Sunday, 24 February 2013

Grimoire - Demo Released

Sit yourself down somewhere quiet.  Turn the TV & radio off, ask the kids to pipe down, and LISTEN.

Can you hear that distant thrumming?  A noise so faint, yet so insistent, that it's really more of a vibration in the earth?  In fact, now you've noticed it, it's not even really a vibration; more a portent, a suggestion of powerful forces massing beyond the horizon.

Because the horsemen of the Apocalypse are gathering my friend, the end of times is approaching and there is going to be a reckoning.  One of the great prophecies has come true. 

The Grimoire demo has finally been released, and history is trembling.

Regular readers of this blog will know which game I am talking about as I've already written about it twice.  I'm not going to go through the history again, (read the previous entries here, and here) but the latest news is that the much-promised demo has finally been released (link at bottom of page).  I'm going to be honest with you, there were times in the past few months when I doubted this would happen, but happen it has and the world is a richer place for it.

Grimoire is something quite unique, in that it is the product of one man's imagination and has taken him, at last count, 17 years to develop.  The game itself is a dungeon crawler, much like Wizardry 6 or 7, and it is, as you might expect, distinctly old-school in its presentation and mechanics.  It is never going to be a million-selling blockbuster, times have changed too much for that during its extended development cycle, but it's something that certainly scratches an itch for many people.  Having it appear here, now, feels like somebody has just been up into their attic and discovered a lost Beatles recording, or an unfinished Dickens novel.  It's a snapshot of another period in game development, it's something from another time, and it comes with all the benefits and drawbacks that entails.

To start with, Grimoire is acting a little bit like an old man who's been asleep for a few years and cannot deal with the world that he finds outside.  The demo crashes.  A lot.  It seems to do this more frequently on more modern systems and this is something that will obviously need to be sorted out before the game can be released.  Cleve assures us that he will do this, and there are ways the player can work around it, but it does still happen, so you should be aware of that.  In Grimoire's defence the game appears to run pretty smoothly within itself, it's just that it's having trouble dealing with the excesses of modern life and wants to go back into its cave every now and again.

The other main drawback I can see with it is that the user interface can be a bit awkward.  Each character has a button next to their portrait which determines the action they will carry out - healing, unlocking, examining an item, searching etc. - and this can be a bit cumbersome at times.  For example, if you want to identify an item then you need to select the spellbook icon to cast a spell, choose "identify" and the spell level, wait for a second, select the item, change the icon to a magnifying glass and then hold the item over the icon to see what it is.  It would have been easier to just cast the spell and then select the item you wanted to examine.  Similarly the inventory system is also a bit cumbersome.  You have a "banner" of boxes under the viewport which contain all the items not equipped by the party.  There isn't any way to sort these into any order (which makes it difficult to keep track of your loot) and I had filled all the available slots by the end of the demo anyway, which doesn't bode well for the full game.  However, these are small niggles and things that could be improved, they're not game breakers in any way or form and sometimes you just need to accept that if you want to play something different then you have to take the rough with the smooth.

Because Grimoire is, if the demo is in any way representative of the final game, something that is quite special and something that really does feel like the next instalment in the Wizardry series (and I do not say things like that lightly).  In fact it actually seems to improve on those games.  It does this in a variety of little ways - players are given three chances when rolling a new character, for example, instead of the famously frustrating "one strike" system in Wizardry 6.  The game will remember the commands used in your previous battle, so you don't have to enter them again, and you can also review those orders before starting any combat.  Similarly there is an "end battle" button which means you can duck out of any encounter which is too tough, at the price of having to load an earlier save, and you can even make the party walk automatically to a chosen point on the map.  These are little things, sure, but they make everything much more fluid and smooth than would otherwise be the case and they show the amount of thought that has gone into crafting the game's systems.

