Sunday, November 1, 2015

Creepy Cardboard: Dead of Winter

Zombies reached their saturation point years ago, and the board game world is no exception. It seems like there are tons of games that just slap on a zombie theme and call it a day. But every once in a while, a game takes the tired theme and uses it to perfect effect. One such game is Dead of Winter. 

The set up of the game is simple. You are part of a colony of survivors that are just trying to survive the combination of winter and the zombie apocalypse. There are several different scenario that you can play that change the overall object of the game. Each player controls a set of characters, and throughout the game you move around to various locations and search for items that your group needs for survival. 

In addition to the main objective (and trying to stay alive), each round has a series of objectives that you have to complete. You'll have to make sure to have enough food on hand by the end of the round to feed all of the people at your colony, make sure your place isn't overrun with junk and fight off the zombies that are amassing at each of the locations. Each round also has a crisis that everyone has to work together to deal with. For example, your group needs to put X number of food cards in the pile by the end of the round, or they get extra zombies invading. 

Here is where the game gets interesting. While it is cooperative, each player has a secret objective that is dealt to them at the beginning of the game. This could be anything from "end the game with the most characters" or "have four food cards in your hand at the end." There are also objectives that make the player a traitor, only able to win if they cause the rest of colony to lose. 

You have a mix of traitor and regular objective cards that you deal out at the beginning of the game so that there is a chance, but not a guarantee, that there will be a traitor. This fills every round with tension and mistrust. Player 1 hasn't been contributing medicine cards, does that mean they need it for their secret objectives or they are trying to tank the group? When you adds cards to help resolve the crisis, you do it face down, so that if you are a traitor you can put in the wrong card. That mechanic really adds to the tension of the game, but also enhances the theme perfectly. It's the end of the world, so why should you trust others?

The other interesting mechanic this game introduces is the Crossroads cards. At the beginning of each turn, the player to the right of the player whose turn it is draws a card. This card has a conditional on it, and if the condition is met, the card is read. The Crossroad cards each feature a choice that has various consequences for the individual or the group. Again, it's a great mechanic that really adds an extra element of tension and matches with the game's theme. The little scenarios are often well written and feature interesting choices. For example, if you travel to the school and are playing as the teacher character, you could trigger a Crossroads card that says that you come across some of your former students in the school and you have to decide between letting them live and taking some damage or burning down the school and losing that location. 

The game may require a bit of a more advanced group of players, as confusion about the rules can lead to someone inadvertently revealing that they are the traitor. Also, some beginning players may not feel comfortable coming up with strategies where they have to lie to other players. 

I absolutely love this game. To me, games that really play up the social aspect are a lot of fun. In this game, you're not only trying to figure out the best strategy to beat the game, but you're also trying to read the other players to see if they are a traitor. That moment when you are going through the crisis cards and think you have enough to successfully resolve it, only to find someone put in the wrong kind of card is really sublime. You immediately have to start pointing fingers and trying to call out the traitor. The game is a bit fiddly, but as long as you have someone that knows the rules well in order to keep the group on track, you'll have a blast.  

Friday, October 23, 2015

Crimson Peak Review

In my opinion, there's no better way to get ready for Halloween than another horror film from Guillermo del Toro. Longtime readers may know that he's easily one of my favorite all-time filmmakers, so anytime he's got a new movie in theaters, I'm there, opening weekend. His movies generally fall into one of two categories: kick-ass action movies (Pacific Rim, Hellboy series) or creepy melodramas with a supernatural backdrop (Pan's Labyrinth, Devil's Backbone). No matter which type of del Toro movie you get, you can always bet it will be a gorgeous film filled with a painstaking amount of detail.

