Thursday, September 3, 2015

Like the Batman character?

Have you ever fallen so completely head over heels in love with a game that thinking about it kept you up at night? And if so, was it ever just the tutorial that did this to you? And if so, did you come back to play it again the next day, and just like Seinfeld's two faced girl, it was not quite what it seemed to be?

I'm old, therefore I am allowed to make Seinfeld references.

The game in question was not The Deer God, a boring platformer spiced up by ill conceived role playing elements, an inscrutable check point system involving fathering more deer and a bizarre anti-hunting message. The game opens with a hunter drawing a bead on a nice big buck. No problems so far, deer are tasty (not that I hunt myself, being out in the cold and owning fire arms are two things I do not do). The hunter is attacked by wolves and while dying fires an errant shot that kills a fawn. He is then paraded in front of the deer god and turned into a deer to pay for his sins.

His sins? It was the fucking wolves who made him shoot the fawn!

Regardless of its dubious message, the game is not fun to play once the silliness of a deer with a double jump wears off. To the game's credit, it does keep its rouguelike nature confined to the hardcore difficulty setting, so I was able to play for just a little longer before getting bored. And getting killed over and over by a giant frog that spit out flaming tiny frogs.

The game in question is also not Grow Home. Why was there hype about this game? Why did people choose it as one of the free PS+ games this month? Unlike The Deer God this is a boring 3D platformer with very floaty controls instead of just imprecise controls. The robots jump is almost useless and he quite often trips over his own feet and careens off the edge of the giant mushroom you just spent five minutes climbing. Is this supposed to be cute, to endear the robot to the player?

I didn't play enough to see the giant plant growing bits that everyone seemed to be excited about. What was the point, the robot would just fall off and look cute. If I wanted cute robots I would watch Wall-E and bitch about the ending again.

No, the game that created sleep depriving infatuation was Armello, a card based board game hybrid that was purchased based on the words 'card based' and 'board game' being in the description. It isn't kidding. Armello is equal parts Legend of the Five Rings (the CCG I played in college when I wasn't playing Magic) and Settlers of Catan, not to be confused with Culdcept Saga, which was equal parts Magic and Monopoly, the importance of which I will go over in a bit.

I expressed my childlike excitement to Chance and his sensible reply was that he never understood the allure of digital card based games. He is correct, part of the fun of Magic is having that paper crack in your hands. The difference is that, by going digital, the game can have incredibly complex rules and the player does not need to waste time doing all the math to resolve them. For example, I learned to play Catan on Xbox 360 and I cannot imagine playing that without computer assistance, to say nothing of losing all the pieces. Aremllo is Catan plus more rules.

Let me see if I can sum the game up: the king of the land has fallen victim to rot, an evil magic infestation that has driven him mad and is slowly killing him. It is the players' job to replace him as king. Killing him is one way to win the game but he is still quite powerful and never leaves his castle. The player can also have the most prestige when the king is killed by the rot (or if the king and another attacking player kill each other in combat). Prestige is earned by killing other players or by completing quests. There is also a spirit stone victory in which a player collects four spirit stones and then using them to cure (and kill) the king. Finally there is a rot victory in which a player becomes even more corrupted then the king and kills him in combat.

But wait, there's more. There are equipment cards and magic cards and peril cards that can be placed on the board. There are the king's guard, a neutral faction that will only attack players when they make a move into the palace. There are monsters created from the rot that terrorize villages and attack everyone within sight. Mechanics on top of mechanics. The depth is astounding.

On the first night I played the tutorial and I was in love, to the point that if Metal Gear or Mad Max arrived the next day, fuck 'em.

Last night I played a few games of single player and one multiplayer match and the game presented itself in a different light. First, there is no customization of what cards you have in your decks. All cards are unlocked from the very beginning and it is just luck of the draw as to which ones show up. Second, the board itself never changes. A huge part of Catan is the shuffling of the play field. It is never the same way twice. In Armello the king's keep is always on the center and the player's strongholds are always on the four corners. As far as I could tell the layout of everything in between was exactly the same in each of the three games I played. Third, there really is no single player, it is just a multiplayer match with AI poorly playing the other characters.

This is where the Culdcept Saga comparison comes in. Culdcept Saga is literally Magic + Monopoly. You build a deck of creatures instead of properties and then move around a board placing them and leveling them up. When another player lands on an occupied square combat takes place and the loser pays the rent. It works because you can customize your deck and there are many different boards plus there is a real single player campaign in which cards are unlocked and an over the top silly story is told. (Side note to Microsoft: add Culdcept Saga to the backwards compatibility list or we will have words)

Armello is still exceptional but it is only half a game. Allow deck customization and shuffle up the board and I will never, ever stop playing. Instead I have quickly fallen out of love and am looking forward to silently choking fools or killing war boys and leaving their corpses to rot in the wasteland, whichever arrives first.

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