The game uses its own role playing system, which is hard to analyse without a manual, but which appears to be suitably deep and complicated.  Characters are defined by many attributes, ranging from the commonplace, such as Wisdom and Intelligence, to the more unusual like Fellowship and Devotion.  It is unclear yet how these affect the character's performance but the demo gives the impression that there are a lot of calculations going on under the surface.  This system also seems to have been designed entirely from scratch by its creator so, in and of itself, it provides the player with something new to get to grips with and try to understand.

And this attention to detail and creativity also extends to the races and classes that the player can choose from.  There are 14 races in Grimoire and 15 possible classes and although these include the usual suspects (humans, warriors, clerics, thieves and wizards) there are also some more interesting and unusual options available.  An Aeorb, for example, is a weird one-eyed alien thing or the player could choose a Naga (a kind of Hindu snake man) or a giant or a vampire or a camp-looking lion.  Similarly the classes include Necromancers (yay), Pirates, Templars and Jesters.  The whole selection re-inforces the feeling that this is something different that is being offered here, that this is something that hasn't been focus grouped or sanitised - that this is a game which has been developed outside of the normal boundaries and which, as a result, is not content with just offering up the same old choices.

However, where Grimoire really comes into its own is in the world that is presented to the player.  Graphically charming, it is full of little details and asides which clearly show the amount of effort and love that have gone into it.  The writing is of an extremely high standard and the world's lore is present throughout the environment.  In fact, in one dungeon one of the discoverable secrets is a room full of inscripted poetry about (presumably) future adversaries - which is lovely to see at a time when any other game developer would have just filled it with loot.  There are also plenty of these secret areas to find, and the game manages to make this difficult enough to be satisfying without making it impossible.  In other games in this genre they would show that there was a secret area behind a wall by drawing the wall slightly differently.  This was hard to find at first but once you knew what you were looking for you could spot them from a distance.  Here the walls (from what I can see) look exactly the same and have to be manually searched with the cursor.  The "trigger" points also differ from place to place - at the top of the wall in one location, in the middle in another - so the player has to be thorough, and some walls don't even have a trigger, they're just an illusion the party can walk through.  However, the player can use spells to help them detect such things and the game will also keep an account of how much of an area has been explored, so those of us with low level OCD can sleep at night.

Grimoire is a labour of love and, if you're interested in this kind of thing, then I would recommend that you give the demo a go.  The Indiegogo campaign has also restarted, so you can pre-order the game from there if you like what you see, and Cleve is still insistent that the full game will be released in May (even though the demo came out three months after his original deadline).  I think that will be tight, to say the least, and if previous history has shown us anything it is that this date will almost definitely be revised(!)  However, he has got the demo out and it does appear that he is working hard towards getting the full game released at some point in the (relatively) near future.  Personally I am really excited to see what happens next.

Update 04/04/13 - Cleve has just released a much more stable version of the demo (1.31), which seems to have resolved all of the previous issues. Get it here. (Remember to still run as admin.)

If you want to keep abreast of current developments then check this thread out

If you just read this article and were very confused then read...

Grimoire : Heralds of the Winged Exemplar

The Grimoire Thing Just Gets Weirder

And Wizardry 6 : Bane of the Cosmic Forge

If you have downloaded the demo and cannot get it to work then..
1. Install it directly into your C Drive (i.e. C:\Grimoire) not into the "programs" directory
2. Ensure you are running it as admin (the 1.2 installer should do this automatically.)
3. Run in compatibility mode with Windows XP.
4. Check the thread linked to above to see if anybody else has had any bright ideas.
5. Pray to whichever god you hold dear.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

A Beginner's Guide to Gaming

Games are quickly becoming the most popular form of entertainment on the planet and more people are playing them than ever before.  However, like most things they have evolved over time and now there are numerous conventions and shortcuts which are familiar to gamers, but which could mystify newcomers.  We love a righteous crusade against obfuscation and misdirection as much as the next gaming-based blog and we want to to help those of you who are stumbling about in the darkness.  So listen up!  Here are The Bane of Queequeg's top tips for games beginners.