Crimson Peak definitely falls into the later category. Del Toro is very vocal about how this movie is a gothic romance set in a haunted house rather than a haunted house scarefest. The main character even goes as far as to say that the story she's writing is a story with ghosts, rather than a ghost story. The movie is about Edith Cushing, an aspiring writer who falls for Thomas Sharpe, an Englishman who is looking for funds to help harvest the resources on his family estate. Edith eventually moves back to England with Thomas and lives with him and his sister Lucille in their decaying manor. It doesn't take long before the manor's ghosts, both literal and metaphorical, complicate life for the characters.

While it takes a bit longer than expected to make it to the manner, it's worth the wait. Allerdale Hall is a once beautiful mansion that has fallen into disrepair. A hole in the roof allows leaves to slowly fall in the foyer. Red clay seeps up from the foundation, bleeding from the floor. Everything in it look absolutely authentic while still being lavish. Allerdale Hall really becomes a character in the story, one that has different effects on each of the characters.

The beauty of the location is only one portion of the amazing visuals of this film. You always know you're in for a visual treat when you watch a Guillermo del Toro movie, but this one is marvelous. Every detail is perfect, and you could print out almost any frame of the film and hang it on your wall. Despite being CG, the ghosts in the film are quite horrifically rendered, if underutilized in the film.

The plot, while well-realized, is very particularly surprising. There are mysteries in the film, but they all have relatively predictable outcomes. This isn't to say the film is poorly-written, but if you're looking for a ghost story that will have you guessing until the end, this is not it. There are a couple moments of shocking violence that did surprise me, but most of the plot goes how you would expect it to from the beginning. Despite predictability, there are some really wonderful moments in the film. One that jumps to mind immediately is a beautiful dance scene in the beginning where Thomas demonstrates the European Waltz for a crowd of people, with Edith as his partner. The characters in the film are also very interesting and do a great job of dictating the plot, rather than the other way around.

It's crazy to think that the last movie del Toro did before this one was Pacific Rim, as the two movies couldn't be any more different. The only think that remains constant is sharp, memorable characters along with an unparalleled attention to detail. I feel bad that the marketing made it look like a super scary horror film, because I think that's part of the reason that the critical reception for this one has been luke warm. I found the film absolutely wonderful. Be sure to check it out on the big screen, as the visuals are really worth seeing in the biggest format possible. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Creepy Cardboard: Gloom

I really like board games because they provide a more shared experience than video games. Video games are mostly solitary experiences, and even the multiplayer is now mostly done over the internet rather than sitting next to each other. One of the most fun type of games that can create a sense of camaraderie is storytelling games. There are still ways to win and lose, but the focus is less on the mechanics and more on working with other people to create a fun narrative.

One example of this genre is the card game Gloom, a favorite in our game group. In Gloom, each player has a family of creepy stereotypes, from the evil circus troupe to murderous aristocrats. Players have their five family member cards laid out in front of them and a hand of event cards. The goal of the game is to make your family as depressed as possible, then kill them off one by one. Event cards can come in positive and negative variety, and can be played on any family member. Negative events are things like "Perturbed by Poltergeists" and "Driven to Drink," while positive events can be things like "Found Fame at the Feast" and "Was Wonderfully Wed." The game ends when one player kills off their whole family; at that moment, the points are tallied, and whoever has the most negative score is declared the winner. The cards are transparent, except for their point value and flavor text, so when you play one on top of the other, it may block some previous points on that character, which plays into the strategy of the game.

While part of the fun of the game is really screwing with people by playing tons of positive points to block out their negative ones, the real draw of the game is the fun storytelling aspect. Since each of the cards are actual events, you work with everyone to create a narrative of the lives of these characters. How did Butterfield, the lurking butler, go from being mocked by midgets to finding love on the lake, only to be burnt by the mob? That's all up to you and your group of friends. While not everyone is in the mood for this all the time, it's probably something  that you can bring out after a few games where people want something a little lighter on gameplay and more heavy on social interaction. I've played several games where we all went a bit overboard trying to match our storytelling to the macabre, alliteration-focused card text, providing hilarious results.

