Saturday, 26 October 2013

Darkest Dungeon - Shit gets real.

"Darkest Dungeon focuses on the humanity and psychological vulnerability of the heroes and asks: What emotional toll does a life of adventure take?"

As we all know, dungeons are nasty places.  They're smelly, dirty, pestilence-filled shitholes infested with traps and slobbering monsters; full of horror and danger and fear.  So why do most games portray them as consequence-free playgrounds for their cast of shiny heroes to beat up and destroy?  And, more to the point, why does all this death, destruction and unadulterated terror have absolutely no long term effect on anybody involved?  Dark Souls is the only game that springs to mind where the actual environments themselves are thoroughly unpleasant and where all the characters show clear signs of impending insanity but, in general, heroes prance in, slaughter whole communities of monsters and then retire to some tavern somewhere to swap stories and carry on like nothing has happened.

Well.  It appears that this is about to change.

Darkest Dungeon is an upcoming game from Red Hook studios and it promises to make its heroes fallible human beings; subject to all the same anxieties and neuroses as the rest of us but just a bit more willing to leave the house. This is a world where your brave warrior has turned to drink, your priest bolts at the first sign of skeletons and the bard is still sat in the tavern muttering to himself and rocking back and forth.  Events will affect your characters, they'll develop paranoias and phobias and end up not being able to work with other party members or, conversely, they could get more determined, more fanatical and more confident.  Your job is to work out how best to cope with the bad stuff and magnify the good, which adds another dimension to the usual process of allocating points to skills and ruthlessly killing endless hordes of monsters.

It also makes you wonder why this hasn't been done before.  Call of Cthulhu does it, but even that took the easy way out when trying to translate insanity into a videogame.  The aforementioned Dark Souls does it to the player, rather than the character, and there was also the rather excellent Eternal Darkness, but really the mental effects of a character's experiences are very rarely tackled.

It's still extremely early stages as the game was only announced a few days ago but signs are good.  I like the art style, especially the plague mask on the doctor, and it looks like it could be a gritty take on a rather tired genre, if done right.  Red Hook are planning on a release in Autumn next year but will almost definitely have a Kickstarter before then.  You can find the website here and sign up to the mailing list to get updates on their progress, or you can follow them on twitter @darkestdungeon

Be careful out there.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Back to the future with Chainsaw Warrior

Chainsaw warrior was originally released as a board game in 1987 by Games Workshop. The rules were pretty simple, players had 60 minutes to fight their way through a New York building in order to defeat uber-villain Darkness, but this was a very difficult task to achieve and if the Meat Machine didn't get you then the endless traps would. I played this game a lot as a 14 year old and now, 26 years later, you can die repeatedly whilst travelling to work or sitting on the toilet as Auroch Digital have brought all of the frustration of the original to your phone or tablet. Isn't technology wonderful?

The player starts by rolling some dice in order to create their very own version of our plucky, taciturn hero. Attributes are pretty basic and cover things like overall health, the amount of radiation or venom you can withstand and your skill with guns or stabby things. They are set by rolling dice (on the computer, not actual dice, this is 2013) and the number used depends on the difficulty level that you have chosen. I was actually thinking about picking easy or medium as I remember this game being particularly tricky to complete but it says that hard is the same as the original game, so that really only left me with one option. You can play on easy if you like, nobody's judging.

It is at this point that you also determine how much equipment you can take with you and get to choose the categories that it comes from. This bit is a little like Countdown "I'll have one hand to hand weapon, a heavy weapon and two from the clothing pile please Rachel." In fact the whole equipment thing is a bit weird. You are humanity's last hope, the fate of the world rests upon your broad, broad shoulders and if you're unlucky you can be sent to almost certain death with a small knife, some wire cutters and a pair of glasses. You'd think that the shadowy general who guilt trips you into this whole mess would at least give you the bloody chainsaw that you're named after but no, apparently that’s not part of the deal.

Anyway you are soon equipped with your pitiful collection and sent off into a huge building containing the living embodiment of pure evil. I imagine everybody else gives you a hearty slap on the back and wishes you well, but nobody comes with you, which might have helped to be honest. The way the game works is that you have 108 cards split into 2 decks. Darkness, the baddie, is always in the 2nd deck and so you have to get through to that in order to fight him. Cards contain various things; zombies and other monsters to fight, traps to avoid and the very rare supply drop (which makes you to fall to your knees and thank the Lord above for His great mercy). Combat is commonplace and uses dice rolls to determine who wins and enemies range from the ever-present zombies to the fearsome and pretty gruesome Meat Machine. Your equipment helps you to overcome obstacles and kill monsters but you will never be able to get past everything and you are sometimes even forced to backtrack out of the building in order to find another way forward, which is particularly galling.

And I'm not casting aspersions here, but you should probably prepare yourself for frequent failure as there are lots of ways to die in Chainsaw Warrior. For a start there's a time limit because, obviously, Ultimate Evil runs on a schedule. You have 60 minutes to save the world and each turn of a card uses up 30 seconds. This means that it will take at least 27 minutes to get through the first deck even if everything goes great (it won't) and once the 60 minutes are up then the world is destroyed.  Of course there are also more traditional ways to die - too much chomping from zombies, too much venom from zombies and too much radiation from everything else - and then, of course,there are the traps. Some just delay you, some hurt you and some hurt you, delay you and then destroy your precious equipment. Being a Chainsaw Warrior is no life.

It's got to be said that Auroch digital have done a great job of transferring this old board game to modern equipment. The cards are exactly the same as they were back in the day, with 80s gems like the Laser Lance all still there and effects have also been added for when you are infected with venom or use items like the flash bombs. The interface can be a little bit clunky sometimes, especially when you are asked to choose the same weapon over and over again for every round of combat but I'm not sure how else this could have been done. The game itself works in exactly the same way as it always did and, as far as I can see, this hasn't been changed at all. I'm not sure whether that is a testament to the original or to Auroch digital but whatever, more power to them.
This game is harsh and hugely random, with the initial rolls essentially determining whether you have any chance of success. You might be able to get by if you have one decent attribute, but if you roll low for everything then you have no chance at all. The temptation to bin a rubbish character and try again is always there but high scores are still no guarantee of victory and it only takes a few traps to ruin even the best character's play through. However, I should probably say now that I did manage to destroy Darkness with a suicide vest on my 2nd go (which technically counts as a draw) but that's obviously down to my l33t gamer skillz (and a large dose of luck). So be prepared for repeated frustration, victory does not come easy.  In fact it could be argued that Chainsaw Warrior is an early example of that now trendy genre, the roguelike. It has perma-death, it's very explicitly turn-based and the cards create a new random building every game. Just goes to show that the more things change the more they stay the same.

Chainsaw Warrior is a great recreation of a cult classic. It works really well on mobile devices, is perfectly suited to being played in short bursts and offers a range of difficulty levels for the easily discouraged. What's more it only costs £2.99 and there are no in-app purchases of any kind, which is good for my blood pressure. You should remember that I did play this a lot in my room as a 14 year old (probably whilst listening to Janet Jackson) so my views are always going to be tinged with a certain amount of nostalgia, but I would heartily recommend this to anybody who fancies something a bit different. It may be very difficult and very random but it is also a highly polished version of a great game and, most of all, it's fun.