Rule Number 1 - Never Go The Obvious Way
If you are playing a game and you have a choice of 2 paths always, ALWAYS, go down the one which doesn't look like the way forward.  If, by some hideous mistake, you pick the one which actually develops the plot, or which goes towards your stated objective, then make every effort you can to backtrack the other way.  It is extremely rare for game designers to put genuine dead ends into a game.  Every option usually has something at its end and you will be missing cool secret stuff by actually trying to achieve your stated goal.  In order to succeed you need to get every advantage you can, and this is only possible by exploring every nook and cranny.  If you actually try to do what the game is asking you to with the minimum of fuss, and in a timely and efficient manner, then you are likely to miss out on a huge amount of the content and finish some games in a ridiculously short time (Hi Dishonored!)  Games are designed for their players to be obsessive treasure and secret hunters not a normal well-adjusted person like you.  Remember this.

Trousers in Diablo III.
Rule Number 2 - Improve Everything
Let's talk about crafting.  There was a time, in the really early days of gaming, when you were given a spaceship, or a small round yellow pill-eating thing and left to get on with it.  Gradually, however, players began to be able to improve their on-screen representatives; usually by levelling them, buying new equipment or picking up stuff that was being stored in a crate somewhere.  This greater flexibility came about organically over a period of many years but it suffered a major innovation relatively recently.  For in a game development meeting somewhere, somebody must have suddenly sat bolt upright in their chair and shouted "Eureka!  Why not let the players make their own trousers?" and that is where we are at today.  These days any game worth its salt will let the player combine materials in order to make their own equipment, clothing, weapons etc.  Of course the downside to this is that now everybody is wandering about loaded down with bits of twig and scraps of cloth - like one of those hoarders who think that their flat-filling collection of plastic bags will come in useful one day.  Games  - treating you like you have a mental illness since 1975.

Rule Number 3 - Nick Everything, You Might Need It
This rule counts double if you are playing a Japanese game (you can tell, all the characters will look about 13, with huge spiky hair and they'll be dressed like an Australian's nightmare) but in most games you can walk into somebody's house, go up to their bedroom, rifle through their underwear drawer, take out their favourite pants, put them on your head whilst shouting "I'VE GOT YOUR PANTS ON MY HEAD!" and they will not even bat an eyelid.  In fact they'll probably be asking you to go and get them 5 lots of wheat from the next village along as you do it.  There are notable exceptions to this, such as the Elder Scrolls games, but in most cases you can take whatever you want, from whoever you want and nothing will happen.  Go on!  March on in!  Help yourself!

Probably a Rocket Launcher.  Or a Sword of Crafting. Or a Master Key
Rule Number 4 - Crates Are The Most Important Things Ever.
Nobody knows when crates officially became the most important thing ever.  One day there were no crates and then the next... there they were!  Everywhere!  Thousands of the buggers, infesting every game ever made and just demanding to be smashed!  I know that, in the real world, 4 foot high wooden boxes are usually limited to warehouses and military storage depots - probably not places you come into contact with every day - but in games they are unavoidable.  And, not only this, but they have a wide range of purposes.  You can pull them and push them, you can break them, you can jump on top of them to reach high ledges and baddies will often store critical security passes or fantastically valuable items in them.  If you see a crate then ignore everything else and go and try to see what it does straight away.  You won't be sorry.

Rule Number 5 - You're a Mapmaking Superstar Hero
Don't worry about getting lost.  Once again game designers are here to help you.  They are your friends.  In almost every game made since about 1990 the player has had access to an automatically completed map, and often this will take the form of a "minimap" displayed in a corner of your screen.  What's more, if you are playing pretty much anything released after Grand Theft Auto III then that map will also show you where all of the locally accessible minigames and sidequests are as well.  It doesn't matter if you're Batman, the Dragonborn, a kid stuck on a tropical island or an Eastern European low-level hoodlum, it will be there.  You need never pay any attention to your surroundings again, but do remember to check it occasionally in order to make sure you haven't missed any dead ends (see Rule No. 1).