This type of game isn't everyone's cup of tea, but it's a great introduction into storytelling games, as it has a more concrete mechanic than something like Once Upon a Time. There are a myriad of expansions that either add new gameplay, like Unfortunate Expeditions and Unexpected Guests, or new themes, like Fairy Tales or Cthulu, so if your gaming group is into this, there's tons more options to give this game a long shelf life.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Creepy Cardboard: Betrayal at House on the Hill

Since I'm a big Halloween guy, I thought I'd try to do some themed posts this month focusing on horror. I've been meaning to start writing about board gaming, a hobby that I've gotten into deeply over the past few years, so I figured this was a perfect time to jump in by writing about some of my favorite horror-themed board games.

One of the first board games that got me back into the hobby was Betrayal at House on the Hill. I remember seeing it on Wil Wheaton's Tabletop web series when I was just starting to get interested in board gaming, and everything about it immediately grabbed my attention. Betrayal can best be described as a 'haunted house simulator.' You play as a group of characters, ranging from an old professor to a high school jock, who all stumble upon and explore a haunted house. But don't get too comfortable, because one of the players is secretly a traitor that brought the others there for nefarious purposes.

The game is divided into two sections. In the first part, all the characters wonder around the haunted house trying to find items and attempting to survive creepy happenings. You are allowed to move a certain number of spaces based on your character's speed stat. When you travel through a doorway, you draw a new tile to find out what room is on the other side. This really randomizes the house, making each time unique. The room tiles have one of three logos on them: items, events and omens. When you go into an item room, you are allowed to draw an item card that can benefit your character in several different ways. It could be anything from a gun that helps your attack or a cursed set of dice that have different effects when you roll them. Event rooms make you draw from the event deck, where you get to read a little mini story that tests your character in some way, always involving a dice check against one of your stats. For example, you could see a ghostly figure walk through the room and disappear through a wall. You will then have to roll a sanity check, and the result of your roll will determine what this does to your character. The final deck is full of omen cards. This are basically more powerful items or companions for your character, but when you get one, you have to make a 'haunt roll.' You'll roll six dice, and the total of your roll must be higher than the total number of omen cards that have been drawn. If you fail the roll, the second phase begins.

During the second section, you find out that one of the characters is a traitor. You look at a table, and based on the room you are in and the omen you received when you failed the haunt roll, you will decide who the traitor is and what scenario you are playing. The most recent edition of the game includes at total of 50 haunts, all with different stories and objectives.  The person designated as the traitor will take a separate rule book from those who remain. Each team will take a look at the story for the haunt as well as their set up and objectives for the scenario. For example, the traitor may turn into a werewolf. His or her objective would be to either kill or transform all the survivors. This can sometimes introduce other monster characters controlled by the traitor or a countdown timer that makes things more difficult for the survivors as time goes on. There are even scenarios that have a hidden traitor or are every man for himself.

As far as gameplay matching theme, Betrayal is unmatched. Everything about the way things play out in the game perfectly matches the idea of wandering around a haunted house. If there's one criticism of the game, it's that the first part of the game feels a bit aimless, especially if you play the game a few times in one night. There are enough event cards to keep this section varied, but when new people ask me what exactly you're supposed to be doing at the start, all I can really say is 'walk around and try to find items until the haunt starts,' which doesn't exactly feel like a satisfying answer when it's all random.

When the haunt begins, that's when the game truly starts to shine. Each scenario has a great little intro for each team that puts you into the mood for the adventure. Even though many of the scenarios often boil down to making your way to a certain room and succeeding a certain number of dice checks, every haunt is unique. There are 50 haunts included in the game, and you rarely end up with the same one twice. We have played approximately half of them since getting the game. Here are a couple of my favorite:

-Dance of Death: A story that starts as a co-op where an evil fiddler attempts to enchant everyone drawing them with his evil tune. If you succumb to the fiddler, you switch sides and work against the groups attempts to stop him.

