Category Archives: PC

Nostalgia

My slow crawl back to more active gaming has continued this week with modern retro. It was time to check out the only (physical) PC game in my collection, Thimbleweed Park, which after a lengthy development period finally saw daylight last fall. Courtesy of graphic adventure grand old man Ron Gilbert, it provides a really impressive time trip back to the late 80’s and early 90’s when wild adventures by LucasArts and Sierra pretty much defined the gaming childhood of us old farts. For some reason the genre, as popular as it was back then, slowly sank into oblivion. No wonder, then, that the stylishly retro Thimbleweed Park immediately felt like the second coming of adventuring Jesus.

The game promises highest quality old school entertainment from its very beginning. The year is 1987 when two federal agents, Ray and Reyes, end up in the tiny hamlet of Thimbleweed Park (population 80) to investigate a local murder. Thematically it’s something along the lines of Twin Peaks or X-Files while visually it’s back to the early Lucasfilm days, although with a much more vibrant color scheme and pretty decent voice acting. Fans of the genre should feel right at home. Action verbs on the bottom left, inventory on the bottom right, and plenty of locations to explore with characters, items, discussions, and events each stranger than the previous ones. The cast of two playable characters soon grows to five, one of them having already passed on no less. Their fates are mysteriously interconnected and for a single night, the town of Thimbleweed Park acts as a grand stage for an adventure experience most abundant.

Although the challenge of any adventure game always depends on the player’s own noggin, the balance between sensible logic and sheer absurdity initially seems pretty good. As a delightful innovation in a game that is otherwise so (deliberately) old-fashioned, each character always carries a personal notebook that keeps a broad but consistent track of their personal goals. As for the town itself, it’s pleasantly compact at first, and when the exploration area eventually expands, a handy guide map allows quick travel to any location. Those familiar with the old adventure classics are showered with generous fan service at every possible turn, and both verbal and situational comedy work remarkably well.

This time the elephant-sized hole lies in Thimbleweed Park being an uncompromising journey to both the good but also the bad of old times. When the game mocks its former rival studio about how their games featured cheap sudden deaths to artificially lengthen the overall experience, that is fun. When I lost almost an hour of my own progress in a similar fashion, that was not. When the game laughs at pointless items that were used to confuse the player, that’s fun. It’s still mildly amusing that this game, too, features such items (and a LOT of them) but that you can simply toss them in the nearest trash bin. What is no longer fun is that it is also possible to accidentally bin something of actual importance. Thimbleweed Park makes a lot of fun about the cheapness of old graphic adventures only to troll its player in similar but often even more unpredictable ways.

Towards the end, puzzles become increasingly more abstract. When all characters are available and the entire play area open for exploration, there’s just too much to cover. Sure, the automatic notes are always there to tell what should be achieved but it’s still easy to hit a roadblock with all five characters. When eventually being able to make at least a little bit of progress, the joy sometimes lasts for about five seconds before getting stumped again. Granted, some dialogue probably hints vaguely on what might be worth trying but such hints easily drown into excessive noise. You can never be quite sure if the game is trying to pass on a hint or if it’s simply entertaining you with (genuinely funny) dialogue as it does 95% of the time.

As a polite gesture, Thimbleweed Park does feature an in-game hintline. It can be called at any point in the game to receive progressively clearer hints on how to solve any given puzzle but it goes without saying that resorting to something like that pretty much equals virtual seppuku for most self-respecting adventure gamers. Despite that, I eventually got so fed up with aimless wandering around that during the last three hours of the game, I abused it on an almost constant basis. Some of the solutions were simple enough to nearly make me hit myself but there were also many that would’ve probably taken me days to figure out and even then the revelation would have been along the lines of “Oooookay… So that’s what it was all about… Yeah, suuuure…”

On whole, Thimbleweed Park left me feeling slightly conflicted. It definitely does an absolutely brilliant job of resurrecting all that was so magical about past graphic adventures but it fails to fix many of the things that might have been part of the reason why they went out of style to begin with. Despite that, the approach itself is so commendable that if there’s ever going to be more in a similar vein, we’ll meet at the checkout line once more!

Punful Days with a Side Order of Cats

Spirry just being her (?) lovable curt self

Good quality games can pop up from anywhere around the world. Yesterday, this claim was proved by the Singaporean indie studio The Gentlebros, whose consciously tongue-in-cheek cat action RPG Cat Quest managed to glue me to the telly for all of its eight hours’ worth. Its nameless feline hero is in trouble from the very beginning. A wicked white cat, Drakoth, kidnaps his sister and starts terrorizing the hapless, peasant-filled kingdom of Felingrad with ancient dragons. As luck would have it, our poor hero turns out to be a descendant of the mythical dragon slayers. Granted, he’s also very much the silent type but that’s not really an issue as he’s soon joined by a jovial and chatty cat spirit Spirry. Together, these two end up pouncing all over Felingrad, foiling Drakoth’s dastardly plans while bumping into pretty much every imaginable, most awkward cat pun in known existence.

