City of the Shroud (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Abyssal Arts Ltd || Overall: 5.5/10

When I think of City of the Shroud, I think two words: boring and frustrating.  City of the Shroud gets just a smidgen above “playable” since it tries a couple of new things.  Though these “new things” are executed poorly, there’s a layer of uniqueness underneath that feels like it should have been something better than it is.  Essentially, City of the Shroud feels like two different games mashed into one, and neither part is necessarily fun, and in fact are quite frustrating.

City of the Shroud touts itself as having a real-time, combo-based battle system.  My big problem with the gameplay is exactly that.  What City of Shroud actually is, is your typical turn-based strategy game, except it all progresses in real-time, so it’s all just a giant mess of things happening at once.  The combo-based wheel control system takes up half of the screen, so you can’t see anything, and it is also clumsy to use.  Perhaps this feeling may change later in the game (if your interest holds), but the inputs take way too long for the pace of which the battle is going. There aren’t any special abilities outside of what is being commanded on the wheel, so as long as you are setting up the combos on the nearest enemy, you’re doing what you need to do.  The combos are class-specific and deal a lot of damage, so they are mandatory to use since everyone’s HP values are very high.

Once you are actually past the tutorial levels (which takes about 1.5 hours for some reason) your first legit battle is just a bunch of your characters standing around while you are fiddling with the combo wheel for one of your characters.  The fighting itself is not very satisfying at all, so it doesn’t really motivate you to keep fiddling around with the big stupid wheel that covers half of the screen to see less-than-exciting combat.  This is the default, normal game mode, and there are ways to modify the speed/difficulty of gameplay, but the enterprise is largely the same despite that.  There’s also a multiplayer Vs. mode, but on account that the battle system is no fun, I’m not sure why anyone would want to use it.  There is matchmaking at least, so you don’t have to rely on a friend being on to play.

If you can deal with the combat system, there’s also another big issue.  Enemy variety.  There are a set number of classes and that’s it.  There aren’t even technically enemies, as you are just fighting pallet-swapped versions of the same classes.  The player character is some poor farmer dude in a cloak, but then he is represented by a generic “warrior” class sprite, which looks nothing like the character, or even the picture they use in the dialogue screens.  The reason why it’s like this becomes obvious; at a later point they let you change your main character’s class to any of the other classes, and thus their models.  There are also monsters invading from another dimension, but, again, they are just pallet-swapped versions of the same models we’ve seen, so why are people scared of these “monsters” exactly?  Not really sure.  Eventually, you are able to assemble a four-person team of additional generic characters, and all of them are nothing more than stand-ins to fill out your team.  They have customization options, at least.

The story premise at its core has an interesting set up, as there is a city that people are not allowed to leave once they are in it.  Reason being, the aforementioned monsters are coming through portals and killing/abducting people.  So, what you do is run around town doing menial tasks and meeting poor/rich people, learn about the politics, and eventually figure out which faction you want to become allies with.  The battles that occur in the storyline sort of “interrupt” the story in not-so-exciting ways, like “HEY THERE’S A PORTAL RIGHT NOW OMIGOD GO BATTLE IT” in the middle of a conversation about decorative jewelry for a hat.  This happens a lot, so it feels very lazy.

Anyhow, there seems to be very little reason to actually want to do battle, since there is no leveling system per se. At the end of a battle, you have the possibility of getting gems for character progression.  One set of gems is for the “combos” so you can deal more damage in the battles that are no fun.  The other type of gems are for character stats, which are placed into sockets; there are only so many open sockets of each type, so some decision making seems to occur there.

Additionally, the story sort of doesn’t take itself seriously, with the main character and the main supporting character being goofballs, and everyone else being super serious.  There’s also a lot of politics involved, and they re-use the dialogue pictures for different characters, so it feels yet again like there’s some corners being cut in the presentation. The story will supposedly be influenced by what players do in the game, as far as who they align with and which faction pulls ahead by whatever metrics the developer has in mind.  They intend to craft the story around these decisions and release new story content in four chapters total.  There are a few decisions to make, but they aren’t complex by any means.

The different areas of the map are represented by a single picture and a box in the bottom right corner for whoever you need to talk to.  Eventually you get to a point in the story where they allow you to randomly battle in each of the areas you unlock.  There’s so much useless dialogue, I was getting fatigued trying to keep up with it all, and the story isn’t even that complex.  This is no Masquerada, where you are learning about the ins and outs of your player character and his interactions with others and society, and feeling like you are investing your time into learning about a well thought out universe.  In City of the Shroud, with all of the “extra” dialogue included, it is hard to know what specifically you should be focusing on and why.  Extra stuff needs to be left to optional quests or compendiums.

A quick note about the art style, it is actually interesting at times, such as a “priest” being represented by a machinist with a huge backpack full of spare parts in it.  I’m unsure where all of this imaginative visual storytelling went when it came to the dialogue.  The music is fine, but is repetitive, as it feels like there’s only a few songs and the tracks change depending on what area of the map you’re in.  You hop around a lot, so you’ll be familiar with all of the songs quickly.

While City of the Shroud has some interesting aspects, it is a complete let down in its execution.  I don’t often yell “I don’t want to play this anymore” out loud, but this is one of those times.  I think I’m more frustrated with what the game could have been if there was a better vision behind it.