-The Guillotines: Everyone wakes up with guillotine collars around their necks in a Saw-esque scenario. One of the people is secretly the one that set up all the traps, and the everyone wanders around the house searching for the keys to unlock the collars. Each round, you have to make dice rolls to see if your collar goes off.

-Airborne: A gigantic bird picks up the house with the attention of bringing you to its nest. There are parachutes in the house, but not enough for everyone, and it's every person for his or herself!

The mechanics of this game are not what you play for. I'm not saying that the gameplay is no good (it's actually really fun), but the real strength of this game is the stories that come out of playing. With Guillotines, I taunted my friend into revealing that he was a traitor right at the start of the haunt, and it made for a crazy time. Part of what makes board gaming fun is that very immediate communal experience, and creating memories the way this game does is really what all games should strive to do. If you have a group of friends that all like to fully commit themselves to the theme, you can't go wrong.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Dream DLC for Batman: Arkham Knight

One of the things that kinda got people upset at the new Batman game was that it tried to sell everyone on this $40 season pass that would include a bunch of DLC that they didn't really feel like detailing. Now I'm not against DLC, I think there are plenty of  games like Fallout that do it right, but Arkham's track record hasn't been great so far. It looks like the DLC will end up being very brief stories missions for Batgirl, Nightwing and Catwoman, along with a series of skins. Doesn't sound exactly like what I'm hoping for.

With Rocksteady doing such a great job with the story of Arkham Knight, I started thinking about what I would want them to tackle for DLC stories; things that wouldn't necessarily be connected to the main story, but could stand on their own as little mini-adventures. Here are a few that I came up with:

This was the first thing that I thought of as far as stories that I would love to see in the Arkham universe. While I think this could possibly be the backbone for a full game, having it be a DLC side quest that's scattered throughout Gotham would be awesome. You could track down clues about the Court of Owls all throughout the city until you end up in the labyrinth being hunted by Talon. I think that would be best to serve as the climax rather than the Night of Owls from the comic were a series of Talons swarm the city. Being drugged with hallucinogens and chased through a maze by an invincible warrior would make for a nice variation on gameplay that Arkham so sorely needs after four games. Having it be a bite sized story would help fix the issue I had with the comic book version that got overlong and too big.

This would be a nice mystery story that would take place outside of Gotham City at the mansion of John Mayhew. The original comic by Grant Morrison was a mystery featuring a series of different Batman knock-offs in a Clue-style murder mystery. Since the game does such a good job at story, I think it would be interesting to see if they could construct a mission that doesn't focus on combat. It would be very cool to try to investigate clues on your own and try to make a judgement call on who the secret murder is. The comic is a perfect combination of campy and creepy, and to see it in the grittier world of Arkham would be awesome.

I think a lot of people were a bit tired of the Riddler's missions, especially since they were required to get the true ending of Arkham Knight. There wasn't really a significant evolution of the concept since the beginning of the series. The classic Riddler story Dark Knight, Dark City would serve as the perfect way to spice up his MO. In DK,DC, Riddler takes a darker turn and creates a series of riddles and traps for Batman that are meant to trick him into performing a ritual to summon the bat demon Barbathos. They could have it be a smaller series of Riddler puzzles that are more thematically focused around this concept, with a horror twist. While it's good that the game has lots of collectibles, I would much prefer a fresher, more narrative based experience like this.

I'm thinking about this one completely because it would provide a much needed variation on gameplay. Superheavy is the current Batman story going on where Gordon is the new Batman using a big mech suit, with something more akin to a train for the Batmobile. The villain, Mr. Bloom, is known for giving people drugs that give them super powers, so this would be a great way to have little 'mini-bosses' throughout the story. Even though the storyline isn't completed yet, the idea of playing as a mecha Batman would be a ton of fun and would hopefully provide a change up that the series could use.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Until Dawn - Review

I remember when I finished Heavy Rain, I immediately thought that the concepts of that game should be applied to a straight-up horror game. The idea of making split second choices that could mean life or death sounds perfect for horror. While the Telltale Walking Dead games did this wonderfully, I think Until Dawn is the realization of the promise of Heavy Rain.