After a delightfully compact intro, almost the entirety of Felingrad is immediately open for exploration. The whole game world is literally a map that has been filled with amusingly named areas, villages, dungeons, and a bunch of cutesy monsters. The latter are beaten in fluent real-time combat that is based on skillfully simplified controls. One button is reserved for attacking and another for nimby rolling away from harm’s way. The four shoulder buttons of the controller, in turn, can be customized to fling spells sold and enhanced by Felingrad’s mage kittens. Although magic is powerful, it requires mana that can only be restored in melee combat, so all brawls require at least a modicum of tactical thinking. As for items or shops, there are none. Village inns are just free save spots and practically all weapons and gear are acquired from cat chests within dungeons.

In order to keep the player suitably leveled up for the main story, all villages have notice boards providing plenty of miscellaneous side quests. Some of them end up teaching the hero essential special skills such as the ability to walk on water or even fly. Most of them, though, are merely simple variations of themes such as “fetch something”, “go somewhere”, “kill all”, or usually all three rolled into one. While this sort of lazy and haphazard quest design would poison pretty much any game, Cat Quest sports a full house of cuteness and (good) bad humor but, most importantly, exemplary pacing. Since all the quests and dungeons are extraordinarily short, those eight hours are perfectly adequate to complete all 62 side quests, triumph over all 52 dungeons, and even level up the hero all the way up to 99. Even if the entire adventure ends up repeating itself from the very beginning to the very end, the pace itself is so delightfully brisk that the repetition never has time to turn into an actual issue. Since all quests and dungeons are even polite enough to hint what their recommended character level is, there’s not even need for pointless grinding.

Whereas so many games, indies in particular, expect their players to come around and then stay around for extended, often unreasonably long periods of time, Cat Quest is lovably honest. It is fully aware of its capability to provide goofy entertainment for no more than a day or so, but it also does its darnedest to ensure that day will be as entertaining as possible. That’s exactly how mine turned out, so mission accomplished and two thumbs up!

That aforementioned mini-gem also kicked off this year’s shopping coverage as Ron Gilbert’s Thimbleweed Park actually managed to find its new home during the very last days of 2017. Not only is it my first (and most likely last) physical PC release, it’s most certainly one of the finest commemorations to all those wonderful Lucasfilm graphic adventures of the late 80’s and early 90’s. You know, those games that were loved by so many of us modern day geezers who were too broke and flippant as teenagers back then. Even if the likes of Good Old Games have since then given us a chance to atone digitally, those big boxes of the past remain just as awesome as they once were.

E-Threesome

Either I need a vacation or I’m just getting old (or most likely a bit of both) but this year’s E3 galloped past without leaving much of an impression. For the first time in years, I skipped the live press conferences of the Big Three and didn’t even bother to watch them afterwards. Even if that was a subconscious decision, the overall feedback seems to support it; the traditional big companies showed off their traditional big stuff, and their showpieces seemed vaguely nice but not really anything more than that.

Still, digging around the outskirts of the big budget AAA swamp wasn’t a complete waste of time, given that E3 was still courteous enough to provide something for us pathetic hipster farts, too. First, there was Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom which finally got a solid release November release date. I’m not particularly thrilled that the children of the first game got replaced with teen protagonists but since Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, back in its day, was one pretty damn solid JRPG, I’m pre-ordering its sequel the very second it becomes available. The dub in the trailer isn’t particularly impressive but here’s hoping the original audio will be included.

The second place of this year’s E3 goes to Life Is Strange: Before the Storm. The first Life Is Strange readily challenged (the sometimes equally impressive) Telltale for the crown of emotion- and story-driven adventures, and if there’s more to be experienced then I’m first in the line. Sure, it’s still an episodic adventure split into three parts, so I’ll wait until they’re all out and dressed into a physical form but I’m very much in the line nonetheless. Before the Storm kicks off at the end of August this year, so with a bit of luck it’s going to be one awfully wonderful journey by early 2018.

For now, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim doesn’t even have a western release date (not even a Japanese one for that matter) but since its trailer has been localized, we’ll probably get to enjoy this Vanillaware latest eventually. Seems like yet another harrowingly beautiful 2D action-adventure but as it’s a recipe that has worked before, I have no qualms supporting it further.