 

Trailmakers (PC) Early Access Preview

Developer/Publisher: Flashbulb || Outlook: Seems Promising

My generation, like a couple of other generations, had access to physical toys, such as building blocks or “LEGOS.”  You could build spaceships, castles, cars …or at least something that could pass for them.  In many ways we see that “idea” of creation in many of the most popular games today, but getting back to the basics of “creating a car” with building blocks is what Trailmakers attempts to do.

Now this particular concept isn’t new to gaming, but since I’ve never played Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, it’s new to me.  I’ve seen videos and heard awful things about that game.  So, to me, Trailmakers, seems like someone had a part in developing that game, thought they could do a better job in retrospect, and from that comes this Early Access title.  Flashbulb, the developer, is apparently made up of Rare and IO Interactive veterans, so the scenario is entirely plausible.  Obviously at this point, the game doesn’t feel anywhere near complete, but there is plenty of foundation built into it, and is seemingly waiting for the content to make it “fun.”  There have already been a couple of updates that add different modes, so the focus of the game has already changed since I initially began playing.

In Expedition Mode, your character arrives to this “racing planet” full of hazards, ramps, and lots of annoying shit to collect along the way.  The more things you collect, the more things you unlock to customize your vehicle.  You can save as many versions of your creations as you like, modify an existing blueprint, import blueprints, or start from scratch just to get through one hazard.  Once you have more pieces unlocked, your creations will obviously get more complex, with engines, wheels, different size blocks, doohickeys, gizmos, dildos, and an assortment of other random things I don’t know how to use correctly.  This might be fun for some people, but unfortunately if you’re impatient and don’t really find the enjoyment in tinkering around using a mouse/keyboard (or a controller) to build vehicles, it becomes a tedious task.  The builder itself is about as good as it can be, but since you are building in a 3D space, it can get annoying to see where things are being placed without moving your camera multiple times for each piece.  It just isn’t the same as holding blocks in your hand and putting things where you want them to go.

The driving isn’t necessarily that much fun, and the map is full of forks and different paths that lead to the same end point.  There’s also a lot of empty space, but considering you’re meant to drive around, its probably not that big of a deal.  Outside of collecting shit, there’s not a whole lot “to do” other than get past hazards and get to the next zone to collect more things.  More plainly, the gameplay loop is lacking severely; there’s just basically no reason to play unless you really enjoy making new things in the builder.

The driving controls are floaty as hell, but I’m unsure if this is part of the design or not.  The point of collecting better upgrades and designing a vehicle that works well aerodynamically and with the types of engines you are using seems to be part of the challenge, but it isn’t structured very well.  There are no early-on upgrades that can improve your controls very much, and its a constant struggle considering they intentionally make them worse if you aren’t designing your vehicle correctly according to the in-game physics.  Another annoying aspect is that the camera isn’t able to be controlled while driving, at least with a controller.

I think the fact that it is an open world with no other “racers” to race against is a large part of what makes the game feel boring outside of building.  There isn’t any motivation to continue dealing with the crappiness of the controls or tediousness of having to build something to just get through one hazard. Redesigning everything from scratch over and over becomes an exercise in “doing the bare minimum” to get past whatever is stopping you.  You might be able to stumble through hazards with your same vehicle, but you’ll be dying over and over.  There’s a lot of things that will clip your vehicle or make you blow up, so you’ll constantly be respawning at the last checkpoint over and over.

The Race Island mode, which was recently added, allows you to more fully tinker around with the game’s systems as everything will be already unlocked.  You’ll only be doing “time trials” as there are still no other racers to race against, but it is more satisfying to be able to mess around with a large array of items from the beginning — it doesn’t feel like you’re “missing” anything.  However, without proper tutorials you’re going to be building some really wacky things that don’t work the way you think they should, and all of a sudden you have a helicopter that flies upside down and goes directly up.

Trailmakers will probably appeal to a certain set of gamer that really enjoys fiddling around with mechanical engineering concepts.  Seeing what works and what doesn’t work in a real physics-driven world is pretty cool considering the amount of freedom you’re allowed to build things.  I would have really appreciated some sort of generic base blueprint archive of some sort so that I could just click it and go with a new vehicle once I had everything unlocked and then modify it as I saw fit.  As of now, there’s plenty more that needs to be added to the game to make it more appealing to someone like me, but with the existing foundation already included, it seems promising that a worthwhile game could be made out of this.

 

Jingle Bells Song #24440

Batman’s in the kitchen,
Robin’s in the hall,
Joker’s in the bathroom,
Peeing on the wall!

Joker just went number 2
in Batman’s shoe,
Robin’s in the bathroom
cleaning up the doo!

Jingle Bells,
Batman smells,
Robin laid an egg!
Batmobile lost its wheel
and Joker got away!

 

Jingle Bells Song #21902

Dashing through the snow
I think I’m going to die
Over the hills we go
Bashing in the clouds
Ow ow ow!

Snow is turning green
I think its time to roar
And now the skis are right for them
They’re not broke anymore

O jingle bells
Brussel sprouts
3 more times

I said Batmobiles
Keep their wheels
And Joker stays with Batman, hey!

 

Joke #18545

My teenaged niece Elizabeth was nervous as she took the wheel for her first driving lesson.

As she was pulling out of the parking lot, the instructor said, “Turn left here, and don’t forget to let the people behind you know what you’re doing.”

Elizabeth turned to the students sitting in the backseat and announced, “I’m going left.”