Even though Heavy Rain was mostly successful, there were so many flaws in the narrative of the game, and in a story-focused game, that can really hurt the overall experience. Heavy Rain really felt up its own ass with how important it wanted to be (especially with the opening featuring director David Cage), but Until Dawn strips all that pretentiousness away. In Until Dawn, we're presented with a classic horror movie set up that revels in both playing with and subverting genre cliches, while never taking itself too seriously.

The setup is perfect, eight friends get back together on the one year anniversary of a tragedy in the same isolated mansion on the mountains where the incident occurred. With all of the character being in their late teens, their motivations aren't much deeper than getting drunk and laid, but they manage to take characters that start out as cookie cutter stereotypes and build an interesting set of relationships between them. The outline of their personalities are there, but you have the chance to shape that through your choices, as you rotate through playing as each character. When your current girlfriend is arguing with your ex's new girl, do you try to defuse the situation, or join the verbal catfight? It's choices like these that really help add flavor to the narrative and make you feel like you are shaping things.

Much like Heavy Rain or Walking Dead, the moment to moment gameplay isn't too much to write home about. Most of the action scenes are handled through the use of quick-time events that just require a simple tap of the button (which is a slight step back from Heavy Rain, where the QTEs often found a way to mirror what the character is going). There is a cool mechanic that forces you to stay still by using the PS4's motion sensitivity, but other than that, there's nothing too innovative. I would actually even say there's one to many button pushes that you have to do while interacting with objects, but I'm very willing to forgive it thanks to the narrative focus.

The big thing that the game pushes is the focus on the Butterfly Effect system, which informs you when you make decisions that alter the course of the game in some way. It's an obvious reference, but they do some cool legwork to integrate it into the game, adding in lore about Native American beliefs about the symbolism of butterflies. The choices you make throughout feel important, whether or not they actually are. It will probably take me a few playthroughs to see exactly how much certain decisions matter, but there were definitely moments that immediately regretted based on the outcome, and I'm really excited to see how things play out differently if you lose characters at certain moments. That is one of the big consequences of your actions: the characters can be killed, rather suddenly. This makes you really think about every choice you make, and really puts stress on you when you have to make them quickly.

None of this would matter if the story and acting wasn't good, but fortunately Supermassive, the developers of the game, invested in some very talented people on that front. Not only do you have acting talent from shows such as Heroes, Agents of SHIELD and Mr. Robot, but the game is also written by Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick, names familiar to fans of independent horror. The performances are top notch, captured by the gorgeous graphics, some of the best I've seen on PS4. It couldn't have been an easy task to build performances that could blossom into any of the character choices you make, but it all flows smoothly. The plot of the game is also wonderful, with plenty of twists and turns to keep you off balance just as you start to figure things out. I didn't ever feel cheated in the same way I did during Heavy Rain.

Until Dawn was a PS4 exclusive, but did not get a big marketing push from Sony. Despite that, it still managed to sell decently well, placing 7th on August's top games of the month; no small feat when placed in between Madden 16 and Metal Gear Solid V on the release schedule. I really hope Supermassive gets another shot at making something like this. If Sony is worried about putting a massive budget into it again (this game was originally a PS3 game made for the Move, but was rebuilt for PS4), they should let Supermassive make downloadable short games in the same vein. If they are shorter, they could have even more variability, allowing characters to die off earlier without having to worry about how they would go through a long run time without the full cast. I would love to see their take on other horror genres, particularly a Silent Hill-esque title (yes, I'm still crushed from the cancellation of Silent Hills). Give me more horror games like this, because actually changing the narrative is a much bigger failure consequence than just having to restart a section, and horror always needs new ways to up the tension.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Evolve - Hunting Party

Evolve had a very strange critical history. When it was first introduced by Turtle Rock Studios, the creators of the much-loved Left 4 Dead series, everyone was impressed with its new take on the multiplayer shooter. At the E3 before the game's release, it won several Best of E3 awards. When the game finally came out, the response was surprisingly tepid. Scores ranged mostly between six and eights, and there was lots of talk about its weak multiplayer community just months after launch. 

