killing the King’s Guard loses one Prestige, allowing others to catch up.  The Prestige win is a long-game win, as you’ll have to wait until the King expires from the Rot, which is typically at most ten full turns.  If any other objectives are completed before then, the Prestige win will be defeated.

Another way to win is by collecting Spirit Stones to hand over to the King to cure him of his Rot.  You can also gain as much Rot as you can so you can defeat the King in battle and rule the lands yourself as a corrupted king.  Gaining Rot can help you if you have more than your enemy, as during the attack phases you gain bonus dice to roll.  However, Rot can lead to Corruption and with it come instant death on Stone Circle plots.   As a result, you are unable to heal without using cards and Rot subtracts one health at the start of every turn if you have any.

A single game can last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour depending on how slow plays are.  Tactics will shift several times during the game depending on others’ progress.  The game board’s setting always takes place at the foot of the King’s castle, and is shuffled at every new game, so the plots will be in different places each time.  As of now, there is also a “winter theme” of the board where snow covers the entire board, and it seems like other themes could eventually be developed.  While there are no alternate locations to play, they wouldn’t make much sense in the context of the existing story conflict unless something new were set up.  They could easily expand on the game with more cards, and extra story to set up new maps would also be a nice addition.  As you play the game you’ll unlock more pre-game perks which can customize your play style.  Finding all of the cards (there are around 130) is also very satisfying as you try to complete your card gallery.

While the story of Armello is interesting and there is a lot of world-building, it isn’t very deep.  The majority of the story comes in the Prologue you play to learn about the game, and whatever you can glean off of the quests.  There isn’t really a resolution to the story other than the eventual ending of the King’s corruption, by death or otherwise.  A single player mode is included in which you play with AI, but the game is clearly built for a multiplayer environment.  An online mulitplayer mode is available that allows you to jump right in and play with other people, as well as a Ranked mode due to be released with free patch v1.1.  An assortment of free and paid updates are planned for the game, so it will be interesting to see what comes about from the developers.

All in all, Armello is a diverse mash of several different objectives, quests, resources, and characters.  Using all of it to your advantage and learning the order in which you should play certain cards is very important to completing the objectives you have at hand.  People who enjoy tabletop board games will certainly enjoy this game and being able to play with their friends.  Armello is available on Steam and PS4 at $19.99.

09/18/16 – The Usurpers Hero Pack (DLC) Review || Overall: Recommended

Released on August 30th, the Usurpers Pack DLC adds on four unique heroes into the Armello mix.  There are also an assortment of new buffs that are available for selection before entering a new game.  While new players may not necessarily understand the benefits the new heroes or buffs provide, know that it adds a new layer of strategy on top of the diversification of the hero roster.  The main addition, of course are the heroes:

Magna – a shieldmaiden.  My personal favorite of the four new heroes.  Can reflect attacks.

Sargon – a “veil gazer.”  The top card on the deck can be seen during draw card phase.

Ghor – Magic spent is more efficient on forest tiles, and can cast globally on any forest tile

Elyssia – Permanent fortification of settlements if a turn is ended on one.  Good for taking a defensive approach against your enemies.

If you are an avid fan of Armello, it will be worth the entry price to enjoy these new heroes.  On account that there are no new game modes in this DLC pack, there isn’t anything that will change your opinion of the game; in my view it is still a great time.  All of the new characters fit right in with the others and while a couple are plainly a better choice to pick, any of the new heroes hold a viable path to victory.