Big bloody Jessie.
Rule Number 6 - Nothing Bloody Matters
I first noticed that nothing bloody matters in games when Bioshock came out.  In Bioshock there are these huge guys in diving suits called Big Daddies and they are TOUGH.  They have a drill for a hand and they're about 8 foot tall - they take a lot of beating.  Wow.  Proper challenge huh?  Well yeah, they killed me loads of times but nothing bloody mattered because, when I died, I was reborn in a chamber about 20 metres away.  And, as if that wasn't bad enough, the Big Daddy was still as damaged as when I left him.  All I needed to do was continually run at him and wear him down until he stopped getting up.  Nothing could hurt me and what could have been an epic encounter became something totally devoid of challenge or accomplishment.  For me that ruined a game which had loads of other really good bits in it, but it's something that is present, to a greater or lesser extent, in most games.  Whether it's restarting missions or autosaving your progress every time you go through a door, you will have ample opportunities to correct your mistakes and do that perfect run - so don't fret.  Relax!  Enjoy yourself!

Rule Number 7 - Baddies are Stupid
Right, picture this.  You're an evil genius with control over a small army of hand picked mercenary henchmen.  You know that, somewhere, a pesky hero is plotting to get into your secret volcano base to rescue some hostages or whatever else it is that bunch do for kicks.  The only way into said base is through a massive security door - 5 layers of military grade strengthened titanium - impervious to anything less than a tactical nuclear weapon.  And, obviously, you need a way to open this door so that you can go to the shops and get your milk, so you have a key.  What do you do with this key to keep it safe?  If you are a normal evil genius you make sure it is either on your person or in a big vault INSIDE the security door.  However, if you are a game's evil genius then you will place that key in (almost definitely) a crate or (less likely) a desk drawer OUTSIDE the door - so that the hero can easily gain access.  If, for some unexplainable reason, you don't do this then you will ensure that you leave the base's extensive network of ventilation shafts unlocked and unguarded.  If you're playing a game and you can't see the way forward then just look about for a bit, there will be some unspeakably stupid security lapse just around the corner - guaranteed.

A panacea for the world's ills
Rule Number 8 - Mutant Healing Powers
You will find yourself getting shot at a lot in games (or stabbed or run over, or whatever.)  Try not to worry too much though because, once again, the system is there to help you.  Most game characters make Wolverine look like a little old lady with a dodgy hip and they can usually recover from life threatening wounds by merely applying bandages or eating some kind of herb.  If you're playing one of those games with the swords and the dragons and that then it'll be a potion which miraculously restores you.  If you're playing Halo then all you need to do is crouch behind a crate for a few seconds and you'll heal yourself.  Sometimes you're even allowed to stop time while you do it.  Basically if you ever die in a game then you're probably a terrible loser.

Rule Number 9 (and 9a) - Pick Your Battles
This rule has a sub-rule.  The sub-rule is that anything that is released on a yearly basis is a rip off - whether that's FIFA, Madden, NHL, Tiger Woods, Call of Duty or whatever.  There is little substantive difference between, for example, FIFA 12 and FIFA 13 and certainly not enough to justify another 50 quid.  If you feel the need to buy these games every time they come out then fine, you go ahead, I'm not your Dad and it's your money; but accept that one day you will come home drunk from the pub, stick 12 in the Xbox instead of 13 and you won't even notice the difference.  Now games like FIFA are probably the most obvious example of this but, in fact, lots of games are extremely similar - this is, after all, why I am able to draw up lists like this.  There's nothing wrong with that but there is also a bit of a revolution going on in gaming at the moment.  Kickstarter has made it much easier for developers to raise funds and this, combined with the ability for them to sell directly over the internet from their own sites to the consumer, has meant that they are much freer to make the games they want to, rather than the ones that they are told to by the big publishers.  There are thousands of games being made and some of them are actually trying to do some really interesting things - or at least not just serving up another "open world" first person shooter with a minimap and weapon upgrades.  So get out there and see what's on offer.

You go, Tiger!

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Favourite Item in Gaming #1

Dungeons of Dredmor - Parachute Pants

+10 Dodge - because you can't touch this.