I've never been one for multiplayer games, especially shooters, but the idea of the game intrigued me. Having four hunters teaming up to hunt a monster that is trying to feed on wildlife to get stronger is such a perfect idea. Each class is wholly unique, and the characters within the class are equally unique. The concept is so perfectly balanced and does not favor either side. This is a pretty big deal in an asymmetrical multiplayer game. This was on my short list of games that I wanted to pick up when I got my PS4, and a low price for a used copy convinced me to take the plunge. 

So how do I feel about my big leap into multiplayer shooters? I'm having a blast. While I don't play it as often as other games I have, such as Bloodborne, I have a great time just picking it up and playing a couple matches. Since I'm such a shooter amateur, I find myself mostly playing the single player (which is just the same game, but with computer controlled bots) in order to unlock most of the hunters. In the past few weeks, I've been actually jumping in and trying the online modes, and it's a whole 'nother game. The monster is so much more difficult to track when it is controlled by an actual human, and the hunting goes better when it's not a bunch of bots following you. Again, I haven't played too many multiplayer shooters, but with the way this game is laid out, it seems to be a lot more strategic than other games out there, while still remaining viscerally exciting. 

Not only is the gameplay concept very clever, the visual and character designs are also wonderful. The central concept of the game is that a planet called Shear, that is very much a jungle type habitat, is overrun by increasingly dangerous wildlife that has finally evolved into these huge, horrifying monsters. Anytime one of these monsters is located, a group of hired hunters gets together to take it out. Each character is visually unique and has a design that really tells their story. My favorite characters include the Assault character Hyde, who punishes the monsters with a combination of a flamethrower and a minigun, and Bucket, a yellow robot who can detach his head and scout for the creature. The monsters all look appropriately hideous and a distinct from each other both in playstyle and look. 

I do have to address the elephant in the room that has been haunting the game since its release: the DLC pricing/structure. The game launched with 12 hunters (three in each of the classes) and three monsters. One of each is unlocked at the beginning, and the rest are unlocked through playing the game and meeting certain requirements. Even before the game was launched, they announced a Season Pass that would include one more hunter for each class, and a new monster that would be purchased separately. The Season Pass was $25 and the monster was $15. So with the game being $60, it would cost you $100 to get all the characters. They are doing another Hunting Season, where it will be $25 for four hunters and a monster. I'm really glad that they are supporting this game so much post-launch, especially since the game didn't really sell as much as they thought it would, and the hunter designs are really awesome, especially the ones released from the second season so far. Even so, this just seems like a poor pricing structure. In a world where free-to-play games have found ways to be hugely successful without requiring any money to start with, it seems crazy to price things like this. Since I got the game for cheap, I may end up getting one of the season passes, but it's still kinda crazy to ask for so much for something that doesn't shake up the core of the gameplay.

I really hope Evolve is something that continues as a franchise. The concept is so awesome, and the gameplay is super well balance. I feel like the developers have listened to the video game community's response to the DLC schedule and would adjust a new game to fix these things. I would love to see it come out as a free-to-play game with a few characters, the new ones could be unlocked either through money or a 'premium in-game currency' earned through play. Maybe they could even create a single player campaign mode that you could grab for a reasonable price. I would even like to see a one-on-one monster fight mode that would make you really feel like you were in a Godzilla movie. Whatever happens, I really hope the community picks up a bit, as there have been some pretty neat tweaks and features that are added at a regular interval.